Ligers and Tigons and Bears, Oh My!

Posted: November 1, 2006 in Ethics

I’ve known for some time about cross-breeding lions and tigers (among others) to create “ligers” and “tigons.” Those two species don’t mate in the wild, but we humans saw fit to put them together. This reminds me vaguely of dog breeding, which is practiced for purely venal purposes and is widely known to produce nasty effects for the animals themselves. Yet our demand for pure breeds continues unabated.

We’ve gone well beyond mere breeding, though, or the famous square watermelons grown in a glass box (to better fit in a fridge). Our new technique, genetic engineering, was prophesied by no less than Winston Churchill in 1932, when he proclaimed that “Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” (What makes growing chickens or corn for food absurd, I wonder?) In Britain, which appears to be on the leading edge of this biotechnology, The Guardian reports that a new process for growing “cultured meat” (without the rest of the animal) in a laboratory setting is getting closer to reality. There have also been reports of attempts to genetically engineer chickens that have no heads, which are a far cry from Mike the Headless Chicken but which would solve handily some vegetarians’ objection to eating anything with eyes. The GEO-PIE Project at Cornell University dispels the myth that KFC, among others, has been using a sort of frankenfood, a “nonchicken,” in its restaurants. (Other genetically engineered foods — all vegetables, at least so far — are already used heavily in the food industry.) GEO-PIE has a far amount of useful information regarding the ethics of genetic engineering.

I recently learned about a new abomination: hypoallergenic cats. These are created by a company called Allerca, which calls its creation “lifestyle pets” (I’ve also seen them called “designer pets”), which are engineered at the genetic level to have lower dander levels and thus ease the suffering of cat owners who react to feline dander. Like dog breeding, this goes so far beyond any real need we humans have and is just plain offensive to the sensibilities.

It’s been centuries now since we adopted the idea that all of nature is out there for humans to use and exploit at will. We can rape and pillage the earth, blasting the tops off of mountains to get at coal seams, or open up holes in the ground the size of an airport for open-pit mining, or razing and clear-cutting millions of acres of old-growth forest to grow tobacco. These are all obvious enough examples of our hubris. But tinkering now at the genetic level — especially when it’s so unnecessary as in the case of the designer pet — raises things to a new and dangerous level.

Fiction, playing the role of the philosopher, often presents cautionary tales of science run amok. The two most popular and enduring are probably Frankenstein’s monster and the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both demonstrate that for all our technological prowess, the fullness of complexity found in the natural world is as yet still so hidden from us that our knowledge is insufficient to be able to control our manipulation of it — to avoid creating or indeed becoming monsters. That insufficiency used to command some respect, meaning that scientists would abjure playing god by refusing to do such things as designing new lifeforms. In contrast, the rosy view is that if we are to learn more about that complexity, then we need to break things down and apart, work with them, and build up our knowledge and mastery bit by bit. There’s little doubt which is the prevailing view these days. But do we really need designer cats and purebred dogs? Do we really need chicken meat that comes from something that we can’t really even call a chicken anymore? Do we really need to inadvertently unleash a deadly new genetically altered bacterial strain that wipes out huge numbers of fish, fowl, plants, and probably humans? Because as long as we continue to tinker with things, it’s virtually inevitable that we will lose control of something that becomes a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster.

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