Better Than Nature?

At the turn of the millennium, miniaturized canines acquired the cherished status of living, designer handbag ornaments.  These teeny tiny photogenic doggies, which had been shrunken from generations of in breeding, were snapped up by fashionistas who pouted alongside them in front of seas of clicking cameras.

In just a fragment of evolutionary time, today’s ‘to die for’ bio-couture has been genetically spliced with jellyfish signatures. These trophies are freer to roam and easier to find than their miniaturised predecessors, as they can glow under UV, or ‘black’ light. Although not all varieties can fit in a clutch purse yet, there is an impressive range of designer ‘glo’ organisms available in green and red (blue is possible but isn’t as impressive under UV light). Options include fruit flies, fish, mice, chickens, rabbits, pigs and cats (for glo-cats, see here, here and here).

Science justifies these media friendly creations in service of the greater public good. Yet these animals have great popular appeal that speaks little to their ability to fight cancer or other diseases. Despite their ‘freaky’ designer origins, glo pets are undeniably ‘cute’. Genetic modification is part of a spectrum of technological approaches offered by the new science of synthetic biology, which enable us to overcome the apparent lottery of nature. The fundamental ‘vanity’ at the heart of synthetic biology is that we can do ‘better’ than nature, but is this actually possible?

If nature is a cosmic force  [1] then it simply sets the tolerance limits of what is possible. There is no ‘better’ than nature, since no matter how improbable, or artificially induced – it is a natural occurrence.

Janine Beynus, who pioneers the field of biomimicry, believes that nature ‘knows best’ and harnesses biological solutions to create novel industrial designs. She proposes that “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with”. Yet a non-interventionist approach to natural processes can result in ‘bio fatalism’. Simply waiting for nature to teach us and reveal all possible solutions restricts our immediate access to bio-inspired innovation. It is impossible to deduce all biological outcomes computationally, as the outputs are unpredictable, surprising and sometimes, even pretty freaky. Nature has no particular urgency that fuels its inventions. Humans, on the other hand, have a different set of rules.

If nature is the absence of humans [2][3] then the value placed on any creature (or any other natural phenomenon) as being ‘better’ than another, is entirely culturally defined. Also, this value isn’t reserved for unnaturally generated creatures since natural ‘mutants’ have traditionally been denounced as monsters [4]. The difference between a miracle and the grotesque is down to the prevalent social values, as Mary Shelley’s fictional creature soon discovered. If, as synthetic biology asserts, it is possible to do ‘better’ than nature through intervention, then this claim needs to be justified in human-centered terms. To justify the importance of its research, the scientific community makes functional claims about its experiments proposing that unnatural interventions serve a greater social good such as relieving human suffering, or providing vital food and energy sources.

Any ‘objective’ comparison between the material performance of a natural and augmented system simply fuels speculative variations based on the same fundamental rule set, which does little to ground such an approach in a value system. Other validations to justify social worth are made on financial grounds such as monetary gains from trading patented genetically modified creatures. Ultimately then, if the outcome of intervening in natural systems is seen as being an intervention that can be justified in sufficiently beneficial human terms – then yes, there is a ‘better’ than nature.

It’s next nature!

Photo via She Said Pop.

1. The history of Western philosophy is discussed in Arthur O. Lovejoy (2001 ) The Great Scheme of Things, A study of the history of an idea. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University, 1933, Copyright 1934 and 1964. Reprinted 2001 by Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England, p. viii ISBN 0-674-36153-9

2. Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b.

3. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008)

4. John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, UK  Printers Cox & Wyman Ltd., Great Britain