Earlier this week, Terry Gross interviewed Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, on recent development in bioengineering, including radio controlled insects, pigs which grow human organs, goats with medicated milk, and mice doing all sorts of strange things.

As explained by Anthes, scientists in China are hoping to understand the human genome byrandomly disabling mouse genes one at a time, in order to identify the function of each gene.” Rather than first identifying the gene’s purpose and then looking for uses, cures, or abnormalities, so-called “jumper genes” are introduced into mice embryos, turning off a single gene, as scientists are “essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens.”

The results would be humorous if not so macabre. There are mice with male-pattern baldness, mice with OCD, mice capable only of left turns (who knew mice could be progressive), mice with tusks—45,000 cages of a bizarre menagerie.

Listening to the interview, I could not help but think of Charles Williams’ novel, The Place of the Lion. All of his novels are “metaphysical thrillers,” and perhaps this novel more than the others, with an utterly remarkable final scene in which a new Adam strides forth into a maelstrom of Platonic principles and angelic principalities to rename and reorder a fragmenting and disintegrating reality, and in so doing recapitulating the primordial task of the first Adam in naming, keeping, tending, governing, and filling the garden.

Here’s a snippet from the finale:

Adam … was calling as he had called in the streets of the town. But now he uttered not one word but many, pausing between each, and again giving to each the same strong summons. He called and he commanded; nature lay expectant about him.… At each word that he cried, new life gathered, and still the litany of invocation and command went on. By the names that were the Ideas he called them, and the Ideas who are the Principles of everlasting creation heard him … [i]n their animal manifestations, duly obedient to the single animal who was lord of the animals, they came.… They were returning, summoned by the authority of man.…

Fantastical as that sounds, Anthes describes a similar power and authority, where at each word cried, new life is gathered, although this work “is experimental, and no matter how well you think it out, you never know quite what the resulting animal might be like, what its health might be like.”

In other words, we speak and new life appears, but we don’t really know what we’re saying, we’re speaking somewhat randomly, curious to see what sort of life appears. “Will it have cancer? Or arthritis? Will it glow in the dark? Will its organs be jellified? Will it have tusks?”

Pursuing a similar thread, in That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis narrates a shockingly memorable scene in which Merlin (yes, that Merlin) liberates the animals upon which the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) conducts horrible experiments before casting Babel’s curse on the scientists who lose the capacity to speak before the animals savage and kill many of them, a reversal of the order of things, but just nonetheless.

In his new book, FPR’s Mark Mitchell explains gratitude as “a disposition of thankfulness that is an appropriate response to an act of goodness.” For those of us convinced that creation is a gift, creation itself depends upon an act of goodness, and thus an appropriate response is thankfulness. Further, since creation is good, and goodness is a proper perfection or act, creation carries internal to itself a proper perfection, a principle of actuality or form which, although given to it, is properly its own. Propriety requires acknowledging this goodness as the property of created things, and thus a disposition of thankfulness in response to that goodness is due.

But the act is not ours, it is not for our disposal or curious use. In fact, since creation possesses its own goodness, gratitude is a demand of justice, there is a moral duty to be grateful, for ingratitude is to not render what is due, namely thankfulness in response to an act of goodness.

Such gratitude is perhaps obvious to any who can recognize the “dearest freshness deep down things,” but for those alienated from that goodness, I suspect all is seared and bleared, and the soil cannot be recognized as an act of goodness.

More and more I suspect that the attempt to order our speech–our power and presumption–is a futile task if our fellows do not respond with horror and revulsion to the notion of insect cyborgs and tusked rodents. But this brings horror only if, like Plato tells us, graciousness is already in the soul. That is, if beauty is not already loved and the cause of delight.

And there seems so little beauty sometimes, and so little delight in what is beautiful.

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R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I heard the same piece and have read the same books. But I am not so easily offended by nature’s flux.

    This post has the same prejudice that these technicians do: that we are somehow separate from nature. Transgenesis occurs naturally (gasp!) — viruses embody this. Species cross with other species and their genetics stabilize as separate strains (e.g., sunflowers). Genes mutate and suppress certain functions or develop new ones; Americans, consuming nothing but corn, are now developing the same gene that is most seen expressed in the “corn people” of Central America.

    I think if we’re going to argue against selecting/disabling certain genes, we should also argue against animal husbandry. People breed chickens with extra toes, furry legs, and the inability to raise their own young — and this includes most of the old “heritage” breeds.

    But unless you’re into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle & reintroducing wolves, there’s room for some meddling. Animal husbandry is: removing genes you don’t want by inbreeding. Transgenics is adding genes you do want. I’m not sure if either are acceptable, but if one isn’t, I expect both aren’t.

    The single most destructive human activity has consistently been agriculture. Transgenics may be an extension of the need to “tame” all of nature. It’s a new way to ruin nature, but it’s just the newest way.

    Maybe Cain’s original sin was farming.

  2. I don’t see any man/nature dichotomy in this piece, but in fact an insistence on man’s proper place within nature, within time—and this latter dimension of our dirt-laden worldly context is why it is disingenuous to equate husbandry and selective breeding with GM. The latter intrudes upon the nucleus of things, a place I suspect we ought to maintain as ever-mysterious and sacrosanct. Selective breeding does not alter this genetic model, but simply selects an array of potentials which were already inherent to it before we came in contact with the creature. A great number of the changes which take place in this would revert back with time to an earlier state if left alone. The same is not true of genetic modification, which alters irrevocably the original structure, and it does so with such fierce suddenness that there is no way of calculating what the external effects, on the environment and other species for example, might be. But time is the major difference.

    We’re trying to remove the limits of time by transforming a process that would naturally take many many years into an overnight effort. This dangerously precludes the tempering benefits of the slow, careful work of selective breeding and other similar activities. It’s that question of propriety, of proper limits, that is being thrown away.

  3. Oh Lundy,
    Cripes do I heartily enjoy your skepticism. “Maybe Cains original sin was farming”. Ho ho Ho.Perhaps, but it was still secondary to the fratricide.

    Still, all this tinkering at genetic levels in the face of a dawning awareness of our power to abrade the entire troposphere and the crust it embraces gives me pause. We should be having a far more comprehensive discussion of it, free from the velvet boxing gloves of the Hidden Hand.

  4. Rather than first identifying the gene’s purpose and then looking for uses, cures, or abnormalities, so-called “jumper genes” are introduced into mice embryos, turning off a single gene, as scientists are “essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens.”

    How, exactly, do you think one goes about first identifying a gene’s purpose? Both random and targeted mutagenesis are powerful genetic techniques that are decades old, and they are a necessary first step to figuring out what a gene does. If this is representative of the level of analysis in Anthes’ book, I strongly recommend that you don’t waste your time with it.

  5. Mr. Lundy brings up a good point which he then unfortunately obscures. Is the problem with the goal being pursued, or with the means?

    I should hope we can say some means to an end are imprudent/immoral while other means to the same end are praiseworthy. There are many ways to end a war, for example. This means that it is not the case that integrity requires accepting all forms of genetic manipulation if one accepts animal husbandry, as Mr. Lundy supposes.

    But then the article needs to do a better job making the argument that the genetic manipulation techniques mentioned here are imprudent and immoral. I see an appeal to original creational forms which needs to address Lundy’s point of natural flux, an appeal to the need for gratitude which assumes genetic manipulators are not grateful, and an appeal to beauty which has significant potential though it is likely to be dismissed by aesthetic relativists.

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