There is an expression, which is no longer commonly used, that states, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”. It means, of course, that by examining pieces of the larger whole exclusively, the meaning of the larger entity is lost.
Genetics and bioengineering is, by design, the study and implementation of processes upon pieces of the whole. Even though the true nature of the gene, as an entity, has not been exclusively studied and is, therefore, not well known, the causative effects of genes, located on specific parts of chromosome threads in the nucleus of a cell, is extensively studied and acted upon. This lack of knowledge of the larger whole (gene to chromosome thread to nucleus to cell to cell subgroup to cell subgroup section to cell group sections to organ, for example) is similar to understanding the use and effects of a particular tree in the forest without fully understanding how that tree interacts with the other trees in the forest. Is the tree in unison with the trees that surround it, in competition with them or overtly antagonistic towards them? Any tree can be planted in a forest. Is it native to the larger forest, or is it alien? If it is alien, will it exhibit, over time, the encroachment that occurs with what is termed effects of invasive species?
Prior to the advent of the explosion of bioengineering as one of the most popular new branches of biology, genetics was confined to the realm of crossbreeding. Old-fashioned genetics, over time and trials, illustrated the divergence and complexity of nature. Some species, it was noticed, even those which appeared superficially to resemble each other, were too far apart by taxonomy for even coaxed crossbreeding to occur. Nature had apparently placed safety mechanisms in place, both to prohibit crossbreeding and to protect extant species. Nature also seemed to encourage specific varieties within a species, varieties that would, over time, produce new species through what is termed evolution.
Even in cases where the crossbreeding of two species, which appeared superficially to resemble each other, was able to occur, unanticipated results sometimes happened. A well known example is that of the crossbreeding of a horse and a donkey. Although crossbreeding horses with horses, or donkeys with donkeys, produces offspring capable of reproduction, the crossbreeding of a horse and a donkey produces a mule, an animal incapable of reproduction. The unanticipated result illustrates underlying mechanics of genes that could not, and possibly should not, be circumvented by crossbreeding, or bioengineering.
Perhaps one of the reasons has to do with the dynamics of interaction between individual members and groups of different species. Interaction between different species, outside the realm of crossbreeding, has been studied as a factor in why certain characteristics are selected as desirable, genetically, by different individual species. It is also this interaction that has given us some of the foods that are consumed and enjoyed by many different species. Examples of these types of foods include nuts, such as the walnut, and seeded fruits, such as the apple.
It has been theorized that the seeds of trees, which, when they first appeared, were not covered, evolved in form and developed coverings, due to interaction with other species. Nuts, such as walnuts, have hard coverings with sweet seed inside. These nuts are buried, by some creatures, in their coverings, for future consumption. Not all buried seeds are recovered, thus ensuring the tree’s reproduction.
Other seeds, such as those in or on fruits, are deliberately offered in a manner to entice consumption, to ensure reproduction. For example, strawberry seeds cover the fruit, which is eaten whole. In the wild, the excrement of the creature, which has eaten the strawberry, seeds the ground and provides needed fertilization, thus ensuring reproduction. In order for a viable genetic code to exist, not only do the taxonomies need to be respected, actual interaction between other life forms, both positive and negative, must occur.
Bioengineering ignores the necessity of this by ignoring the necessity of interaction between species, and the environment as a whole. Without regard to other life forms, the living organisms which are produced, by bioengineering, may actually be genetic fallacies.
The principles of genetics, and bioengineering, began approximately 150 years ago through the work of an Augustinian monk named Gregor Johann Mendel, who extensively studied garden peas. From this work, principles were formed which came to be called Mendel’s laws of heredity. They are:
1. Characters, or the things that produce them, are distinct units. They remain distinct even when they seem to be lost in hybrids (through crossbreeding, not bioengineering).
2. Characters separate and recombine when hybrids interbreed. Such segregation seems to be a feature always found in heredity.
3. The fact that some characters hide others or keep them from developing, when both are inherited. The segregation of such characters through generations causes many, sometimes puzzling, variations, in the ways living things inherit.
Mendel’s first law of heredity has been used in genetics, and bioengineering, as the basis for understanding the causative effects of genes, and the variation of effects that are produced in nature by a particular gene. It is this knowledge, in unison with entirely fictional creations, such as the bioengineering of humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which prompted those involved in genetics to abandon traditional crossbreeding in favor of bioengineering. Mendel’s first law of heredity, however, offered no explanation as to why the characters that are distinct units are distinct units, of separate taxonomies, as well as separate species.
Mendel’s second and third laws of heredity are best understood by examining many generations of an individual organism. These particular laws of heredity are not used with the caution they suggest, by bioengineers, who seem more interested with the effect of a particular gene or genes in the first or second generation, rather than in what this might represent to future generations. By undervaluing these laws, will the effects of genetic tampering by bioengineers actually be of benefit to future generations and uphold the integrity of the natural genetic codes to move forward with greater variety?
In genetics, the example of corn, an example of many generations, arrived at through crossbreeding, rather than through bioengineering, can be used to illustrate the diversity potentially possible when hybrids interbreed. It also suggests that a far longer time may be required to effect genetic change, positively, so as to safely interact with the environment, than bioengineers, individuals with careers, egos and limited life spans, may be willing to do.
It is believed that corn, a member of the grass family Graminae, was first developed in Mexico 60,000 34,000 years ago. As it spread throughout Central America, South America and North America, it was crossbred by many different individuals living in vastly different ecosystems and living with entirely different species. Corn hybrids developed, over time, through interaction with these different environments and species, creating abundance through variety. The corn strains that developed included those with seeds that were white, yellow, red, blue, pink, black, brown, purple, spotted, banded, striped and variegated. Seed size varied from the size of a kernel of wheat to seed as large as a quarter. The plants were as large, or larger, than those currently being produced. Indians of Central America, skilled only in crossbreeding, still hold many of the records for corn production.
This stands in contrast to what began to happen as agriculture became controlled by groups of individuals seeking to produce specific crops for sale in the marketplace. The available gene pool was reduced, as the varieties of all the preceding generations were reduced to only six strains of mostly white and yellow seed of fairly uniform size. These varieties were designated as pod, popcorn, flint, dent, flour and sweet.
The strains of corn selected as agricultural products were, of course, crossbred for healthier plants, as well as for those that would be drought resistant or would produce higher yields. As genetics moved from crossbreeding to bioengineering, strains of the chosen strains were developed that, at least in one instance, proved fatal to organisms accustomed to eating corn, which would seem to indicate that, even though a viable plant had been produced through bioengineering, that a serious error had been made in its genetic code. In conjunction with the actual reduction in the available gene pool by limiting strains and variety, it would seem to indicate a warning sign on the path leading away from biodiversity.
There is an expression, which is no longer commonly used, that states “You can’t see the forest for the trees”. The moral of the adage might be that, by focusing solely on certain trees, without regard to other trees and the forest itself, the meaning of the larger entity might truly be lost. It would be a pity to reduce the complexity that is the forest to simply a pile of timber.