Imagine a scenario as you might have seen it in the teen comedy classic, California Man. Having survived a hundred centuries in cryostasis, a young caveman Brendan Fraser is unwittingly released from a block of ice and introduced to the adolescent perspective of the mid-nineties America — to us, an embarrassing little blooper in history, when big, baggy tablecloth trousers were all the craze, Jennifer Aniston’s hair was the solution to world hunger and no shoe went without its noisy Velcro fastener; to Brendan Fraser’s character, however, who had just about come to grips with the marvel of fire, the equivalent of opening up your wardrobe and suddenly finding yourself transported to the fantastical world of Narnia.

Across a series of essays spanning the better halves of the sixties and seventies, renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke formulated three laws on the assumptions of futurist science fiction. With a self-importance rivalling the great Isaac Newton himself, Clarke proposed in the third and perhaps most relevant of these laws that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, in other words, that even the wackiest of science fiction stories can be passed off for genuine science. The technology might look like magic, but is perfectly explicable in scientific terms. Were a caveman to walk the streets of our modern day, this law would very much apply. Automatic moving vehicles and large fearsome contraptions would seem like nothing short of witchcraft to a Homo sapien just perched on the brink of evolution. Even in the latest decade, science and technology have advanced at such an immense rate that our younger selves would very much be stunned at the sheer speed and ease with which we are now able to access multitudes of information. Alongside the ever-expanding microcosm of the Internet, scientists of today can also tout groundbreaking progress in the field of medicine, a much greater efficiency at energy consumption and the possibility of soon (according to CERN) discovering the very fabric of our universe.

Sadly, it might just take a caveman thawing in our backyard for us to put some perspective to the evolution of science. Born into a life of convenience, we have always been too quick to take our standards of living for granted. This becomes all too apparent amid the sudden newfangled need for “natural” and “organic” food, throwaway words that prey on the average British’s consumer unfounded fears of GM crops. A little history lesson and they’d know that we have been interfering with the growth and biology of our food for centuries. From something as simple as plucking a few dandelions out of a potato patch, to the complexities of inserting a recombinant plasmid into a harmless E. Coli strain, man’s involvement in nature’s ecological cycles has never been, and undoubtedly, never will be, little. Indeed, the ignorance of the human mind never ceases to amaze me; hypocrisy is only too kind a word to summarize the sentiment of a person ready to equate genetic manipulation with “playing God” — with genetic engineering forging pathways to growing drought-resistant crops in third world countries, can these people honestly justify their cause to an emaciated Sudanese farmer, whose meagre harvest leaves him and his family hungry for months? I think not.

Nonetheless, the flipside to this argument is also to be considered; if the everyday man will not be forgiven for making uninformed snap judgments on something he does not understand, then the Scary Man in the White Lab Coat should also not be left to go scot-free for pitfalls such as the atomic bomb and global warming. As the worldwide economic mood spirals and fears of a nuclear holocaust linger, we cannot help but speak fondly of a simpler time, when our most pressing concerns were about the weather, and science was not coming up with new ways to rob, maim or kill us. Sadly, this attitude boils down to a myopia of idealism, a kind of mirage that fades the further you seem to approach it. If you think life was easier two hundred years ago, then you are clearly forgetting multiple cholera epidemics, poor medical practice and a gaping class divide.

At the risk of sounding like a fatalist, I dare say that the essence of our existence is a never-ending quest to eradicate strife and poverty. This is not at all a bleak reality. After all, man will always be able to consult science and technology for means to achieve this goal. From the moment a caveman discovers how to make a small fire, to a Spielberg-esque future of flying cars and pin-sized supercomputers, science will continue to be the source of much joy and pessimism to mankind. That is perhaps what makes it so fascinating. As in the immortal words of Leigh Brackett, “Witchcraft to the ignorant,….simple science to the learned.”

Eric John

Editor’s Note: The Weekly Scientist is a serial rambler. If you prefer your rhetoric short and sweet, then this might not be the place for you. Otherwise, if you love science and reading about it as much as we do, check on this section for updates every week. You will only find us on this website, ranting away on some scientific issue or other…week after week, we promise never to bore, always to entertain, and to consistently inform the uninformed.

(Picture courtesy of the lovely Pei-Pei Ketron, www.penelopesloom.com)

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3 Comments

  1. September 25, 2010 at 11:39 — Reply

    Nice article, I am am looking forward to this weekly feature over the year.

    The desire for organic food is not always based around a concern about GM. Organic diets have been shown to dramatically reduce the levels of organophosphorus pesticides in diets. Conventional diets were found in one study to contain pesticide levels six times higher than organic diets (link at bottom).

    DDT and certain other pesticides such as dieldrin were presumed to be relatively safe and were used for decades before being banned in the 1970s. Whilst today’s pesticides are safer, many people have expressed legitimate concern over the exposure to babies and very young children who are much more at risk from levels of pesticides which would have less of an effect on adults.

    Feeding babies organic milk may not protect them from all pesticides, but is doubtful that, all other things being equal, anyone would choose to expose their children to higher levels of nerve agent pesticides in foods.

    Also, whilst the term ‘natural’, like ‘home-made’ is vague and fairly meaningless (in the supermarket product sense), the term organic most definitely is not. Each country/body has strict definitions of what organic food is and it belittles the movement to reject them so offhandedly, perhaps because you see them as somehow ‘not scientific enough’ for your liking.

    http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.5754
    See also – http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.8418

  2. Eric John
    September 25, 2010 at 13:04 — Reply

    Hello, Bruno, it’s nice to see someone showing interest.

    I am pretty sure there is no such thing as “not scientific enough” food. Science (or biology) is the very process and driving force that brings about everything living. My problem with word “organic” being splattered onto my yoghurt is the fact that it suggest others without the label are not “organic”. Yes, certain governments might have their own definition of the word, but it remains a word of scientific usage and we biologists know that “organic” encompasses anything living. Heck, even a sheet of paper is “organic” in origin; also, E-numbers are from mostly “organic” sources. Food is never completely “inorganic” unless we started chewing lumps of coal, so the idea of classifying something as specifically “organic” just seems very erroneous to me. Certainly, there should be a limit to how much man is interfering with the chemistry of his own food, but at a lot of these “anti-so-and-so” movements boil down to misinformed hysteria. Consider the fact that our planet is reaching a point of overpopulation; food demands are climbing. The Agricultural industry can barely keep up with these demands and yet the everyday consumer goes to the nearby supermarket expecting the food to be cheap, tasty, healthy, plentiful and all around perfect. There is no way that all of this can be achieved without some form of interference, which is why we are now stuck in a rut with pesticides and eutrophication. It’s a real dilemma and I for one cannot say that I could come up with an adequate solution that would not involve “science”.

    Furthermore, my argument was mainly about genetic technology and the many benefits that it holds. I am not saying that it is perfect or the only solution (you never know; that’s the beauty of science), but in some cases (such as drought-resistant crops or stem cell research) it can really save some lives.

  3. Anony
    September 30, 2010 at 16:12 — Reply

    Interesting article, however thought i’d point out that not all the worry of GM crops is unfounded, there have been many incidents, in America especially regarding huge recalls. Also the fact that the GM industry is a massively privately funded industry which is the main proportion of molecular biology it should also be taken into account the type of research being done to prove GM food safety. A scientist that spoke about this was called Arpad Pustai from the UK, and was renowned for his expertise on GM foods. However after having a gag order put on him by courts which was later removed (16 Feb 1999), he was able to speak to press in the UK. This lead to a series of media headlines from ”GM food dangerous” to ”mad scientists knows nothing” .. basically after thirty five years of work in the industry he became discredited and his reputation ruined for opening his mouth. So not all GM food safety is unfounded. You should not always believe the things in newspapers, and if you do think its safe, try finding science journals testing the safety of GM crops… its not an easy thing to find. If your still not convinced i recommend reading a book called ‘Seeds of Deception’. However this said, i do personally believe that GM food could be a great thing, higher yields and longer lasting food dates is highly beneficial, but GM crops will cross pollinate with non transgenic plants therefore before we (the UK) start growing them freely i feel it should be completely understood to at least keep our natural vegetation sustained.

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