Playing God since 10,000 BCE

It is time to come to terms with our ability to manipulate nature.

Author: Gruban, Algerian Desert

Why are human beings so afraid of the power that they possess? The world is our sandbox, and we have become the masters at manipulating it. We mined the ground to make our cities, with skyscrapers towering far higher than the tallest of trees. By harnessing radioactivity we’ve been able to capture the power of nuclear energy, while our burning of fossil fuels changes the very nature of our planet’s climate.

But while these ideas are modern — with their invention and their effects occurring within the last few centuries — one method by which humans have shaped their environment dates back over ten thousand years. As we developed a greater understanding of the animals and plants around us, we became more and more effective at raising them in our company, and through the selective breeding of the best individuals, we have morphed them to suit our needs. This process is known as domestication.

Its power is highlighted by a man named Kirk Cameron is a New Zealander evangelist who, in 2006, quite hilariously recorded an episode of his television show The Way of the Master in which he argued that the very shape of a banana — with its curved, smooth body and a “tab” at the top that allows easy access to the contents — was an “atheists nightmare”, as it was direct evidence for creation. Cameron was onto something; the banana was designed for human consumption, but not by god. Rather, through the continuous breeding of the tastiest and most comfortable plants in each generation humans have produced the modern variety, which is apparently indistinguishable from creation at first sight. The wild variety of the banana is small bodied with relatively large seeds, whatever flesh it has being very bitter to taste. We have effectively altered this small, awkward little fruit to suit our own image. We’ve played god.

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And it’s not just been the bananas. Man’s best friend, Canis lupus familiaris, is our oldest plaything, with remains of the ancestral dogs found in close proximity to humans nearly fifteen thousand years ago. We’ve produced innumerable forms of dogs over the years, for reasons from security to cosmetics, again shaping them by selecting those with the most desirable characteristics for the task at hand. The same can be said of the wild mustard, Brassica oleracea, which through selective breeding has led to modern varieties of kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts and kohlrabi, all of which remain the same species of plant.

Artificial selection at the hands of humans has existed ever since we took that first wolf pup into our homes, and has persisted in that form continuing into the present day. However, the relatively recent advent of the field of molecular genetics, accompanied by the ability to physically alter an organisms genetic code, have dramatically increased the ease by which we can manipulate organisms. It is possible to simulate an amount of evolutionary change that would take hundreds, if not thousands of years by traditional methods, within a single generation. It is this speed that causes unrest among the public, as there is no real difference between the two techniques, but seeing such change on the timescales of weeks, months or years can be unsettling to the human psyche, as we fear we have gone too far.

Our tendency to reject our ability to dramatically change the world around us is, in a way, both a flaw and a virtue. It has likely prevented much tragedy in the form of mismanaged genetically modified organisms, which do indeed have the potential to ruin ecosystems. However, this benefit is dwarfed by the failings of the paranoia. Genetically modified crops are necessary should we ever hope to solve the impending world hunger crises. Sterilised mosquitoes have continuously been trialled for use on wild populations, and they outline the potential for biological control mechanisms for diseases such as malaria. We could modify the nutritional value of the meat we consume, making the industry both more efficient and better for the consumer. Shaping the world around is what we have always done, it is only as technology progresses that we become faster and more effective at doing it. We need to wake up to this reality and stop being afraid of our potential.