Fooling Mother Nature may prove costly

June 01, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THE SHORT story, as I recollect it, was set in a future where time travel had become possible. A fellow signed up to tour the primeval past and, like others, was cautioned to remain on the floating path and to touch nothing because even the smallest alteration in the past could have huge consequences.

He made the trip and marveled at the exotic plants and creatures of an era beyond reckoning. He scrupulously stayed on the path, but returned to his own time to find everything changed grotesquely, and in no way for the better. Puzzled, he sat down, only to discover, from the evidence on his shoe sole, that in the ancient past he had stepped on a butterfly.

The tale came back recently with the news that a study has found that a popular new corn, genetically altered to ward off insect pests but believed harmless to other insects, produces a pollen that kills monarch butterflies.

No one seems to know quite what to make of this, so far. The pollen is quite toxic to monarchs exposed to it in the laboratory, but it is not clear whether many of the butterflies encounter it in the fields. The real danger may be quite small, or not quite small. No one knows.

But everyone does know this: monarch butterflies are lovely, one of those occasions of grace that the same nature which produces droughts and volcanoes and other tumults tosses off casually, as if to make up in small things for its larger lapses.

The science of genetics is beyond me. Hell, I haven't even figured out radio; magic seems the best explanation for it. And I am not among the instinctive naysayers who, like the Luddites, would smash every novelty out of fear it surely will bring more ill than good. The status quo, by definition, won't get us anywhere.

There are risks in any change and we are reaching a point, as I understand it, where our cleverness may offer us huge changes from this still new science and bring them ever faster. Genetic engineering holds the promise, among other benefits, of more food, more safely produced. This corn, for instance, lets farmers forgo pesticides. That's good.

But such is our vanity, forever triumphing over our experience, that we believe in our ability to extrapolate all the consequences of our innovations, and to judge each good or not and weigh the balance soundly.

There are those who would so restrict genetic engineering that it could barely move. Never mind that it might -- just might -- be the technology that ends illness and hunger and the human strifes, from bellyache to war, that come of those.

The same science that is improving corn harvests has been approved for growing potatoes and cotton, too. I suppose we must now wonder whether there will be side effects we regret. Even the canniest science cannot repeal the law of unintended consequences, but mere alarmism does more to stymie than to guide. We have to try. It is in us to try.

We must be careful, though, not to step on the butterflies.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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