Facts Are Facts, Opinions Not So Much

A review of “Life As We Made It” by Beth Shapiro
Biopolitical Times
Cover of the book

Beth Shapiro describes herself as an evolutionary (paleo)biologist, which informs the title and much of the first half of this book, which she calls Part I: The Way It Is. Much of that is interesting and not very controversial, except insofar as it is designed as a set-up for the second half, Part II: The Way It Could Be. Essentially she uses her expertise on ancient DNA as a springboard to promote unproven, unnecessary and deeply unfortunate speculations about the future of the planet. And her opinions are regrettably spiced if not actually fueled by insults flung at anyone who disagrees with her purely technological approach to jump-starting the future.

She joins an increasingly noisy though not particularly organized group of “uber-optimists” who variously promote genetically modified agriculture, gene drives, de-extinction, colonization of other planets, and of course “improving” the human species — not by culling the weak like eugenicists of old but by genetically modifying the wealthy, in a modern techno-eugenics. That’s a diverse group and we know she disagrees with some of them because she wrote an entire book about why cloning mammoths was neither feasible nor desirable (although she titled it How to Clone a Mammoth).

To begin at the beginning: Shapiro made her name working on ancient bison, and in her first chapter tells the fascinating tale of how scientists uncovered the story of this species. Its history goes back much, much further than we can easily imagine, as she points out:

For nearly 2 million years, bison evolved in the absence of people.

On the next page, however, she concludes:

The evolution story of the North American bison is one in which humans are deeply entwined.

Well, at the end, sure. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the recent near-extinction of the North American bison is one in which humans are deeply entwined? Shapiro is quite right to suggest that humans have “refined—and redefined—nature.” We should certainly pay attention to the damage we have wrought, both recently and in the (to us) distant past.

Shapiro stands with those who say that to compensate, we now have to make use of genetic technology, which is promoted as the potential cure for an otherwise inevitable terrible future. Anyone who doubts the utility of gene editing and the like is guilty of condemning their fellow humans to hunger, disease and death. She calls them “a handful of vocal extremists [who] spread misinformation” (p. 6) and expands on this on page 172:

But the new technologies feel different, less natural perhaps. Worse, their use is surrounded by an amorphous uneasiness that is fed and compounded by well-funded global campaigns, rife with disinformation, that intentionally cloud understanding of what these biotechnologies can and cannot do.

This is nonsense on stilts, in several different ways. The most absurd is the reference to “well-funded global campaigns,” which raises a laugh from unpaid or under-paid activists. Predictably, “Golden Rice” makes an appearance. This GM crop has been overhyped for more than 20 years and is still opposed by many as an unnecessary and unwanted technology. Are there available proven alternatives? Yes. Would there be social costs to its introduction? Undoubtedly. Does Shapiro acknowledge either of these facts? No. When Shapiro writes that “it could help the more than 250,000 children who go blind every year because their diets lack sufficient Vitamin A,” she is — either intentionally or out of ignorance — casting shame to cloud understanding.

Her bias becomes even more obvious in her discussion of the infamous Flavr-Savr tomato, which focuses largely on the technical and regulatory issues with its development. She concludes that it “did not fail because it was genetically enhanced,” and with that it is hard to disagree. It failed financially because it cost too much to produce, and it failed with the public because it was a lousy tomato. (Perhaps she never tasted one. I did. Silly me, I thought the Flavr-Savr would be, well, flavorful. After all, they were charging a premium for it. But the fruit was essentially tasteless.) Both advocates and critics of GMOs acknowledge that it wasn’t designed for the benefit of consumers, but to reduce spoilage during shipping. It was promoted as being genetically modified and Shapiro credits it with “laying the foundation for a new industry,” but I would suggest that it was closer to laying the foundation for opposition to this novel industry.

The lack of social and economic context makes this book essentially useless as a guide to thinking about whether and how synthetic biology should be used. It may be true that some affluent academics in California want “better cattle … different and more exotic pets … new varieties of tastier food … helpers and workers and guiders and sniffer-outers …” (p. 132), but this provides no support for Shapiro’s claims that genetic technologies will end famine and hunger. According to the World Health Organization, over 800 million people were undernourished last year, and according to the World Bank even more were subsisting on less than $1.90 per day.

The last chapter of Life As We Made It is titled “Turkish Delight” after a reference to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis: The White Witch offers the enchanted candy and Edmund gobbles up the sinfully addictive treat. Quoting Lewis is more than a little ironic. Lewis dispatched the whole idea of eugenics in his powerful essay “The Abolition of Man” which is also the title of the short book that contains it, published in 1943:

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

Shapiro repeats the inaccurate claim that IVF used to be “feared and deplored” but is popular now, in order to hint that germline editing may become acceptable in the future. She asks, for instance, what if we can “overrule evolution” to remove a human genetic variant that makes some people unusually susceptible to a pandemic?

The once unthinkable ethical breach will become the only imaginable ethical choice. Saving human lives will be our Turkish delight.

This book really should be called Life As I’d Like to Make It. Or, to quote the title of an op-ed she published in the Washington Post on November 5:

If we want to save the natural world, we’re going to have to change it

Back in 1968, a United States Major serving in Vietnam was quoted as saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” which helped fuel the anti-war movement. Shapiro wasn’t even born then, but you’d think she would have heard of that. She touts technology as the engine of our species’ survival, but seems to overlook the fact that the steering wheel is at least as important as the accelerator, and so are the brakes.