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International Watch - January 28, 2002 - The Ornery American


War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card January 28, 2002

How the World Ends ...

Robert Frost's famous poem offered us only two options for how the world ends -- in fire or in ice.

But we have so many other options.

There's the ever-popular asteroid or comet that strikes the Earth and destroys civilization in half an hour, all surface life in a few weeks or, with luck, months. Likelihood: It's going to happen sometime, but the chance of it happening in any given year are, um, astronomically low.

Then there's the killer virus -- ebola is a favorite candidate, but a new strain of influenza is actually more likely. It emerges from some large population center and spreads through the world in a few weeks. Civilization collapses when the death rate reaches fifty percent.

And those are just the kinds of things nature throws at us every now and then.

When we add humans into the equation, there are all those nukes -- they didn't go away, and given the economy in Russia these days, we have no assurance some nationalist hero won't revive the good days. Terrorist nukes, fortunately, don't threaten to unleash the end of the world -- just the disappearance of the odd city here and there. Almost makes them sound benign, doesn't it?

Toss in the chance of somebody engineering a virulent plague -- smallpox is always a favorite, now that we've stopped inoculating our children -- and there are plenty of dangers to keep us awake at night.

It's a good thing we Americans know how to lick all these problems, right? I mean, I saw Deep Impact and Armageddon and Outbreak, so I know that as long as we have Bruce Willis as cowboy or Morgan Freeman as president or Dustin Hoffman as epidemiologist, we'll come out of it OK.

Heck, put Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and an Apple PowerBook in a captured UFO, and we don't even have to worry about aliens taking over the Earth. Yo, America!

Here's the irony. The plague that destroys civilization may already have been unleashed upon the world, ticking away like a time bomb. And guess who did it?

Yep. You guessed it. Us.

About a decade ago, when genetically modified products were first being prepared for general release, I remember having a conversation with a noted science writer. I suggested that while Jeremy Rifkin was often irresponsibly radical, it was actually a good idea to listen to his warnings about the dangers of letting genetic modifications loose in the environment without extensive testing over a long period of time.

Nonsense, I was told. Rifkin was always making science the bogeyman. In this case, what could go wrong? "Any genetic modifications that don't work, die."

"But what about genetic modifications that work -- just not the way we planned?"

"You've read too much science fiction," he told me.

Well, maybe. But I've also read a lot of science. And we've learned some things in the intervening years.

Back when we started fiddling with DNA, most people in the general public had the idea that DNA was the "code of life." That all the information to create a living creature was stored in those genetic molecules. I know I certainly believed that.

A couple of summers ago, however, I was in a conference on science and religion in London, and one of the brilliant scientists who took part happened to be a leader in the field of reproductive chemistry and embryonic development.

"DNA doesn't contain all the information," he said to me. "Not even close. Think of DNA as the tape -- it has to have the cassette player in order to do anything."

Since then I've learned that it's even more complicated than that. It's as if the DNA from each species were as potentially different as the code on DVDs, CDs, Zip disks, and three sizes of diskette. They all consist of the same kind of information -- little bits and bytes -- but none of them can read each other's data.

But forget the analogies. Barry Commoner -- the first writer on environmental science that I ever read -- has set forth a very convincing warning that you can read for yourself online (http://www.purefood.org/patent/gedanger090401.cfm).

Like Rifkin, Commoner gets ignored by the gung-ho science-can-solve-everything guys. (They're kind of like the gung-ho the-free-market-can-solve-everything group -- and just as ignorantly dangerous.)

Folks, nobody's more skeptical about the pious overclaiming of the fanatics in the religion of environmentalism than I am. But Commoner's warnings make scientific sense.

You see, every time DNA copies itself, there are errors. Lots of them, actually -- enough that in every generation, most of us would have a good chance of having serious genetic defects.

But inside those dividing cells there are shepherd proteins called "spliceosomes" and "chaperones" (fiction writers wouldn't dare make this stuff up) that work to catch those errors and fix them. They don't always work, but they reduce the error rate to a minuscule level.

The trouble is, those shepherd proteins each work on particular parts of the DNA. But when humans insert genes from some other creature into a host cell, the host has no shepherd proteins to watch over the new section.

So errors will proliferate in those sections at a much higher rate.

Even more dangerous is the fact that some shepherd proteins will "think" they recognize part of the new spliced-in gene and "fix" it in inappropriate ways.

Many, perhaps most, such changes will simply cause the new organism to die.

But some of them may lead to dangerous changes. All of the activities of every cell require the production of proteins that are made by copying this or that small section of DNA. When the spliced-in DNA starts deteriorating -- or even when it's still fine -- we can't be sure that the new sections will do only the job we inserted them to do.

The "cassette player" may read some of the new tracks in ways we didn't predict.

Already about half the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically altered. Other crops are being converted over to new-and-improved breeds. All susceptible to the dangers of rapid and unpredictable deterioration over time.

What if we become completely dependent on the new species, and they start to fail?

What if we try to eradicate them, but find that they've spread too far, cross-pollinated too much?

And there are even scarier nightmares possible. Mad cow disease, for instance (bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- fun to say, hideous to have), is caused by a prion -- a protein in nerve cells that is atomically identical to the healthy protein it replaces, but which has a different twist to its physical structure, making it impossible for the cell's cleanup mechanisms to recognize it and destroy it. So it keeps clogging the cell until it dies, and cell after cell dies, as surely as if a worm were eating its way through the brain, until the creature dies.

If a simple twist in a protein can cause such problems, who knows what might yet emerge in creatures that have had unfamiliar, uncontrollable genes inserted into them? The testing these new plants go through catches obvious flaws, but there has never been testing for long enough to see what happens over hundreds and thousands of generations.

"But nothing bad has happened yet," we're told by those who pooh-pooh such concerns.

Well, of course not. Nothing bad ever happens -- up until the moment that it does.

It is a mathematical certainty that these genes will decay over time until some new equilibrium is reached.

There's no way to guess when or whether any of the changes will lead to devastating, world-wrecking plagues or crop failures.

But isn't it nice to know that the end of the world just might come from good old gung-ho American ingenuity, combined with our refusal to let that silly old government regulate science?

Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.

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