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Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Let’s pretend for a moment that hammers hadn’t been invented throughout the entirety of human history. We still had nails and rail spikes (which are just another form of nail designed with a specific purpose), anyway. Now suppose a team of researchers in both private industry and academia started learning more about the exciting field of driving objects into other objects to hold things together.

The common man has long suffered the tyranny of the screw, forever forced to worry about ruining the threading or over-torquing one made of a particularly weak metal and ruining the head. Another alternative had been proposed in bolts, but the conspicuous heads protruding from surfaces made for a less-than-ideal solution to the problem of holding things together.

Fortunately, a team of bright minds got together and decided to apply science and technology to the field of holding things together. After years of planning and meticulous study of the process by which an object can be driven into another, they came up with a solution: why not just hit the things together? Voila! Hammers were born.

The innovation was conceptually very simple but could be utilized to solve a wide variety of problems. No longer did people have to drill preexisting holes to hold things together. The promise of all kinds of furniture and buildings arose from the breakthrough of the hammer. The world might not enter into a terrible shelter crisis after all!

Of course, like with any innovation, there were zealous critics.

Some groups objected to the hammers on moral grounds. According to their patron deity, an electrician that told people to love each other, surfaces weren’t meant to be held together in such an unnatural manner.

Unions of construction workers who would in principle approve of innovations that would improve their line of work also seemed to be a very vocal group in resistance to hammers. It would seem that Craftsman, a major distributor of hammers, had employed many draconian business practices to protect their invention and were running many construction workers out of a job.

Some were concerned about the efficacy of the devices. They worried that the overuse of hammers could lead to a dangerous lack of diversity in building practices that could leave buildings susceptible to collapse from adverse conditions.

There were those who feared the hammers. They called the inventions dangerous and cited bludgeonings as a reason to never produce the devices. They felt that the potential danger of being struck by a hammer was too great a risk for any alleged benefits. Of course, among those fearing for public safety, there were those who took a more moderate stance as well. They just simply didn’t have enough data on the impact hammers had on human health.

The example is a little bit extreme, but it conceptually mirrors the backlash against the idea of genetically modified crops (GMOs).

The human population has risen to about 7 billion and is increasing exponentially. As things currently stand, there might be difficulties associated with feeding the planet in the future. Genetic modification represents a fundamentally simple way of helping to solve that problem. Taking the beneficial genes of our choosing and placing them in existing crops will theoretically help them grow up with traits that we, as a species, want.

Plants could easily be selected to grow faster, bigger and more resistant to harsh growing conditions. A process that could take eons under the conditions of natural selection can be expedited to a matter of months or years.

Fundamentally, a lot of the distaste for GMO food comes from a lack of understanding of what genetic modification entails. The two words are big and sound very science-y together (and I really do suppose that they are), so some people naturally assume that adult specimens of the food are being manipulated in some way in a laboratory. This simply isn’t the case. All living things have a set of instructions that dictate what traits the organism will be born with: blue eyes, freckles, susceptibility to diabetes and a whole slew of other things. Genetic modification allows the manipulation of traits a generation of crops could be born with.

While there may be dangers associated with genetic modification, the process itself isn’t inherently evil or malignant to human society. It is simply a tool that can be used to our benefit as we develop a better understanding.

Other critics of GMOs are often vehemently against Monsanto. But a distaste for the practices of the largest GMO producer isn’t necessarily the most well-thought-out objection to what GMOs actually are. For instance, just because Craftsman may or may not have done something unethical isn’t a reason to give up hammers entirely. Modern internet service providers are frequently critiqued for their service practices of throttling bandwidth and getting away with it because there are few competitors for any region, but one doesn’t see people protesting the internet. Again, the tools provided by a company aren’t inherently good or bad, but they can be very useful.

ALAN LIN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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