Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rewriting the code of life?

Would you support stem cell research and genetic engineering that let amputees grow new limbs? Yes, of course.

What about stem cell research and genetic engineering that let factories grow chicken meat without chickens? Yeah, really. Nice firm white chicken meat, real chicken meat, honest-to-goodness chicken meat without ever there being a chicken with head, feet and feathers. Would you eat it?

Would you prefer chickenless chicken meat to the meat from chickens raised in a battery barn?

I'm willing to pay more for free-range chicken and free-range eggs even if it means I might have to give up or delay something else I want, like, say, a MacBook Air. Like many folks, I'm uneasy about factory farming of animals. But I'm realistic enough to know that the world is not going to feed 10 billion mostly urban people with free-range chickens and organic veggie gardens.

Which brings us back to the chickenless chicken meat. Humankind stands on the threshold of unprecedented control over the very nature of life itself. The First Law of Technology is "What can be done, will be done." It's all well and good to talk about free will and reasoned civil debate, but I know of no historical example of a technology that has been foresworn.

The evidence seems to suggest that the planet will reach a population maximum sometime late in this century, a resource bottleneck. It would take a better prophet than me to guess what life will be like on the other side. If we reach the other side.

Meanwhile, I sit in my comfy cottage on a hill in Ireland eating a free-range egg with local black pudding, and looking at pictures in the press of starving children in Ethiopia.