Rakunks & Wolvogs & Pigoons, Oh My!

Thursday

I’m currently teaching Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake in my Introduction to Literature class, along with a recent New Yorker article on gene splicing. It’s frightening how much Atwood’s 2003 novel is on target.

Oryx and Crake is the first novel in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy about life after mad scientist Crake has played the Jahweh of Noah’s flood, unleashing a killer virus to exterminate humanity while genetically creating a new race of peaceful, herbivorous people to take over (the Crakers). Crake makes sure that his friend Jimmy survives to look after them. Jimmy’s job is to provide them with origin stories and explanations for their surroundings.

Atwood’s dystopian projection is disturbingly realistic. Society has broken apart into protected luxury compounds and  desolate “pleeblands.” Corporations with names like OrganInc and NooSkin run everything, including the schools, while competing for customers. They’re utterly unethical, sometimes releasing deadly diseases so that people are forced to buy their medicines (at inflated prices, of course). If the GOP actually lifted all regulations on corporations and financiers, such a world could come into existence.

Along with the Crakers, there are other genetic mutations, which are now roaming free. These include rakunks (raccoons and skunks), wolvogs (wolves and dogs), phosphorescent rabbits, and above all pigoons, which are superintelligent pigs especially engineered to produce transplant organs. (A pigoon can grow five or six kidneys at a time.) The geneticists gets a kick out of playing God:

The rakunks had begun as an after-hours hobby on the part of the OrganInc biolab hotshots. There’d been a lot of fooling around in those days: create-an-animal was so much fun, said the guys doing it; it made you feel like God. A number of the experiments were destroyed because they were too dangerous to have around—who needed a cane toad with a prehensile tail like a chameleon’s that might climb in through the bathroom window and blind you while you were brushing your teeth? Then there was the snat, an unfortunate blend of snake and rat: they’d had to get rid of those. But the rakunks caught on as pets, inside OrganInc.

 This is just for fun, however. The real money is to be made in organ transplants:

There were pigoons at NooSkins, just as at OrganInc Farms, but these were smaller and were being used to develop skin-related biotechnologies. The main idea was to find a method of replacing the older epidermis with a fresh one, not a laser-thinned or dermabraded short-term resurfacing but a genuine start-over skin that would be wrinkle- and blemish-free. For that, it would be useful to grow a young, plump skin cell that would eat up the worn cells in the skins of those on whom it was planted and replace them with replicas of itself, like algae growing on a pond

The rewards in the case of success would be enormous, Jimmy’s father explained, doing the straight-talking man-to-man act he had recently adopted with Jimmy. What well-to-do and once-young, once-beautiful woman or man, cranked up on hormonal supplements and shot full of vitamins but hampered by the unforgiving mirror, wouldn’t sell their house, their gated retirement villa, their kids, and their soul to get a second kick at the sexual can? NooSkins for Olds, said the snappy logo. Not that a totally effective method had been found yet: the dozen or so ravaged hopefuls who had volunteered themselves as subjects, paying no fees but signing away their rights to sue, had come out looking like the Mould Creature from Outer Space—uneven in tone, greenish brown, and peeling in ragged strips.

The money involved reminds me of another recent New Yorker article, about Silicon Valley billionaires who are exploring technologies that would allow humans to live forever. (They might want to check out the Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels first. ) But back to gene splicing. In an article entitled “Rewriting the Code of Life,” Specter interviews scientists dreaming of genetically ending diseases that humans have battled forever:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in the research of a team called Target Malaria led by Austin Burt, at Imperial College, in London. In laboratory tests, the group has already succeeded in using CRISPR to edit the genes of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which carry the parasite that causes malaria, so as to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. In theory, as those mosquitoes spread across the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and mate, the population will begin to shrink. A few weeks ago, the Tata Trusts of Mumbai announced that it would fund a similar project in India.

Gene drives could also be used to help wipe out schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease, carried by blood flukes, that affects hundreds of millions of people each year and kills as many as two hundred thousand. In addition, the new technology could eliminate a variety of invasive species—from pests that eat up thousands of acres of crops to the mosquitoes spreading avian malaria so rapidly among the native birds on Hawaii that the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy routinely refer to the state as “the bird-extinction capital of the world.”

Kevin Esvelt, who heads a “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., dreams of the day when humans will control evolution itself:

For Esvelt, that moment can’t come soon enough. “Natural selection is heinously immoral,” he said, invoking Tennyson’s view that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Unlike Rousseau, Esvelt sees nothing “blessed” about man in his natural state. In fact, romantic notions of a natural world defined by innocence and harmony repel him. “The idea that nature is the essence of goodness, is purity and truth, is so foreign to my perception of the world that I can’t even conceive of how people can think that way,” he said. “There is such a fantastic degree of suffering out there.”

He went on to say that humans no longer need to be governed by nature, or rely on brutal and ruinous methods to control it. “When nature does something that hurts us, we respond with chemistry and physics,” he said. “We spread toxic pesticides that kill problematic pests, and often kill most of the other insects in the area as well. To get rid of mosquitoes, we use bulldozers to drain swamps. It works. But it also destroys wetlands and many other species. Imagine that an insect is eating your crops. If you have a gene drive and you understand how olfaction works in that pest, you could just reprogram it to go on its merry way. The pest would still be in the ecosystem, but it would just dislike the taste of your crop. That is a much more elegant way of interacting with nature than anything we do now.”

Who could argue with such results? One imagines that Jimmy’s father in Oryx and Crake once talked like this. (His wife wonders where his youthful idealism has gone.). Atwood reminds us, however, that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, she shows us an eco-terrorist so horrified as the state of the world that he weaponizes a pleasure drug to “cleanse it.” The Specter article mentions such acts as possibilities:

Virtually any technology that can serve a species can also harm it, however, either by accident or by design. A scientist capable of rewiring a mosquito to prevent it from spreading malaria, dengue, Zika, or any other infectious disease would almost certainly have the skill to turn that insect into a weapon. Earlier this year, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, listed gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Some scientists felt that he was being hyperbolic, but the authors of a report on gene drives issued this year by the National Academy of Sciences wrote, “It is not inconceivable that rather than developing a resistant mosquito, one could develop a more susceptible mosquito capable of transmitting a specific pathogen.” In other words, terrorists might be able to add to the saliva of a mosquito a gene that makes toxins, which it would transmit along with malaria. Just before Thanksgiving, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned the White House directly that it is no longer difficult to imagine how somebody might, simply by editing a gene, transform a common virus into a biological weapon. “My greatest fear,” Esvelt told me one day, “is that something terrible will happen before something wonderful happens. It keeps me up at night more than I would like to admit.”

Atwood is far from the first author to warn about such scenarios:

For centuries—from Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Faust to Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, and beyond—people have harbored a persistent fear that some powerful form of life, manufactured by man with good intentions but excessive hubris, might one day slip beyond our control. No previous scientific advance, not even splitting the atom, has made this fear more palpable. Yet the research community often regards itself as the only acceptable arbiter of the way new inventions should be used.

Atwood shows us this research community up close. In a capitalist world where money is the bottom line, idealism is rapidly coopted. Living in his protected environment and paid enormous sums for his expertise, Jimmy’s father becomes a sterile technician and an emotionally empty father and husband. While his inventions benefit those with money, the rest of the world is shut out. Then Crake strikes.

As I taught the work, I pointed out to my science, social science and humanities majors how literature helps us make connections across fields of knowledge, thereby gaining insight that eludes specialists. While acknowledging that this might be their last literature class ever, I told them I hoped they would continue reading poetry, fiction and drama. The future of the world may depend upon it.

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