A corrective to Frankenfood alarmists: Genetic engineering of plants and animals has been going on for millennia, thanks to humankind’s tinkering.
Indeed, a better descriptor for our species, naturalist Hubbell (Waiting for Aphrodite, 2000, etc.) argues, would be Homo mutans—man the changer—because wherever people have settled, they have altered the natural world by selective breeding, as with the creation of corn from a grass native to the New World tropics. A bisexual transformation 7,500 years ago evidently resulted in plants that hoarded female energy in the form of primitive kernels rather than typical grass seed. Indian farmers’ selective cultivation of these kernels led to the creation of a new species, the sturdy stalks and ears we know today, now completely dependent on human intervention for its propagation. Hubbell’s focal examples include the cultivation of the silkworm, the domestication of the cat, and the development of the commercial apple industry. The production of silk in China is probably the result of crossbreeding several species of moths, followed by selective inbreeding and mutant selection to generate a new species that can spin a cocoon consisting of one long continuous silk filament—though it is now too heavy to fly. The domestication of the cat by the middle of the second millennium
Though she worries about limits—too many people making too many changes affecting too many fellow creatures—Hubbell offers hope that an appreciation of past human tinkering, along with an understanding of just how close all life is genetically, will yield an ecological intelligence, and not an impotent fear and trembling before today’s biotechnology.