Genetic Engineering and Human Mental Ecology: Interlocking Effects and Educational Considerations
This paper describes some likely semiotic consequences of genetic engineering on what Gregory Bateson has called “the mental ecology” (1979) of future humans, consequences that are less often raised in discussions surrounding the safety of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The effects are as follows: an increased 1) habituation to the presence of GMOs in the environment, 2) normalization of empirically false assumptions grounding genetic reductionism, 3) acceptance that humans are capable and entitled to decide what constitutes an evolutionary improvement for a species, 4) perception that the main source of creativity and problem solving in the biosphere is anthropogenic. Though there are some tensions between them, these effects tend to produce self-validating webs of ideas, actions, and environments, which may reinforce destructive habits of thought. Humans are unlikely to safely develop genetic technologies without confronting these escalating processes directly. Intervening in this mental ecology presents distinct challenges for educators, as will be discussed.
The Semiosis of “Side Effects” in Genetic Interventions
Genetic interventions, which include transgenic engineering, gene editing, and other forms of genome modification aimed at altering the information “in” the genetic code, are rapidly increasing in power and scale. Biosemiotics offers unique tools for understanding the nature, risks, scope, and prospects of such technologies, though few in the community have turned their attention specifically in this direction. Bruni (2003, 2008) is an important exception. In this paper, I examine how we frame the concept of “side effects” that result from genetic interventions and how the concept stands up to current perspectives of the role of organism activity in development. I propose that once the role of living systems in constructing and modifying the informational value of their various developmental resources is taken into account, the concept of a “side effect” will need to be significantly revised. Far from merely a disturbance brought about in a senseless albeit complex system, a biosemiotic view would take “side effects” as at least sometimes the organism’s active re-organization in order to accommodate or make use of novelty. This insight is nascent in the work of developmental plasticity and niche construction theory (West-Eberhard 2003; Odling-Smee et al. 2003), but it is brought into sharper focus by the explicitly interpretive perspective offered by biosemiotics. Understanding the “side effects” of genetic interventions depends in part on being able to articulate when and where unexpected consequences are a result of semiotic activity at various levels within the system. While a semiotic interpretation of “side effects” puts into question the naive attitude that would see all unintended side effects as indications of disturbance in system functionality, it certainly does not imply that such side effects are of no concern for the viability of the organisms in the system. As we shall see, the fact that such interventions do not respect the translation of information that occurs in multi-level biological systems ensures that disruption is still likely. But it does unprivilege the human agent as the sole generator of meaning and information in the products of biotechnology, with important consequences on how we understand our relationship with other species.