Letters

A Nasty Mother The reverence for nature that Richard Gallagher1 and Lee Silver2 attribute to many scientists and nonscientists isn?t necessarily related to a view that mother nature is "benevolent," "kind," or "caring." An ecosystem can be both "in harmony" and still be deadly to individuals (even humans) and species. Many of us are very nervous about genetic engineering and other issues within bioethics because we humans just aren?t smart enough to take those functions away from

Sep 1, 2006
The Scientist Staff

A Nasty Mother

The reverence for nature that Richard Gallagher1 and Lee Silver2 attribute to many scientists and nonscientists isn?t necessarily related to a view that mother nature is "benevolent," "kind," or "caring." An ecosystem can be both "in harmony" and still be deadly to individuals (even humans) and species. Many of us are very nervous about genetic engineering and other issues within bioethics because we humans just aren?t smart enough to take those functions away from natural processes. Do we really want to reengineer our species? genome so that we can have less malaria or so we can expect to live 150 years?

It seems obvious and inevitable that the Law of Unintended Consequences will be much nastier than Mother Nature. Natural selection is not evil or good; it is simply the way ecosystems work. Some, including myself, see it as a type of "natural wisdom." These views are not antiscience; they are expressions of humility learned from science. If those views are anti-anything, they?re against reengineering our own and other species to suit human desires.

Chris Richard

University of California, Los Angeles

crichard@mednet.ucla.edu

Just because nature can be a bad actor doesn?t mean that humans necessarily know better or have longer vision. This is a smoke screen for pure arrogance. Of course we have to muddle along as best we can, but we should also nurture those scientific disciplines and scientists whose job it is to try to predict problems: toxicologists, environmental biologists, atmospheric scientists, and scientific ethicists. There are even excellent scientists who are trying to predict the real harm that can come from, yes, even genetic engineering. Each of us should attempt to make serious assessment of harm for our own new technologies; the pot must call the kettle black. New-agers may make the perfect straw man to knock down, but most real challenges to new technology come from other serious, thoughtful scientists.

Felicia Etzkorn

Virginia Tech

Blacksburg, Va.

fetzkorn@vt.edu

It is a grave mistake to equate the "spiritual left" with the religious right. The spiritual left is far less organized. It has no churches or ministers that compare in stature or popularity to those on the right. It has nowhere near the financial resources or political power. Though there have been some noteworthy acts of violence by its fringe members (e.g., Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front, Unibomber), these attacks have been exceedingly rare when compared to attacks by religious right-wingers on scientists, doctors, research facilities, and medical clinics. While some on the left may irrationally disdain and boycott genetically modified crops, they have yet to influence federal policy or funding for basic research in this country, as have the religious right.

Michael Dunn

Biotechnology and Biology Instructor

San Francisco

mdunn@smuhsd.k12.ca.us

References

1. R. Gallagher, "Zealots for science," The Scientist, 20(7):13, July 2006. 2. L.M. Silver, "A nasty mother," The Scientist, 20(7):49?53, July 2006.

The trouble with databases

Jeffrey Perkel is right that "scientists who rely on accurate gene predictions should share in the burden of creating them."1 However, in my experience, mostly with GenBank, the database owner-operators do not accept user input. At GenBank, only the authors of each sequence entry can change an entry. So if an author labels a sequence as ORGANISM = HIV-3 , and HIV experts tell GenBank that HIV-3 is not a valid organism, [GenBank] may ask the author to change the entry. If the author does not feel like doing so, the entry remains as an error.

Brian Foley

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos, Ca.

btf@lanl.gov

1. J.M. Perkel, "Why you should be annotating," The Scientist, 20(6):71, June 2006.