As genetic engineering continues to advance, playing God has never seemed so easy. And yet humans have never seemed so powerless.
Consider the blue rose. For centuries, blue roses were considered genetically impossible. Countless scientists have tried to hybridize roses with other bluish or indigo flowers, resulting in, at best, a purplish mauve. And so the blue rose has been a literary symbol for the unattainable — the concept of immortality, or an unrequited love. “Because other people are not such wonderful people,” Jim tells Laura in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” “. . . They’re common as weeds, but you, well, you’re Blue Roses!”
Science, however, has no regard for such poetry. Researchers from Tianjin University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently announced they had done the impossible: By engineering a bacteria that can tweak the DNA of plants, they were able to convert proteins found in the flower’s petal into the blue pigment indigoidine. They injected that bacteria into a white rose, and presto — an undeniably bluish smudge appeared on one of the flower’s petals. The project has a long way to go before the flower is perfected, but researchers excitedly predict that blue-hued roses will hit the market in the next few years.
Such an advancement is, of course, worth celebrating. Ever since we peeled back the curtain to reveal the secret genetic instructions underlying our existence, we have developed a power to create that defies our conception of nature. We’re farming disease-resistant livestock. We’re growing unnaturally nutrient-rich crops. Someday, we might even eradicate inherited diseases from the human race.
But this newfound, godly power is also profoundly disappointing: All the technological advancements in the world have been dwarfed by the pace of our expanding power to destroy.
In the Abrahamic tradition, God gave humankind dominion over life on Earth, bestowing upon it the responsibility to act as a steward of his creation. But despite our scientific advancements — and in many ways, because of it — the genetic makeup of life on Earth has suffered tremendously under our reign.
Today, thousands of species of wildlife sit on the verge of extinction because of our actions. We have destroyed their habitats, fundamentally altered the climate by pumping carbon into the atmosphere and hunted down once-massive populations to groups so small that we can count the surviving animals on our fingers. So great is this anthropomorphic threat that scientists argue that we’re currently in one of the worst mass extinction events in the history of the world — up there with a cataclysmic volcanic eruptions and collisions with asteroids.
We watch this collapse of Earth’s biodiversity in slow motion, captured most presciently by the last remaining northern white rhinos — of which there are two females left — and the South China tiger, which hasn’t been seen in the wild in decades. Conservationists are scrambling to come up with innovative solutions to save other species from a similar fate — preserving their DNA to perhaps be resurrected one day, or mixing other related species into their gene pool to stave off the effects of inbreeding.
But let’s be honest with ourselves: This is a fool’s errand. As more and more species march toward extinction, the work of conservation will increase exponentially. Barring some sort of miracle, our genetic Noah’s Ark will flood; our stewardship responsibility as human beings will shatter. If you’re not convinced, take a look at the recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that the “hyperalarming” loss of insects — one of the most important parts of any ecosystem — is more widespread across the globe than previously thought.
This is hubris. We go about our lives stretching our intellectual capacity to bend the possibilities of nature to meet our desires. And we ignore the human-made crises we inflict upon our planet because they are inconvenient to our lifestyles.
Sooner or later, society will recognize all the damage we are inflicting upon our planetary paradise. Until then, while we continue to tinker with our new powers of creation, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and all the creatures that crawl on the Earth will disappear.
But at least we’ll have blue roses to lay on their graves.