Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Want more? Here's a 6-minute video that profiles several of the classics, including the late, lamented Nyquil and Pepto-Bismol Donuts:
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
OCTOBER 10, 2008
Switzerland's Green Power Revolution: Ethicists Ponder Plants' Rights
Who Is to Say Flora Don't Have Feelings? Figuring Out What Wheat Would Want
By GAUTAM NAIK
ZURICH -- For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?
That's a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant's dignity.
"Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously," Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. "It's one more constraint on doing genetic research."
Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn't "disturb the vital functions or lifestyle" of the plants. He eventually got the green light.
The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora's dignity.
"We couldn't start laughing and tell the government we're not going to do anything about it," says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. "The constitution requires it."
In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake." It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, "decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason."
On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded "as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured." In other words: It's wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.
Many scientists interpret the dignity rule as applying mainly to field trials like Dr. Keller's, but some worry it may one day apply to lab studies as well. Another gripe: While Switzerland's stern laws defend lab animals and now plants from genetic tweaking, similar protections haven't been granted to snails and drosophila flies, which are commonly used in genetic experiments.
It also begs an obvious, if unrelated question: For a carrot, is there a more mortifying fate than being peeled, chopped and dropped into boiling water?
"Where does it stop?" asks Yves Poirier, a molecular biologist at the laboratory of plant biotechnology at the University of Lausanne. "Should we now defend the dignity of microbes and viruses?"
Several years ago, when Christof Sautter, a botanist at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology, failed to get permission to do a local field trial on transgenic wheat, he moved the experiment to the U.S. He's too embarrassed to mention the new dignity rule to his American colleagues. "They'll think Swiss people are crazy," he says.
Defenders of the law argue that it reflects a broader, progressive effort to protect the sanctity of living things. Last month, Switzerland granted new rights to all "social animals." Prospective dog owners must take a four-hour course on pet care before they can buy a canine companion, while anglers must learn to catch fish humanely. Fish can't be kept in aquariums that are transparent on all sides. The fish need some shelter. Nor can goldfish be flushed down a toilet to an inglorious end; they must first be anesthetized with special chemicals, and then killed.
Dr. Keller in Zurich has more mundane concerns. He wants to breed wheat that can resist powdery mildew. In lab experiments, Dr. Keller found that by transferring certain genes from barley to wheat, he could make the wheat resistant to disease.
When applying for a larger field trial, he ran into the thorny question of plant dignity. Plants don't have a nervous system and probably can't feel pain, but no one knows for sure. So Dr. Keller argued that by protecting wheat from fungus he was actually helping the plant, not violating its dignity -- and helping society in the process.
One morning recently, he stood by a field near Zurich where the three-year trial with transgenic wheat is under way. His observations suggest that the transgenic wheat does well in the wild. Yet Dr. Keller's troubles aren't over.
In June, about 35 members of a group opposed to the genetic modification of crops, invaded the test field. Clad in white overalls and masks, they scythed and trampled the plants, causing plenty of damage.
"They just cut them," says Dr. Keller, gesturing to wheat stumps left in the field. "Where's the dignity in that?"
Thursday, December 25, 2008
I’m still in Portland, and still snowbound until probably tomorrow. Now that Portland has officially recorded the snowiest December on record - 16 inches, so far (and a drift of 21 inches outside my mom’s front door) - it seems like a good time to continue my series on environmentalism, a series that obviously has relevance to global warming and how we talk about it.
I’ve been offering excerpts from the book, Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition. The previous installment can be found here.
Here’s the conclusion of the Jewish point of view:
If…there is a God, then everything changes. If there is a God who has created us, then each and every human person has infinite value, and none can be sacrificed for the sake of nature or some abstract cause. (p. 31)The chapter on the Catholic view offers this:
Nowhere does revelation suggest (as do some contemporary religious and secular environmentalists) that creation, undisturbed by human intervention, is the final order God intended…. The human person and the natural world are never ascribed the same dignity.And this comes from the Protestant/Evangelical view:
Some would argue that if man refrains from exercising dominion over nature, nature would be better off. Yet the issue bearing the greatest importance is whether man would be better off. When man does not exercise dominion over nature, nature will exercise dominion over man and cause tremendous suffering for the human family….We alone, of all God’s earthly creatures, have the power, intelligence, and responsibility to help order the world in accord with divine providence and thus minimize the effects of natural evil. (pp. 39-40)
Some environmentalists, especially those in the “Deep Ecology” movement, divinize the earth and insist on “biological egalitarianism,” the equal value and rights of all life forms, in the mistaken notion that this will raise human respect for the earth. Instead, this philosophy negates the biblical affirmation of the human person’s unique role as steward and eliminates the very rationale for human care for creation. The quest for the humane treatment of beasts by lowering people to the level of nimals leads only to the beastly treatment of humans. (p. 69)
In the three months since my previous installment from this book, it seems that the clamor about global warming has subsided. The current economic crisis has shown that the environmental “emergency” has become less of one in the face of joblessness and recession. But I have little doubt that the subject will heat up again once the economy does, too. Here are some of the key points I wish we’d keep in mind as the discussion continues:
- Man(kind) is the pinnacle of God’s creation.
- As such, we are superior to all plants and all animals. We have value, dignity, and eternal consequence that nothing else in creation has.
- We have been given earth to manage for the benefit of mankind; we do not manage the earth for the benefit of the earth, per se.
- All environmental discussions should consider the cost to humans of recommended policies.
- Some costs are in fact too much to pay.
I’m sure that’s not all, but it’s a good start.
And since this is Christmas, let's consider: Does not the incarnation of Christ itself say something about the exalted status of mankind in creation?
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
I almost feel like, "If none of this is true, how come I'm not eating people?"