Taking back control? Gene editing, science politics, and the legacy of our colonial past.

AuthorRosenow, Doerthe

In September 2021, the UK government gave the green light for developing gene editing technologies, with the aim of 'help[ing] our farmers grow more resistant, more nutritious and more productive crops'. (1) Given the UK public's decades-long resistance to genetic engineering in agriculture, the government justifies this move by distinguishing between genetic modification and gene editing. In contrast to the former, which involves inserting foreign DNA into an organism, leading to cross-species breeding, the latter is about changing the existing genes of a plant or animal. While the EU, at least for the time being, continues to regulate gene edited plants and animals as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the UK is going a different way.

The government was quick to point out that this is possible because of Brexit. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, emphasises how Brexit enables the UK to take a 'more scientific and proportionate approach to the way that we do things like the regulation of organisms produced by genetic technologies such as gene editing'. (2) To put it in the words of Boris Johnson: the UK can now become a 'science superpower'. (3)

As I have shown in my recent book, the question of science, particularly whether it can control and predict whether GMOs are 'safe', has always been at the heart of the GMO controversy. (4) Interestingly, when it comes to gene editing, the government has replaced the reassurance that the effects of genetic engineering can be controlled with a celebration of uncertainty. Not being able to control how life develops is now depicted as 'natural', as life has always enhanced itself through unintended genetic mutations. So, gene editing only mimics what nature does itself-or what is already happening in traditional breeding, just at an accelerated pace. (5)

It is ironic that this celebration of a lack of control, which has become possible through Brexit, stands in stark contrast to the campaign slogan that animated Brexit: 'Take back control'. Of course, it can be countered that I'm in danger of comparing apples and pears when pointing out this contradiction. After all, the control that is desired as part of Brexit is about sovereignty, about the UK being able to make its own laws again, about controlling borders and immigration-not about the development of life. But I will demonstrate in this article that these two seemingly different ideas of control have more in common than might appear at first glance. As I will show, the notion that we need to be in control-of our genes, our plants, our territory-is deeply engrained in modern beliefs of what it means to be human; influencing how we think about ourselves, our place in the world around us, and what we can and should do with the latter. And, as I will also argue, these ideas, which are a central part of the legacy of the Enlightenment, have not simply emerged by themselves inside of Europe. Instead, they were decisively shaped by the parallel colonial conquering of 'new worlds' and the encountering of other human populations which were declared to be inferior, or even inhuman, on the basis of what was imagined to be their different 'race'. In this ideology, racialised 'others' were seen to be unable to take control of themselves or their environment, therefore needing the white man to exercise the necessary control in their place.

Modern science traditionally built upon the idea of man being separate from, and in control of, his environment. Although it has moved on from these ideas, particularly since the arrival of quantum science and Einstein's theory of relativity, the wish for linear predictability 'continues to exert a powerful intellectual attraction'. (6) Likewise, this ideal continues to reverberate in society at large. Indeed, as I will show, despite the call for embracing uncertainty, as we have seen in the justification of gene editing, once we dig deeper into the debate we can see yet again the re-emergence of the idea of control, and the reassurance that we can control nature.

In this article, I will engage with the different layers of the notion of control in debates around gene editing. I will first explain traditional ideas of control and predictability in the science and politics around genes. I will then expand this to elaborate on ideas about the control of nature, demonstrating how it links to our capitalist global economy and the place of industrial agriculture. Finally, I will establish a link with the desire to control borders and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Controlling genes: the question of science

In recent decades, the scientific debate between pro- and anti-GMO advocates has centred on what a gene is and what it does. Richard Dawkins argued in The Selfish Gene that genes are the molecules that programme organisms in a direct, linear manner. (7) This paradigm of 'gene centrism' in molecular biology 'relies on a Newtonian view of the world as existing in perfect equilibrium'. (8) Such a worldview has never existed in a scientific vacuum, but is related to the modern wish for order and stability. While the existence of God as eternal and stable Creator became questionable with the dawn of the Enlightenment, some of the ideas underlying the concept of God-the need to determine life's origin and the need to guarantee stability-proved to be persistent, and became attached to the gene as 'Nature's agent'. (9) People became fascinated with genes; particularly the idea that 'in future every man and woman is able to pull out a CD of his/her pocket that includes every sequence of his/her DNA'-ultimate knowledge about him/herself. (10)

The Human Genome Project in 2008 challenged this view. It demonstrated that there are too few genes to account for the existing number of proteins in the human organism in a linear manner. Instead, the final organism seems to result from a complex interaction of various parts of our DNA and our proteins. (11) But despite this challenge to the idea of linear predictability, notions of 'the gene' as a self-contained unit are still running strong in practical molecular biology (12)-although it is acknowledged that scientists do not always know how exactly DNA...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT