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Lessons from Avatar and the Myth of Independent Organisms

By Keith Farnish

Once you have explored the range of scales from sub-microscopic (Viruses) to the largest living things on Earth (Trees) the temptation is to look in a bit more detail and wonder if you have missed anything really critical. Quite frankly, I could have written books and books about this stuff, and included such wonders as yeasts, ants, mosses and springtails which not only are vital to the makeup of the global ecosystem but which I would love to learn more about. Nevertheless, I had to stop somewhere, and so recommend Richard Dawkins’ peerless book “The Ancestor’s Tale” if you have a craving for discovering more about the interconnectedness of life.

Something was clearly missing at the end of Part One, though, which was to do with some of the biggest questions scientists face: what else is there? Followers of Gaia Theory, and other (often indigenous) approaches to life will be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an independent organism. As I pointed out in Chapter 2, we are mostly made up of organisms that are not, strictly speaking, part of us; but take such organisms away, like the bacteria in our guts, and we don’t function anything like as effectively as we do with them in place. Then you have to consider the question of whether a forest is just a lot of trees (or an ant colony is just a lot of ants), or if it is a self-sustaining organism in itself. Anyone who has recently watched the movie “Avatar” and not been emotionally involved in the symbiotic relationship demonstrated by the forest people and the environmental they are part of will probably take the “just a lot of trees” option. That is, essentially, the option the faceless bodies that run Industrial Civilization would also prefer we take; after all, as demonstrated in the movie, if you can divide people from their landbase they are far weaker than they would be if they were to consider themselves part of a larger whole.

Despite the complex and often fragile nature of our relationships with other organisms, some humans want to rewrite life and break the evolutionary monotony they see as being a barrier to ‘progress’. Individual genes occupy a space beneath even that of the diminutive virus. What is so special about genes is not that they are life itself, but they allow life to happen. They are the magical molecular ingredients that define what an organism will become: its physical appearance; its thoughts; its potential as a survivor. Modifying them – moving genes from one organism to another – is like a complete, and possibly malevolent, stranger swapping an ingredient in your favourite cake recipe for something you would never expect to find in cake. The cake may taste better, but it may also poison you.

That, taken from Chapter 7, sums up my thoughts on Genetic Modification in a few short words. Books and articles abound going into the biology, the politics, the ethics and the commerce of genetic modification, but really it comes down to one thing: do you feel comfortable with the idea of humans putting the genes from one organism into another organism, regardless of the motivation?

Occupying a similar spatial scale, Synthetic Life may not grab as many headlines as GMOs, but its potential as a contentious technology — and, like John Zerzan, I do believe that there is no such thing as neutral technology — is massive. Create life from scratch, or reassemble genes to your exacting specifications in order to achieve some, almost certainly, commercial goal. What’s not to be worried about? So very small, and yet so very fundamental — playing with DNA is not something anyone should be doing lightly.

At the distant other end of the scale lies the aforementioned swarms, hives, colonies, forests and global ecosystems and then we whizz, in the style of Microcosmos, towards the stars…and we can’t even leave them alone:

On July 4, 2005 the space probe Deep Impact completed its mission successfully. Launched in January 2005 the spacecraft containing the sacrificial probe made a beeline for the comet Tempel 1, describing a curved trajectory, which placed it in the path of the comet orbiting the sun between Mars and Earth. On approach the larger ‘fly-by’ craft released Deep Impact, which plunged into the surface of Tempel 1, causing “a brilliant and rapid release of dust that momentarily saturated the cameras onboard the [larger] spacecraft.”9 The impact crater was the size of a house, and the strength of the collision was sufficient to allow the deeper layers of the comet to be released into space for analysis by the fly-by craft. The mission was hailed a tremendous success by NASA, and widely recognized as a great achievement in the annals of space exploration.

What right do we have to affect a stellar object in this way? Which celestial judge issued humanity with the warrant by which we would be allowed to take chunks out of unearthly bodies? And how can we know that there was no life form on this comet – a life form we could not have detected prior to impact, and certainly not one that we have the moral right to kill. Humans have barely unlocked the first set of gates on the path to discovering all that the Earth has to offer; yet ‘civilized’ humans are now taking the devil-may-care attitude that has damaged so much, to the stars, into a place where the ideas of sustainability and balance lose their comfortable meaning.

Indigenous humans look to the stars and gaze in awe, wondering what might be out there, creating myths about what they can never know fully, and because they manage to retain a sense of humility, live in such away that can last into the distant future.

Civilized humans look to the stars and gaze hungrily, wondering what might be out there for them, decrying myth in favour of demanding to know absolutely and without limits. Because civilization does not have any humility, the future is now terribly uncertain.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in North America, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

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