Tim Morton: “Ain’t Natural” Ain’t Reasonable

21 Jul

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010.

Here’s a tricky passage, p. 86:

Okay, deep breath—it just isn’t right to criticize genetic engineering as unnatural, as if decent people should ban horses, dogs and cats, wheat and barley. It isn’t sound to call “technological” gene manipulation wrong, as if stud farming wasn’t technical manipulation. Crossbreeding is a form of technology. Fields and ditches are technology. Apes with termite sticks are technological. And what is barley if not a queer plant? Biological beings are all queer. All food is Frankenfood. The ecological thought might argue, provocatively I know, that genetic engineering is simply doing consciously what was once unconscious. My DNA can be told to produce viruses—that’s how viruses replicate. There isn’t a little picture of me in my DNA: hence the swine flue, which evolved from viruses affecting three different species. Genomics can use a virus to tell bacterial DNA to make plastic rather than bacteria.

So for so good. I think.

The assertion “it’s unnatural and therefore wrong” is loaded with ideological freight and thus fraught with risk of self-contradiction. Just what about us humans and our ways IS natural, anyhow? Fruit may grow on trees, but loin cloths, no matter what they’re made of, the DON’T grow on trees, or anywhere else. We make them out of stuff of one kind or another. They are un-natural. But not wearing one—or a similar garment—is generally considered to be a bit too, um, err, natural.

So worrying about genetically modified crops because they’re unnatural, and therefore might infest us all and bring an end to civilization, that just doesn’t make sense. And yet one might worry about assurances given by the big companies that manufacture and own these genomes. Can we really believe those assurances? Didn’t cigarette companies once upon a time assure us that cigarettes were safe? And asbestos? What about those banks that assured as that derivatives were safe? Liars all. So why should the manufacturers of genetically modified anything be taken at their word?

Is there anyone who both knows the science and is unbiased either by hopes for profit or fears of the “unnatural”?

Morton goes on (pp. 87):

What’s wrong about genetic engineering is that it turns life forms into private property to enrich huge corporations. Large, dynastic families controlled corporate capitalism all the way back to the spice race, the first space race. Capitalism always restricted gene pools and amassed large quantities of property, with accompanying stability and power. The capitalist language of derugulation, flow, and circulation masks the static, repetitive, “molar” quality of capitalist forms. But processes of privatization and ownership contradict the liquid, queer, mutagenic, shadowy, and ungraspable qualities of life forms. If we’re going to resist genetically engineered life forms, we shall need to figure out why. Otherwise, our illusory reasons will produce in the long run just as illusory a result.


One Response to “Tim Morton: “Ain’t Natural” Ain’t Reasonable”

  1. Charlie Keil July 21, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    End of His Story.
    The “guardian angel” that appeared to me in the middle of Nigeria 46 years ago signed off on his urgent messages as R.G.T. Above i.e. Royal Government Tyrannical Above, but folks just called him “Gypsy Fullstop” because he was neither African or European and a “gypsy” in his own mind. And he thought he was the period, the fullstop, at the end of every sentence.
    So when I say let us “fullstop” genetic engineering, I know it will sound crazy, megalomaniacal, but I still think it would be a very good idea to NOT splice any more genes for a few generations, put the whole process of meddling with evolution on “pause” just to be sure that the 1000s of manmade chemicals and the spreading radiations from nuke power plants aren’t combining with gene splicing to produce ? ? mutant ? ?

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