Science fiction as a genre has pretty much always had wonderful humanist and progressive pro-science and even pro-skepticism messages. That’s why it is sad to see some of those values betrayed by one of pop culture’s most successful franchises. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian, secular post-superstition society was radical at inception. Star Wars was a powerful lesson that technology, science, and political might are amoral per se, and that the important struggles are destined to be won by those with wisdom and empathy. Many science fiction vehicles seem to exist to be thought experiments, where we can explore topics that we struggle with in our own universe: morality, justice, sexuality, meaning, theology, politics and on. The fiction setting makes this easier, as it somewhat or entirely divorces the issue from entities we have prejudiced affinities or disfavor for. Everyone can understand bigotry when it is portrayed as anti-human bigotry by other aliens.
But like liberal culture in general, the progressive liberal philosophy that dominates much science fiction has its blind spots, eccentricities, and anti-scientific ideas. I’ve previously written about Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Prime Directive” as an abdication of moral responsibility. The intense moralization of sex and female virginity that we laugh (or cringe) at conservatives for is the same virtue of sanctity & corruption some liberals display for the environment and living things. Case in point, many progressives believe there is such a thing as the “natural” state of a plant and that nefarious corporate researchers will corrupt it with genetic engineering, creating monsters and our downfall, just as conservatives believe free and open sexuality will create monsters (gay people- and worse!) and lead to our downfall (destruction of The Family(c), degradation of marriage). Case in point: Futurama decided to do an episode recently about genetically modified foods.
You can read a detailed synopsis via Infosphere. The short version is that Leela randomly contracts an incurable genetic condition which slowly turns her into a tentacle monster. The evil tycoon known as Mom is revealed to be running a new outfit “Momsanto”, which genetically engineers.. horror, mostly, but also livestock and plants. Mom has spliced elephant DNA into beans to make them larger, which horrifies Leela who accuses Mom of “playing God”. Leela attempts to destroy the Momsanto facility, without success. At the end Mom shows up to thank Leela, as she has used Leela’s DNA to fix a flaw in the gigantic beans which will allow Mom to get rich selling them to the starving masses. It is revealed Mom’s genetic engineering cures otherwise incurable illneses and Leela relents when Mom says that she can be cured as well.
As per usual when addressing controversy, Groening and company take swipes at both “sides” and the basics of the pro and con arguments are at least mentioned. Mom is relentlessly evil and greedy, but it is acknowledged her GMO products can feed and cure millions. Leela is the voice of empathy and justice, but is also self-righteous, hypocritical and somewhat poorly-informed. Many viewers and reviews will take the happy, if cynical, ending as proof of a relatively balanced view of the subject. In spite of the brief and lazy nod to the benefits of GMO, this episode is steeped in ignorance and fuels baseless, anti-scientific paranoia. Some of this needs to be set straight.
Genetic engineering is good
In Leela and the Genestalk, the episode in question, genetic engineering is repeatedly, and nearly always shown or referred to in obsolete and absurd tropes of the “playing god” Frankenstein sort. It’s worth noting that most of these come with emotive visuals. The viewer sees the horrible results which are clearly designed to demonstrate folly and hubris.
- A labcoated man early in the episode forecasts this tone by saying “God forgive us for creating this” when a robot unexpectedly “achieves consciousness” and runs amok.
- Mom wants to improve a food plant, but only for profits, and only a-morally, by such things as splicing elephant DNA with that of beans.
- An indignant, self-righteous Leela then actually accuses Mom of playing God, in those words.
- GMOs are pitted against “nature” in accordance with the sanctity virtue, as Leela calls them “atrocities against nature” and Mom says, “Nature’s out of its league… “
A “pine-u-pork” is created during a scene in which a porcupine is injected with pig DNA then cooked into a platter.
- Guest star Adam West actually just says “well, back to being the subject of gruesome genetic experiments”, followed by tormented screams.
- In the lab, grotesque creatures in jars are displayed, and Leela and Fry encounter a monstrous GMO, a crocodile/bird hybrid.
- Leela and the others discover a giant which Leela refers to as “another one of Mom’s genetic monstrosities” (incorrectly, we learn later, but the reinforcement of the trope works just the same).
- The last shot shows GMO beanstalks wreaking havoc on the city.
The message is clear. GMO = monsters. And GMO researchers = evil, stupid, amoral, greedy, and arrogant. At the end there is a brief positive message, as the giant man turns out to have been suffering from an illness and Mom (inexplicably) cured him with genetic engineering. Mom also cures Leela, but note that both cures are off-screen, and neither of these, the only positive uses of GE that are featured, are real or analogs of real diseases that have been or might be treated with genetic methods. Leela outrageously rants that GMO is wrong even though it feeds the hungry because of the scary and nebulous unknown long-term consequences. Wow, good thing you showed up to stop the hubristic scientists from feeding “40 billion” starving people to prevent “unknown consequences”, Leela. We see lots of monsters in this episode, but never a starving person. Funny, that.
In reality, genetic engineering is an overwhelming, incontrovertible, empirically-supported moral good. We’ve been doing it since 1972. That’s over 40 years and not a single horrible monster, and no devastating catastrophe. Instead, it has helped us to feed the hungry with more robust crops. And, do you know anyone who owes their life to cheap and available insulin? It’s made with genetically modified bacteria. In 2009 an anticoagulant produced in the milk of a transgenic goat was approved for use in surgeries and childbirth. The so-called “enviropig” is a modified pig that better digests phosphorus which greatly diminishes environmental harm of their waste. Transgenic mice and other animals are produced to allow the scientific study of genetics as a whole. Read about gene therapy, much of which is to do with recombinant viruses at virologist Abbie Smith’s blog. There are presently 1800 trial therapies in humans for treating a couple hundred diseases including many cancers, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, AIDS, and several forms of cardiovascular disease. A successful GM mosquito that is malaria-resistant was created in 2010. EDIT: because it’s in the news today: the New York times/ Herald Tribune are reporting “Golden Rice” is in final testing. The product is fortified with vitamin A and is pest-resistant. 670,000 children a year die of vitamin A deficiency, and 250,000-500,000 go blind. The product is not owned by Monsanto nor any company and will cost farmers no more than standard rice.
There are some legitimate reasons for caution, but that’s true of any bioresearch and hardly warrants the hyperbolic paranoia about GMO. We already have institutional review and ethics boards, federal oversight and regulatory agencies, policies and laws. And while those can be fallible, there is no debate about the actual effects of genetic modification research so far observable over 40 years: more people get to be alive, to have better lives, and an astonishing volume of new knowledge and understanding has been granted. There is no reason to think this will change. There is every reason to think it will soon lead to treatments for dozens of diseases as help us solve other important problems.
The lesson of the episode is not a balanced view. At best, it is dopey cynicism: we’ll go along with this terrible idea merely because we like food and new medical technology. Shame on you, Futurama, for promoting ignorance, credulity, and for feeding baseless hysteria in a lazy bid to articulate a thoughtless, backward bit of ideology.
Wikipedia: Genetically modified organism
Virologist Abbie Smith’s blog
The AV Club’s Alasfair Wilkins review of the episode
The Liberals’ War on Science by Michael Shermer
Is genetically modified Golden Rice a lifesaver?