The Elephant God, Technology and Ethics for the 21st Century. Random thoughts on a not-so-random conspiracy.

 

Ganesh,  also known as Ganapati,  was the son of Siva and Parvati, two high-ranking deities in the Hindu pantheon. It is said that Parvati, while bathing, fashioned her son out of the dust on her body and then asked him to guard the door. Siva, returning from a long absence, became enraged when this stranger denied him access to his wife so he promptly beheaded him. When he realized that   he had killed his own son he asked his gana, or troops,   to bring him the head of the first sleeping creature they came across. It turned out to be an elephant whose head was then   cut off and handed  over to Siva. Siva, in turn,  placed it on his son’s decapitated body declaring him to be  Ganapati, the leader of his troops.  Thus was born Lord Ganesh, the elephant god revered by Hindus as the remover of obstacles, the slayer of  evil and the source of education, wisdom and wealth.

Such myths lacking in scientific feasibility are common to all cultures. Their purpose is to further humanity’s understanding of the dynamics of the universe and the struggle between good and evil.   They are not meant to be taken literally. After all, everybody knows that centaurs, mermaids and griffins defy the laws of biology.

Do they really?  Not anymore. Thanks to genetic engineering it is possible to develop soybeans with fish genes, hogs with human genes, featherless chickens and cattle saturated with human growth hormones. The proponents of genetic engineering claim that such experiments will improve human life, whereas its detractors rail against  the dangers of causing environmental degradation, widening the gap between the rich and the poor and most importantly, creating  yet more Frankensteins.

 

Dolly was a lovely sheep with beautiful qualities. She was cloned so that her genetic makeup would not be diluted throughout future generations. Never mind that her clones were her biological age at birth thereby experiencing premature ageing.  Featherless chickens were  designed to harness their energy not into producing feathers but more flesh, presumably for the Kentucky Fried Chickens of the world.  Pigs, as well all know, or should know, have bodies that resemble human bodies  more than those of other animal species. They are genetically “humanized” so that their hearts, kidneys and livers  can be “harvested” for xenotransplants (inters-species transplants) into humans who can afford them.   Unfortunately these pigs are also susceptible to  degenerative diseases  such as arthritis and deformities thereby leading a life of suffering until they  are “sacrificed” –or made sacred- for human use and consumption.  This scenario poses the ethical problem of some sort of cannibalism as well. Human growth hormone is widely used in the production of milk and beef, a practice now disallowed in many countries. Beans or tomatoes with fish genes can potentially cause allergic reactions in susceptible people who think they are eating  a vegetarian product. Plants bred to be resistant to certain pesticides contribute to wiping out other plant species and humans will consume their overload of lethal chemicals.

Aside from environmental and health-related concerns, there are political and economic  dimensions to the conundrum of genetic engineering. The Human Genome Biodiversity Project specifically gathers the genes of indigenous people under the guise of preserving their heritage. However, they, the indigenous people,  see this “human husbandry”  as yet another form of colonization, racism and exploitation. They are also tired of having their plants stolen, genetically modified, patented and then resold to them at a high cost. Texmati or basmati rice anyone? Monsanto is perhaps the biggest perpetrator of such exploitation.[Watch: The World According to Monsanto. A documentary by Marie-Monique Robin.]  Farmers in the Indian state of Maharashtra have been committing mass suicides when they realize that neither they nor their heirs can escape from the usury involved in being forced to buy terminator seeds that supposedly  will  liberate them from their perpetual poverty. [Watch: Bitter Seeds, a documentary by Micha X. Peled.] Fortunately there are people like Dr.  Vandana Siva, [Indian physicist,  philosopher,  environmentalist, proponent of traditional agricultural methods, author of over 20 books  and leading figure in the anti-globalization movement] who is leading a crusade to develop heritage seed banks throughout the country…and the world.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury wrote a poignant short story about a couple who cheat on each other by leaving a robotic replica of themselves at home. Will the decoy robots end up making love to each other? Anything is possible in this brave new world envisaged by Aldous Huxley in his 1984 scenario and implemented by big corporations in the 21st century.   The Japanese have been studying the feasibility of producing computers with human elements. One can only wonder at the elements involved. And the other way around, of course. Electronic chips can and have been inserted into human brains for clinical  purposes. Implants of different levels of sophistication have helped the hearing-impaired as well as cardiac patients.  However, there are rumours floating  in the air that they can also be used for mind reading and political as well as commercial indoctrination. Many have argued that science and technology are value-neutral. Science, or pure knowledge, certainly is. Technology not necessarily so, driven, as it is, by the search for profit, the hunger for power and the seduction of prestige. Maybe that is what was meant by the biblical metaphor of the original sin, that is, the acquisition of knowledge outside the confines of a moral framework.

Big Pharma has become a stock-phrase as trite as the military-industrial complex. Triteness comes out of familiarity and familiarity breeds contempt. It is now not only into farming, but also into pharming, that is the designing of animals that can actually secret drugs into their blood and milk.  No wonder many concerned parents shy away from cow’s milk for their children. The crime of converting animals into pharmaceutical laboratories is as heinous as hunting down rhinoceros  to enhance human male potency or killing musk deer for their glands to produce perfumes.

Lord Ganesh is reputed to have authored the Mahabharata, the longest epic not only of India but of humanity. This Sanskrit text is about ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. The potential for the misuse of technology devoid of ethical input is in the same order of magnitude. But this is no reason to be discouraged. The Earth’s biodiversity and the diversity of human cunning is also  immensurable. The key word here is resistance.

Resistance takes on many forms  such as the creation of seed banks to foil terminator seeds, the enactment of legislation to control research and development, the practice of sustainable small-scale farming to protect biodiversity, the refusal on the part of consumers to buy genetically modified foods, pressure by patient lobby groups to look into harmful or needlessly invasive medical technologies that often do more harm than good.

Knowledge is a prerequisite for any kind of resistance. We live in the information age. We can subvert the corporate conspiracy to appropriate what belongs to all of us on this planet by using the very same technology to defeat evil and defend goodness. The key word here is ethics.

And this is where we can call on symbols like Ganesh,  or on real people like Vandana Siva and the millions of people who have not abdicated their responsibilities as intelligent and sensitive human beings to join us in clearing the obstacles we face,  leading us towards education, wisdom and [w]health.

Or we can simply fall back on our own indigenous resources which are our skilled hands, our natural intuition,  our complex brain and a strong heart to  make the journey together.