As I write this, protesters are gathering in my town and in cities across the globe to protest the increasing use of GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in our food supply. The “March Against Monsanto”, one of the larger proponents of this technology, is now an annual event that strives to educate citizens about the dangers of GMO products and persuade voters to take action against their proliferation. Currently the focus is on legislation that would that would at least label the presence of GMOs in various food items. It has been an uphill battle.
Some of the anxiety about GMOs is legitimate. With respect to the human food supply, genetically altered plants, animals and bacteria could theoretically become a source of new food allergies, increased toxicity, and reduced nutritional value. Genetically altered bacteria may confer additional antibiotic resistance or give microbes greater ability to circumvent the human immune system.
With respect to the environment there is great concern that cross pollination between GMO crops and native or “heritage” plant species will contaminate and degrade these valuable genetic resources, which are vital to supplies of food and pharmaceutical products. For example, in Mexico, heritage species of corn already show GMO contamination. Growing GMO crops tends to require more pesticides, and these in turn have an impact on the health of local ecologies.
To be fair, concerns about GMOs have not yet been substantiated with much independent research, so some of these fears are largely speculative at the moment. People who are afraid of GMOs are also often afraid of large corporations. On the other hand, people eager to maximize profit and efficiency and reduce cost tend to be less concerned about long term impacts on society or the environment. Human nature being what it is, one suspects that political and economic motivations underlie the efforts of partisans on both sides of the GMO issue.
Not surprisingly, science fiction writers have anticipated some of these concerns about genetic engineering or “tampering” as early as the 1930s. An interesting example is Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Proteus Island, a novella published in 1936—but see also his meditation on the hazards of human genetic engineering in The Adaptive Ultimate, published the year before. (See Maladaptations).
Sam Moskowitz notes that Weinbaum was successful and influential because of “the high degree of scientific authenticity he imparted to his otherworldly creations, rescuing them from the realm of the fairy tale.” Though he studied chemical engineering, Weinbaum gave especial attention to the exotic biology of the fantastic worlds he created, and one can see this beginning with his first science fiction story, the classic A Martian Odyssey (1934). He also seems to have been intrigued by language and the possibilities of communication between completely different life forms. A linguistic focus underpins some of the conceptual or back story content of his tales, and cleverly used, adds interest and intrigue.
In Proteus Island, zoologist Alan Carver is abandoned by his fearful expedition crew on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand. Almost immediately he discovers unusual, unclassifiable animals among the more familiar species of the region. As he leaves the shore and progresses towards the center of the island, approaching the origin of the mystery, he finds himself surrounded by an ever greater variety of plant and animal forms. Which forms are strangely singular, with no more than one of each represented.
But the fact that bore home to him now was another stunning repetition of all his observations of Austin Island—they did not resemble each other! Indeed, it occurred to Carver with the devastating force of a blow that, so far on this mad island, he had seen no two living creatures, animal or vegetable, that appeared to belong to related species.
Unique among all of these singletons is a beautiful young woman whom Carver names Lilith, after the mythological being that Adam supposedly encountered in Eden before the creation of Eve. The allusion to the Genesis story is inescapable, but Weinbaum keeps the reference a subtle one. Proteus Island is essentially an adventure story of the “mysterious island” type. But its structure, that of a “crime scene investigation”, is reminiscent of another biogenetic-horror who-done-it, Anthony N. Rud’s 1923 novella Ooze (see also Clues at the Scene of the Slime). Unlike many pulp science fiction stories of the time, Proteus Island includes a credible though doomed romantic interest: the zoologist cannot resist falling in love with his wild eyed female specimen.
Near the center of the island, Lilith and Carver discover the ruins of a research laboratory, that of one Ambrose Callan, a scientist renowned for his pioneering work in “synthetic evolution”. Using a process involving radiation and injection of modified chromosomal material, Callan created genetically modified tree and animal species. Windblown pollen from the trees contaminated all the other plant species on the island, and his animal subjects similarly spread their disordered heredity throughout the local ecology.
Not only did this disaster make the island’s denizens more ferocious and its vegetation toxic, it ruined plant and animal taxonomy, making it impossible to classify or identify life forms. In a neat reversal of the Genesis story, in which Adam names all the animals in the Garden of Eden, zoologist Alan Carver sees in Callan’s disastrous experiment the un-naming and un-creation of all living things.
Contemporary readers may shun traditional Holy Scriptures like the Bible, but there is at least science fiction to help us know what the future may hold for humankind. The horrors of Proteus Island are very much the same ones that terrify the protesters gathering for the “March Against Monsanto” this afternoon.