How do labels like ‘genetically modified organism’ and/or ‘transgenic organism’ affect the way biologists understand these organisms? How do such labels impact how the rest of us understand them? I do not mean these can only be two interpretations–scientists and non-scientists. I do mean that there are multiple ways to understand such organisms.
Recent work in Scientific American has caused me to question my own understanding of these terms. Monique Brouillette’s article, about pigs whose genes have been modified by CRISPR/Cas9, attempts to make it clear that “You can edit a pig, but it will still be a pig.” The article reminds me of the thought experiments centered around Theseus’s ship. In brief, the question has to do with identity: can you change the genes of a pig and still call it a pig (can you replace all the wood planks–goes one version of the ship dilemma–and still call it Theseus’s ship?)? How much modification of a pig would be required for it not to be a pig anymore? Of course, similar questions relate to humans, cyborgs, etc., but I’ll prattle on about that some other post. If you are interested, a related post about some philosophers being too consumed with demarcating and defining showed up recently in The New York Times The Stone blog.
We could question our definition of pig. We could attempt to refine it to such an extent that only organisms with X, Y, and Z genes get to be called pigs. We could broaden our understanding of pigs such that significant gene changes could occur before we needed to re-evaluate our definition of the pig. We could recognize that language is inherently fuzzy and there is not we can do to make it much less so–spin in your graves, logical positivists, spin! We could use scare quotes and call them “pigs.” None of these seems sufficient to the task of delineating between a genetically modified pig and other kinds.
One reason for the confusion might be issue of explaining what another term/phrase means: genetically modified. Are not all forms of selective breeding kinds of genetic modification? If so, then are they not as natural as anything else? I think part of the issue with genetic modification, perhaps especially transgenic modification, is its perceived lack of natural-ness. I am not sure biologists see it as unnatural General publics, on the other hand, might see it as unnatural. They also might go a step further: if we modify plants (more on that in a future post) and other animals, what stops people from modifying embryos?
One reading of Brouillette’s article–brief as it is–would be that she is aiming to influence the readership of Scientific American to think of the gene-editing tool CRISPR as a lot like traditional breeding programs, only much, much, much faster (informal poll of a couple biologists at my uni confirmed that this last idea conforms roughly to how they see it). If so, and readers of the magazine take that version and promote it in their circles of colleagues, acquaintances, etc., then that narrative gets a boost. Fast forward a few years, and any self-respecting scientist, or science literature person, might accept that reading as well. This pattern, you might argue, conforms to how emerging perspectives gain traction and eventually dominate.
So, what would your position be? Is it still a pig? Should we come up with another name for the animal–implying, then, that it is new or no longer a pig? I am more interested in how people, communities, cultures, etc. define this animal than how a dictionary might define it. I feel that way because i think the aforementioned groups eventually influence dictionary definitions–in the USA at least (hello, literally. So glad you also can mean ‘virtually,’ which seems to make you mean just about nothing.)