Friday Reads: Next

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve never been one for the maths or sciences. Sure, I got 100 per cent on my written English diploma exam, but I barely scraped out a pass in Math 30 (which I only took because I needed it to get into my college WRITING program). Science wasn’t much better: I passed over chemistry and physics entirely and took the only science class that would make sure I graduated high school. 

Biology. Which, again, I sucked at.

Until I got to the unit on genetics. For some reason, genetics captured my interest in a way that cellular function and mitosis and – I dunno – the kidneys couldn’t. I can’t say why for certain, but when I sat down for my Bio 30 diploma and saw that 90 per cent of it was on genetics, everything clicked, and the girl who was averaging a solid 70 per cent in Bio scored an 89 per cent on her diploma.

Fast forward 10 years. I’ve never used a shred of math that I couldn’t figure out on a calculator or spreadsheet (or by consulting my math genius husband), and my thoughts on cellular function are limited to that of my smartphone. But as an agriculture communicator and reporter, I sometimes interview scientists and write about the work they’re doing.

And it’s absolutely fascinating. In a world that’s scared of genetically modified crops and antibiotics in beef, I am endlessly interested in how scientists breed new and better crops that will be better able to sustain our growing population and the people who produce our food.

And I think that’s why I was so into Next by Michael Crichton.

First, a brief synopsis (no spoilers):

Michael Crichton weaves together real news stories and fictionalized realities that show the possibilities – and dangers – of genetic research. Next follows an array of characters, all involved in the genetics industry, to show the social, moral, and legal implications of genetic engineering. 

Okay, the synopsis doesn’t quite capture the essence of this book. How do I put it into words? I can’t remember a single character’s name – aside from Gerard the genetically engineered parrot – but the story isn’t driven by the characters. It’s driven by the circumstances these characters find themselves in.

There’s the lawyer who’s being chased by bounty hunters who are trying to take her cells.

There’s the researcher who inadvertently cures his brother’s drug addiction by giving him a retrovirus for rats.

There’s the geneticist who creates a half human-half chimpanzee boy.

There’s the manager of a morgue who sells bones for medical uses.

And so many other characters – and snippets of real or imagined news stories – that fit together like a puzzle to show the bizarre realities of what we are and what we could be facing because of advances in genetics research.

Michael Crichton probably meant Next to be a cautionary tale about genetic engineering, and I suspect most people would take it that way. Not me. Next only whetted my thirst for information about genetic engineering. As soon as I was done the book, I went online to find other books to read about genetics.

Because I don’t think this science is scary, in and of itself. I’ve spoken to enough plant breeders to know that scientists, for the most part, are only out to do some good in the world. Even the head of global plant breeding for “evil” Monsanto, who I saw speak last year at a biotech conference. He’s just a farm kid who wants to make plants easier to grow for the people who grow them.

There’s no hidden agenda there. There’s no quest to genetically engineer the world. I respect everyone’s rights to consume whatever they like – organic, GMO-free, antibiotic free, grassfed, whatever – and I think we’re fortunate to live in a society, and in an age, where we get that choice. Most people across the world – people living with hunger; people living in poverty – don’t get that choice.

Next reinforced for me that we’re at the precipice of a brave new world – and I for one am ready to jump in with both feet.

For my readers who are interested in learning unbiased facts about GMOs, I encourage you to check out GMO Answers – a site where consumers can ask anything they like and real scientists (not misinformed activists) will answer. 

And for my readers who don’t care about GMOs, I leave you with the only other thing I took away from Bio 30.

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