‘I ‘ve never seen a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you anyhow/I’d rather see than be one,” wrote the American humorist Gelett Burgess more than 100 years ago. Burgess is a man whose views we ought to pay more attention to. After all, he also supposedly invented the “blurb,” by writing effusive jacket copy for a beautiful young lady named Miss Belinda Blurb, way back in 1907. How many people can claim to have wielded such varied and far-reaching cultural influence?
But it is for his quatrain about the purple cow that Burgess is best remembered today. Why? Because it articulates with unmatched succinctness one side of a perennial philosophical debate — a debate that is only growing more heated as the age of biotechnology revs up.
Burgess put his finger on the nub of the matter. There’s purpleness, and there’s cowness, and the two do not, should not and, as far he was concerned, never would cohabit. Versions of this opinion have been around since the year zero, some harmful (like laws against so-called interracial unions) and some not (like preferring one’s vegetables served in separate little dishes rather than all mixed up together in a stew).
But those are human, behavioral applications. In the natural world, there has until recently been a reliable law at work, impervious to mere opinion. Up to a certain point, a little creative social mixing is doable; hence, to take the dog realm as an example, your lhasapoos and your blabadors, those products of happy encounters among lhasa apsos, poodles, bloodhounds and Labrador retrievers. But beyond that, the path seemed closed. As Snoopy once said, “Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.” Let alone, he might have added, hope for a purple dog.
In the brave new world of genetic engineering, however, such gloom is no longer well-founded, as we were reminded last month by the news that U.S. scientists may be about to produce the horticultural equivalent of the purple cow (or maybe the purple cow crossed with the holy grail): a blue rose. After a biochemist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine discovered that a particular liver enzyme turned things in the lab blue, she and her colleagues have been working on inserting into roses the human gene that produces the blue enzyme. They believe they are close to a breakthrough. It didn’t have to be roses, one scientist admitted: “We could have tried to create blue cotton, blue anything, really.” But the rose-growers are ready and waiting. It turns out that they have been trying to breed a blue rose for centuries.
Clearly, it’s the purple cow all over again. Purists are already arguing, more or less, that there’s blueness and there’s roseness and never the twain should meet. Enthusiasts counter simply that a blue rose “would be a beautiful thing to see,” as one American grower put it last week. But a century after Burgess’ carefree take on the issue, the debate has grown far more serious. Now, such melding and manipulating is not only possible, it’s happening, and faster than we can keep up with.
There is something about the case of the blue rose that throws the philosophical issues at stake here into unusually sharp relief. Most genetic interventions have frankly utilitarian purposes: to develop bug- and disease-resistant crops, for example, or healthier livestock or even, someday, healthier people. The arguments are not generally about the lsgenetic engineering; they are about the unforeseen consequences. Nor have scientists had trouble explaining why they are trying to develop thornless roses or splice the fragrance gene from a strong-smelling rose into a modern scentless variety. Roses are supposed to smell nice. And who thought thorns were a good idea to begin with?
The pursuit of the blue rose seems qualitatively different. It’s easy to explain the scientists’ enthusiasm: Scientists are coded to want to do things just to show they can be done. But what about the rest of us? It doesn’t help to say that there is a market for the blue rose and that the ornamental flower industry stands to make millions when it finally appears. That begs the question. Absent any obvious use, why do so many of us want to see something so freakish in the first place? (Admit it, you do.) Why aren’t we satisfied with perfection, but must seek novelty as well?
It’s a question that will come up repeatedly as bioengineering techniques become more sophisticated and their potential more powerful and unpredictable. But if the blue rose is any guide, Burgess’s purple cow will survive only as the fading icon of a losing argument. We will go with the flow: As Charles Darwin could have explained, the yearning for novelty is in our genes.
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