Watermelon Seeds, Blue Eyed Babies and the Brave New World of Genetic Modification

I bite into a chunk of watermelon. It is refreshing in a way that only watermelons are. There are no seeds of course – there have been no seeds for years.

When I was younger, watermelons always had cumbersome black seeds scattered throughout – seeds that had to be removed during the eating experience. They were large and slippery, and awful to taste if accidentally bitten during the mastication process. It was very frustrating, for a watermelon should be eaten quickly and without care.

Watermelon seeds have gone the way of the humble toll collector and the tape recorder; belonging to a different time. Of course technological advancement in man-made appliances is easier to fathom than vast changes in fruit. Fruit is natural and from the earth; grown from a seed and not in a laboratory. Any significant adaptations are always concerning.

So what happened to these seeds? Where have they gone?

It appears that the growing process has been modified genetically or otherwise… Bigger watermelons, with more flavour and more of the fleshy pink fruit, but smaller and fewer seeds, and over generations the seeds have disappeared completely (or become so small one can hardly notice them).

It’s easy to see why this was undertaken. The seeds were not adding any value to the watermelon at all. In fact it was quite the opposite. It was an unnecessary distractions taking away from the general good taste of that fine fruit.

So they got rid of them completely, or at least reduced them significantly. Used the watermelons with less seeds to breed more watermelons with even less seeds, or just genetically modify the seed gene right out of there. The same practices are used in almost all farming from breeding fatter pigs to adapting grains to tolerate various pesticides and engineering fruits to look and taste a certain way – Greener apples, more orange oranges, and more beautiful food for all.

Imagine what the future may hold for fruit and vegetables – bananas with no bend in them, onions that don’t make you cry, curry favoured broccoli, potatoes that tastes like pizza –it all sounds very appealing, and imagine the benefit when young children around the world eat their greens without complaint – stuffing their eager faces with cheesy sprouts, chocolate cauliflower and other tasty but nutritious vegies. But is a potato that tastes like pizza really a potato? Or is it some mad scientists dream? And where does one draw the line between small changes and complete genetic overhaul? Between speeding up the evolutionary process and completely annihilating it? When are we encroaching on the realms of God? And is this the path we want to take?

Removing watermelon seeds has made eating a watermelon a more pleasant experience. Shall that same test be used with genetic change in the human reproductive experience? Was the watermelon just a test and people are next?

I read recently that people can now determine the eye colour of their children or other such physical traits. Is this the beginning of the super children – created by parents in the image of anyone they choose – to look and sing like a favourie pop idol?  A gene for eye colour inserted here, a splash of auburn hair there, a touch of empathy (but not too much of course), plenty of drive and determination and a dose of charm to get them through the day.  A perfect little baby created just the way mum and dad wish them to be… but is that pushing the role of parents too much? Surely the child should have a choice in this. It’s not like a bad name that can be changed later in life if the parents get too whacky. Admittedly 18 years with a name like La-a (pronounced La-dash-a) may seem like eternity to a child stuck with it. But it’s not forever and there are ways around it. You can call yourself ‘La’ for one. Genetic modification permanently alters the genetic code with no way back.

And where does it end? If a parent wants to make their child incredibly small or big, or with the added advantage of having an extra arms, or to resemble a wolf to give the youngster a better chance of making it in Hollywood, at least in playing the oft required role of movie werewolf.

It is not hard to see the merits to using genetic modification to rid the world of nasty diseases, or crippling disabilities. But even then there are some tough ethical questions such as what diseases or disabilities should be removed, and what are we saying about those in our society with a disability that we then try to eradicate? Some of humanities greatest people have been great precisely because they are different. They thought outside the box. Saw the wold in a different way and created things humanity never dreamt of. We are not in Nazi Germany. Difference and even disability should be celebrated not destroyed with the intention of creating some perfect race.

What about superficial changes, and personalities? Is it ethical to manipulate personality? Should we make everyone beautiful, remove the sociopath gene or just increase the serotonin levels in every young brain so that general contentment is raised – Brave New World Style. Is this the end of evolution as we know it? Replaced by a modern form of genetic manipulation where babies are designed in laboratories and then inserted into the womb.

Looking at this future and the last of my juicy watermelon I can’t help but wonder if maybe the watermelon seeds weren’t that bad after all. There was an appreciation for the taste of the fruit that was earned through the hard work of actually eating it – just as a worker that has worked hard all year may really appreciate the Christmas holidays in a way others cannot. Sometimes the hard things in life make it all worthwhile. Maybe a watermelon without a seed is too good – too easy to enjoy and not what a watermelon should be, just as a holiday from a holiday is not really a holiday at all.

And maybe the different talents, looks and personalities amongst humanity are so special because they are random and rare, and if everyone looked or thought a certain way or was equally good at this or that, then there would be a mediocrity to it all that destroyed what it really meant to be human.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *