Science and the Fate of Nations

A funny thing happened when I mentioned both doom news and spidergoats in the same story. Out of nowhere, the forces of good got one right. This happens every now and then, I suppose—minor victories that stem the tides of darkness and give us some small (if temporary) comfort. "There's no way in hell you can pay your skyrocketing mortgage, but hey, your teeth have never been whiter." That sort of thing.

Well, long story short, there's a slim chance we may not be enslaved by spidergoat overlords.

Slim, mind you.

As with the plight of the banana, this may take some brief historical explanation. Thankfully, we need only look back as far as the heady, pre-war days of 2002. "Friends" and "Buffy" were lingering a season or so too long. Nelly was advising us on the heat and its probable effect on our clothes. And an enterprising group of Canadian scientists were taking the first steps towards sealing mankind's fate.

It started off with an age-old problem. Spider silk: how can we make a crap-ton of it? One of the strongest substances found anywhere in nature, spider silk is upwards of five times as strong as steel. Pound-for-pound, a spiderweb stopping a fly absorbs the equivalent force of a jet at full speed. Or something like that, I saw it on a nature program once. Maybe it was a truck rather than a jet, or maybe it was dolphins rather than spiders, I wasn't paying crazy-strict attention at the time. Regardless, the silk's strength combined with its incredible light weight would make it one of the most versatile substances on the market. A shirt made of spider silk could be light as cotton, but able to stop a bullet.

Farming spiders, however, just doesn't work. Spiders have a mean streak and are territorial. Kept in large quantities, they have a tendency to eat each other. Thus arrived our Canadian friends with a simple plan, which I can only imagine was hatched something like this:

"What if, and I'm just thinking out loud here, what if we locate the gene that triggers spider silk production and implant it in a bunch of goats, so that the goats produce spider silk proteins in their milk? That's pretty much dummy-proof, right?"

Yes, by all means, let's genetically combine aggressive, territorial arachnid cannibals with horned, hoofed mammals that eat everything and can scale any terrain. While we're at it, let's hope they don't conquer every man, woman and child on Earth and force us to labor in salt mines or something. Indeed, I keenly anticipate the hellscape of tomorrow—spidergoats wrapping my children in cocoons while whipping me directly in the eye, bellowing in their throaty patois that I must work harder if their monument to Kremulak the Horned is to be completed on time. "SSSLAVE MORE WORKY! BA-AA-AH!" they cry, or words to that effect. Sounds great, sign me up.

Considering that Canada's usual contributions to society are more along the lines of Wayne Gretzky or Barenaked Ladies ... I dunno, this just kind of seemed out of character for them. The thought of the spidergoats having better health care than me didn't help, either.

For six long years I've waited for the scourge to begin, playing out likely scenarios in my head: First Toronto would fall, then Ottawa, then Detroit and Cleveland, and by the time the UN decided that our last hope was to go nuclear, it would be too late.

Despair set in. I stopped contributing to my 401(k).

Which is why a recent bit of reverse-doom news shone like a beacon of hope. Apparently a team of German scientists have made a major breakthrough in the development of artificial spider silk. It involves using micro-etched plates of glass to precisely control chains of proteins and salts or something, whatever. They could use sorcery for all I care. The point is that maybe, just maybe, we can thwart the spidergoat legion before it starts. Hooray German scientists!

Will it be in time? Impossible to know for certain. But we need every victory we can get, considering that R&D divisions around the world are making it harder to keep up with the number of ways in which we might completely screw ourselves over. Consider this example, reported a while back by The Washington Post:

"Scientists are at work developing silkworms that produce pharmaceuticals instead of silk, honeybees resilient enough to resist pesticides and even mosquitoes capable of delivering vaccines, instead of disease, with every bite."

[Sigh] ... It's never kittens, is it. Why is it never kittens? If they were making cuter kittens that stayed young forever, I'd say cut the Department of Education's budget in half and funnel the money into making goddamn sure the project succeeded.

Well, perhaps I need to update the hellscape of tomorrow—one not marked by ravenous overlords, but by vast stretches of the Midwest scorched to ash by the war between Pfizer's Galactic Painworms and Merck's Indestructibees.

Hell, the pharmaceutical industry is only a couple mergers away from being a system of nation-states anyway. So now, by all means, let's allow them to build an army of patented, drug-producing, chemical-resistant, disease-controlling hellbugs. (Rule of thumb: When you hear "army" and "hellbug" in the same sentence, pay close attention to the rest of that sentence.) Great idea. I'm sure they won't eat people, or anything. Right?

Um, right?