Scientists now have the capability of changing the world. Literally. As Dr. George Church says in a 2011 Science article1, "our genome engineering technologies treat the chromosome as an editable and evolvable template". The advent of such technologies is disturbing from many points of view.
Until very recently scientific research contributed to the advancement of knowledge about the world around us without simultaneously creating tools for altering the characteristics and parameters of that world. Science studied the heavens, tried to make sense of the cosmos, named and categorized natural phenomena, and investigated anatomy and physiology of living things. None of these activities threatened the integrity of the biosphere — namely, that of planet earth.
But with the invention of the atomic bomb, man obtained the capability of global annihilation. With the development of the tools and techniques of genetic engineering — including the DNA sequencer and synthesizer and the protein sequencer and synthesizer — man gained the formidable potential to reshape life itself.
Doing so would be the ultimate act of hubris.
Regarding the new techniques described in the 2011 Science article, a San Diego biologist declared "This is really macho molecular biotechnology." This unfortunate appellation implies that our interactions with nature are no different from throw-down matches in "professional" wrestling. Thanks to the deadly combination of unfettered technology and rapacious greed, this combative worldview is pervasive.
Simplistically, such short-sightedness is the legacy of Descartes and Bacon. Descartes "split reality into two mutually exclusive realms"2 — the res cogitans and the res extensa — the world of the mind and the world of matter. Descartes's dualism not only established a philosophical and cognitive divide between a person's "soul" and a person's body, but also forcibly extracted humans from their historically classical integration with the natural world. Bacon's seemingly benign purpose was to conquer human "necessity and misery" by exerting mastery over nature. Science, for Bacon, represented "ultimate legitimate power over nature".3
Until recently it appeared that nature was infinitely renewable and therefore humans could ravage nature and natural resources without a worry as to possible consequences. Whatever was sullied, ruined, or destroyed would eventually be renewed. But until about 100 years ago, and more precisely, until about 50 years ago, humanity occupied a niche, however broad. Nature was vast and humankind's powers could not compare, for example, to those of evolution or the inexorable forces of geologic time. However, the global population has doubled in 50 years and is expected to reach more than 10 billion by 2100. The humanization of our planet is effectively complete. Our activities have global impact, for good or evil.
Beyond sheer numbers, humans now have the facility to manipulate an organism's genetic code. We can cut-and-paste sequences of building blocks that have taken millions of years to optimize (as a hypothetically conservative approximation). How thick must one's blinders be to not perceive the insidious and destructive consequences of such manipulation? The answer, apparently, is not thick at all.
As an example of such lack of foresight, yet another San Diego–based researcher notes blithely that the new capability is "wonderful because it would allow expansion of the genetic code to a 21st amino acid genomewide".4 Now we're talking about altering the course of billions of years of evolution. The arrogance is staggering. Biological systems are dynamic and complex, which means (formally) that they are exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions. The consequences of introducing such a 21st amino acid are completely unpredictable. And not only this. The effects would percolate throughout all natural systems, affecting the biosphere throughout countless ages until the termination or transformation of life itself.
These considerations should give all of us, primarily scientists, pause, but they do not. As Hans Jonas observed, the deeds of biological engineering are irrevocable. Jonas asserts that "ethical questions are to be faced and answered before permitting even the first step in that fateful direction".5 But we remain unprepared. We need a new concept of duties and rights. A new ethics is required, a "doctrine of action" that is "grounded in the breadth of being" and "becomes part of the philosophy of nature".6
But in our national, if not largely global, culture of abrogation of personal, corporate, and governmental responsibility, the default setting is me and mine. What can I seize for myself, today, is the abiding mantra and purpose. We need, all of us, a perspective longer than the next 24 hours. If we wreck our birthright as human organisms, and by implication, that of future generations, nature as such will eventually sweep humanity off the stage of life and proceed again, untrammeled, at its own slow pace.
1Isaacs FJ, et al: Precise manipulation of chromosomes in vivo enables genome-wide codon replacement. Science 333:348-353, 2011
2Jonas H: Seventeenth Century and After: The Meaning of the Scientific and Technological Revolution. In Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man. New York, Atropos Press, 2010
3Rees G: Francis Bacon (1561—1626). In Applebaum W (ed.): Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution From Copernicus to Newton. London, Routledge, 2000
4Wade N: Genetic code of E. coli is hijacked by biologists. The New York Times, July 14, 2011
5Jonas H: Biological engineering: a preview. In Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man. New York, Atropos Press, 2010
6Jonas H: Technology and responsibility. Reflections on the new tasks of ethics. In Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man. New York, Atropos Press, 2010
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.
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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.