This is revival of an essay written for an Ethics of Science and Technology class taken in undergrad, as an extension to some of the commentary on a previous post. Sure, in re-reading the essay it has all the symptoms of an overly verbose undergraduate trying to make a point. But amid the overly florid diction is some knowledge! Buckle-up. [footnotes and references at bottom of post]
Biotechnology: What it is and What it isn’t and How to Wield it
“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise.”
What is lost in our collective conscience is the nascence of humanity in geological time. What is lost in our conscience is the nascence of the Earth in cosmological time. Human history viewed from cosmological time is a single frame in an interminate, immeasurable full-length feature; it is the quaint saga of an organism awkwardly fumbling with consciousness and civilization. I believe that with a good understanding of history and science this sentiment is easily arrived at. Furthermore, I think this sentiment needs to pervade the discussions important to man today: geopolitical discussions more generally and more specifically discussions on what we ought to do with our technological capabilities. The current debate surrounding biotechnology is approached from what I think is a pastiche of perspectives; the sea of arguments and propositions from diverse voices is cacophonous. Using an understanding of science and history as an aid, we need to demarcate what the bounds of biotechnology are and how we might go about regulating it for the betterment of humanity. I intend to argue that an informed precautionary approach is the most tenable option in the development and use of biotechnology using biotech’s use in agriculture as a salient example. In view of the cosmic perspective invoked from the onset, I will also address some ethical contentions in the debate over biotechnology’s use that are nonsensical when scrutinized and only serve to muddy the waters of discussion.
The collective human consciousness has been a vestibule toward bad ideas since time immemorial. The same Neolithic gatherer who thought it would be a good idea to drink of a slosh created from tossed-aside grains likely thought it good to sample from the plant conium maculatum (the source of the hemlock poison). More recently, the advent of X-ray technologies at the beginning of the 20th century was surrounded with a litany of applications that would be absurd today—e.g. having novelty X-ray scanners in department stores. Because ideas have existed or because ideas persist does not make them good. I use this to preface discussion on what is termed the yuk factor in discussions of biotechnology. Now certainly, we can’t expect people to abstain from emotional responses to biotechnology: the yuk factor embodies the sentiment of unease people have with eating food that has been tinkered with genetically and moreover describes the disgust we have in tinkering with species. Social psychology informs us that this knee-jerk response is under the rubric of the heuristics we use to navigate the deluge of information we are bombarded with. On the savannah 15,000 years ago, these responses may have been life-saving: in fact, our experimental Neolithic gatherer may have been better off if she had adhered to them. In view of modern society and in view of adopting a scientific perspective, the primitive remnants of our cognitive apparatus need to be checked against reason to be substantiated. In short, when our emotions cry wolf, our reasonable faculties need to ensure its presence. Presenting the dichotomy between emotive/rational response is perhaps trite, but there is in fact a camp in the discussion of biotechnology that is brazen enough to impute a modicum of worth to the “gut-feeling” we get about biotechnology. Quite frankly, it’s a voice that adds to the cacophony. A main contention maintained by yuk-factor proponents is that the “yuk-factor response” stems from the following idea: somehow these entities we call species are sacrosanct and the “yuk-factor response” recognizes that to tamper with species is inherently immoral. In research, I cloned in a foreign DNA sequence into a strain of E.coli using established techniques of molecular biology, then used the transformed E.coli strain to express the gene sequence to further study the gene product; at no point was I reflexively aghast at ‘species tinkering’. When one has some understanding of the X’s and O’s of the science, this species-centred mythology becomes demystified. Now, the species-centric view originates in the 18th century impetus towards biological classification. Carolus Linnaeus aimed to observe the “Scale of Being” (though this term isn’t attributed to him directly) as ordained by God in his systematic classification – the rigidly bound definition of species was to be a sign of God’s intelligent design. It isn’t a stretch to suggest that the present day observation of species-sanctity has its roots in these 18th century ideas. That being said, advances in scientific understanding suggest that there is indeed nothing sacrosanct about our often arbitrary species demarcation. In fact, debate abounds as to how best to draw the line between species. I can readily anticipate the objection that says there must be some merit in the fact that certain species can’t interbreed. Indeed, notable scientists and biotechnology dissidents use this fact to tar and feather the use of recombinant DNA technology. This objection is untenable given the state of scientific knowledge. If we understand where the species concept derives from, we can assert that it is anachronistic to superimpose the intellectual ferment of the 18th century unto the current state of knowledge today. To understand what I mean, I will pull a quote from Tom Knight, founder of BioBricks (a parts registry for DNA sequences encoding functional biological units): “Biology is the nanotechnology that works”. Here is an electrical engineer appreciating the mechanistic nature of biology and using that mindset in his endeavour to harness the power of billions of years of haphazard engineering. Now, is his sentiment even possible in the 18th century? This was an era where genetic engineering occurred on the macroscopic level between whole plants and animals (in the form of selective breeding). Today we adopt a molecular approach to life; in saying that, adverse events that occur macroscopically (e.g. the creation of infertile offspring through incompatible breeding) should not govern and cement our moral approaches because we now ask questions on the molecular scale. If Linnaeus started with the iconic Watson and Crick double-helix model in his hand and wielded the understanding that stemmed from it, the Linnaean system of classification and its aim to exemplify the Scale of Being could not happen as it did. Now, I am not a historian enough to speculate on the putative butterfly effect of placing present day knowledge in the past, but I mean to simply highlight the importance of understanding how the historical climate in which certain facts arise colors those ideas indelibly.
With species-sanctity debunked as being an ill-posed ethical stance given the depth of our understanding of life-processes, I will now dismantle what I term the “slippery-slope of fear” that is wielded by opponents of biotechnology. The fear mongering operates on a continuum spanning from sensational to sensible. Conversations on biotechnology have a way of insensibly lumping together diverse fields of genetic engineering together and painting them with the same brush. Often, a discussion on plant biotechnology will segue into ruminating over the perils of human cloning and human trait selection which then ramifies into a cautionary discourse on the ignominy of eugenics. To name names, “The Unholy Alliance” cited previously is culpable as is “Biotechnology and Monstrosity…” These castigations are a function of simply not knowing how the science works, not knowing its limitations and its boundaries and then making unwarranted projections off of this ignorance. For example, the information made available from the Human Genome Project is anticipated to have potentially ‘dark’ consequences. The decoding of the human genome has posed more questions than answers; certainly it hasn’t brought us closer to cloning a human being or screening for desirable traits in our babies. We are a far ways from doing anything significant with our knowledge of the human genome; this quote from Craig Venter – the man who pioneered the shotgun-sequencing technique that expedited the completion of the Human Genome Project—is illustrative: “…we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.” Additionally, the techniques of molecular biology used in biotech (e.g. the use of plasmids, viral vectors etc.) are completely different than those techniques used to clone Dolly. Often, the image of failed mammalian clones is used to dissuade public opinion against biotechnology: it is never profitable to compare apples to oranges and even worse to dupe the public into eating apples that are called oranges. From the examples illustrated above, it is clear to see how a lack of historical understanding and a lack of scientific understanding hampers the discussion of biotechnology. That said, biotechnology does not exit scrutiny unscathed. On the sensible end of ethical objections are concerns that are raised about the capitalism conundrum associated with biotechnology and the reminder of the inherent uncertainty (certainly distinct from inherent immorality) attendant with biotechnology; additionally, contentions over consumer sovereignty with respect to genetically modified foods have been brought to the fore. Biotechnology has changed the way we eat food. No longer can we look to an itemized list of ingredients to understand how our food is made; that 100% real cheddar cheese you eat was likely made using recombinant rennet. Perhaps more alarmingly, Thompson reports that (as of 1997) “…small quantities of meat and dairy products derived from embryonic clones have been on shelves for years, and no provisions for labelling them currently exist”. Previously, I contended that it is insensible to issue a wholesale objection to biotechnology because of knee-jerk, ill-informed opinions. Certainly, we shouldn’t halt progress in view of cacophonous cries; but, biotechnology isn’t free from the ethical duty to respect human autonomy. It isn’t unethical to wield biotechnology, but it is unethical to force its products on to people who might have ethical objections to its use; this falls under the purview of the Kantian ethical framework that now pervades the discussion of bioethics. Genetically modified foods in particular are difficult to reconcile with religious beliefs: for instance, if we splice a pig gene into asparagus, is consumption of this food proscribed by the rules of kashrut? This question can only be entertained and answered when consumers know explicitly that they are eating genetically modified food. It is perhaps impractical and cumbersome from a business standpoint to pander to the ideals of your consumers: this is, in part, why genetically modified seeds weren’t separated and labelled as different from traditional crop-seed when being shipped to Europe. However, this should be the cost associated with entering the biotech business: first and foremost, consumer sovereignty needs to be adhered to by informing the consumer of the nature of the product, and allowing them to make their own decision on the matter.
Biotechnology has changed the way we produce food. Notably, insect-repellent and herbicide-resistant crops that have been engineered are widespread in agricultural practice. Megalithic biotech corporations have pioneered, patented and monetized these crops. For instance, Monsanto scientists worked in unison with academic scientists (and often in antagonism) in creating seeds with the Bt gene and seeds genetically fortified to be Round-up resistant. Round-up resistant crops necessitate a reliance on the Round-Up brand of herbicide; it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how the overwhelming utility of certain biotechnological implements force the hand of the common man (in this case, farmers) in the favour of corporations (here, Monsanto). More generally, allowing the invisible hand of the free-market to dictate how biotechnology is employed lends itself to unethical social and ecological outcomes. The traditional approach to industry regulation is ineffective in obviating these concerns. In light of this fact, I think that applying the precautionary principle to biotechnology is advisable. Now, the precautionary approach typically is associated with Luddite notions, but I think that a precautionary approach imbued with historical and scientific understanding detaches itself from parochialism. The aim of the precautionary approach would be twofold: a) to mitigate the forementioned capitalism conundrum b) to anticipate and obviate as much as possible the risks of uncertainty attendant with biotechnology. The standard case-by-case risk-assessment that governs free-market regulation is myopic in its dealings with biotechnology: attempts at regulation occur too far downstream in the development of a technology or product . By this point, so many resources are invested—both monetary and human—that the scales and sentiments are tipped inequitably in the favour of pushing the product. I liken this way of regulation to continually patching up a leaky dam: we can’t say the dam will break necessarily, but perhaps it would’ve been more prudent to be a little more circumspect about creating the dam in the first place. Oppenheim and Gibson issue a sound corrective lens for the current myopic view of biotechnology regulation: they propose a tripartite regulatory process that has at its foundation a precautionary screening process. Having fully fleshed out some inadequacies with the current case-by-case risk-assessment approach, Oppenheim and Gibson suggest that the tripartite regulatory model should be composed as having: a) an initial comprehensive assessment to develop a regulatory screen b) the regulatory screen itself c) a revised risk assessment mechanism for case-by-case approval decisions. To exemplify how the proposed precautionary approach might manifest itself, we can look back to how Monsanto handled the development and distribution of its genetically modified seeds. Recall that it was until the seeds were ready for deployment and hundreds of millions of dollars were already spent in research and development before ethical questions of consumer sovereignty were fielded; a systematically developed regulatory scheme with a precautionary screen would have forced Monsanto to consider its ethical responsibilities. This would not have necessarily prevented the development of the technology, but it would’ve fundamentally changed the way it was then deployed and marketed to the public.
What is biotechnology? To reiterate Tom Knight’s sentiment: biology is nanotechnology that works. Biotechnology should be understood mechanistically and used as such. A good understanding of history and current science will escort us away from misguided ways of thinking about biology – misguided ways of thinking that could halt scientific and technological development unnecessarily. Ultimately, our technological and scientific endeavours need to be held under the restraint of reason which is why both pursuits –and biotechnology specifically—need to be wielded with appropriate tact and appropriate circumspection: the task is to let an informed precautionary screen guide us in our journey into tomorrow. In this way, our species that is young and curious and brave and that shows so much promise will not be unduly apprehensive towards marching forward and at the same time will not be reckless in making progress.
Mary Midgley, “Biotechnology and Monstrosity: Why We Should Pay Attention to the Yuk Factor”. Hasting Center Report (2000) pp. 8-9
Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Paul Slovic, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics & Biases eds. (1982) Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press pp. 1-3
Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism”, Skeptical Enquirer 19, 1 1995
Mary Midgley, “Biotechnology and Monstrosity: Why We Should Pay Attention to the Yuk Factor”. Hasting Center Report (2000) pp. 10-11
Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century 1961 pp. 22-26
Mayden, R. L. (1997). “A hierarchy of species concepts: The denouement in the saga of the species problem”. In Claridge, MF; Dawah, HA; Wilson, MR. Species: The units of biodiversity. London: Chapman and Hall. pp. 381–4.
Mae-Wan Ho, “The Unholy Alliance”, The Ecologist 27, no.4. (July/August 1997). Featured in the bulleted summary of “why rDNA technology differs radically from conventional breeding techniques”
Chappel Brown, “BioBricks to Help Reverse Engineer Life” EE Times (2004). Brown quotes Biobricks founder Tom Knight. http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-news/4049196/BioBricks-to-help-reverse-engineer-life
David Shenk, “Biocapitalism: What Price the Genetic Revolution” Harper’s Magazine (1997) p.38