TALK IS COSTLY
Made, Not Born, Sierra Club Books (2000) is an anthology of a dozen cerebral-- although sometimes overwritten-- essays about human, animal and agricultural genetic engineering efforts and prospects. While the essays take on various topics and each could supply the basis for a separate column, there are some common themes.
First, several essayists note that our society reveres science and rushes to "practical applications" thereof. They observe that the market contributes to this haste to deliver new products. In the complex realm of biology, harm can occur that is unanticipated by conceptual or lab scale studies. Some such threats have already materialized from agricultural and aquacultural applications of genetic technologies ("GE"), as pollen has drifted from genetically-altered plants to non-altered plants, genetically altered salmon have interbred with wild salmon and beneficial insects have been accidentally exterminated on a mass scale. In reprotech, IVF causes twice as many birth defects.
Andrew Kimbrell raises several other interesting points about market effects. First, he observes that markets focus on efficiency. Yet, he asks, how many people have an "efficiency" orientation toward those or that which they love? If efficiency is usually defined as what turns a dollar profit for a business, isn't it problematic to leave the market to govern life issues? He draws an interesting comparison between the Christian Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Post Modern Trinity: science, technology and the market, to explain how science-- despite its intrinsic mysteries and limitations, particularly in dealing with human and social problems-- has become a new religion. He also points out that when the world is commodified, humans, themselves become just another commodity.
The farmer Wendell Berry raises the same point in his elegantly homespun way. He observes that as human life and nature are increasingly are described with metaphors of the machine (the heart is a pump, the brain a computer, one "boots up" in the morning, etc. and lives in an eco-system) we see ourselves and our world in a different way. Genetic and reproductive technologies extend these metaphors to their illogical extremes. If life can be made or modified in a test tube, is it really worth getting excited about or protecting? Further, he observes, using the examples of agricultural technology such as soil erosion and water contamination, by seeking control over life, we cause unintended effects that lessen our control.
Most of the essayists expressly consider whether GE is "playing God" or violating nature. GE advocates typically deny that God is being played, insisting that GE is just another form of plant breeding or human therapy. Some of the essayists in this book are deists, not theists, and/or accept or assume that gene alterations is playing God. They essentially ask, "So what?"
Take, for example, the essay of David Loy, who offers a Buddhist perspective on GE. He starts w/ a quote by Gandhi that "Humans' greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves." Loy notes that Buddhism does not forbid manipulation of nature and that those who originally lived closely with nature had to manipulate nature in order to survive. Now, however, he allows that manipulating nature could make people less secure, e.g., Greenhouse Effect.
He says that the chief goal of Buddhism is to help people avert dukkha, the inability to enjoy life. He suggests that GE may be able to help some, including those with inherited diseases, overcome dukkha. (But he declines to mention that genetics already is used to prenatally purge those with genetic flaws and that this trend will intensify if genetic knowledge and diagnostics advance). He argues that, as long as people's motivation is positive, GE applications will be positive. Yet, he acknowledges that the personal motivations that reinforce dukkha: greed, ill will and delusion, are abundant in the individuals and institutions (the universities and corporations) that do GE research. Thus, he urges a GE moratorium until we can collectively advance generosity, kindness and wisdom. Given the appeal of such TV shows as The Sopranos, Survivor and The Bachelor, Loy's motivational-reform prerequisite seems like an eternal de facto moratorium.
Several other writers echo and emphasize that they're not against GE or any other technology, per se. Today-- and particularly in the academic realm where most of the essayists dwell-- few are judgmental/dualistic or critical of technology. Several essayists suggest GE will be properly used if we merely commit to discuss it more.
But I disagree that more debate will ensure benevolent uses of GE. How often does talk deliver satisfactory resolutions, or even consensus, re: social issues, even where the issues are comparatively simple? This is especially so in our diverse world where there are no recognized standards of right and wrong. What ends up being "right" is that which fulfills the wishes of the affluent; those with market interests will fund studies and public relations campaigns that sway the debate. So I don't see all of this discussion as worthwhile.
Many assert that GE is like every other technology: we will size it up, use it for good purposes and decline to use it for bad. I don't ascribe such powers of discernment to humans. People have misused plenty of technology. Just as with guns, we ultimately can't prevent evil men from using whatever GE may work. Allowing only "enlightened" government/university researchers to use GE doesn't seem such a great solution, either. Might not we all be better off if even governments didn't have guns? Thus, why not bar-- and decline to publicly fund--GE, as the human stakes are even higher than with guns? Limiting inquiry may seem patently ignorant, but if there's a lethal snake under a rock, it would seem wise to leave some stones unturned.
Creating and designing life crosses lines of controllability/ retrievability. It also raises questions of utility. If, e.g., we already have more than enough food while millions starve and we have a world of haves who live long and have nots who don't, maybe more tech isn't the answer. If, from a collective standpoint, the risks outweigh the benefits-- and they seem to-- why are even pushing GE when there are other roads, not taken, to improving lives that have more benefits and fewer liabilities?
How about greed, ill will and delusion?