Genetic Engineering Essay Research Paper GENETIC ENGINEERINGEthical

Genetic Engineering Essay, Research Paper


Ethical and Spiritual Issues in Genetic Engineering”

The choices I will be talking about have to do with biotechnology and genetic engineering, choices

which we are currently not making consciously because we really don’t know what is going on. I

would like to tell you what is going on in these areas, and then talk about how we might approach this

matter in ethical ways.

First, allow me to give you some examples of current activities in the field of genetic engineering.

Most of it has to do with producing genetically engineered plants, primarily food plants, but also

cotton tobacco, and some others, which are resistant to pesticides, so that the pesticide

manufacturers can make more money on their products. About 70% of genetic engineering falls into

this category.

A second example is biowarfare. Perhaps some of you saw the recent New Yorker article on the

subject [Richard Preston, "Annals of Warfare: the Bioweaponeers." New Yorker, March, 1998].

There is widespread consensus that the information reported in that article is true. One of the things

he mentions is that the former Soviet Union had the largest big-warfare program in the world, with

32,000 scientists working on it. Much of it had to do with genetic engineering. In one of the projects

they took smallpox, which has otherwise disappeared from the world, and found a way to genetically

introduce into it, without reducing its efficacy as smallpox, either Ebola virus or equine encephalitis

viruses. Nobody seems to know what happened to those experimental viruses.

A third example: we now have plants genetically engineered to produce plastic. The idea is that we

will no longer need to depend so much on petroleum, or on the Middle East for petroleum. The

problem here, of course, is that the engineered plants cross-fertilize with their wild brethren, and since

none of genetic changes is recallable, we can only hope that we will not one day take walks in the

outdoors and be surrounded by flora which are exuding plastic and poisoning the fauna.

Some other examples: the Chinese are now putting human genes into tomatoes and peppers to make

them grow faster. You can now be a vegetarian and a cannibal at the same time! In Canada

geneticists are putting human genes into fish to make them grow faster. And several companies are

racing to place human genes into pigs in order to genetically match them to human individuals; that

means that you can have your own organ donor pig, an animal whose organs will not be rejected by

your body.

Those are some examples of what is currently going on in the field of genetic engineering, which I

hope convey to you my concern that there could be serious problems ahead. Now allow me to

suggest what we might do about all this. First we must realize that just feeling disturbed by such

projects is not enough. If we are to take any effective action, to make any useful decision, we must

begin with some clear understanding of the issues involved; we must develop cogent intellectual

viewpoint about genetic engineering and how to approach it. There are, of course, many viewpoints,

but let me mention just three.

First, the view of science and technology as they serve international corporate profit, which is where

we find most science and technology. This basically amoral, aspiritual perspective is dominant today

because so much money is involved. The corporations involved control more money than any

government on the planet, including our own. This is a closed system view of physical reality, and

nothing outside the system is considered real or meaningful.

The second and third viewpoints I want to mention are both spiritual, one from the Christian tradition,

the other from Buddhism. Many Christians are wary of the potential of genetic engineering for

fundamentally altering God s sacred creation; however, the one I have most recently discovered

takes a radically different stance and comes out of liberal Protestant thought. Ted Peters, a professor

at Pacific Lutheran Theological seminary, is an advocate of this view. He says,

It is worth noting that virtually all Roman Catholics and Protestants who take up the

challenge of the new genetic knowledge seem to agree on a handful of theological

axioms. First, they affirm that God is the creator of the world, and further that God’s

creative work is ongoing. Second, the human race is created in God’s image. In this

context, the divine image in humanity is tied to creativity. God creates, so do we. With

surprising frequency, we humans are described by theologians as ‘co-creators with

God,’ making our contribution to the evolutionary process.

Beginning in the Renaissance we find the image of the scientist as a Christian who moves closer to

God by exploring the sacred nature of His creation. This view sees the modern Christian scientist as

someone who is simply aiding God in his ongoing creation of the world. One of the several aspects of

this theology disturbs me is the potential for a Christian exclusivity regarding who is qualified to

engage in science. But that’s not all. Another professor who is connected with the Chicago Center for

Religion and Science and who shares the foregoing viewpoint asks,

Why is it any more plausible to imagine God erecting electric fences around certain

areas of knowledge than to imagine God watching with delight and parental pride as

human beings use their divinely designed brains to decipher the code of life? What’s

wrong with envisioning god perching on the side of a Petri dish, eager to have us correct

some copyists’ errors which have crept into the three billion words in the past 600

million years. If we believe in the only kind of creator God compatible with evolution,

we must also accept the divine way of improving all life forms through the divine

experiments of natural selection, which at some point begins to include the human ability

to become an active part of the process, a change agent, one in whom, as Teilhard de

Chardin insists, evolution is becoming conscious of itself.” So God is urging us to

become active agents of creation and evolution, correcting His mistakes as we grow in

our understanding of His creation.

Philip Heffner, director of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, gives a slightly different

view, although he is really of the same theological bent. He says,

This religious world view tells me that having been created as a co-creator with God is

in one sense a can of worms. It puts me in a position in which I am accountable for

respecting the intrinsic or inherent value of the creation, because that value is

ontologically grounded in God even though the discernment of

that value is beyond my capabilities, while at the same time my power over things, also

God- given, is operationally almost unlimited.

He goes on to say,

We will continue to pursue our knowledge and technology. We have no alternative. My

tradition tells me that we will do so as sinners. This means that we will fail to understand

fully enough. We will fail to act correctly enough. We will make mistakes. Since we are

sinners and fallible, and we are also created co-creators, we ought to engineer in that

fallibility-sinner factor, be as humble as hell, spend a lot of time on our knees, and

recognize that if Oppenheimer thought that the atomic bomb revealed original sin, the

era of genetic engineering will reveal it much more. then, as one of my tradition’s

mentors has said, ‘Full speed ahead and sin boldly!

And so Heffner brings us back down to earth with the realization that the overwhelming majority of

scientists, even Christian ones, are going to be operating not as vessels of God’s divine love in the

world, but out of sin. Yet peering, wherever it may lead. One of the things that this suggests to me

about this new and very popular form of Christian theology in the dialogue between religion and

science is that it has to struggle with a tension, which stretches from Paul to Kierkegaard to the

present, between salvation in the life of the Holy spirit and the need for ethical guidelines for our

behavior. The church in the Middle Ages struggled against Gnostic antinomian movements, and it

remains to be seen whether these new immanentist church movements are also going to struggle with

antinomian tendencies in religious genetic engineering, particularly when most secular scientists are

pursuing genetic engineering while paying only lip service to any ethical issues whatsoever.

I would like to mention now an alternate spiritual model from the Buddhist tradition, one whose ethics

are karma-based. The fundamental principle of this model is ahimsa, “non-harming,” respect for the

intrinsic value of all sentient beings, not just human life. This model, moreover, respects sentient

beings not merely for their usefulness to us as tools or means to ends. Out of this notion of respect for

life comes the notion of selfless compassion as a guiding principle in our actions. So in terms of

genetic engineering, this would exclude any instrumental use of human or nonhuman sentient life. A

second principle of this viewpoint is transcendence, which is very difficult to talk about in scientific

terms, but which, from a spiritual viewpoint, is not only a potential for humans, but for all sentient

beings. All sentient beings have the potential to develop spiritual wisdom and liberation. This

potential, according to Buddhism, is meaningless in most scientific models. The third principle of this

spiritual viewpoint is that the cosmos is an open system, in contrast to the closed system of most

scientific research. Built into the open-system model is the idea that we cannot know through

scientific methodology the full extent of the possible effects of genetic alterations on living creatures.

We cannot be certain of the ultimate effects of any genetic changes we make. A fourth principle is the

non-Cartesian view of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. The condition of our

bodies and nervous system affects our minds and spirits, and vice-versa. This is why karma-based

ethics insists on purity of both minds and spirits, and vice-versa. This leaves open the possibility,

therefore, that genetic engineering might adversely influence the potential of sentient beings to achieve

transcendence. And there is no scientific experiment we can perform to find out one way or another.


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