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Sacred versus Synthetic? Nature Preservationism and Biotechnology

One of the long-term contributions of Earth Day is that it offers a regular, semi-official reminder that a sense of the sacred is a vital part of environmentalism. The spirit of John Muir lives on in the notion of “Respect for the land” that was emphasized in the famous Keep America Beautiful public service announcement that was launched on the first Earth Day. But in the era of biotechnology, the notion of sacredness can pull in other directions.

On April 14, a public forum on synthetic biology hosted by Friends of the Earth and some other civil society groups effectively brought out how the notion of sacredness is woven into objections to genetically modifying microorganisms to produce fuel, cosmetics, medicines, and other chemicals. The event was titled “Sacred versus Synthetic: Competing Visions for Life on Earth,” and what was especially remarkable and helpful about it was that the presentations continually brought concerns about the possible practical harms of GM microorganisms back down to concerns about the very idea of GM microorganisms. In the view that the speakers offered, the genetic modification of an organism is by definition a harm to nature, and it is perhaps the most fundamental harm to nature. We need, said one speaker, to protect life “right down to the cellular level.” (Full video of the event is available here.)

The goal of protecting life and preserving nature is a good moral starting point. It’s a goal I share, anyway. But a concern to preserve the natural world still requires careful thinking about which ways of altering nature constitute fundamental harms to nature.

An across-the-board opposition to genetic modification tends to put a somewhat strained emphasis on the value of DNA. In the vision of life endorsed at the Friends of the Earth forum on synthetic biology, it is natural DNA itself that is sacred and is to be preserved. (That point was driven home when the last speaker concluded by reciting from a poem written by a young woman “as an ode to her DNA.”)  The thought underlying this view is that the DNA contains, in a kind of code, the essence of an organism; it is the DNA that makes a living thing the thing it is. By altering the DNA, we necessarily and immediately make a living thing synthetic, which is to say unnatural. The departure from what is good and acceptable is manifested by an inherent dangerousness; as several speakers suggested, modified DNA are somewhat like radioactive atoms: danger infiltrates them, and they infiltrate, and ruin, the natural world.

Interestingly, the idea that the DNA are special, making a living thing the thing it is, originates with the scientists—or at least, with a school of genetic scientists, including Frances Collins and Craig Venter. For years, these scientists have been telling us that DNA is the language for the book of life, or a code providing complete instructions for an organism. Oddly enough, then, in developing their account of how nature is sacred, the speakers in effect buy into parts of the vision of life that they want to oppose.

The sacred vision of life that the speakers want to recommend should actually have us thinking about DNA in a broader context and a little more modestly. The speakers rightly put an emphasis on systems thinking: individuals are complex biological systems that interact with (and, in fact, are even constituted partly by) a other systems, from the internal microbiome to external environmental systems to human social systems. We find ourselves, as the last speaker put it, in “nested hierarchies of belonging and interdependence.”  Within these systems, DNA are (just) especially important components.

These systems are nothing if not dynamic, and we alter components of them in various ways all the time. The challenge for thinking about GM microorganisms, then, is to think about the consequences of what we’re doing. The idea itself need not alarm someone who is concerned about the preservation of nature.

When I first began reading and writing about the genetic modification of organisms, I, too, felt that there was something particularly unattractive about it, that a sense of life’s value should guide us away from all forms of it. I now believe that the real friends of earth should look at the big picture—at ecosystems and biodiversity, at the land, at the earth—and that the modification of DNA, per se, is not really the issue. The real issues have to do with the overall human-caused damage to the planet. We should focus on the problems of global climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, and human-driven extirpation of species.

If we take this larger view, then the genetic modification of organisms is not a total non-issue. But it’s not the genetic modification itself that’s the problem; it’s the possible consequences. If we modified a bacteria, a yeast, or an algae in such a way that it wreaked environmental havoc, that would be a genuine problem for the protection of nature, and we should be on guard against that possibility. But we can’t realistically assume that any or every genetic modification would turn out that way. Some genetic modifications are likely to be innocuous, and if we created a microbe that was helpful in addressing some environmental problem, that should be welcomed by anyone concerned about preserving nature.



Gregory E. Kaebnick is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and the editor of the Hastings Center Report. He is the author of Humans in Nature: The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It. (Oxford University Press 2013).

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