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Taking Precautions

A common argument by ethicists concerned about the implications of bleeding-edge biotechnologies is an appeal to what is called the “precautionary principle.”  This appeal is particularly prominent on the European continent.  It attempts to raise concerns about the metaphysical, essential nature of a new technology, as opposed to the more pragmatist (and consequentialist) approach taken in Britain and the U.S.  I suppose that split should be considered reflective of difference in post-Enlightenment philosophy, and therefore not surprising.

Critics of the precautionary principle don’t give it much respect, treating it as too reflexively conservative, too influenced by hypothetical scenarios, and too quick to lead to conclusions that are too restrictive—for example, concerns about genetically modified organisms that, are claimed to be monstrous by the precautionary folks, and not much of a practical issue by their more pragmatic, “proactionary” counterparts.

Although he never uses the phrase, I take the essay “Creating Life: Synthetic Biology and Ethics” by the German medical ethicist Joachim Boldt, in the 2013 book, Synthethic Biology and Morality, to be a defense of the precautionary principle.  Boldt is concerned about applying synthetic biology—the fusion of engineering and biology—even to single-celled organisms, as Dr. J. Craig Venter’s group did in 2010 with its famous exercise of “creating life” by placing a lab-synthesized genome of one species of Mycoplasma into the cytoplasm of a second species, transforming the latter, phenotypically, to express the characteristics of the “genome-donating” species.  Venter’s was a “top down” exercise in which he manipulated already-existing life—prompting his claims to have “created life” to be refuted by the Nobel laureate Sidney Brenner, who called Venter “a sort of forger” in front of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI).

But at its core, synthetic biology would take a “bottom approach,” assembling living things from basic “biobricks,” molecules that may or may not exist in nature but can be made to function as biomolecules.  Then, one could do things like make a bare-bones cell (a “protocell”) or identify just how few genes an organism needs to be a particular organism, or an organism at all (“minimal genome”).  After that—is the sky the limit?

Boldt worries about that vision.  He argues that organisms have an identity independent of their physical makeup.  He doesn’t say so, but he seems to have some sort of supervenience in view here.  Also, he argues that organisms are in a critical sense defined by their differentiation from, and interaction with, their environment.  Synthetic biology reduces life to the perspective of the engineer.  As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”  This perspective loses—if not willfully ignores—what makes organisms unique sorts of beings.

That may seem okay for single-cell organisms, but project it out to humans and it opens the door to unacceptable conclusions, because now one becomes committed to a full-blown determinism that cannot explain freedom or subjective experience (experiencing pain) that cannot be grasped except by the fact that it is shared.  It reduces people to objects, which in turn undermines the equality of human persons.  So the principles of autonomy and justice are violated.  (I think I hear echoes of Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man about restricting the choice of future individuals.)

So Boldt would seem to fall back on nonmaleficence: “first do not harm.”  If we “go there,” he worries that at some point synthetic biology will take on a life of its own.  Then, the question is, where does it end?  Or as he puts it, “the challenge is deciding at what step on the ladder of life one is going to insist on the inherent normative value of the entity under scrutiny.”

Personally, I would make that decision at multicellular organisms, and at anything that attempts to reduce what is generally known to be generally encountered as human in nature—in spite of criticisms of defining “the natural.”  So:  human protocells and human minimal genome would be out—as indeed would similar exercises for multicellular organisms.  Biomedical specialists already engineer single-cell organisms and certain animals (e.g., mice) for particular studies and applications, but the latter are really “top down” and in the former case, the ontological offense seems modest.  Of course, the practical risks can still be substantial, as the PCSBI learned and reported.

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