Posted on January 9, 2019 at 8:01 PM
Adrien Locatelli, a French teenager claims to have injected DNA strands encoding verses from the Bible and the Quran in his thighs.
“I did this experiment only for the symbol of peace between religions and science … It’s just symbolic.” he told Motherboard. Sri Kosuri, a UCLA biochemist working on DNA for data storage and quoted in the paper was not amused, tweeting “2018 can’t end soon enough”.
Peak 2018, an inspiring science project, or something else? I will argue for the third option.
From an ethics standpoint there are two obvious main issues: self-experimentation and the religious aspect. But the standard self-experimentation question “was it an appropriate self-experiment?” might actually be the wrong one, since the aim was stated to be symbolic:
It is very symbolic even if it does not have much interest.
The discourse on the ethics of self-experimentation is usually framed in terms of risk-benefit (does the benefits outweigh the risks?), bias (is there a risk the results will be biased?), freedom from coercion (no professor or institution forcing it?), competence (does the experimenter know what they are doing?), data quality (N=1), and whether there is a need for IRB approval and if the right to do self-experimentation also implies a right to publishing. Competent self-experimenters can clearly achieve informed consent, but also be deluded. There can also be cultural mores that encourage people to “suffer for science” in a less than scientific way. The practice is far more common than many expect.
But scientific self-experimentation is performed with a scientific aim. The result is intended to be usable knowledge. There is no such thing as a symbolic scientific experiment.
In fact, Adrien seems to be closer to art than science.
As an artist he is late to the scene. Eduardo Kac’s 2001 work Genesis involved encoding the Bible sentence “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” as DNA, inserting it into a bacterium, and keeping the bacteria evolving in an art installation subjected to UV light controlled by visitors. Christian Bök’s Xenotext project aims at inserting a poem into extremophile bacteria, and of course George Church and Ed Regis’ book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA had a bacterial edition.
While Adrien may be right in being the first to insert DNA encoded text into his own body, there is also a long tradition of performance art where the body of the artist is subjected to changes as part of the work. Stelarc and Orlan come easily to mind, but there are many more.
In these cases the biological aspect is symbolic and crucial. The literal embodiment of an idea matters.
From an ethics point of view they also exist in a different sphere from research ethics. Art aims at achieving something but this something is very different from the structured knowledge of science. Often it is entirely symbolic. The utility is often extremely subjective. Arguing that artists must submit their proposals to a review board before being allowed to create runs against freedom of expression. Sure, artists breaking the law or committing immoral acts can be condemned, but the practice of art requires the freedom to perform never before seen symbolic acts that are hard to judge before they are performed and experienced. It is not uncommon for art to deliberately transgress boundaries in order to identify them, provoke, and question our norms.
Adrien‘s genetic texts appear far more art-like than science-like, even though he used scientific tools. It might have been mildly risky (the adeno-associated virus used appears fairly benign but there could in principle be some problem if the gene product was misbehaved or the gene inserted in the wrong stretch of genome) but compared to some of the risks taken by the performance artists above, people performing body modification, or even tattooing, the risk does not appear bad – the issue is rather that it is an uncertain risk, which tends to make most people cautious. But as a society we allow performance art and body modification (which this case obviously also belongs to), and we should recognize that this is likely well within their range of risk. Estimating the risk/benefit relationship for artistic or existential actions is always going to be a subjective issue where the artist needs to take responsibility.
In fact, from an ethics perspective the biggest problem here might be that Adrien is a minor. One can argue that he is too young to have proper informed consent or that his parents both should have given their permission (only his father knew). His report may demonstrate enough academic skill to imply capacity to reach scientific informed consent (but there ought to have been a section evaluating risk). However, a good academic write-up is not proof of enough ethical maturity to be fully responsible. Maybe he is responsible, but it cannot be gleaned from the paper. I assume there will have been some ethically interesting dinner discussions in the Locatelli family by now. Next time he might want to do this part more carefully, or he could be grounded.
What about the religious content? I think one can compare it to tattooing religious text onto one’s body. Those who want to be outraged will be outraged, but much worse is done deliberately or accidentally every day. There is an extra angle in that Islam is a rather text-centred religion where the Quran is seen as something holy in itself, and the idea of Man being the image of God. Contemporary Muslims appear to generally think tattooing to be sinful (often because of the image of God argument, or rather changing the natural creation of God), but historically tattoos have been used in many Islamic cultures, and there are even reports of tattooing Quran verses on animals. But Adrien is presumably not Muslim. Similarly Christian perspectives vary widely. Making symbols of one’s religion a public or private part of oneself is a widespread practice.
As soon as I heard about the experiment I was reminded of the excellent 1999 short story “Written In Blood” by Chris Lawson. In the story the protagonist and her father are doing the hajj, and encountering a dispute about “blood writing”: using adenovirus gene therapy to insert the Quran into one’s bone marrow so it is expressed in leukocytes. The story deals with issues of religious tolerance, the limits of tradition, what kind of translation of a holy text into a new medium is the correct one, and the wonders of biotechnology as well as the risks of using it.
The concept of adding text to oneself is a rich and deep one. It can be done in a tacky way, but also as a profound devotion. It is a form of morphological expression that hopefully will go beyond “a hot new teen trend” as Motherboard jokes and into the moving final section of Lawson’s story where the protagonist uses it to express her own faith. I hope Adrien already has or will read it.
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