"Ethical and Spiritual Issues in Genetic Engineering"

by Ron Epstein
Research Professor, Institute for World Religions
Lecturer, Philosophy Dept., San Francisco State University

Based on a talk presented at the AHIMSA dicussion forum on March 17, 1998 and published in
Ahimsa Voices: a Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Universal Values, 5(4),
Oct. 1998, pp. 6-7.


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 Godís 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!í
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.