The human tendency to invent new things and to tinker with the old has produced marvellous inventions. But scientists no longer just tinker with "things" -- they now tinker with life itself, and nobody knows what short- or long-term consequences will ensue once we begin the wholesale genetic modification of living organisms (plants, animals and humans) to better suit our current purposes and whims.
Yet a recent poll suggests Canadians are willing to risk these unknown consequences. According to a government-commissioned poll, 66% of Canadians are prepared to accept "unintended" risks and surrender ethical concerns about biotechnology as long as there is a chance it might produce some benefit. The only thing Canadians don't seem willing to accept is the genetically-modified foods that they are already eating.
It's obviously a tribute to "tolerance" that Canadians would accept unknown genetic alterations to the human race, yet be disturbed by genetic modifications to foods supplied by Mother Nature.
But the claim of broad acceptance of biotechnology is somewhat misleading since the same poll clearly states that Canadians lack adequate knowledge of both biotechnology and its potential consequences. Indeed, the poll found that the debate had "barely penetrated" the public's awareness and that there was a lack of available information about biotechnology.
This is a rather important point. After all, it is one thing to say that risks are worth taking and unintended consequences worth suffering when you don't understand what the risks and consequences could be -- it is quite another to take that position when you do understand what is at stake.
For example, it may seem like a good idea to genetically alter germline cells (which are passed on to future generations) by removing genes that cause disease. But what will stop scientists from using this same technology to eliminate genes that produce low intelligence or substandard appearance or height? If we easily accept the elimination of diseased genes, alterations to suit any purpose can soon be justified.
Genetic screening is already being used to cleanse society of genetically imperfect children before they are born. Some think this is acceptable -- but will these same people be so accepting when it is applied to adults? Screening adults for genetic diseases may lead to earlier treatment -- but it could also lead to discrimination in employment, and higher premiums for life and health insurance.
Many people think that cloning technology should advance to provide genetically-identical spare parts for humans. But this would bring down barriers to using this same technology for reproductive cloning (making identical copies) of humans -- something that most people don't support and which would undoubtedly cause a host of "unintended" consequences that society may not be prepared to handle.
Allowing technology to forge ahead without a proper understanding of the risks and consequences is just plain stupid. A Newsday columnist recently suggested "the road to genetic hell could be paved with good scientific intentions." I would hasten to add the words "public ignorance" to that statement.
Canadians' apparent support for the idea that science should trump ethics also seems to reveal more about technology's influence on society than Canadians' attitudes toward technology.
A willingness to place our faith in technology likely stems from the observation that it has served us well in the past. This has led to the assumption that technology is always beneficial and perhaps also to the notion that a "technological imperative" is present -- even when it isn't. There is no imperative or need to re-engineer animals and humans. Yet we are willing to allow scientists to do so -- simply because they can do so.
Our dependence on technology has also precipitated a gradual deconstruction of our own understanding of humanity. Perhaps inadvertently, we have succumbed to the tendency to define humanity through science -- and its emphasis on utility and efficiency.
Defining who we are is now focussed on genetics, to the exclusion of human attributes such as the intellect, the will, the conscience and the inherent moral understanding of right and wrong (whether or not we recognize it as such or obey it). Each of these human attributes, along with experience, environment and genetics, contributes to our unique personhood and to the human capacity to rise above the simple evolutionary strategies of the animal kingdom.
Biotechnology can create new life forms and permanently alter old life forms -- for better or for worse. Or even for commercial benefit. Surely such stakes are too high to allow science to forge ahead without rules and an ethical framework -- no matter what benefits may be proclaimed.
Susan Martinuk is a Vancouver writer and broadcaster.
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