Robin Gill

Robin Gill’s article in last Friday’s Church Times summarises the ethical debate about genetic editing. This post looks at the presuppositions behind the different positions.

Genetic editing is a new technique for altering DNA sequences in plants, animals and humans.

Many scientists are depicting this as a revolutionary breakthrough that may have many beneficial applications in medicine and food production. Of course, inheritable genomes, or their expression, can be altered spontaneously in nature through changes in replication (sometimes causing serious inheritable diseases); through radiation and toxic chemicals; and even, in the strange world of epigenetics, through environmental factors such as poor diet or stress. But now scientists might be able to “edit out” such alterations.

So what’s wrong with this? Why not make the most use of it? Gill describes the main ethical issues:

  • We do not know enough about it to be confident about its effects. There may be unintended consequences.
  • In genetic engineering, many plants and animals are discarded in order to produce the desired effects. Are we content to discard humans in this way?
  • Terrorists might get hold of edited malignant germs and exploit them.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Gill tells us, plans to publish recommendations but has already published a review which

recognises that the very term “genome-editing” relies on a homely and somewhat misleading metaphor: namely, that editors work to improve “written” texts. Yet, in reality, rogue editors (just think of some tabloid newspapers) might distort texts, with misguided or even malicious intent.

Moreover the Council is

aware that genome-editing is not a neutral activity, and that DNA is not exactly a text.

Fundamentally there seem to be two concerns. Firstly, even if the technology is only used for the best of intentions, our knowledge is limited and we don’t know what else we will cause. Secondly, we cannot be sure it will only be used with good intentions. Our knowledge is limited, and our moral goodness is limited.

The same applies to a great many scientific innovations. Enthusiasts for new technology sigh with despair, lamenting the unscientific, backwoodsish superstitions based on irrational religious beliefs that contrast so radically with the scientific facts. Meanwhile the ethically critical hear alarm bells ringing: we are putting too much trust in people and processes that are not so trustworthy.

To put it at its simplest, what do you trust more: modern science, or nature?

Of course it’s not really that simple. It is not just science under the spotlight, but the people who will use it, the governments specifying the conditions for its use, and anyone who may get hold of it for other uses. As for nature, the line between natural processes and human ones is fuzzy. Both sides think there is a role both for new initiatives and for being careful.

Still, we can distinguish two attitudes. One is impressed by how much is going on that we depend on and don’t understand. Countless forces have given us what we have got, and it’s far better than anything we ourselves could have devised. We should be careful not to mess things up.

The other is impressed by how much we do know, and can do as a result. Although we depend on the forces of nature, they are not ideal. They produce, among other things, genetic illnesses. If we can find out how to cure them, it would be crazy not to.

Behind these attitudes lies a theological difference. When we are more impressed by our ignorance and dependance, we presuppose that the way things are, without human intervention, is good for us despite the bits we don’t like. Whether or not we think it through, we are making an act of trust. This act of trust can be defended on scientific grounds – for example, millions of years of evolution have moulded us into the kinds of animals that function well in the environment we have got. Faith traditions can strengthen the case. They can tell us that our act of trust makes sense because we are trusting someone who knows what is best for us. Our basic attitude to our bodies and our environment should therefore be a positive one. So when we are wondering how to respond to a disappointment like a genetic disease, we don’t necessarily think of it as a problem to be solved by new technology. Other responses are possible. Maybe the disease in question serves a purpose we don’t yet know about.

The other philosophy is more recent. Secular culture characteristically excludes the idea of any designing mind behind human biology. This means that we are on our own. Our scientific knowledge is limited, but only humans have any at all. What we do not know is not known. Similarly only humans make value judgements, so what we do not want is not wanted at all. From this perspective to trust in nature is to trust in accident. Even millions of years of evolution, producing the bodies and brains we have, lack design. We who are capable of doing some designing should be able to do better. It is up to us to respond in the best way we can. There may be unwanted side-effects, and the technology may get into the wrong hands, but dangers like this always characterise what we do.

The tension between these two attitudes is not between faith and science, because both sides draw on scientific data and both make acts of faith about how to use it. It would be better described as a tension between those who put their trust in natural processes and those who put their trust in human knowledge. Ecocentrism versus anthropocentrism.

In order to resolve the tension we have to ask what we are trying to achieve, and why we think it is the right thing to achieve. Our nation spends large sums of money on research which may in time help some individuals – after all, many people’s lives have been helped by earlier research programmes. Yet the expenditure is much less than what we spend on dropping bombs on other people – and much more than we would need to spend if we decided to feed the hungry in our own country.

So I welcome the scientific discoveries, and I also welcome the ethical debate. I just wish they were more equal. When we have decided what to do, we are very good at finding a way to do it. What we are hopeless at is thinking through what is worth doing. For that, we need to reflect more openly about what makes our lives worth living, and what kinds of forces we need to trust.