Thursday, February 13, 2014

the argument against synthetic biology

The basis of Christopher Preston’s argument against synthetic biology is formed by Charles Darwin’s theory of historic, natural selection led evolution, and Aristotle’s idea of natural versus artefactual life.  Preston argues there would be no way to determine the outcome of releasing a synthetically created life form into a fragile ecosystem that has naturally evolved together for millennia.  The unforeseeable consequences of this action are plentiful enough to postpone this sort of technical advancement until further research is done.

Preston states “the naturalness of wild nature carries moral weight”.  While I agree with this, I do not believe that the opposite is also true; that the unnaturalness of artefactual life does not carry moral weight.  I posit that wild nature is morally significant, but no more so than human intention and innovation.  Utilitarian ethics tells us that some action is righteous if it causes more good than harm to the greatest amount of people.  The idea that synthetic biology may create organisms that cure disease, create fuel with little to no environmental impact, clean up oil spills and other human caused ecological disasters, and further the advancement of the human species itself seems to cause more good than harm, and at least should be given the chance to prove itself.

Rather than sidestepping the evolutionary process, I believe that the current trends in synthetic biology are the product of advanced human evolution.  Our curiosity and need to understand and control our surroundings has led to these new scientific breakthroughs, and may eventually allow us to transcend the human condition and eliminate poverty, disease, suffering, even death.  While this transhumanist theory is mostly just philosophy for now, synthetic biology is an important step forward in human evolution and I do not think that Christopher Preston made a compelling argument against it.

Preston, Christopher J. Synthetic Biology: Drawing a Line in Darwin's Sand.  Environmental Values.  Vol 17  No. 1 February 2008

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