Monday, March 17, 2014

Synthetic Biology Concerns

This was written in response to "Prepared Statement before the U.S House of Representatives Committee on energy and Commerce" By Gregory E. Kaebnick printed in "Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Bioethical Issues"

Kaebnick outlines three intrinsic concerns about the development and creation of synthetic organisms: religious or metaphysical concerns, concerns that synthetic biology will undermine morally significant concepts, and concerns about the human relationship with nature.  The first concern is also known as the “playing God concern”.  It is a categorical imperative to the religious person that we do not create synthetic life, regardless of the possible positive benefits.  In creating artificial life, the idea of “natural” life’s sacredness is thrown into question.  The concern about undermining morally significant concepts is a way to express the first idea without the religious aspect.  Instead of “playing God”, humans are becoming too powerful, and the creation of new life undermines the idea of uniqueness that we all cling to as humans.  The third concern is environmental.  Humans have been altering their environment since the beginning of our existence.  Creating new life is simply the evolution of the mastery of nature.

Three concerns about consequences are also brought forth by Kaebnick: concerns about social justice, biosafety, and misuse.  The arrival of new technologies always herald new social concerns.  Will the new technology be available to all people, regardless of social class?  Who will be in control of the new technology?  Will poorer nations continue to be exploited?  All these questions are important, but could just as easily be asked of large pharmaceutical or oil companies.  Our lack of far-reaching social justice is not a scientific issue, and should not be used as an excuse to limit research into synthetic biology.  Biosafety is a major concern.  How safe are these life forms?  Will they be easily contained in a lab, or will they escape into the wild?  If they do escape, how will that affect ecosystems that have naturally evolved together for millions of years?  Scientist claim that the new “helper” life forms that they create will be simple; they will only be able to perform assigned tasks, and pose no harm if they were to escape because they wouldn't be able to survive.  The creation of life simply to serve us brings up a new set of ethical concerns, but we have been utilizing animals the same way for millennia, so I don’t feel it is an important issue.  Deliberate misuse is an important issue.  All technology is powerful and could be used to do harm in the right hands.  That being said, the fear of misuse should not be a scare tactic used to dissuade research and development.  All of these concerns need addressing, and as SynBio progresses, I am confident they will be.

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