Many people recoil instinctively from the idea of taking genes from one plant or animal and inserting them into another — especially if the process inserts an animal gene into a plant's DNA, for instance. Some view the creation of such new part-plant, part-animal organisms as “playing God” or a violation of the natural order.
Several of these objections were first voiced by Jeremy Rifkin, a leading critic of genetic engineering, as early as 1977 when he published a book entitled Who Should Play God? The Artificial Creation of Life and What it Means for the Human Race. Rifkin expanded on concerns voiced in that book with later writings on the implications of cloning animals and the creation of plant and animal chimeras, or organisms with genes from both kingdoms.
“The globalization of commerce and trade makes possible the wholesale reseeding of the Earth's biosphere with a laboratory-conceived second Genesis, an artificially produced bioindustrial nature designed to replace nature's own evolutionary scheme,” Rifkin wrote. “A global life-science industry is already beginning to wield unprecedented power over the vast biological resources of the planet. Life-science fields ranging from agriculture to medicine are being consolidated under the umbrella of giant ‘life’ companies in the emerging biotech marketplace.”
Ethics research into agricultural biotechnology focuses on two questions: whether the benefits of GM crops outweigh the drawbacks, and whether genetic engineering is inherently wrong. The tangible benefits and drawbacks of genetic engineering are often discussed in the media but the latter question is largely overlooked.
While Rifkin approaches the question from the secular perspective of genetic engineering violating the dignity of nature, theologians have also argued against genetic engineering from a religious perspective. Paul Ramsey, a prominent Christian ethicist who taught at Princeton University in the 1970s and '80s, was a leading advocate of the idea that genetic engineering was inherently unethical and that reducing people and other beings to a collection of genetic traits was a flawed concept. He also argued that since human beings are inherently fallible, they are poor custodians of the building blocks of life.
“We should not play God before we have learned to be men, and as we learn to be men we will not want to play God,” Ramsey wrote.
The technology also has implications for religious and dietary traditions established long before the advent of molecular biology. For instance, some vegetarians have questioned whether they can eat a vegetable containing one or more genes taken from an animal.
“The resulting vegetable is no longer a pure vegetable, but instead a chimera with properties taken from the original plant, plus some additional characteristics from an animal,” according to Marcus Williamson, a London-based vegetarian who writes for the website www.gmfoodnews.com.
Likewise, the world's 1 billion Hindus — many of whom are vegetarians and all of whom revere cows as sacred — might be concerned about eating a plant containing bovine genes, just as a Jew or Muslim might be concerned about eating a GM food containing pork genes.
Such alterations are potentially within the technology's reach: The use of jellyfish genes to create plant and animal organisms that “glow” under UV light has been used as a method of “marking” the transference of other genetic traits by researchers.
According to a review of the issue, as of 2008 there was no consensus about biotechnology within the world's three main monotheistic faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — on the ethical and moral issues surrounding GM foods.
Other ethicists see arguments questioning the inherent immorality of genetic engineering as logically flawed. From a religious perspective, those who argue that genetic engineering is a violation of God's creation must explain why genetic engineering is not also an expression of God's will, since God gave humans “free will,” including the ability to create technology, according to David Koepsell, a philosophy professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Those who would argue that genetic engineering is a misuse of free will are plagued by a lack of sacred writings supporting that conclusion, says Koepsell. The Bible, for example, says nothing about recombinant DNA.
They must also explain why altering DNA through genetic engineering is bad, but other forms of altering DNA through other techniques are acceptable, given that it is arguably distinct only as a method. “The speed and predictability of the changes brought about by genetic engineering do surpass the speed and predictability of changes accomplished by selective breeding techniques, but that seems a poor argument for saying the former is contrary to God's will, while the latter is acceptable,” Koepsell writes. “Is it God's will that modifying nature is acceptable, but only provided we proceed slowly and haphazardly?”
Likewise Koepsell contends that those who argue against genetic engineering from a secular perspective must explain why other forms of genetic change, such as evolution, are not affronts to the “natural” order of things. They also must show that there is an inherent dignity to the current genetic makeup of any given species and why that genetic makeup should only be changed by some forms of genetic alteration and not others.
Still, Koepsell and some other advocates of the technology allow that its effects on our world over the long term are difficult to predict and could yet prove harmful in unexpected ways. In that respect biotechnology is hardly unique: few in the 19th century would have foreseen that the invention of the internal combustion engine would contribute to rising global temperatures, melting polar ice caps and disappearing species 100 years later.
— Jason McLure