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Adam Rutherford on Synthetic Biology and Ethics


Adam Rutherford argues that we need to meddle more, not less, with the genes of biological organisms. Writing in the Guardian Comment is Free Synthetic biology: ‘playing God’ is vital if we are to create a better future for all – The present gains and future benefits of synthetic biology are too great for it to be written off with fear-mongering maximshe is critical of environmentalists and religious groups for apparently seeking to restrict scientific discovery. However, he muddies the waters by confusing scientific discovery with technology. He writes for instance

“That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including Watson and Crick’s description of the structure of DNA in 1953; the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978; the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997; and the sequencing of the human genome in 2001. In all these scenarios, it’s not clear exactly what “playing God” actually means.”

I am not sure what evidence he has for the claim that religious people have been critical of scientific discoveries such as unravelling the mystery of DNA, or the human genome sequencing, but there are legitimate concerns about the technological use of knowledge that arises out of science. Dolly the Sheep being an example of where the technology failed; the poor animal inherited an already aged gene pool from its ‘mother.’ Scientists though always seem keen to rush ahead before sufficient knowledge is gathered, promoting their work to keep research grants flowing.

Genetic engineering needs to be carefully scrutinised to avoid the mistakes of the past that an unfettered belief in secular progress delivers. Those who hold that there is something sacred about living organism are right to raise concerns. Often genetic engineering is driven by profit, sometimes in ways that seek to control free market access to crops for instance. There is something wrong about seeking to place an intellectual property right on something given for free by God. Even where farmers resist the use of such crops they are taken to court for breach of IPRs because of contamination. The polluter doesn’t pay when genetic engineering is linked to profit, and scientists are intrinsically linked to the flow of money in research institutions from such businesses.

Of course there are some advances that are good and it would be wrong to stop scientific research altogether, but ethically we need to allow religious voices to be heard in science if scientific progress is to be harnessed so as to provide useful service for humanity, and not profit for a few with the environment damaged along the way.

First posted at the + Science and Values blog ‘Why Synthetic Biology Needs to Hear Religious Voices

Post Script: There is further irony when Rutherford describes syntheitc biology in terms of design and engineering – he writes

“The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is much more about engineering than it is about pure science. However, many synthetic biologists are seeking to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering does, with potential applications ranging from fighting pollution and cancer to manufacturing fuel and drugs.”

EUGENICS That slippery slope is being oiled down again. Blue_Savannah
"he is critical of environmentalists and religious groups for apparently seeking to restrict scientific discovery" Can we assume they'll start on the largest anti-science religious group of them all, the neo-Darwinists themselves? humbled
You ra-a-a-n-g, Mr Rutherford? Axel

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