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Biotechnologies: Tweaking Here, Tuning There. Is that all we need?

Following on from last issue’s focus on medical ethics and bioethics, Inmaculada de Melo-Martín says we aren’t thinking deeply enough about what the problems with bioethics really are.

As with other technologies, biotechnologies have their detractors and supporters. Advocates of biotechnology maintain that it benefits humans, animals, and the environment. Humans profit from new drugs, more nutritious food, more reproductive choices, genetic therapies, and the possibility of enhancing particular desirable traits. By introducing new crops that grow faster and better, less land would be needed to feed the increasing population, and thus humans will not go hungry and environmental degradation could be slowed. Also, these new agricultural products would reduce the need for hazardous pesticides and herbicides, thus lessening soil and water contamination. Animals can be engineered to eliminate those traits that make them suffer most when brought up in animal farms. Detractors argue that the new drugs might not be successful, genetically modified foods might be unsafe for human consumption because of allergenic potential, their nutritious value might be altered, or they might spread antibiotic resistance. The environmental and animal benefits are also questioned. Critics argue that genetically altered plants can transfer their foreign DNA to unintended plants, thus threatening diversity. Such plants create risks of weeds being transformed into superweeds; they might encourage pest resistance; or they might kill unintended organisms.

As we can see by this sample of concerns, discussion of the new developments in biotechnology tends to focus on the risks and benefits of implementing these new technologies. That is, questions tend to be framed in technological terms: Is this technique safe for humans, the environment, and other animals? Will the new genetic therapies be more effective? Will they save more lives? Will these new technologies help reduce environmental degradation? Etcetera. And technological questions tend to have technical answers, of course. Thus, those supporting (or rejecting) biotechnologies often claim that their opponents and the public are simply ill-informed; that they do not understand the science; and that better scientific education would make people realize how great (or how terrible) these technologies are.

It would probably be good to remember that the answers we get have a lot to do with the way we frame the questions. Thus, I would like to exhort those concerned with these issues, and particularly philosophers, to take some charge of how debates about biotechnology are framed. After all, philosophers’ business is to answer questions such as how we ought to live our lives in order to flourish as human beings – and it seems clear that simply technical concerns aren’t going to help us there.

So, what is it that a focus on technical issues prevents us from seeing? Probably many things, but I’m going to consider just two of them: the issue of the value-neutrality of science and technology, and the focus on means to the detriment of an analysis of ends.

The Presumed Value-Neutrality of Science and Technology

Science and technology are often understood as being neutral with respect to values. That is, science is supposed to be a value-free investigation of the world, and technology is understood as merely the application of scientific knowledge. According to this view, neither science nor technology are significantly influenced by human values – they are just tools we have for understanding and manipulating the world, and values enter in only when we discuss what to do with those tools.

The trouble with this view is that it prevents us from questioning the scientific practices themselves, under the presumption that any problems lie not with the scientific practices, but with the use we make of them. For example, it is quite unusual to find discussions of biotechnology that pay serious attention to the scientific framework underlying these technologies. In these debates genes are conceptualized as distinct entities with predictable properties. They are seen as units of information that can be characterized precisely, can be added or subtracted, altered, or moved among different organisms. But other paradigms are possible, and the choice of paradigm may be influenced by the values of the scientists involved. For example, maybe rather than assuming a clear-cut dichotomy between biology/environment, phenotype/genotype as our current scientific practices do, we could see these concepts as inextricably joined, so that we can talk of organisms and their environments as interpenetrating each other. Similarly, rather than assuming a hierarchical control for DNA, we could presuppose an interactive regulation of the different levels of an organism. Under these assumptions, genes would not themselves make anything. They would no doubt be involved in processes requiring many other components and conditions; but none would appear as alone sufficient. The development of an organism could not be understood as happening in a vacuum.

An examination of the values that play a role in biological theories is important for a variety of reasons. First, if values influence scientific theories and technological developments, then we need to evaluate those values. Values are as susceptible to revision through experience as theories are. To neglect their assessment prevents us from revising our values appropriately. Second, biological theories have a significant influence on our self-understanding and on public policy. Nonetheless, the belief that scientific theories are value-neutral presupposes that the only factors considered important when evaluating biotechnologies are scientific and technical. As a consequence, only the supposedly value-free claims of scientists and engineers, not the ideas of the layperson, seem essential to biotechnology assessment. Democratic participation in scientific and technological policy making is therefore discouraged, for invalid reasons.

Neglecting the Ends

Another problem with the focus on technical issues related to biotechnologies, is that it directs our attention to analysis of means and away from an evaluation of ends. But in focusing on means, we tend to forget to evaluate the goals that biotechnology presumably will help us achieve, and instead to analyze whether, given such goals, biotechnologies are the best means to obtain them. Let me give here an example from agricultural, and another from medical biotechnologies.

The use of genetically modified organisms has been presented as the best way to help feed the hungry and to reduce the environmental degradation produced by current agricultural practices. Technical discussions of biotechnology presuppose that these goals are unquestionable. Who would deny that feeding the hungry and reducing environmental destruction are goals worthy of our most devoted efforts? So, an evaluation of ends might seem irrelevant and useless here. But one need not deny the worthiness of these goals in order to believe that a better understanding of the problems is not just relevant and useful, but absolutely necessary. Such an analysis can ask whether conceiving of hunger and environmental degradation as logistical problems that can be solved mainly by technological advances is adequate. Are these problems mainly technological ones? Would they be solved – indeed, would they even be lessened – by applying technological solutions to them? Can the problems of hunger and environmental degradation be understood without taking into account the social, political and economic contexts in which these problems exist? Before, or at least at the same time that we debate technical questions about genetically modified organisms, for example, shouldn’t we ask why so many people go hungry in spite of the fact that existing food supplies could adequately feed the world population? Why is it that so many people lack sources of vitamin A, iron, and other nutrients? Why are our fisheries disappearing, hundred of species becoming extinct, forests vanishing? Is it true that in all these cases the answer would be because we lack the technology necessary to tackle these problems? But if these problems are not mainly, maybe not even significantly, technical problems, how is it that biotechnologies are going to solve them? I do not think that anybody could justifiably argue that hunger and environmental degradation are problems in need of exclusively or even mainly technological solutions. Why then not present the debates about biotechnology under this framework, rather than under a framework of technical concerns? How is it, indeed, that the emphasis on technical concerns could do anything to ultimately eliminate problems of hunger, food, disease, pollution, overconsumption, animal abuse, or population growth?

Let’s take another example. Human reproductive cloning has been defended as a way to help people who suffer from complete infertility. The debates have then centered on whether cloning is safe for children; whether the children born through this technology might suffer psychological problems; or whether we are robbing them of an open future (issues about safety to women have been for the most part ignored). The issues of whether infertility is a problem that we want to solve, whether technological solutions in general are good answers to infertility problems, or whether this particular technology is the best way to solve the problems of infertile people, are rarely raised. Of course, the assumption is that only insensitive people would think that infertility is not a problem worthy of solution. But it is also obvious that a scepticism about whether cloning is a good answer to infertility need not deny that infertile people do suffer and that it may be a worthy goal to try to help them. A further analysis of this end might however question the view of infertility as mainly a medical condition in need of a high-tech solution. Proposing the cloning of human beings as a way to solve reproductive problems accepts that what is problematic about infertility is the inability of having genetically-related children, rather than the problem of lacking the general social experience of parenting – but is this true? Similarly, the understanding of infertility as mainly an individual medical problem might be questioned, because the causes of reproductive difficulties and the reasons that make infertility a serious concern are, in part, socially rooted. Sexual, contraceptive, and medical practices, occupational health hazards, environmental pollution, and food additives are some examples of preventable causes of infertility that are socially grounded.

If we reject the idea that the problem of infertility is the individual medical problem of not being able to have genetically-related children – that is, if we re-evaluate the goal to which cloning presumably is a means – then the argument for the cloning of humans on grounds that it will help some infertile people might no longer appear very convincing. When infertility is understood as the inability to be a parent, rather than as the incapacity to produce biologically-related children, then cloning will not appear as the magic bullet to solve the problem of infertility.

This re-evaluation of ends does not question the fact that cloning might be safe. Neither does it question whether children born through this technology might or might not suffer psychological problems. This does not mean, of course, that such issues are irrelevant or unimportant. On the contrary, they are very important. But their importance should not distract us from evaluating the appropriateness of the ends.

Moreover, even if one believes that in fact technology is the only solution to all these problems, one might still legitimately ask whether bio technologies are the best possible technologies to tackle them. Answers to this question require that we assess the values that underlie biotechnologies. Could it be that these technologies connect into such values as a desire for control over natural processes, hubris, or the separation of humanity and nature? If so, shouldn’t we ponder whether those are the values we want to promote? If, however, we believe in other values such as community, humility, recognition of the interrelationships between humans and their environment, responsibility, or justice, what kind of technologies can we develop that would promote such values, while at the same time helping to solve the problems that we want them to solve?

It is true that concerns about social, ethical, and legal consequences are present in debates about biotechnologies. But these debates are framed as concerning the consequences, good or bad, of these new techniques. Thus, although they might not focus on narrow technical or scientific issues, they tend to accept that the debate is one of analyzing the means rather than one of evaluating the ends.


I realize that some might see my arguments as controversial attempts to change a world that already exists, and thus inappropriate topics of discussion when debating such scientific and technological advances. These people would prefer for biotechnologies to be evaluated in their own sphere, acknowledging their scientifically-proven potential to contribute to environmental sustainability, food security, and disease cures. Arguments about ends, they might say, are hardly relevant to the issue of biotechnology. But, of course, such criticism begs the question, because it presupposes that a decontextualized evaluation of biotechnologies is an adequate one. That is not the case. Moreover, when we try to analyze biotechnology, or any technology for that matter, ‘in its own sphere’, what we are doing is implicitly and uncritically sanctioning the values status quo. Thus, the philosopher has failed in the traditional role of gadfly.

To conclude, let me emphasize that this is not an argument for us to ignore the pleas of those who suffer because of genetic diseases, infertility, hunger, or environmental degradation. On the contrary, I believe that a contextualized analysis of these technologies might indicate better ways to bring relief to people’s suffering, and better solutions to environmental destruction. Nor am I suggesting that we preclude intellectually stimulating and necessary discussions about the technical and scientific aspects of the new technologies. We certainly can learn much from these discussions. This is instead a gentle reminder that those who control the questions control the answers, and that we should not give up on the task of trying to frame these debates in ways that might be more perceptive. Assessing new technologies requires not only discussions of risks and benefits, that is, discussions of means, but also reflections about ends.

© Dr Inmaculada de Melo-Martín 2006

Inmaculada de Melo-Martín is a Research Ethicist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York.

Further Reading
• Michael Ruse and David Castle, eds. Genetically Modified Foods. Prometheus Books, 2002.
• Richard Sherlock and John D. Morrey, eds. Ethical Issues in Biotechnology. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

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