Biotech’s Trouble With Religion

Dr. Lee M. Silver is a professor at Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He also has joint appointments in the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, the Center for Health and Wellbeing, the Office of Population Research, and the Princeton Environmental Institute, all at Princeton University. In 1973, he received a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1978, he received a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University. Before arriving at Princeton in 1984, he trained at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Cancer and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which was directed by Nobel Laureate James D. Watson.

Dr. Silver's newest book is Challenging Nature: The clash of science and spirituality at the new frontiers of life.  His previous book is Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family, published in 16 languages. Silver is also the coauthor of an undergraduate textbook in genetics, the single author of Mouse Genetics, a textbook for professionals, and editor of Teratocarcinoma Stem Cells published in 1983.

In 1993, Professor Silver was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In 1995, he received an unsolicited 10 year National Institutes of Health MERIT award. He has published over 180 scientific articles in the fields of genetics, evolution, reproduction, embryology, computer modeling, and behavioral science, and other scholarly papers on topics at the interface between biotechnology, law, ethics, and religion. He has been elected to the governing boards of the Genetics Society of America and the International Mammalian Genome Society. He was a member of the New Jersey Bioethics Commission Task Force formed to recommend reproductive policy for the New Jersey State Legislature, and has testified on reproductive and genetic technologies before U.S. Congressional and New York State Senate committees. He has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, the Jim Lehrer PBS News Hour, Nova, ABC Nightline, The ABC World Report with Peter Jennings, the Charlie Rose Show, 20/20, 60 Minutes, and many others in the U.S. and other countries.

  • Transcript


Question: What is the influence of Western religion on bioethics?

Lee Silver: I think that the Western religious tradition produces both the reaction against biotechnology which they are associated with, and in addition, it produces a next generation of what I would call a post-Christian opposition to biotechnology among those who grew up with Western religion and have rejected it. If you think about Western religion, and Western religion is most codified in the Catholic area, the Western religion, Catholics, and other Christians of the same thought, have no problem with biotechnology when it is applied to animals and plants. They’ll say let’s regulate it properly and lets consider it in terms of whether it is economically good or bad. That’s fine. [Their] sole area of concern is biotechnology’s use on human beings and human beings includes single-cell embryos. So, all of that opposition comes down to single-cell embryos. There is also, they question, the use of drugs that can affect the way people think, drugs like Ritalin for example, drugs that can increase our memory or decrease – they’re worried about that. The most important worry is the embryo stage, where they think scientists are killing human beings. It’s very clear.

Especially in Europe where genetically modified foods are absolutely forbidden, if not in law by the culture, there is a huge war going on between Europe and the United States in terms of whether Europe will allow the importation of genetically modified foods. What you find in Europe is most people have given up traditional religion. You have this whole continent that was Catholic, and young people have come up since World War II have thrown off the church, especially in France, and they – my speculation now, this is not a fact, my speculation is, they’ve thrown off the church, and the church had this God in the sky over, the single God, not many gods – God in the sky, God knows the future, God is trying to get you to go along the right path, don’t mess with God. If you throw away that, there might be an emptiness in your stomach. You might need some other spiritual idea to replace the God of the Bible. And the idea that has stilled in so easily is the Mother Nature Goddess, Gia. People now say, okay, Mother Nature is one God that comes from Western tradition, and we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature. We shouldn’t be tampering and all the crops are a part of Mother Nature and it all sits in this balance. If we tamper with it, the whole thing will collapse, and that’s bad. That’s an ideology. That’s a religion and it’s not a religion that has a name, but I think that’s where the opposition to biotechnology in the non-human sphere comes from.

Question: How is a belief in Mother Nature worse than a belief like transhumanism?

Lee Silver: I would say that trans-humanism, if it’s a religion it has no relationship to the real world right now. The religion is based on speculating that human beings can become post-human beings. I find it to be a very strange group of people because I don’t think – I talk about this a lot—this is going to happen that people are going to evolve during my lifetime. It doesn’t matter what I say, [one] hundred years from now, people are going to be talking and they’ll have their own decisions to make. I’m sure what trans-humanists want. To me it’s more of a science-fiction cult than anything else. Now how does that differ from the Mother Nature cult? The difference is that trans-humanists can be ignored, and it has no affect on the world, whereas the Mother Nature cult does have an affect on the world. They have a huge affect. They have prevented Europe from bringing in genetically modified foods that would help Europeans eat for less money. Now, the Europeans are rich, so they can spend more money for their food and still be satisfied, but then the Europeans will go to sub-Saharan Africa and tell the sub-Saharan Africans not to allow the United States to send grain, even though their people are starving in sub-Saharan Africa. You don’t want to take American grain because American grain is genetically modified. In my mind, anybody who says that is religious because essentially they are sacrificing individual human beings for the good of some greater ideology.

Question: Why do you think Eastern religions are more amenable to biotech?

Lee Silver: The difference between Eastern and Western religions is far, far greater than the difference between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Those three religions all come out of the same background, Bible, if you will, even though people in those areas are at each other’s throats. In the East, there are many different religions and what you can say about them is that, unlike the West, they don’t have a single God who is in charge. Either they have many gods, or they have no gods. It's never one, zero or many. There isn't a single God to please. The gods are actually fighting with each other in the Hindu religion. That's the first point. The second point is, they have a notion of life based on karma, or they believe there is no soul, and so it's one extreme or the other. Karma means that you're reincarnated based on what you do yourself. You're not listening to anybody else. You follow what is right for you and you don't have to obey these bigger rules. Also, there isn't this future Jerusalem in the sky, which is where Western religions come from. You better follow the rules and that's the naked sheep to the future Jerusalem. I think that also affects the post-Christians, or the nonreligious people. They think [if] you don't follow the rules the world is going to give up on us. It just doesn't happen in the East. In the East, there are different gods. In the East, they are not worried about this; there is no defined future. They don’t have the same hang-ups that people in the West have, and since they don’t have those hang-ups, they don’t’ have the same fears, if they’re educated. I spent a lot of time talking to people in Southeast Asia, and Asia. If anything, they are too lax in their regulations. They are willing to manipulate food for their sustenance, for the betterment of themselves and their society.

Recorded on:  September 11, 2009