The Perilous Ethics of Biotechnology

Molecular Biologist Lee Silver acknowledges that there are special bioethical considerations that come into play for those working on biotech—but insists that much of the opposition to the field is based on ignorance and loaded, misleading language.
  • Transcript


Question: What distinguishes biotechnology from other scientific pursuits?

Lee Silver: The idea of biotechnology has overlapped with other scientific pursuits but has a very specific difference in that biotechnology is the control, or manipulation of living things and feelings that we have, or that some people have about living things, and whether or not we should be disturbing them causes a lot of reaction against biotechnology. It’s the kind of reaction that you don’t have in the field of electronics or any of the other sciences. Biotechnologists, as a whole I would say, have groups of technologies that take advantage of living things, that control the output of living things, or that manipulate their genes in some way.

Question: Are there ethical considerations specific to the field?

Lee Silver: There are two main issues that are specific to biotechnology, and they have to do with whether we are experimenting or manipulating human beings, and then that comes to a question of; is that ethical? We have a set of ethics as a society in how we deal with human beings. The big issue is not whether human beings have rights and that we shouldn’t be hurting human beings or experimenting with human beings without their permission, the big question there is; what is a human being? That’s where the dispute is. Is a single cell embryo a human being, in which case it deserves protection, or is it just a single cell? Certainly, when the embryo develops into a fetus, [and] it becomes more complicated as the fetus develops into a baby.

Now, the second issue of biotechnology that is right to cause concern is, are we manipulating food products, for example, or manipulating organisms that will harm the environment in some way? Yes, I think there has to be a regulatory process in place to make sure that the science supports the idea that the biotechnology you implement is not going to be harmful. Harmful to the environment, harmful to you in food, so yes, of course regulation has to be considered there.

Question: Can human biotechnology lead to dangerous endpoints, such as eugenics?

Lee Silver: I think it is very important not to use scary words that elicit fright in people for reasons that they may not understand. The word “eugenics,” which means good genes, or generating children with good genes, has a horrible, horrible connotation because of how it was implemented at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, in other countries, and then of course, in Nazi Germany. The way they imagined eugenics was, they were going to tell some people to reproduce, and “they” meaning the government representing society said you can reproduce, you can’t reproduce. You can come into America, you can’t come into America because your genes make you unfit. That kind of eugenics has two huge problems. First, it violates human rights by telling some people that they can reproduce and others that they can’t. Second, the so-called science it was based on was totally faulty. For both of those reasons eugenics has been totally discredited and, of course it ended up with the Nazis killing off large groups of people.

What is happening now is that no scientists believe in either of those aspects of eugenics. No geneticist believes in that. What we're talking about now [is] not having [the] government tell people who can reproduce and who can’t. The question is whether parents themselves should be allowed to choose what genes go into their own children. There are a couple of reasons why that is so totally different. One of the things is there is no government intervening. The second thing is that all normal parents want to help their children, not hurt their children. There are a tiny number of ambiguous genetic changes that some people might want, but the vast majority of parents, if they could, want their children to prosper. Any kind of genetic changes they could imagine, or I could imagine, are ones that help their children prosper.

Question: Could the expense of genetic manipulation unfairly benefit the rich?

Lee Silver: I originally speculated that rich people would have the money to use this technology. It’s interesting because if a child is given a certain genetic constitution by the parent the difference between genetics and environmental advantage is that the child could then transmit that same gene to his or her children along with other enhancements. The idea was that you could get an evolutionary process, not by natural selection, but by the fact that in the beginning there were classes based on different economic means and the class with more money could advance in this way. I have disavowed that belief for Western society now, mainly because the technology has become so cheap. In Western society it's not going to be the top 10 percent, it’ll [be] the whole country. In fact, there will be genetic vaccinations, I suspect some day, where the government will offer to couples and say, we’re going to do a genetic enhancement so that your child doesn't get cancer and that your child doesn't get these genetic influenced diseases. It could be something like that. I wouldn't want [the] government [to] tell people that they had to do it, but it is interesting that it would benefit society. So, where's the split? The split would only occur if you had two groups of people who never came into contact with each other. Once you have contact, you have gene flow and that destroys the split. That won't happen in Western society. That won't happen in America, Europe, Japan, and now the upcoming China, and Southeast Asia because there is [what] a geneticist would call a gene flow, and the gene flow is so significant it's going to stop that from happening.

I worry about the poorest countries in the world. If they're not brought in as members of the global family, there could be something. But it's pure speculation. It was meant to get people to think, not to say that it was definitely going to happen.

Recorded on:  September 11, 2009