Biotechnology

Block Biotech Progress or Embrace It? Bioethicists Debate What's to Come.

Is progress itself an ethical obligation? Opinions vary.

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BEINGS2015

ATLANTA—At the close of the BEINGS 2015 Summit, the novelist Margaret Atwood summed up her attitude towards biotechnology: She was "Ms. Grumpy." The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, she added, was "Dr. Happy." After attending as one of 200 delegates to the summit, I can say that most of my fellow delegates seemed distinctly more grumpy than happy, at least when it came to biotech's prospects for relieving humanity's manifold ills.

BEINGS 2015—the acronym stands for the Biotech and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit—is the brainchild of the Emory University bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe. Besides Atwood and Pinker, the speakers at the three-day summit included the Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin, the New York University bioethicist Art Caplan, the Newcastle University sociologist Erica Haimes, the University of Alberta law professor Ubaka Ogbogu, and the McGill law professor Margaret Somerville, among others. The ultimate goal is to hammer out over the next few months some kind of "foundational manuscript" that lays out "reasonable guidelines for cellular biotechnologies such as synthetic biology and stem cell research, as well as animal and human applications of these biotechnologies." A version of these guidelines would then be published in a prominent science journal. (Both Science and Nature have expressed interest.)

The summit's specific focus was science aimed at directly manipulating human cells and cells that impact human beings. (Wolpe excluded consideration of genetically modified crops, animal rights, and informed consent in research on human subjects.) These were divided into five topic areas: aspirations and goals for biotechnologies, alien organisms and new (id)entities, bioterror/bioerror, ownership/donorship, and who gets to regulate the new technologies.

The first presenter was Pinker, who opened by noting that his charge was to raise provocative questions. As my later interactions with fellow delegates showed, Pinker did indeed provoke a lot of them. He began by pointing out that global average life expectancy has been increasing, rising from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013. Moreover, the differences in life expectancy between poor and rich countries are converging as people living in poor countries enjoy longer lives. He attributes these improvements to economic development, lower rates of infection, better nutrition, the application of evidence-based public health measures, and biomedical research. Since biomedical research promises vast increases in human life, health, and flourishing, he argued, the best thing those assembled at BEINGS 2015 do was to "stay out of the way."

Pinker argued that vague bioethical principles like "dignity," "genetic privacy," and "social justice" were particularly unhelpful. He added that bioethicists should avoid thwarting biomedical progress based on highly speculative harms. Noting that human beings are terrible at predicting the medium- and long-term future, he urged the delegates to consider the costs of bogging down research.

Next up was Atwood, who told the audience that the title of her "Edward Talk" (contrasted with TED Talks, get it?) is "The Lid Is Off the Box." Why the Pandora allusion? Because biotechnologists, she said, now have "one of the most significant—if not the most significant—power: the power to create new beings." Atwood referenced her 2003 post-apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake, which she described as a "fun-filled romp" about human extinction. In that book, genetically engineered new beings replace the human race that has been deliberately killed off by a biotech plague.

Resorting to the Tale of Two Cities trope, Atwood declared our era both the best and worst of times. Best because of the breathtaking pace in the increase of knowledge: Biotechnology promises to make people smarter, healthier, and longer-lived, as well as cuter and hunkier. Worst because climate change is threatening food supplies, expanding the range of tropical diseases, and warming oceans, which will kill off oxygen-producing algae. "If you can't eat or breathe, having healthy kidneys is beside the point," Atwood said. She did, however, suggest that biotech could create organisms that mop up extra carbon dioxide to cool the planet, grow food using less toxins, arrest the decline in pollinators by creating honeybees that are more resistant to diseases and pollutants, and, finally, eliminate most inheritable diseases.

Atwood also cited recent research that finds that factors in young blood rejuvenate old bodies. "That's bad news for babies," she joked, sketching out a scenario in which infant plasma is siphoned off to rejuvenate "some old farts." She ended, "I have been as positive as could be expected given the circumstances; namely that it's the year 2015."

In the panel discussion following Pinker and Atwood, Wolpe asked Arthur Caplan to reflect on the ethical implications of CRISPR, a technology that makes it a lot easier to edit genes. Caplan suggested that the public does not trust researchers to do the right thing with new technologies. He pointed to a recent experiment in which Chinese researchers used CRISPR to edit the genes of defective human embryos, and a proposal to use the technology to create gene drives that could be released to curate wild populations. He pointed out that prominent scientists have published a articles in major journals urging a go-slow approach for both embryo editing and gene drives. All of these articles cite the 1975 Asilomar Conference, where scientists called for a moratorium on genetic engineering.

Yoon-Seong Lee, a physician at Seoul National University, wondered whether biotechnologists might some day suffer from "Oppenheimer's remorse"—a reference to the Manhattan Project's technical director, Robert Oppenheimer, who came to regret his role in developing the atomic bomb. Pinker forcefully countered that the atomic bomb is a technology designed to kill people, while biomedical research is designed to cure people. Bioethically speaking, Pinker declared, "Nothing can be learned from the Manhattan Project."

Pinker pointed out that the embryos used in the Chinese CRISPR germline editing experiment were double fertilized and so could not have developed into babies. He also argued that the Asilomar moratorium is a terrible model for trying to earn the public's trust, saying it backfired because "it terrified people into thinking we're Frankenstein, Prometheus, and Dr. Faustus."

The summit turned next to alien organisms and new identities. Ruha Benjamin started out by asserting that "innovation and inequity go hand-in-hand." The benefits of technological progress "already go to those who monopolize resources," she argued, and modern biotechnologies as currently deployed "insure a world resembling Gattaca and Elysium" that "builds upon and amplifies current systems of domination." Benjamin urged the summit delegates to "stop worshipping at the altar of individual choice. It is not the end-all and be-all." Instead we should focus on distributive justice and "collectively refuse the notion that questions of social justice are anti-science."

How to prevent bioterror or bioerror, that is, harms caused by organisms escaped from labs or badly designed? Caplan reminded the summiteers of the brouhaha when two research groups developed nastier and more infectious flu viruses in 2012. The researchers wanted to publish their results, but a lot of people called for censorship, arguing that this would give terrorists the recipe for a flu pandemic that could kill millions of people.

Why did the researchers do the work? Because they were aiming to identify in advance the mutations that might transform bird flu into a deadly human disease. This would help monitor naturally circulating viruses so as to give humanity an early warning. "The worst terrorist that humankind faces is nature," Caplan noted. In any case, the necessary openness of science means attempts at censorship are ultimately useless. "The bottom line is that I think research on what nature is trying to do to kill us is worth the risk of possible bioterrorism," asserted Caplan. He was entirely correct. 

With regard to bioerror, Caplan made some sensible suggestions. For example, engineered organisms should all be "branded" so that they can be traced back to their makers, who can be held accountable. In addition, the ability to switch them off could be built into engineered organisms. As it happens, during the summit, Nature Communications published a study this week describing how CRISPR can be used to install a "kill switch" in genetically modified organisms.

Another presenter, McGill law professor Margaret Somerville, is especially concerned about the future of the human germline. The germline is defined as the cellular lineage especially of a sexually reproducing animal from which eggs and sperm are derived and in which a cell undergoing mutation can be passed to the next generation. The genes in such a cell might be edited at the behest of parents – correcting, say, sickle cell trait – thus ensuring that their progeny and future generations would be free of that genetic malady. Should people be allowed to treat the genes they could pass down to their children as their property and do with them as they choose?

For Somerville, and for many other summiteers, the answer is an emphatic no. Somerville asserts that "the human germline should be treated as sacred." Why sacred? Because the human germline occupies a special place in the "metaphysical ecosystem" of the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, and shared stories that constitute the bases of our society. Recognizing something as sacred, according to Somerville, means that we have an obligation to not "lay waste" to it and must preserve it pristinely intact for future generations. "We are required to hold the human germline in trust for future generations as the common heritage of humanity," she concludes.

Somerville also cited the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas' tired and incoherent claims that all human beings have a right to come into existence through chance. In order to be free, Somerville and Habermas assert, people must have contingent origins so that they can always go back and remake themselves. During the session, I pointed out that this amounts to no more than the assertion that human freedom is somehow dependent upon genetic ignorance. If that were the case, then human freedom would be over as soon as cheap genomic testing becomes widely available. In fact, to whatever extent we were ever at the mercy of our genes, we no longer will be. Instead our genes will increasingly be at the mercy of our brains.

I also reminded the audience that not a single person in the room had given their consent to be born, much less to be born with the specific complement of genes they carry. Thus any future genetically enhanced children will stand in the exact same moral relationship to their parents that we unenhanced do now: with no consent to birth or genetic heritage.

As far as metaphysical ecosystems go, it's a very good thing that liberal, market-based societies have "laid waste" to the principles, attitudes, beliefs, and shared stories that earlier ratified domination, discrimination, and worse toward groups of people based on racial, ethnic, sexual preference, and gender differences. And as both Pinker and the Harvard biologist George Church pointed out, human genes are constantly mutating and being edited through sexual selection, so there is no coherent concept of "the human germline."

The summit ended with concluding remarks from Atwood and Pinker. Atwood focused again on the alleged global environmental crisis and the need to push humanity from fossil fuels to renewables. She believes that shift implies the adoption of a "stewardship model" of bioethics. Apparently, that means we should opt to preserve the human germline just as it is.

Pinker argued that the notion of human flourishing is less contentious than people think. Most people, he suggested, would agree that life is better than death, health is better than disease, wealth is better than poverty, knowledge is better than ignorance, and discussion is better than violence. While far too many people still die prematurely, suffer from preventable disease, remain impoverished and uneducated, and endure violence, over the past two centuries dramatic improvements in all of these measures have been achieved. Biomedical science has played a big role in that progress and will play an even bigger role in the future.

Interestingly, when I cited Pinker's examples of human flourishing, several of my colleagues vigorously disagreed. Why? Because, they argued, some people prefer death, others choose lives of pious poverty, and uneducated native peoples are often wiser than alienated folks from industrialized countries.

"The goal of bioethics is to ensure progress for as long as possible," Pinker concluded. If it can't do that, it should just stay out of the way.

Disclosure: I am a drafting delegate, which means that I will be working with my summit colleagues on aspects of the BEINGS 2015 fundamental document for the next several months.

NEXT: Kurt Loder Reviews Tomorrowland and The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

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  1. I prefer to simply call many of them Luddites. If what people suggest, like many of the so-called bioethicists do, is outright immoral and unethical, then how can you really still call them ethicists?

    1. Man was born into sin and it is his lot to suffer for that sin. Anything that relieves that suffering is therefore itself sinful. It’s why money is the root of all evil, wealth relieves hunger and sickness and all manner of discomfort. It is the holy duty of all good progressives to afflict the comfortable and to afflict the afflicted and they take that duty very seriously.

    2. The Luddites were morally superior to these twits. They were attacking the machinery that was putting them out of a job. It was stupid, and counterproductive, but at least they were actually being harmed by the target of their ire.

      These idiots are something else again. When the industrial Revolution roared through Western society it upset a greater many apple carts. Ever since a certain class of romantic nitwit has mourned the passing of the “simple rural life”, completely forgetting (if they ever knew) that the simple rural life was rude with opportunities to get maimed, starve, or freeze. Studies done of nutrition before and after the move into the cities show that, while they may have been malnourished, the new Industrial workers were eating an average of a thousand calories a day MORE than they rural parents. The industrial workers were exploited, over worked, and malnourished, but the rural peasants were all too often simply starving.

      The people who hated the Industrial Revolution the worst were the Aristocratic landowners, whose fortunes rested on a model of agriculture that was fast outdated. They resented the New Money, the men who were in “Trade”, who “smelled of the shop”. And they flat out HATED that the factories could pay the lower orders more than they themselves could afford, unless they got off their fat rumps and changed with the times.

      1. Cntd.

        Since they were the educated class, by and large, their opinions had a lot of influence. And even since Intellectuals, many of whom would be starving peasants without the Industrial Revolution, loath it and all other forms of progress. These are the godsdamned fools who opposed using DDT to battle Malaria (when they are at no risk of same), oppose the growing of “Golden Rice” (when it isn’t THEIR children who are at risk of losing their sight to vitamin A deficiency). And they re the “Bioethicists” quoted above.

        They have been promising that scientific progress would cause Disaster for about two centuries now (See Paul Johnson’s BIRTH OF THE MODERN). Frankenstein assured us that people brought back from death by the New Medical Science would be soulless monsters (can’t think of any evidence). Countless tales tell us that our New Robot Overlords are just waiting for their moment to arise (hasn’t happened yet). Any time a new technological or scientific fad turns out to be a mistake (radium toothpaste, anyone) they crow with delight. Never have time to examine the other side of the ledger, somehow.

        1. Cntd.

          Maybe they are right. Maybe meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know will bring about our doom. But in the meantime, I am sick to death of listening to these smarmy, sanctimonious, greed-heads and power-tripperes. They just want to tell me how to live my life, and imagine that when all authority has been handed to The State, that they will be allowed to exercise their rightful superiority to the Masses by the inevitable Stalin.

          Lynching them would only affirm their boundless (and foundation-less) sense of their own importance. I say we ignore the silly bastards.

          1. You bring up a lot of good points Schofield but I must disagree with your interpretation of Frankenstein. Even the nost casual reader would not describe the Creature as a “soulless monster”: he was a literate and compassionate being who was hounded by an ignorant populace. Its unfair and inaccurate to claim tbat Shelley was anti-Science.

            1. The popular conception of Frankenstein is based on the movies, which varied considerably from the novel.

    3. they’re ethicists in the same sense that W was a conservative

  2. “…uneducated native peoples are often wiser than alienated folks from industrialized countries.”
    What is the definition of wisdom here? How is it measured? How many of your colleagues who advocate this position actually live the life of an “uneducated native”?

    1. They wouldn’t choose to live that way and probably can’t really understand even empathize. But unfortunately, the “uneducated natives” have no higher claim to wisdom (whatever that is) than any other population of people. To be sure, they have different life experiences that are worth knowing, but that doesn’t entitle them to moral deference any more than being born in the West entitles us to it. It’s just easy to default to a dark, murky, mysterious wisdom that doesn’t need to be “argued” or “defended” or, you know, “justified.”

    2. Isn’t this just the ‘noble savage’ myth in modern political dress?

      1. Yes. Proggies also love to use a modernized version of “white man’s burden” all the while bleating on and on about the evils of colonialism. It’s like they don’t even bother actually thinking about anything anymore, they just emote and spew whatever garbage makes them feel smug.

      2. Oh, my, yes. The intellectual pondscum of the Left has hung onto this trope like grim death. They desperately need to believe that, somewhere, in some barbarian tribe, there is a justification for their lust for power, because they sure haven’t found one based in reason, observation, amd logic.

        1. Does *every* batch of comments on this goddamned website have to immediately descend into partisan Jackassery? There is nothing intrinsically conservative or liberal about modern bioethical skepticism. Republicans can produce quack science just as adeprly as Democrats – check out the White House Science Advisor during the Bush Years for examples. Remember the ban on stem cell research? How about tbe ban on human cloning? The fact is that anti-intellectual luddism is the preeminent view on both sides of the aisle. Stop looking at the world through the TEAM magnofying glass. You will be surprised how much youre missing.

          1. Thank you. Luddites on the Right are as bad or worse than luddites on the left, especially when they have God on their side!

  3. Death and disease are part of the human inheritance. How dare you question the wisdom of Gaia!! Atwood is an ignorant moron. The world is greener today than 30 years ago. Per capita food production has never been higher. And if/when C3 crops can be coverted to C4 through the satan’s stew of biotech, then we’ll have even more food. Meanwhile Europe’s endless orgy rituals to Gaia have led to increasing fuel poverty, some of the most expensive energy on the planet, and genuine tropical devastation to produce the rape seed oil they need to fuck their planet goddess.

    Just another econut.

  4. Ruha Benjamin started out by asserting that “innovation and inequity go hand-in-hand.” The benefits of technological progress “already go to those who monopolize resources,” she argued, and modern biotechnologies as currently deployed “insure a world resembling Gattaca and Elysium” that “builds upon and amplifies current systems of domination.” Benjamin urged the summit delegates to “stop worshipping at the altar of individual choice. It is not the end-all and be-all.” Instead we should focus on distributive justice and “collectively refuse the notion that questions of social justice are anti-science.”

    What is it about the field of bioethics that causes it to be almost universally populated by such vile, hateful, murderous, morally-retarded monsters?

    These people seriously try my devotion to the NAP. I suspect their homicidal impulses are really an extroverted expression of suicidal self-hate on their part. Part of me wishes to help them achieve their true inner goals.

    1. Oh, yes, golden rice only benefits those in the western world… because Econuts are preventing its use where it is needed.

    2. I can’t think of anything more “anti-science” than arguments from fear, faith, irrationality, and tradition, and basically all of their arguments fell into one of these categories.

    3. “Innovation and inequity go hand-in-hand” is the most backward, moronic thing I will read all day.

      This falls under Orwell’s “ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

      1. It is true to some degree.

        However, people who say that consider universal absolute poverty preferable to a society where less than 1% live in absolute poverty and 20% live in a state of ‘relative poverty’ that would be equivalent to the living standards of the upper crust 250 years ago.

        1. At some point in the very near future, this will turn into a suicide cult because “only the dead are truly equal”.

          /sarcasm

      2. B.P.|5.22.15 @ 2:13PM|#
        “Innovation and inequity go hand-in-hand” is the most backward, moronic thing I will read all day.”

        Disagreed.
        In a perfectly equal world, there is no innovation; it requires someone to do one thing first. That is the definition of inequality.
        Moreover, without ‘the rich’ to pay for, oh, the Hep C cure, those advances will never achieve quantities that allow cheaper prices.
        Inequality is to be desired!

  5. I also reminded the audience that not a single person in the room had given their consent to be born, much less to be born with the specific complement of genes they carry. Thus any future genetically enhanced children will stand in the exact same moral relationship to their parents that we unenhanced do now: with no consent to birth or genetic heritage.

    Ron, it was good of you to use words. sadly, like their Soviet intellectual forebears these people will never learn. I suspect only death, either from an old age, or from a 7.62 milliliter round into their brain stem will end their attempts to spread their hateful ideology.

  6. These people would oppose vaccination* and pasteurization if either of those technologies were just being introduced.

    *not sure if there are any anti-vaxxers in the group.

    Margaret Atwood not only believes in her own dystopias, she actually wants them to happen.

  7. “Interestingly, when I cited Pinker’s examples of human flourishing, several of my colleagues vigorously disagreed. Why? Because, they argued, some people prefer death, others choose lives of pious poverty, and uneducated native peoples are often wiser than alienated folks from industrialized countries.”

    Sometimes I think people like this are just being contrary out of spite — there certainly is no logic in it.
    People who choose death can still have death even if their bodies are healthy (although with healthy bodies they are less likely to want death), people who choose lives of pious poverty can still do so even in a rich society, and although native peoples are more in touch with the land than most city folk, as a society they are much more uneducated.

    1. native peoples are more in touch with the land than most city folk,

      I truly detest this notion.

      “Native peoples” have been responsible for most extinctions in Eurasia and the Americas for the simple reason that they do not have the long term perspective needed to conserve resources (and, given that the alternative is often immediate starvation, little incentive to take the long term perspective.)

      Of course, pointing out the fact that the extinction of just about every large mammal in North America coincided with, and was probably caused by, the arrival of the clovis technology is considered racist. “Native Americans are in tune with the land,” the cant goes, “so they couldn’t have been responsible.”

  8. Benjamin urged the summit delegates to “stop worshipping at the altar of individual choice. It is not the end-all and be-all.” Instead we should focus on distributive justice and “collectively refuse the notion that questions of social justice are anti-science.”

    *barf*

    Is there anything SJW twats can’t politicize?

    1. I’m more fascinated by how he’s trying to make individualists into dogmatists. Projection, they sure do seem to love it.

  9. No animals were harmed during Nazi biotech experiments.

  10. I’m optimistic that debates like this over bioethics will be rendered moot once practical advances in biotech/etc. are deployed by the market. The last thing I want for anyone is to have such innovation obstructed or stamped out by the likes of Atwood/Somerville/Benjamin.

  11. About 40 years ago I lived on the Amazon River in South America, and was in touch with natives still living in the stone age. The very first thing they all wanted to get when in contact with us “disruptors of native life” was a mosquito net. Ever tried sleeping in the jungle without one, Ms. Atwood? It would put you firmly “in touch” with the native point of view.

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