Biotech Ethics

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In the seventeenth century the philosophers Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650) advocated a new way of doing science that would have the power to conquer nature for human benefit. (The old science had seemed to be more concerned with contemplating nature than controlling it.) In the contemporary world biotechnology is providing the technology for controlling and changing living nature, including human nature. However, because biotechnological power over the living world offers not only the promise for doing good but also an opportunity for doing evil, this has provoked an ethical debate over the modern scientific project for the mastery of nature through technology.

Biotechnology in History

Biotechnology can be defined as the technical manipulation of living organisms or parts of those organisms to provide products and services to satisfy human desires. If it is defined in this broad way, one can see that biotechnology has been employed throughout human history.

The history of biotechnology can be divided into three periods: ancient, modern, and contemporary. Ancient biotechnology began more than 10,000 years ago with the emergence of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia. Modern biotechnology began in the nineteenth century with the development of industrial microbiology. Contemporary biotechnology began in the 1970s with new techniques for genetic engineering. In each period one can see the power humans have acquired to manipulate nature. But one also can see the natural limits of this power, which is constrained by the natural potentialities available in wild plants and animals and the natural complexities of behavioral traits in the living world.

Ancient biotechnology began when human beings started to domesticate plants and animals for human use. Throughout most of the history of the human species, spanning approximately six million years, human beings fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Then some people in a few parts of the world began to produce food by cultivating domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals. As a consequence those farmers and herders bred for and selected genetic modifications in domesticated organisms that were more suitable to human desires. Even in the early twenty-first century all of human civilization depends on this project in agricultural biotechnology.

The human power of domestication is limited, however, by the natural potentiality of wild plants and animals. Most plant and animal species in the wild are not suitable for domestication. For example, most wild plants are not good as a source of food because they are woody or do not produce fruit, leaves, or roots that are edible. Most wild animals are not susceptible to successful domestication because they cannot be bred and herded in a manner that makes them useful for human beings. Although advances in biological knowledge have increased human biotechnological power over living nature, that power will always be limited by the potentialities found in nature.

Modern biotechnology arose in the nineteenth century as growing knowledge in the biological sciences was applied to the technological manipulation of the living world for human purposes. For example, the chemist Louis Pasteur's (1822–1895) microbiological explanation of fermentation as resulting from the activity of microscopic organisms allowed improvements in the brewing of beer and other industries that depend on using fermentation by yeast to produce food and beverages. Pasteur also showed that infectious diseases are caused by disease-producing microorganisms and perfected techniques for vaccination that would create immunity to some of those diseases. Later, in the twentieth century, the discovery of the ways in which some fungi produce antibiotics such as penicillin revolutionized the medical treatment of bacterial infections. In the early 2000s there are hundreds of pharmaceutical agents derived from fungal fermentation.

However, even modern biotechnology shows the technical limits set by nature. Bacteria vulnerable to fungal toxins can evolve to become resistant to those toxins. Indeed, bacteria have been so successful in evolving tolerance to antibiotics that there is a growing fear in the medical profession that the age of antibiotic protection against infectious diseases is reaching its end. The power of this aspect of biotechnology for controlling living nature is great but limited.

The contemporary biotechnology that began in the last half of the twentieth century arose from a deeper knowledge of genetics and molecular biology and has provided humans with greater power over the living world. Even so, contemporary biotechnology is limited in its technical means by the physical and chemical limits of nature.

Contemporary biotechnology began in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed the technology for recombinant DNA, which allows scientists to alter DNA molecules and thus artificially create new forms of life. They did this by combining a number of discoveries. Bacteria protect themselves against certain viruses through the use of restriction enzymes that cut up viral DNA at specific sequences of nucleotide bases; this allows a scientist with the right restriction enzyme to cut out a specific genetic sequence. Bacteria contain plasmids, which are small loops of DNA that can pass from one bacterium to another. This allows bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance quickly if the genes for resistance are passed by plasmids. Boyer and Cohen showed how one could use a restriction enzyme to cut out a specific genetic sequence and then glue that sequence into a bacterial plasmid. That plasmid, with its new combination of genetic sequences, could be introduced into a bacterial cell. As the bacterial cell divided, it would produce copies of the recombinant plasmid, which then could be extracted from the bacteria.

An illustration of the value of this recombinant DNA technique is provided by the production of human insulin. People with diabetes do not have enough of the protein insulin to regulate blood-sugar levels. After the 1920s diabetic patients were treated with injections of insulin extracted from pigs and cattle. This is an example of modern biotechnology. Although pig and cow insulin is very similar to human insulin, there are enough differences that some people with diabetes have had allergic reactions. Contemporary biotechnology provided a solution to the problem by using recombinant DNA techniques. The human gene for insulin was identified and then could be inserted into a bacterial cell through a plasmid so that the bacterium would produce human insulin that could be harvested for use by human patients. In 1982 human insulin produced in genetically modified bacteria became the first drug of contemporary biotechnology to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Contemporary biotechnology has developed hundreds of products with agricultural, environmental, and medical benefits. Agricultural biotechnology uses reliable techniques for genetic manipulation to produce new kinds of plants and animals to provide food that is cheaper and more nutritious. Environmental biotechnology is used to design genetically modified organisms that can clean up environmental pollution by consuming toxic materials. Medical biotechnology is used to devise new drugs and vaccines and therapeutic techniques that relieve or prevent suffering, cure disease, and enhance physical and mental well-being.

Ethical Issues

Despite its many benefits, biotechnology has provoked ethical controversy in six areas of moral concern: safety, liberty, justice, environmental nature, human nature, and religious beliefs.

SAFETY. Safety is a moral concern for opponents of biotechnology who worry that its power disrupts the complex balance in living nature in ways that are likely to be harmful. Individuals such as Jeremy Rifkin (1977) and groups such as Greenpeace have warned that genetically modified crops and foods could endanger human health as well as the health of the environment. Critics of medical biotechnology fear that biotechnology medicine alters the human body and mind in radical ways that could produce harmful consequences—perhaps far into the future—in ways that are hard to foresee.

Proponents of biotechnology such as James Watson (2003) and Michael Fumento (2003) argue that its techniques are so precise and controlled that it tends to be far safer than older forms of technology. Breeders of plants and animals have genetically modified organisms for thousands of years without understanding exactly what they were doing. But biotechnology in the early 2000s provides a better understanding of and greater power over genetic mechanisms so that it is possible to minimize the risks. In fact, there is no clear evidence that any human being among the hundreds of millions who have been exposed has become sick from eating genetically modified foods. Similarly, the risks to human health from medical biotechnology can be reduced by means of careful testing and new techniques for designing drugs and therapies that are designed specifically for individual patients with unique genetic traits. Nevertheless, the history of unforeseen harm from all technologies justifies a cautious approach.

LIBERTY. Liberty is a moral concern for those who fear that biotechnology will give some people tyrannical power over others. The history of eugenics, in which governments used coercion to eliminate those judged to be biologically "unfit," illustrates the danger of encroachments on liberty. Libertarian proponents of biotechnology such as Fumento and Virginia Postrel (1998) insist that there should be no threat to liberty as long as biotechnology is chosen freely by individuals in a free market economy. But conservatives such as Leon Kass (2002) worry that people could be coerced informally by social pressure, employers, and insurance companies so that they will feel compelled to adopt biotechnology products and procedures. Moreover, Kass and others suggest that biotech can give parents the power to control the nature and behavior of their children in ways that threaten the liberty of the children.

JUSTICE. Justice is a moral concern for people who anticipate that biotechnology will be so expensive that only the richest individuals will benefit from it so that the rich will have an unjust advantage over the poor. Even proponents of biotechnology such as Lee Silver (1998) worry that reproductive biotechnology eventually could divide humanity into two separate species based on the wealth or poverty of their ancestors: the "genrich" who would be genetically designed to be superior and the "genpoor" who would be left behind as biologically inferior beings. Of course in some ways this problem is not unique to biotechnology because rich people always have unfair advantages over the poor, but the libertarian defenders of biotechnology foresee that in a free-market society prices for biotechnology products and services eventually will decline as a result of competition, and this will lessen the advantages of the rich over the poor. Similarly, critics of biotechnology argue that the rich nations of the world will benefit more from this new technology than will the poor nations, yet libertarians predict that international free trade will spread the advantages of biotechnology around the world.

ENVIRONMENTAL NATURE. Environmental nature is a moral concern for environmentalists such as Rifkin and Bill McKibben (2003). Those environmentalists predict that biotechnology will promote the replacement of the natural environment with a purely artificial world and that this will deprive human beings of healthy contact with wild nature. They also fear that introducing genetically modified organisms into the environment will produce monstrous forms of life that will threaten human beings and the natural world.

Proponents of biotechnology respond by noting that beginning with agriculture, human beings have been creating genetically modified organisms that transform the environment for thousands of years. All organisms modify their environments, sometimes with global effects. For example, the oxygen in the earth's atmosphere has been produced over billions of years by photosynthetic organisms. Biologists such as F. John Odling-Smee (2003) have called this "niche construction." So human beings are not unique in their capacity for changing their environments. Although this sometimes has produced disasters such as the extinction of plants and animals and the emergence of new disease-causing agents, people have learned to adjust to these dangers, and contemporary biotechnology provides more precise knowledge and techniques to recognize and avoid such dangers. Moreover, environmental biotechnology is developing new organisms, such as bacteria genetically engineered to metabolize toxic wastes, to restore dangerous natural environments to a condition that is safe for human beings.

HUMAN NATURE. Human nature is a moral concern for anyone who fears that biotechnology could change or even abolish human nature. Both environmentalists such as Rifkin and McKibben and conservatives such as Kass and Francis Fukuyama (2002) worry that the biotechnological transformation of human nature will produce a "posthuman" world with no place for human dignity rooted in human nature. On the other side of this debate Nick Bolstrom (2003) and others in the World Transhumanist Association welcome the prospect of using biotechnology to move toward a "transhuman" condition. More moderate proponents of biotechnology dismiss both positions for being based on exaggerated views of the power of biotechnology.

In a report by the President's Council on Bioethics (2003) Kass and other members of the council contend that biotechnology expresses a willful lack of humility in pursuing a scientific mastery of nature that carries out the modern scientific project first described by Francis Bacon. When a physician uses medical therapy to restore the health of a patient, the physician cultivates the body's natural capacity for healing to serve the natural goal of health. Such medical treatment is guided in both its means and its ends by nature. But when biotechnologists use genetic engineering or psychotropic drugs to extend human bodily or mental powers beyond their normal range, they act not as nature's servant but as nature's master because they are forcing nature to serve their own willful desires.

As an example Kass and other members of the council point to the use of psychotropic drugs such as Prozac that alter the biochemistry of the brain to elevate mood. Using such drugs to cure severely depressed patients can be justified as therapy directed toward restoring normal mental health, but their use to change human personality radically—perhaps by inducing feelings of contentment that never yield to sadness—would violate the normal range of human mental experience set by nature. The ultimate aim of such a psychopharmacological science would be a drug-dependent fantasy of happiness that would be dehumanizing. Furthermore, scientists such as David Healy (2004) have warned that any drug powerful enough to change human personality is likely to have severely harmful side effects.

The President's Council (2003) warns against the excessive pride inherent in Bacon's project for mastering nature, which assumes that nature is mere material for humans to shape to their desires. Rather, it urges people to adopt an attitude of humility and respect and treat the natural world as a "gift." To respect the "giftedness" of the natural world is to recognize that the world is given to humans as something not fully under their control and that even human powers for changing the world belong to human nature as the unchanging ground of all change (Kass 2003).

Proponents of biotechnology could respond by defending Bacon's project as combining respect for nature with power over nature. At the beginning of the Novum Organon Bacon observed that "nature to be commanded must be obeyed" because "all that man can do is to put together or put asunder natural bodies," and then "the rest is done by nature working within" (Bacon 1955, p. 462). Kass has used the same words in explaining how the power of biotechnology is limited by the potentialities inherent in nature (Kass 1985).

Throughout the history of biotechnology—from the ancient Mesopotamian breeders of plants and animals, to Pasteur's use of microorganisms for fermentation and vaccination, to Boyer and Cohen's techniques for gene splicing—people have employed nature's properties for the satisfaction of human desires. Boyer and Cohen did not create restriction enzymes and bacterial plasmids but discovered them as parts of living nature. They then used those natural processes to bring about outcomes, such as the production of human insulin for persons with diabetes, that would benefit human beings. Biotechnology has the ability to change nature only insofar as it conforms to the laws of nature. To command nature people must obey it.

Baconian biotechnology is thus naturally limited in its technical means because it is constrained by the potentialities of nature. It is also naturally limited in its moral ends because it is directed toward the goals set by natural human desires. Kass and the President's Council (2003) acknowledge this by showing how biotechnology is employed to satisfy natural desires such as the desire of parents for happy children and the desire of all human beings for life and health. As they indicate, it is not enough to respect the "giftedness" of nature because some of the "gifts" of nature, such as diabetes and cancer, are undesirable. People accept some of nature's gifts and reject others on the basis of the desires inherent in human nature.

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. To appreciate life as a gift that should elicit a feeling of humility rather than mastery is a religious emotion. Some of the moral concerns about biotechnology express the religious attitude that life is sacred and therefore the biotechnological manipulation of life shows a lack of reverence for the divinely ordained cosmic order. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) suggests that the human lust for technical power over the world provokes divine punishment.

In 1977 the environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book attacking biotechnology with the title Who Should Play God?: The Artificial Creation of Life and What It Means for the Future of the Human Race. The title conveys the direction of his argument. The "creation of life" is proper only for God. For human beings to create life "artificially" is a blasphemous transgression of God's law that will bring punishment upon the human race. Rifkin often uses the imagery of the Frankenstein story. Like Doctor Frankenstein, biotech scientists are trying to take God's place in creating life, and the result can only be the creation of monsters. When people such as Rifkin use the phrase "playing God," they evoke a religious sense that nature is a sacred expression of God's will and therefore should not be changed by human intervention. Rifkin has said that "the resacralization of nature stands before us as the great mission of the coming age" (Rifkin 1983, p. 252).

In contrast to Rifkin, Bacon thought that regarding nature as sacred was a pagan idea contrary to biblical religion. In pagan antiquity the natural world was the sacred image of God, but the Bible teaches that God is the transcendent Creator of nature; therefore, God's mysterious will is beyond nature. Although nature declares God's power and wisdom, it does not declare the will and true worship of God. Bacon believed that true religion as based on faith in biblical revelation must be separated from true philosophy based on the rational study of nature's laws (Bacon 1955).

Some biblical theologians, such as Philip Hefner (2003) and Ted Peters (2003), have restated this Baconian claim that the biblical conception of God as the supernatural creator of nature separates the sacred and the natural and thus denies pagan pantheism. They argue that because human beings have been created in God's image and God is the Creator, human beings must share somehow in God's creativity. The Bible declares that when God made humanity in his image, this was to include "dominion" or "mastery" over all the earth, including all the animals (Genesis 1:26–28). Hefner reads the Bible as teaching that human beings are "created cocreators." As "created," humans are creatures and cannot create in the same way as God, who can create ex nihilo, "from nothing." However, as "cocreators" people can contribute to changes in creation. Of course, Hefner warns, people must do this as cautious and respectful stewards of God's creation, but it is not appropriate to worship nature as sacred and thus inviolable.

The theological idea of human beings as cocreators was affirmed by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens and criticized as a "remarkably bad idea" by the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas (Houck and Williams 1983). In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus the Pope stressed the importance of human technological knowledge in improving the conditions of life (Novak 1993).

That God transcends nature, that nature is thus not sacred, that human beings as created in God's image share in God's creative activity, that human beings have the power and the duty to master nature by artful manipulation, and that they have the moral duty to do this as an activity of charity for the improvement of human life—all the precepts Bacon drew from the Bible to support his view of the new science—have been accepted by some biblical believers. But many of those believers worry that modern science promotes an atheistic materialism that denies the dignity of human beings and of the natural world generally as God's Creation. In particular they worry about whether biotechnology expresses an unduly willful attitude toward the world as merely raw material for human manipulation and survival.


SEE ALSO Bioengineering Ethics;Bioethics;Biological Weapons;Food Science and Technology;Genethics;Genetically Modified Foods;Nanoethics.


Arnhart, Larry. (2003). "Human Nature Is Here to Stay." The New Atlantis 2: 65–78. Argues that biotechnology will not abolish human nature.

Bacon, Francis. (1955). Selected Writings of Francis Bacon. New York: Random House.

Bud, Robert. (1993). The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, Jared. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton. A history of how agricultural biotechnology has shaped human civilization.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2002). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. A neoconservative argument for legally restricting biotechnology.

Fumento, Michael. (2003). Bioevolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter. A detailed survey of all forms of biotechnology by a libertarian proponent.

Healy, David. (2004). Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression. New York: New York University Press.

Hefner, Philip. (2003). Technology and Human Becoming. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Houck, John, and Oliver Williams, eds. (1983). Co-Creation and Capitalism: John Paul II's Laborem Exercens. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Kass, Leon. (1985). Toward a More Natural Science. New York: Free Press.

Kass, Leon. (2002). Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. San Francisco: Encounter.

Kass, Leon, ed. (2003). Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Report of the President's Council on Bioethics. Washington, DC: Dana Press.

McKibben, Bill. (2003). Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. New York: Times Books. An environmentalist attack on biotechnology.

Novak, Michael. (1993). The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Free Press.

Odling-Smee, F. John; Kevin N. Laland; and Marcus W. Feldman. (2003). Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Peters, Ted. (2003). Playing God?: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Postrel, Virginia. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies. New York: Free Press. A libertarian defense of technological innovation as the basis for human freedom.

Rifkin, Jeremy. (1977). Who Should Play God?: The Artificial Creation of Life and What It Means for the Future of the Human Race. New York: Delacorte Press.

Rifkin, Jeremy. (1983). Algeny. New York: Viking.

Rifkin, Jeremy. (1998). The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Ruse, Michael, and David Castle, eds. (2002). Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. An excellent collection of statements on all sides of the ethical debate over agricultural biotechnology.

Sherlock, Richard, and John D. Morrey, eds. (2002). Ethical Issues in Biotechnology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. An excellent anthology of material on the ethics of biotechnology.

Silver, Lee. (1998). Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. New York: Avon. A libertarian celebration of the power of biotechnology for changing the world.

Watson, James D. (2003). DNA: The Secret of Life. New York: Knopf. A broad history of genetics and biotechnology by the codiscoverer of DNA.


Bolstrom, Nick. (2003). The Transhumanist FAQ. Available from