January 8, 2009

Synthetic Biology: be included in the debate

I have heard so many times, from so many people, the question: who decided that life should be patented? It happened without any public discourse, any inclusive ethical debate, no referendum among the people in church halls, in school classrooms, in town halls or parliamentary debate. It was decided in a court of law under probable pressure from interests of a commercial bent. The ramifications from that have been progressively more complex and abstract - issues of right and wrong in a quagmire of ignorance and feeble dissent, while over 25% of the planet's resources have been claimed for private ownership. How do we, the common people, engage? We find ourselves deep, not just with proprietary microorganisms, gene sequences, indigenous plant material and key food crops, but now the very real and encroaching fact of artificial life. We've been excluded, intentionally so, for its the elites around a board room table, not the people, that seek to direct the course of our future. This exclusion from participation in the course of our future is a siren call to our disintegrating democracy.
Today I listened to Arthur Caplan, Bio ethics guru, wag his tongue about the ethics of Synthetic Biology live via Woodrow Wilson Center. Ethicist to Craig Venture and not without his own conflict of interest, he was the sole ethicist on the panel. The deceptiveness of his argument that "there is no ethical lag" with Synthetic Biology because a few back room elites have hashed it over for a few year and published an article in 1999 (his own). Well done. But what about the public debate? What about those of us he condescendingly describes as "being left behind because you're not paying attention". How do we pay attention? Through the media, controlled by corporate interests who have a stake in how that technology progresses? How many people in Canada or in the US, can tell you what Synthetic Biology is? Let alone have access to the resources and forums to learn and debate. Have we been taught about the precautionary principle and concepts of risk assessment in our schools and in the media?
No. science leaps ahead and commerce takes hold before we the people have a voice. Its very cynical, intentional, elitist and very dangerous.
Caplan wants to frame the ethical issues only on the spiritual/ religious question: is it morally right to play god and make new life: to reduce life down to its molecular bits will offend people, and this will be the biggest hurdle, he says. I think this is a clever skirting of the equally important and intrinsically ethical questions of environmental safety, independently monitored risk assessment, corporate control of life and equitable access to the benefits. These latter issues he believes are policy issues. This is fundamentally wrong: philosophy, religion and ethics are where we need to look to strengthen our codes to live by as civil society.
Caplan asks: "why weren't the early warnings signals taken seriously...so policy can be engaged?" But he knows the answer. The early warning signals were hidden deep in technical papers; commerce/industry are rushing to commercialize the exploits of this technology before the public have the time and opportunity to reflect and take action. Its not quite "out of the barn" as Caplain puts it. Not quite, but almost. Do we really want corporate interests and military motives to build functional artificial life out of the genetic molecules that we know very little about, to release these into the biosphere, the consequences of which are not studied? I believe the overwhelming consensus would be NO! We need to be inclusive: to listen both to those from a secular, religious, scientific, intuitive, indigenous, etc, points of view.
Its our future. Lets talk about synthetic biology around the dinner table, in community halls, church task forces, community organizations and all levels of government. Lets not leave the design of our future to the military/industrial, scientific complex.
To help you understand a little more about synthetic biology I'd recommend this excellent report from the ETC Group.
Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology

If you want to listen to the podcast: Synthetic Biology: is Ethics a show stopper it will be available here

Write a letter to your local MP, church or community group. Here is a letter that could help you in your draft.

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