Playing God or being human?
Despite an extensive Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM) enquiry, the recent election debate over issues of genetic modification shows some groups within the New Zealand are still divided on the subject. Those who oppose the use of the technology in New Zealand use arguments today which are identical to those they presented to the RCGM nearly two years ago. The mass of information provided by the on-going debate, both in New Zealand and overseas, appears to have done little to change attitudes. There is still a proportion of the public who does not trust this new science and wants to keep GM out of the country despite the Royal Commission’s recommendation to proceed with care. There is historical precedence for resistance to new technologies, perhaps epitomised by the image of a man walking in front of the first automobile, waving a red flag. It took decades of education before vaccination against disease and pasteurisation of milk were generally accepted. What appears to be different about genetic technology is the idea that scientists are playing with our genes, our inheritance - the stuff that makes us who we are. There is a perception that science, and scientists, are capable of changing the course of evolution and of playing God – and that they actually want to do this. For example, despite years of rigorous testing and a remarkably robust safety record, it is apparent that GM food still holds many fears for a significant number of people. While these concerns may seem, at times, to be more about the political issues of corporatism and globalisation or the ‘spiritual/ethical’ issues of cross-species gene transfer, rather than about scientific risk, they signify a fear of loss of autonomy, of control by others and of a lack of choice. Yet when the anti-corporate, anti-globalisation arguments are removed from the debate, and when the debate moves away from the emotive subject of food to the more acceptable areas of medicine, the lack of trust in science and scientists remains. The technology appears to be too powerful. Scientists seem to have control over life itself. A lack of trust between intellectuals and their society has been a feature of the human condition for many millennia. Humans are different from animals, because of our ability to question, calculate, reason and predict. Our curiosity is a fundamental part of our nature and a contributing factor to our evolution as sentient beings. It is this desire to understand how things work that has led to all scientific developments, good and bad. We cannot stop ourselves being human. I believe we have been "playing God" since we first used tools and started growing food. Modern humans bypass natural selection whenever we use modern medicine to save a life. If caesarean section or coronary bypass are more ethical than death in childbirth or from heart disease, can we reject gene therapy to correct genetic disease or insect-resistant crops to increase yields? Furthermore, our society is increasingly dependent on a variety of pharmaceuticals, ranging from Ritalin and Prozac to Viagra and Zocor. You could say that each time we pop a pill, we change the course of evolution. We play God by default. For me participation and communication are key elements in finding a pathway through this polarised argument. It is essential that all sectors of society are represented in and feel a part of any decision making over the use of genetic modification in New Zealand. I am optimistic the Bioethics Council will help New Zealanders feel confident that the decisions made are those that are best for the country, but earning the respect and trust of the New Zealand public will not be an easy process. Above all, those involved in determining the use of biotechnology in New Zealand's future should be prepared to listen to and respect the views of all, remembering the words of Immanuel Kant. "We do not see things as they are, but as we are".
PRE2009-Applied Ethics (incl. Bioethics and Environmental Ethics)
PRE2009-History and Philosophy of Science and Technology