Genetic Engineering: Why so Controversial?

dchin's picture

 

Debbi Chin
Biology: Basic Concepts
Web Paper Assignment # 1
Genetic Engineering: Why so Controversial?
Genetic engineering has always been a controversial topic, but, it seems, a relatively recent one. It initially sounds very sound unnatural; it is phenomenon that is completely incompatible with Mother Nature. The idea of it is arrogant—to think, how could we try to change what she has provided to us? In actuality, genetic engineering is not a new at all. The domestication of plants and animals as well as our own mating choices are forms of genetic engineering. These are practices have a very long history and are also widely accepted in society. Therefore, what is it that makes this topic so controversial? Given the subjectivity and contextual nature of truth, what are the constructs that have led to the current views on genetic engineering? Why do we categorize some genetic engineering acceptable as opposed to others? Who ultimately decides this?
We can approach this question using two applications of genetic engineering as lenses: genetically modified food and other living organisms. Organizations such as Greenpeace are vehemently against the use of genetically modified organisms for two reasons. First, they fear that the genetically modified organisms will integrate themselves with organic organisms, producing new forms, and thereby permanently changing the environment. They also cite that there is too much unknown about the effects of genetic engineering to safely apply to our food sources. Secondly, they fear that production of genetically modified foods is merely a means through which business entities can experiment with and exploit our food supply for profit(1). However, experiments in 1987 by the Committee of the National Academy of Sciences have already concluded that genetically modified food posed no risk of damage to the environment. These experiments on tobacco and tomato were preceded by the engineering of bacteria to create insulin and interferon in the 1970s (2).
The two conflicting philosophies behind these two views are that of fear of the unknown and a desire to maximize the potential of scientific knowledge. It is still not quite so black and white. Greenpeace is an organization devoted to the preservation of the environment, which seems to automatically put it in opposition with any practice that would seek to change our natural surroundings. The Committee of the National Academy of Science is a self proclaimed organization devoted to the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement, which would put it firmly on the side of experimentation. Despite essentially being on opposite sides of the debate, both organizations claim to be acting in people’s best interests. Yet both groups have their own agendas and ideas of the truth about genetic engineering—truths that are tailored to fit their own goals. When scientists first discovered that DNA carried genetic information in 1944 (2), they could not have suspected the ramifications of their discovery. They could not have seen how much the attitude toward genetic modification would diverge as it become more plausible. If they had not discovered how to manipulate genetic material and the idea were still a far off dream, then perhaps there would be much more discussion on it. Another factor in how people determine the truth is the time period in which they lived. The discovery and subsequent experimentation on DNA occurred in a time in which scientific advancement was encouraged; there was a strong push by societal institutions such as the government to learn as much as could be learned to utilize for its own purposes.
In addition to citing the environmental effects or the pursuit if knowledge, religion is another factor that is often brought up, especially when it comes to genetic modification in human beings. While genetic engineering can be used to treat or prevent diseases, it also raises the moral question of whether doing so is “right” (3). More specifically, many people object to the idea of selective breeding. Selective breeding is the practice of mating two organisms to emphasize attractive qualities in animals and plants (4). It seems that when applied to plants and animals, selective breeding does not cause as much of an uproar as it does when applied to human beings. The idea of forcing all people with certain IQ levels mate in order to produce highly intelligent offspring seems unacceptable, but isn’t  this something that people already do voluntarily? We all seek potential mates by looking for qualities attractive to us, and if they are positive qualities, do we not hope that they will be passed onto our children?
While the dangers of selective breeding are evident, it is completely understandable why the idea is so appealing. Seeking self improvement or the fulfillment of one’s full potential is a value that is deeply rooted in many cultures. Is it truly so terrible to attempt to produce children that do not have disease? Moreover, is it really so morally reprehensible to have children with attractive characteristics knowing that these characteristics might positively impact his or her future quality of life? Given that attitudes shift as time goes by, perhaps if this technology is actually available and people begin to utilize it, then it will become socially accepted.
Many western scientists debate whether genetic engineering is akin to “playing god,” but scientists in Asian countries like China do not have the same qualms (5). Without the same cultural and religious context, there are entirely different truths about genetic engineering. As Linda Tagliaferro states in “Genetic Engineering: Progress or Peril?”, “…since this advanced technology exists, is it right to halt research that has the potential to save lives and improve the environment? Should experiments in gene therapy be stopped when they have already helped some victims of rare diseases? Should the manufacture of genetically engineered hormones be stopped—even if it means depriving those who desperately need them?” (6)
It is difficult to answer all the questions that have been posed because my own views color even this attempted explanation of the constructs that are behind the controversy over genetic engineering. All of these constructs hinge upon their relevance to each individual as well as the relevance of genetic engineering to each individual. It is interesting to see how genetic engineering will continue to affect our future, since it will shape us just as much as we will have an effect on it.

References

(1) Say No to Genetic Engineering, on the Greenpeace website, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/genetic-engineering; accessed 28 September 2009

(2) History of Genetic Engineering, on the History of Science website, http://historyofsciences.blogspot.com/2008/09/history-of-genetic-engineering.html; accessed 28 September 2009

(3) Genetic Engineering Advantages and Disadvantages, on the Biology Online website, http://www.biology-online.org/2/13_genetic_engineering.htm; accessed 28 September 2009

(4) Selective Breeding, on the Biology Online website, http://www.biology-online.org/2/12_selective_breeding.htm; accessed 28 September 2009

(5) Tierney, John. “Are Scientists Playing God? It Depends on Your Religion.” New York Times November 2007. New York Times. 28 Sept. 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/science/20tier.html?_r=1

(6) Tagliaferro, Linda. Genetic Engineering: Progress or Peril?. Lerner Publishing Group, 1997.

 

Comments

Linda Tagliaferro's picture

Thanks for quoting me, but....

To Debbi Chin: Thanks so much for quoting one of my books, "Genetic Engineering: Progress or Peril?" (fyi, I did an update and expansion on this book and it just came out as "Genetic Engineering: Modern Progress or Future Peril?"

You quoted me as asking a question that would seem to indicate that I'm an ardent fan of today's transgenic technologies. However, there are many sections of my book that deal with the possible dangers and thorny ethical issues of transgenic plants, animals and patents on life.

You might consider reading an interesting interview at http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_18101.cfm with Dr. Arpad Pusztai, whose research revealed significant damage to the organs of laboratory animals fed transgenic potatoes.

Gene Watch at http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/Default.aspx
published by the Council for Responsible Genetics, will also give you a more comprehensive view.

There are too many sites to mention here, but I will conclude by mentioning an excellent book by Dr. Ruth Hubbard (Harvard University), "Exploding the Gene Myth."

Best regards,
Linda Tagliaferro

Paul Grobstein's picture

perspectives on genetic engineering

Actually, I think you've done a nice job of presenting a variety of different views pretty much as those handling them might have, ie relatively un"color"ed by your own.  How would you put them together?  Is there a way of combining them to give a new useful perspective?  Is genetic engineering "new" or not?  Should we or should we not think of it as something different from past domestication of animals and mate choices?

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