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The Cult of Biotechnology?

 

The Cult of Biotechnology?

 

by Alastair McIntosh

 

"Quite the most powerful, insightful and persuasive contribution I have ever encountered on this subject" - George Monbiot, The Guardian.

 

First published in the biotechnology special issue of Resurgence, guest edited by George Monbiot, No. 188, pp. 8-11, 1998. (For lead letter in The Herald about Monsanto engaging in an uninsurable risk, click here to go to foot of page.)

 

 

Consider this train of thought such as philosophers call gradualism. Would you accept, in a life or death situation, a blood transfusion? If you are not a Jehovah’s Witness, probably yes.

 

Very well. Then would you accept a kidney transplant? Indeed, do you perhaps already carry an “all organ” donor card and feel quite good about it?

 

OK. So you accept transplants of human parts. Now, if your heart valve was faulty, would you agree to having a piece of elastic tissue from a pig’s heart valve used to repair yours? And let’s say that you are not a vegan, so you do accept the use of animals’ bodies in other contexts.

 

“Yes,” you might reply. “Indeed, I would even accept having a whole pig’s heart transplanted if it could be made to work well and save my life.”

 

Very good. After all, what is the difference to the dead pig between having its heart embodied in your chest, and being digested in your stomach for supper! Both involve the principle that its “all right” to use animals for human benefit.

 

Fine. Now, suppose you have a car accident and are rendered quadriplegic. You can’t move from the neck down. You learn of the scientist featured recently on Channel 4’s appallingly twisted Against Nature series, who is experimenting with whole body transplants on the living severed heads of monkeys. He believes that human whole body transplantation will soon be possible.

 

Now, your identical twin brother, very sadly, has died from head injuries in the same accident. The corpse is in perfect condition, chilled in the morgue. And because he is your natural clone, there would be little problem with tissue matching ....

 

Do you accept the kind offer of this research physician, or somebody like him, to undergo the experiment?

 

You personally might not, but the Against Nature producers managed to find a real-life quadriplegic person who said he would welcome such a procedure. And who are you or I to say he should be denied transplant of a whole body if we accept the transplant principle with parts of the body?

 

OK then. So you accept the instrumental use of animals. And for argument’s sake, let’s say you accept whole body transplants in the situation I have just described. But unfortunately, the morgue’s cooling system has just broken down. Your brother has decayed overnight.

 

Never mind. Not all is lost. Your caring physician tells you that, with just a bit of genetic manipulation, a suitably modified pig could be born within a few months to be the proud bearer of your head. Do you accept? Would you become, in significant degree, a pig?

 

Now ... the argument that I have just posed is a form of moral debate called “reduction to absurdity.” A principle is pushed to the point that its extreme implications call the original proposition into question. Blood transfusion? No problem! Whole body xenotransplantation? Yuk. No thanks!

 

But why not? Leaving aside the fact that what I have just described may be beyond likely possibilities of even future bioscience, at what stage did the moral crossover to perversity occur? Was it at the point of blood transfusion, human transplant, trans-species transplant (xenotransplantation) or genetically modified xenotransplantation? I think that the science is not so much the point here as the factors which, at differing stages for different people, trigger the “Yuk factor.”

 

In my experience, many biotechnologists reject the validity of ethics based on the Yuk factor. These are “emotive” arguments, they say dismissively as if feelings are just chemical flows in the brain. And after all, surgeons have to overcome the Yuk factor for the patient’s benefit.

 

However, this is to confuse overcoming squeamishness in a context of loving necessity, with a “Yuk” that comes from the sense of something being violated.

 

That violation, I would suggest, has to do with the integrity of being a being that is, in some sense created ... and not a manufactured “product.” This is difficult to discuss in science because the main thrust of the so-called “positivist” philosophy that science is now the main vehicle of, has been away from the metaphysics of first causes, and towards sequences of logical thought which are as abstracted from moral reality as the chemistry of the gene sequence is from the joy of making love.

 

Morality is therefore left in a vacuum. The nature of “the good” gets discussed in the absence of any premise as to what goodness ultimately is. The reason for this is that the playing field on which the game takes place has been defined so as to exclude spirituality. And without an understanding of spirit and the human soul, there is no principle of goodness deep enough to contain biotechnology.

 

To claim that spirituality is irrelevant to science is disingenuous. Hidden amongst the motives of not a few biotechnologists can be found very profound spiritual concerns: not least, that of immortality. “God made man in his own image,” pontificates Dr Richard Seed, the American scientist who announced in January this year that he intends opening a clinic to clone children for childless couples. “God intended for man to become one with God,” he continues. “Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first step in becoming one with God.”

 

What we see here is the emergence in science of a religious cult. That is certainly not to say that all science is a cult, any more than the mainline churches should be said to be cults. But it does bring the spotlight onto the need to address the gut reaction of “Yuk” in relation to the integrity of existence if an ethical biotechnology is to be a possibility. And it does pose the age-old question about the implications of social support for scientists who play at God.

 

There is nothing new in the history of science about a mindset that views science as bringing “man” closer to God. Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor and “father of modern science,” who coined the phrase, “knowledge is power,” foresaw England as a scientific utopia in this respect. He wanted to fulfil the vision Plato gave of the lost world of Atlantis in The Critias. Bacon’s New Atlantis was published in 1605. He looked with astonishing prescience towards a world of flying machines, submarines, climate control and biotechnology laboratories comprising:

 

... parks and inclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials; that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man.... We try also all poisons and other medicines upon them, as well of chirurgery (vivisection) as physic. By art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is; and contrariwise dwarf them, and stay their growth: we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is; and contrariwise barren and not generative.... We make them also by art greater much than their nature....

 

Elsewhere he wrote in Messianic terms that, “I am come in very truth leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” All this, like the words of Dr Seed, was wrapped up in a language that contorts Christianity in ways that would have caused the real Jesus, the one who urged a simplicity of “consider the lilies,” to turn over the laboratory benches in rage.

 

The essence of a cult is to offer:

1.    a deeper meaning in life,

2.   in ways calculated to enhance the position of cult leaders,

3.   whilst damaging alternative ways of a person becoming themselves,

4.   with the predatory effect that life’s goodness is degraded.

 

I contend that varying aspects of biotechnology, exercised as it mostly is as an endeavour of capitalism in free global markets, fulfil all these criteria.

 

To take the first, biotechnology justifies itself as being to improve the quality of life, to extend life, and even, with extremists like Dr Seed, to offer a kind of immortality. That is to say, it holds out a form of salvation. In itself, this may be a good thing. But ...

 

The second point is where it gets insidious. Riches encrust the heart and so corrupt sensitivity. Surveys have shown that a majority of young scientists are motivated by high ideals, but when the structures within which they work have rate of return to shareholders as the bottom line, this idealism becomes usurped.

 

Thus, the third point is inevitable given free trade in a global casino economy. If American producers of genetically engineered soya can produce more cheaply than traditional producers, and if the product is not marked to betray the violence towards nature that such biocide intensive production embodies, then farmers not thirled to Monsanto will be at a competitive disadvantage. They may go out of business. Hence biotechnology short-circuits nature and when combined with market forces, it strangles nature’s way.

 

The fourth point is a consequence of the others. Let me give an example. Before this century’s green revolution, Sri Lanka had 280 indigenous varieties of rice. Now there are a mere 27. The remainder had evolved in ways adapted to local conditions. They were part of the biodiversity of a rich human ecology. But the pressures of the marketplace killed them. Thus, in his 1943 book, Sources of Wisdom,  the great Anglo-Sri Lankan thinker, Ananda Coomaraswami, warned,

 

... the contentment of innumerable peoples can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilisation; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker by art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organisation and standards of workmanship is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a ‘job’; until finally the ancient society is industrialised and reduced to the level of such societies as ours, in which business takes precedence of life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other peoples?

 

Now, it will be noticed that, in my argument so far, I have merged different aspects of biotechnology together and generalised from this. I have avoided specific judgement on questions such as whether or not the cutting and pasting of genetic material from one species to another is acceptable. That is because these specifics are actually the small questions. Debating them is important, but comprises mere displacement activity unless the big question is simultaneously addressed. The big one is disarmingly simple and so huge that it normally remains hidden like the wood for the trees. It is: “Who does this serve?”

 

To the Old Testament prophets, this was the question of idolatry. Many things could be forgiven in the attempt to serve God because that service has at its essence the self-correcting qualities of love, listening and modesty. But to serve money was, as Jesus said, to serve evil in a manner that he personified with the Aramaic word Mammon. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” he asks, in Matthew 22, when looking at the coins with which tax to the Roman emperor was paid. The coin in question was a silver denarius. It bore an image of the Emperor’s head and his designation, “TIBERIUS CAESAR, SON OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS, AUGUSTUS.” Caesar, in other words, had set himself up as God. The small question was whether or not to pay Caesar tax in the coinage of his own making. The big question was how to transcend the monetary economic constructs of Caesar’s domination system and embody a more authentic world order.

 

The American theologian, Walter Wink, says that we need to learn again to see how the “powers that be” operate. Power is a reality. However, the “powers,” he says, are good but “fallen,” and thus in need of constant redemption if they are to serve in benign ways through people, institutions, technologies and nations. Spirituality, to Wink, is the “interiority” of such exterior material-world realities. The powers are not up in the sky like old-style demons and gods; they reside within, shaping the flow of life through any given system.

 

To assess biotechnology, then, we need to ask not just the small question of what it does to spiritual assumptions about life, but also the big one of “what is its spirituality?” This means looking at whose head and whose title is on its patent. It means recognising Trade Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPs) as the creed, and its policing body, the World Trade Organisation, as a latter-day Imprimatur and, if it flexes its punitive muscle, Inquisition.

 

Wink proposes a three-part process to attempt redeeming what he calls the “domination system.” His book titles speak to this: Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and the award-winning masterpiece, Engaging the Powers. We must first give handles to the powers by naming them, he says. That is, we need to re-discern idolatrous principles like Mammon, Moloch and the Golden Calf  in the modern world. Then we can unmask the psychospiritual dynamics they stand for. Only after that, with their spirituality made clear for all its corruption, can we fully engage in the prophetic function of the redemption of power. It’s like saying that the alcoholic has to own up to being an alcoholic and understand why so being is a problem, before the sickness can be transcended.

 

Now, where does this leave us in terms of biotechnology? I think it offers two positions.

 

Firstly, we must ask the big question of what its spirituality is. And what, in passing one might ask, is spirituality? Quite simply, human spirituality pertains to the nature, meaning and consequent articulation of our lives. It is about the expression of life abundant in all its meanings as love in all its passions. It is becoming alive to the aliveness of life. It is a way of seeing reality in which all things are interconnected, like branches on the vine or fingers on the hand. It is about justice as love poured out into the world. Thus, spiritual values, both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and most other world religions, help us to name and unmask a God-cum-Goddess who shows a “preferential option for the poor” (Luke 4 & 6 etc.). Anything falling short of this would, in the famous words Alice Walker’s Colour Purple and as endorsed by chapter 5 of the book of Amos, “piss God off.” Thus, the spiritual acid test asks, “does this science optimally benefit the poor?” Anything short of a resounding “yes”; anything that smacks of science in the absence of social justice, is corrupt.

 

The second position concerns ecological justice. A “good” science must deeply respect, or show reverence, towards the integrity of the Creation. In a disarmingly simple little proverb, William Blake said: “The cut worm forgives the plough.” Gandhi similarly said that “All life entails violence...” Our duty, he continued, can only be to minimise that which we personally exert.

 

Now, the worm sliced through by the plough forgives, according to Blake’s very English Celtic spirituality, because its suffering was an unavoidable and unintended consequence of people providing themselves with a sufficiency, and not an excess, of the wherewithal for life. However, contrast Blake’s situation with that of the Scots poet, Robert Burns, who in November 1785 carelessly turned over a mouse’s nest with his plough. In To a Mouse, he wrote: “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion/ Has broken Nature’s social union,/ An justifies that ill opinion,/ Which makes thee startle/ At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,/ An fellow mortal!”

 

In other words, Burns felt that he had overstepped the mark in violating the integrity of the “wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie.” He wasn’t writing the ode to all the worms he cut through. That, he accepted. But hurting the mouse went too far and so violated some principle in him. Disproportionality is the key here. That is where the Yuk factor signifying violation cuts in. As Dr Donald Bruce of the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion & Technology Project warns of human cloning, such procedures can represent “a violation of the dignity and uniqueness of each individual human.”

 

It is sometimes the case that the powers behind violation, being proud, make themselves brazenly manifest. They materialise.

 

Outside the new Michael Swann biotechnology building at Edinburgh University stand two bronze human figures sculpted by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. He has named them in Greek, Parthenope and Egeria. The artist’s brief was to reflect the “aspirations” of those working within the building. Astonishingly, or perhaps not so, the Faculty of Science and Engineering accepted and has proudly displayed these two Frankenstein-like creations. Their bodies have parts horribly cut off. Bits are replaced by machines, metal plates and cogwheels. Poor Egeria is upside down. Parthenope’s eyes are being violently forced open as if too say ... TINA - “there is no alternative.” Rarely in the history of false gods could a more telling pair of graven images have been conceived. The statues betray a demi-humanity in which nature’s proportionality has been brutally ousted by technology’s angularity. Parthenope and Egeria are the creations of man become God-gone-wrong. They stand for Mary Shelley vindicated.

 

In recent articles in this journal, the great social thinker, Ivan Illich, has called for a return to the principle of “proportionality” in how we live life. The implications for biotechnology are clear. Proportionality calls us to ask whether the technology and economics involved with biotechnology enhance the richness of human dignity, and reverence towards the rest of the Creation? Does what we do help the poor including, of course, those suffering from diseases that genetic intervention might assist? Can it be justified to the cut worm that is, in metaphor, both the experimental laboratory animal and the human patient?

 

In short, the bottom line ethical question in biotechnology is the same as the litmus test for all walks of life: does it augment that beauty which is the fruit of love made visible? Does it honour incarnation?

 

 

Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of Edinburgh’s independent Centre for Human Ecology, which was axed by Edinburgh University’s Division of Biological Sciences in 1996, but credited by New Scientist with upholding “a tradition of fearless inquiry.”

 

 

 

The following was published as the lead letter in The Herald, 5-3-99, p. 24, under the heading, "Genetically Modified Crops: Who are Monsanto's Insurers?"

 

Centre for Human Ecology

PO Box 1972

Edinburgh

EH1 1YG

 

 

Tel: 01592 891829

alastair@gn.apc.org

 

March 4, 1999

 

Letters to the Editor

The Herald

 

 

 

Dear Sir

 

Brian Donnely’s report (3 March) on the risk of GM pollen contaminating natural crops mentions that Monsanto’s UK head, Stephen Wildridge, was “moved to allay consumers’ fears” in the lecture that he delivered to the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh the previous night.

 

Twice during his presentation Mr Wildridge asserted that “the benefits of GM food outweigh the risks.” Accordingly, I put it to him that this implies that Monsanto have responsibly quantified those risks. Society’s definition of acceptable risk is that it is insurable risk. I therefore asked him who Monsanto’s insurers were.

 

Mr Wildridge replied that this was a question for which he did not have an answer! In other words, he effectively admitted that the risks are externalised onto society and the Earth’s ecology. Shareholders reap the benefits on patented materials; the rest of us underwrite any costs.

 

What other industry (apart from the nuclear industry) would proceed without adequate product liability insurance? What better proof is there that Monsanto’s “limited liability” corporate status ultimately means limited responsibility?

 

Yours faithfully

 

 

 

Alastair McIntosh

Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology

 

 

 

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