The American Journal of Bioethics 2.3 (2002) 23-24
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The Evolution of Gene Patenting
Peter J. Whitehouse
Case Western Reserve University
This commentary is written from the perspectives of deep bioethics and evolutionary medicine. As the author is one of two specifically avowed deep bioethicists (the other, Van Rensselaer Potter, died last year) this commentary therefore offers a rather personal perspective. Deep bioethics is a synthesis of global bioethics, as formulated originally by Van Potter, and a modified view of the concept of deep ecology, as proposed by Arne Naess. Based on a spiritual connection to the web of life, deep bioethics is a future-oriented, interdisciplinary, wisdom-seeking endeavor to promote survival of life on the planet. It celebrates learning, especially about nature in all its manifestations, as a biologically and culturally evolved spiritual, perhaps even sacred, activity. Evolutionary medicine is a discipline based on Darwinian concepts as well as newer developments in evolutionary biology that speaks strongly about many of our current medicine practices; for example, about our unwise use of antibiotics from a public-health perspective. It is also a movement to teach physicians and other healthcare practitioners to view the manifestations of "disease" as due to prolonged interactions between genes and environment, including both its physical and social aspects.
Rebecca Eisenberg (2002) believes that the question of how to patent genes is still puzzling both the public and those involved in the patenting process. Part of the "how" question seems really to be a "why" question, as in "should a legal process potentially influence my use of my own DNA as I live my life on Walden Pond, in a poor country, or elsewhere?" The "how" challenge of intellectual property rights relates to whether a DNA segment should be considered as a protodrug chemical, a source of information such as computer data processing or even a work of art to be copyrighted as a song. The apparent bias in the patenting process is toward serving the practical needs of modern society over, for example, gaining more abstract [End Page 23] knowledge about nature itself. According to Eisenberg, the patenting process is in a state of flux with different societal values influencing the changes in this key aspect of the commercialization of science; that is, a form of cultural evolution appears to be occurring.
The patenting process is being altered by changes in the power and products of scientific research. It should also be affected by changes in society's attitudes toward science and nature. It is all well and good to serve the practical goals of our modern society, but what if those are, from a long-term evolutionary perspective, misguided? Can a postmodern informational age embrace the ambiguities of DNA as both a biological molecule and a pattern of information as well as a work of art? Can we adapt capitalism to account for natural resources in different ways, such as has been suggested in forms of Natural Capitalism? More broadly, could cultural wisdom evolve to better address apparent conflicts between short-term, practical, commercializable intellectual goals and long-term, value- oriented, even spiritual-appreciative, knowledge of nature to create a more sustainable future?
So, what would a global, environmental-evolutionary perspective that explores gene patenting a bit more deeply say about how or even whether one should patent genes? I will consider patents as a feature of the commercial development of therapies for disease. The first intuition is that money as a value tends to dominate other values (such as sustaining life and intergenerational responsibilities). Thus the desire for gain through gene patenting may overpower other important value issues. Secondly, as a physician/neuroscientist, I believe that claims that genomic-based research will help people with age-related degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease are often exaggerated and the risks of such research minimized. Further, I have a sense that legal maneuvers are restricting the exchange of information important to scientific research involving human and animal genomes. Moreover, as a physician/ethicist who has consulted widely for the biotechnology and...