- Interests, Identities, and Synthetic Biology
It’s too soon to know what the most important disagreements over synthetic biology will look like: how the disputes will be framed, what the stakes will be, and who will line up against whom. Some public policy disputes, even those with a great deal at stake, can be brought to apparent closure. Others continue to fester despite repeated efforts to reach a compromise. So far, synthetic biology has not ignited any raging policy conflagrations. The report of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues was generally enthusiastic about the technology, sober about the risks that could come from inadvertence or malign intent, and focused mainly on fostering sensible processes for managing risk and encouraging professional and public education and dialogue.
Recommendation 10 in the report hints at concerns not exhausted by the usual lists of risks and benefits: “Discussions of moral objections to synthetic biology should be revisited periodically as research in the field advances in novel directions. Reassessment of concerns regarding the implications of synthetic biology for humans, other species, nature, and the environment should track the ongoing development of the field.”1 The report notes briefly a variety of arguments offered that synthetic biology somehow alters our conception of human agency and responsibility, blurs the line between the living and nonliving, the natural and the unnatural, or threatens humankind’s relationship to nature. The commission refers to such concerns as “intrinsic objections”; it notes that similar concerns “have had a long and important place [End Page 31] in bioethical discussions and debates” and acknowledges that they deserve “ongoing consideration as part of comprehensive efforts to assure that this field progresses within appropriate ethical boundaries.”2 It finds none of these claims particularly compelling or persuasive in the current context of synthetic biology. But Recommendation 10 leaves the door open to resurrect or recast such arguments.
Efforts to articulate “intrinsic” or “nonphysical” concerns can seem strained and abstract, with overly subtle distinctions and rather grand pronouncements. In a provocative essay, Joachim Boldt and Oliver Müller claim that synthetic biology alters humankind’s role in the cosmos from “manipulatio” to “creatio ex existendo” and that this change results in a fundamentally altered relationship to nature. They identify what they take to be the crucial distinction: “Using the abilities of nature through cultivation, manipulation or even exploitation differs from reinventing nature.”3 In an effort to reinforce the distinction between “old-fashioned” genetic engineering and the grand ambitions of synthetic biology, they write: “In synthetic biology, the aim is not to amend an organism with a certain quantity of altered characteristics (that is, to manipulate); instead, it is to equip a completely unqualified organism with a new quality of being (that is, to create a new form of life).”4
Try to imagine a broad political movement organized around the slogan “Manipulatio, OK; creatio ex existendo, no!” Hard to see that happening. But there are times when philosophical subtleties and not-easy-to-articulate ideas become powerful—when they are enlisted in what I want to describe as disputes over identities.
Identities and Interests
When then-President George W. Bush ordered that federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells would be allowed, but only on cell lines created prior to the moment his policy was announced, a fierce battle over public policy and public opinion was formally launched It took the election in 2008 of President Barack Obama for any change in that policy. Within weeks of his inauguration, President Obama rescinded the Bush policy and permitted, with limits, federal funding for research on cell lines created after August 9, 2001. Legal challenges swiftly followed. Most recently, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by a two-to-one vote vacated an injunction halting most federal funding for the research. No one who understands the determination of sanctity-of-life advocates in the United States could think that this court ruling, or any future one, could end conflict over stem cell research. Something beyond merely the interests of the parties seems to be at stake in...