Monday, August 17, 2015

Don't Edit that Genome!

There has been a bit of upturn in talk on scientific ethical questions, from stem cells to fetal body parts to sex selection.

I have found far too much of the bioethical complaints come from a position of poor social structures, and not from simply the science itself. Perhaps that is necessarily true but ethicists spend far more time contemplating the science side instead of engaging in social theorizing or social critique.

A case in point is fetal selection and genome editing. This can be seen quite clearly with the simple tool of recognizing the sex of a fetus. Given a society that believes that males have greater worth than females, the technique of identifying the sex of a fetus along with the simple tool of abortion (or genome editing) may lead to some people using these technologies to select for a greater number of males. Assuming that we all accept this is problematic, the lesson here should be that we have significant social questions to be asked about sex and gender, not that there are scientific questions to be asked or scientific discoveries to limit. For one thing we are talking about rather simple techniques that should get easier with time and with new technologies. Bioethicists would create far greater good in the world by social critique than by trying to worry that a group (of idiots) over here will use this technology in this way. If we had solved gender and sex relations in the 1920's then our eventual technological achievement of fetal sexing would be moot as regards ethical concerns.

Baldly stated, there was immense social danger when individuals discovered they could sharpen a stick, but the answer to such dangers was not to shield people from the knowledge of stick sharpening. It was instead to build safer, globally connected societies, which we did not begin to accomplish for tens of thousands of years after inventing stick sharpening.

Too much of bioethics fits the above mold: complaints and restrictions on scientific advances and not due concern with our social institutions and structures. Was the scalpel a dangerous tool in the hands of Nazis? Yes, but the problem was always Nazis and not the scalpel. Similarly, genetic understanding is a basic insight. It was dangerous when it was blossoming within racist and classist societies. That does not mean we are better off by trying to curb our best understanding of genes, even during the messy beginning of such knowledge. The problem was always racist societies and our inability to reflect on such.

I will grant that we live in a messy world and country, one where a great many still cling to their tribalistic instincts, but the answer to these problems is generally a cultural/social one, and not one that should have us holstering science in any significant way. If we have a social problem that the introduction of a new technology will greatly exacerbate, then we should easily recognize that we have a serious social problem. Lastly, our best scientific understanding, say of the brain and genes, should help us understand our selves better and to further such social changes.

In other news, complaints on stem cells and the use of dead body parts are inane. If as a religious person you believe that your body needs twenty days of decay for some one to bless it, that is fine. We can, for the most part, accommodate your carrying out such. But if you wish to come before our society and claim that your (empty) belief should hold for all dead bodies, then you must give the rest of us useful reasons for such.

No comments:

Post a Comment