Biotechnology and religious beliefs

I just came across a fascinating article in the New York Times about biotechnology and religion. (via onegoodmove) Are Scientists playing God? It Depends on your Religion. What Princeton University’s Dr. Lee Silver found was that cultural perspectives on plant, animal, and human biotechnology varied from country to country, and correlated with religious beliefs. (Human biotechnology being primarily stem cell research.)
Here’s the breakdown:

Christians: OK on plant and animal biotech, but opposed to human biotech – reason is that humans have dominion over everything else, but messing with humans is God’s business.

Post-Christians: Nature is God – and nature is not to be messed with, but human biotech sounds like a hoot.

Eastern Religions: Both sound like a good idea. Even embryonic stem cell research can fit into ideas of reincarnation!

(Yes, not everyone fits into these categories. Jews and Muslims would probably fit into the “Christian” category. It should probably have been named “Abrahamic” to be more inclusive. I don’t fit into any of them at all.)

What’s really interesting about this article is that it puts together several observations that I have made myself with regard to plant biotech, and points out a correlation that I had not thought about. I have long noticed that many of the people who actively campaign against genetic engineering consider nature to be a benevolent deity on par with Yahweh. On one occasion, I attended a GE forum in which one anti-GE attendee implied that evolution doesn’t make anything bad, written up here in one of my old Aggie Columns, It’s called Evolution!

And among some of the anti-GE folks, there is a strange belief that everything that evolves is right, and everything we create is suspect. Indeed, when the same trait (with the same potential ecological consequences) is derived through more traditional methods, they cry: “That’s evolution!” As if evolution were a benevolent deity.

But there’s another observation that I have made that I have not yet explained, and this new approach might shed some light on it. I have noticed that China is really into plant biotech. They eliminated, through the introduction of one new variety of Bt cotton, in one year alone, an amount of pesticides roughly equal to what the state of California uses every year. They also have a curious fascination with “Space Potatoes” – blue potatoes that were sent into space, and may be mutated, and I thought that they had a more experimental approach to food – in contrast to a dietary conservatism that perhaps Europe and some of the U.S. has. But the openness of Eastern religious philosophies to biotechnology may better explain the positive trend of biotech in those countries.

What can we learn from this? Philosophies are deeply rooted in these issues, and short-term changes are not going to be found by attempts to unseat those philosophies that are predisposed against various areas of science & technology. (I’m starting to sound a little like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet here…) Addressing those philosophies and how they need not be opposed to the technology would be fruitful for changing minds in the short term. But in the long term, the philosophies should be addressed. Why? (Non-framers you’ll like this part.)
A philosophical shortcut can lead someone to conclude that an emerging technology is permissible, sure. It could sound like they made the right decision. But how will they address the limits of that technology? The Christian is just as unlikely to consider limits on humanity’s “dominion” as they closed their minds to human biotech. The post-Christian would be less likely to consider wise restrictions on experimenting with human biotech. Eastern religions, although it sounds good to me that they are open to both technological areas, would have a harder time restricting both of them.

Rational people, however, would be (and should be) stuck in the middle of all this. Pursuing both plant, animal, and human biotechnology is a good idea with many potential (and demonstrated) benefits. But we should be cautious with the limits of our knowledge. We should recognize that everything that can be beneficial, even drinking water, can be harmful if done sans caveat.

We shouldn’t confuse philosophies being open to something good as necessarily a good thing, nor should we confuse prejudicial hostility with genuine caution.

I wonder where humanists, atheists, and other non-believers stand on these issues?

P.S. I hate the term “playing God.” It doesn’t even come close to what’s really going on.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “Biotechnology and religious beliefs”

  1. You might find Postman’s Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology a good read.

    His bottom line: once upon a time, culture defined what technology could be used for. Over time, the roles have reversed. Now, whatever is technologically possible eventually becomes reality. Culture bows to technology.

    He raises tough issues that are not easily/lightly answered.

    (Interesting trivia question: what’s the first technology that broke out of the cultural-control matrix?)

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  2. (BTW, Postman’s book contains the usual easy-to-dismiss segments that all authors succumb to at one point or another. Don’t toss it aside without seriously considering the well done aspects…)

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