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Genetic Engineering and Environmental Ethics

  • Andrew Dobson (a1)

When God gave humankind dominion over the earth he may not have known exactly what we would be able to do with it. The technical capacities to which the production and reproduction of our everyday life have given rise have grown at an astonishing and, it seems, ever-increasing rate. The instruments that we use to do work on the world have become sharper and more refined, and the implications of human interventions in the nonhuman environment are much more far-reaching than could have been imagined even forty years ago. It has become something of a cliche to say that our technical abilities have outstripped the wisdom to know when, where, and how we should appropriately use them, but techniques such as genetic engineering invite the dusting-off of the cliche and the asking of the question implicit in it: We know we can splice genes, but should we splice them? We might of course come to the conclusion that we should only splice some of them some of the time, but even arriving at that conclusion presupposes that the ethical question has been asked and answered.

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1. There is no need to distinguish between ethical and environmental-ethical for the moment.

2. To the extent that some scientific research is carried out ‘for its own sake’ this is an inaccurate formulation–but it will do for present purposes. In any case, discoveries made after research ‘for its own sake’ will often have practical implications, and so the ethical questions will arise at some point or other.

3. Yanchinski S. Boom and bust in the bio business. New Scientist 1987; 22 01:46.

4. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The Release of Genetically Engineered Organ isms into the Environment. London: HMSO 1989.

5. Quoting Stanley Cohen. See note 3. Yanchinski 1987:26.

6. Holland A. The biotic community: a philosophical critique of genetic engineering. In: Wheale P, McNally R, eds. The Bio-Revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora's Box? London: Pluto Press, 1990.

7. Sagoff M. Biotechnology and the environment: what is at risk? Agriculture and Human Values 1988.

8. Fox M. Transgenic animals: ethical and animal welfare concerns. See note 6. Wheale, McNally, 1990:34.

9. Thompson S. Biotechnology-Shape of things to come or false promise? Futures 1986;18(4):522.

10. See, for example, Postgate J. Fixing the nitrogen fixers. New Scientist 1990;(3 02):57.

11. Chakrabarti C, Bhargava P. Chemicals through biotechnology: facts, hopes, dreams and doubts. Impact of Science on Society 1990;157:83.

12. See note 7. Sagoff 1988:29.

13. Only four of Suzuki David and Knudtson's Peter ten 'genethic' principles can be applied outside the human realm; see Genethics: The Ethics of Engineering Life. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990: 334–7.

14. A distinction must be drawn between ‘human-centered’ and ‘human-interested.’ A human-interested ethic is one in which human interests automatically override those of the nonhuman natural world (or certain bits of it). A human-centered ethic is one which recognizes that ethics will derive from human beings because only humans can make moral judgments (so far as we know), but that human interests need not automatically override those of the nonhuman natural world.

15. Green and Yoxen use the word biotechnology to describe what I have been referring to as genetic engineering.

16. Green K, Yoxen E. The greening of European industry: what role for biotechnology? Futures 1990;22;493.

17. Stephen Crespi R. The patenting of genetic resources. Impact of Science on Society 1990;158:175.

18. See note 17. Crespi Stephen 1990:175.

19. King D. The patenting of plants and animals: legal, socio-economic and ethical issues. Genetics Forum Briefing Paper, p. 1.

20. See note 19. King nd:2–3.

21. See note 17. Crespi Stephen 1990:182.

22. See note 19. King nd:13.

23. See note 17. Crespi Stephen 1990:183.

24. Lindsay A. Human and animal slavery: a theological critique of genetic engineering. See note 6. Wheale, McNally 1990:182.

25. See note 17. Crespi Stephen 1990:183.

26. See note 19. King nd:14.

27. Bunyard P, Morgan-Grenville F. The Green Alternative: Guide to Good Living. London: Methuen, 1987:286.

28. McKibben B. The End of Nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990:138.

29. See note 24. Lindsay 1990.

30. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article.

31. Quoted in Dobson, ed. The Green Reader. London: Andre Deutsch, 1991; and San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991:239.

32. Holland A. The biotic community: a philosophical critique of genetic engineering. See note 6. Wheale, McNally 1990:167.

33. See note 32. Holland 1990:167.

34. See note 32. Holland 1990:167.

35. See note 32. Holland 1990:168.

36. See, for example, Regan T., The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1983.

37. Rolston H, III, Environmental ethics: values in and duties to the natural world. In: Herbert Borman F, Kellert S, eds. Ecology, Economics, Ethics. New Haven and. London: Yale University Press, 1992:84.

38. Fox M. Transgenic animals: ethical and animal welfare concerns. See note 6. Wheale, McNally 1990:31.

39. This should not, of course, be confused with Marx's technical usage of ‘species-being.’

40. See note 38. Fox 1990:31.

41. See note 7. Sagoff 1988:26.

42. See note 38. Fox 1990:32.

43. In what follows, Rolston Holmes III uses the word “organism” where Fox talks about “animals” – in this respect, Rolston widens the ethical community further than Fox seems prepared to do.

44. See note 37. Rolston 1992:77.

45. See note 37. Rolston 1992:79.

46. See note 37. Rolston 1992:80.

47. See note 37. Rolston 1992:80.

48. See note 37. Rolston 1992:76.

49. See note 32. Holland 1990:170.

50. See note 32. Holland 1990:170.

51. See note 37. Rolston 1992:83.

52. See note 37. Rolston 1992:85.

53. See note 28. McKibben 1990:134.

54. See note 28. McKibben 1990:153.

55. See note 28. McKibben 1990:194–5.

56. See note 13. Suzuki, Knudtson 1990:250.

57. Ryder R. Pigs will fly. See note 6. McNally 1990:193.

58. MacKenzie D. Science milked for all it's worth. New Scientist 1988;(24 03):29.

59. Wilmut I, Clark J, Simons P. A revolution in animal breeding. New Scientist 1988;(7 07):58.

60. Vines G. New tools to treat genetic diseases. New Scientist 1986;(13 03):41.

61. If some of the surplus meat could find its way to the needy in other parts of the world this argu ment might have less force, but the precedents are not promising and the terms of trade are rarely in favor of the needy.

62. See note 60.Vines 1986:41.

63. Wilmut I, Clark J, Simons P. A revolution in animal breeding. New Scientist 1988;(07 7):57.

64. See note 63. Wilmut, Clark, Simons 1988:57–8.

65. See note 8. Fox 1990:31.

66. I have already pointed out that Fox himself develops a more nuanced view than that suggested by this quotation.

67. Although of course these risks need also to be taken into account, and have been the subject of intense debate for as long as genetic engineering has been practised.

68. Holland A, Chadwick R. Better by design (unpublished). Advice to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Holland and Chadwick's remarks are here confined to species, but from an environmental ethical perspective they can be expanded to include ecosystems with little difficulty.

69. Connor S. Genes on the loose. New Scientist 1988;(26 05):66.

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