TRANSCRIPT: Meeting 2, Session 4

Philosophical and Theological Perspectives


September 13, 2010


Philadelphia, Penn.


Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D.
Emmanuel and Robert Hart Director, Center for Bioethics and Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
Ingrid Mattson, Ph.D.
Director, Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
Director, Islamic Chaplaincy Program, and Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary
President, Islamic Society of North America
Sondra E. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary


Jim Wagner:
Good afternoon. Owing to what I think people understand as perhaps the inevitable impact on person, there are a number of philosophical and religious issues attendant to how we go forward in synthetic biology. This session is to try to begin to address some of those head on, inviting our experts to share with us. And again we’ll cover the same format. We will use time following your three presentations for the panel and also members of the audience to address some questions.
Let me introduce to our commission and to the audience our three experts for this particular panel. Arthur Caplan is Emmanuel and Robert Hart Director of the Center For Bioethics. Sydney D. Caplan, Professor of Bioethics here at Penn. He is the author of over 30 books. Relevant ones he offers include books with titles such as Smart Mice But Not So Smart People and the Penn Guide To Bioethics. He has served on a number of national and international committees, is the recipient of numerous awards and honorable degrees, writes a regular column for And, Dr. Caplan, we’re pleased to have you here.
Let me go ahead and just run down the list. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Director of the McDonald center for the study of Islam and Christian?Muslim relations and Director of Islamic Chaplains in Hartford, Connecticut. She’s the president also of the Islamic society of North America. Dr. Mattson is the first female and first convert to Islam to lead the Islamic society of North America. Her research focuses on Islamic law and society, and she is recognized internationally, has spoken, for example, on human dignity at the world economic forum annual meeting that held in Davo in 2007. So welcome, Dr. Mattson. We’re very happy to you have join us.
And then Sondra Wheeler teaches theological and social ethics at Duquesne where she specializes in bioethics for health care professionals and at Wesley Theological Seminary, where is the Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics. She works for the American Association for the Advancement of Science NIH Human Genome Initiative on programs related to social, ethical and religious aspects of genetic technology. Her particular interest is in the interface between questions of biomedical ethics and central commitments of Jewish and Christian faith. And to you, thank you also for being here.
Art, why don’t we ask you to kick off the presentations today?
Arthur Caplan:
Well, thank you, and thank you Mr. Chair and madam chair for allowing me to share some of my thinking about the religious, philosophical, and spiritual significance of synthetic biology with you and the members of the commission.
I wrote out my testimony, and it’s there. It’s about 20 single-spaced pages. So like Fidel Castro, I will presume to be done in about four hours, but in the interest of conciseness and having dialogue I’m not going to read all of that. I’ll read parts of it. You may take a look at it later. I don’t think you should try to follow. You will get lost since I’m going to jump around a little bit. I think most of the ethical commentary and religious commentary concerning synthetic biology is centered around the risk that might come with the benefits. I think the benefits case is strong. We heard some about it this morning.
Amy Gutmann:
Let me just — can you hear in the back? Fine? Everyone can hear? Okay. Good. Good.
Arthur Caplan:
I think the safety issues to public health and to the environment are ones that will occupy you, but I hope in this — these remarks to convince you, too, that it would be useful as part of your recommendations to attend to some of the philosophical and spiritual themes that I think advances in synthetic biology raise.
If you look at what the religious community has said — and I know you’ve heard already in an earlier meeting from people like Paul Wolpe there are some groups that have been looking at synthetic biology for some time. Penn had a group way back in 1998 take a look at some of the ethical issues around synthetic biology. We invited many figures from religious traditions to participate. Catholic, conservative and liberal protestants, Buddhists, conservative Judaism were there. And they had no in-principle objection at that time to the creation of new life forms. Their concerns then were primarily about the impact of synthetic organisms on the environment, safety, and with social justice, who could get the benefits in an equitable way that might flow from synthetic biology.
I don’t think that much has changed since that time. I don’t think there are that many theologians who are particularly cognizant or conversant with synthetic biology yet. I think more are becoming interested, but I think those same issues about safety and fair distribution of benefits, fair distribution of risks remain strong. And I noticed this week there were polls out that said the public had pretty much the same reaction to synthetic biology, worrying about safety and all, so concerned about whether these life forms might stay where they’re supposed to.
So I’m going to say just a word first about some of the things that I think this commission might consider in terms of trying to ensure safety. I’m going to do that, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on these remarks beating up on the precautionary principle, which you have heard about. But the precautionary principle, which is used in some parts of the world, holds that the burden of proof is on those who would advance the technology to make the case that it is safe. And then depending on how safe you want it to be, you have a low bar or high bar to jump over in advancing the technology.
I don’t think that’s the right strategy for this group or this country to follow with synthetic biology. I think the case should be made in a mutual way between policymakers, scientists, and the public about what they want to see happen in terms of managing the safety issue. But I do think there are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure confidence that this technology as it advances is safe.
We are talking about this against a backdrop where we have had failures in controlling the dissemination of organisms, and I don’t have to remind this group about the problems we’ve had with things getting into places we don’t want them, whether they’re Kudzu or Japanese beetles or starlings or, for that matter, zebra mussels and little beetles.
We have a track record sometimes promising that nothing is going anywhere, and then the fire ants are in your back yard or the killer bees are buzzing around your head. Similarly, we have challenges — and the public is aware of these — of GMO, escaping genetically modified seeds going places where people don’t want them.
I think some of what the commission has to wrestle with, then, can be generalized to other technologies, even the control of new species, the control of genetically modified foods. And so the question becomes, well, what standard of control, if you’re not going to use a high bar precautionary principle, might we be thinking about? I’m going to say that I think the first requirement in looking at how to manage this is the presumption that there may be people who may have ill will or nefarious purposes who might want to use the technology. And in an age of bioterror, it is important that the commission remember that not just the people we saw this morning might want to put their hands on synthetic biology but others might as well.
So one way that things get where they’re not supposed to is if somebody putting them there who has a malicious intent. The other way is by accident and inadvertence. I don’t think anybody is going to just put synthetic biology to use to make microbes or combined entities that they wish to go willy?nilly all over the place, so I think we’re talking about trying to minimize accident, error, and inadvertence. So those are what I see are the sources of safety challenge.
So let me suggest, then, that this commission, just on where we are now for safety purposes and I will get to the spiritual themes, might consider some of the following points, some general suggestions. First, I think national security and public health do deserve top ethical priorities, so you may consider what controls, if any, ought to be put on the publication of scientific materials. The selection of locations of laboratories to make things initially, and who is permitted to go there to train in the techniques. Who can learn to make these things?
I think that we have some precedent in areas like GMO where people have tried to grow seeds in controlled environments, and pressures come from commercial sources or sometimes local government to let the technology be used in less controlled environments. That sort of back and forth, I think, becomes important in understanding the need for site selection, who is training, who is publishing, and what they’re saying. I’m not calling it for censorship, per se, but I think it is important that you reflect upon what is said and who might need whatever clearance they might need to look at certain things. In an age when the Polio genome is up on the web and the smallpox genome is up on the web, it may not be advisable to have every synthetic organism possible up on the web in terms of its genetic code.
Secondly, in order to ensure the responsible handling of things made by synthetic biology, I would argue that synthetic organisms ought always to be marked or branded. It’s the old 19th century cattle idea. Venter’s team did it when they made their creature. You heard this morning a little bit about the possibility, which isn’t that hard to brand life forms. Water marks or brands certainly give people accountability and they let you trace better. And if you take branding and traceability as a key part of trying to ensure the public that safety is being pursued, I think that could go a long way toward making people feel more confident that we know if something made by synthetic biology wound up somewhere we didn’t want it.
Thirdly, to ensure the safety of the environment from accidents, I do agree — and this was brought up already today — that every synthetic life form should have a limit on its life span, at least for now. We can maybe revisit that some day, but it would be nice if some sort of terminator gene or other technology were built in to control organisms to make sure that the synthetic ones are relatively fragile at the beginning of the technology.
Lastly, I think a single agency should have clear?cut responsibility for the release of entities created by synthetic biology outside the lab. I think it is important that the committee reassert that existing regs do apply to synthetic biology broadly defined. I don’t want to get into the definitions here. I think some notion even of audit might be considered when the EPA sends its letter to Amy saying we’re on the ball here, I’d kind of like to know that they’re on the ball on — boots on the ground, not just in Washington thinking hard about it.
So it does seem to me that having agency responsibility in the American context — I don’t have much to say about how to coordinate that internationally — but at least here making sure that they know what they’re responsible for and that they’re going to check periodically to make sure there is compliance. I think those kinds of ideas may help tamp down some of those safety concerns. I think the benefits, again, are absolutely worth pursuing synthetic biology, medically and industrially in many areas of life, but I think that the safety issues should not prove to be obstacles that can’t be managed, but it’s going to take a little bit of serious effort to look at both what might bad guys do and then what might happen by, as I said, accidents or inadvertence or mistakes. And maybe some of the ideas that I gave would help.
So let me then get away from that. I think that’s where the religious community has been thinking and the public has been thinking, but I want to stir up as I get to the end of these remarks the spiritual themes that I think are interesting.
These for me fall into three categories. The first is playing God, which has been drag around a little bit already but I’m going to drag you there again because I think it’s important. The second is what I call the end of the view that life is special and life’s exceptionalism, you might say. And the third is worries about the mixture of placement of genomes across species, which we actually heard a smidgen about this morning as well.
As was pointed out, some of these things are in some of the reflections and the readings in your book. The Swiss have paid a little attention to them. There’s a tendency in policy circles in Washington to do the risk/benefit and move on. I would suggest to you whether it’s animal, chimeras, embryonic stem cell research, or cloning, none of those things have been addressed only by risk/benefit analysis. What bothers the public and what might bother the religious community could include some of what I’m calling these spiritual themes.
So the possibility that humans can create life, I think, has been a cultural worry in our society and in other societies for a long time. I don’t expect anybody to make a living person from scratch in a Frankenstein fashion anytime soon, but I do expect everybody who is a critic of this technology to be talking about Frankenbacteria pretty fast. I think the key admonition about playing God, as I understand that argument, is that it’s not about the divinity, per se, but it’s about first the notion of playing. We tend to say, “Oh, playing God.” It’s the God part that people are worried about.”
I think they’re equally worried about the playing part. Playing brings to mind care?free, lighthearted, even irresponsible activity, not the sort of thing that lends confidence to those who might be involved in making life forms and new combinations of genomes or genome transfers.
So I think cautions about playing God or trying to use the notion of play to suggest that scientists are at best cavalier and at worse their screwing around out there when it comes to making artificial and novel life forms. I think the criticism is unfair. Those involved in the creation of synthetic new life forms are not doing it as a game but in the hope they can better understand how life works and in the future make microbes that can benefit us all. So I would say that play is not much in evidence in the motivation for, or just as importantly, the funding of synthetic biology. But I think that message needs to come across from you.
The other part is the analogy to the divinity, and there I would say, as I understand the playing God criticism, it’s a warning about arrogance, that don’t think you can do what God can do. It’s hubristic to think you can control everything. I agree it’s not clear that we can completely control everything, and we have had our problems with life forms in the past. I would concede that.
Surely it will be prudent to create mechanisms for identifying and tracing and causing the natural death of life forms that might get out, and for insuring their fragility as I said. So in order to heed warnings about arrogance, I think we need to be certain that we can do our best in controlling where novel life forms go but also who can use them and understand what circumstances.
So I take the warning about arrogance very seriously. I take the warning not to play very seriously. I think those are themes that have to be addressed as people say, “Is this technology really receiving the attention both policy and regulatory it merits?”
On the exceptionalism front, let me simply say that there’s just a long tradition in science of trying to argue that life is special and that you can’t explain it mechanistically. It goes through people like Henri Bergson. It goes through people like Hans Driesch. Swann and Pasteur were all exponents of intellecky’s vital forces. It was biology’s version of the soul for a long time. You had to have something animating things to make the inorganic come alive.
I know that materialistic reductionism dominates biological thinking today. There are no life exceptionalists in the foxholes of NIH. I’m well aware of that. They don’t get grants if you sit around say, “Oh, there’s something magical about life and I’m going to study that through my grant proposal.” You will get a low score.
That all said, the mystery of life linked to a special metaphysical notion that life is emergent or does have special metaphysical force that animates things when they’re alive, I think is challenged by synthetic biology. I think it’s challenged sometimes by people like Craig Venter with glee, saying, “Look, it is just reductionism. We can explain everything mechanically. There is nothing special here.”
Learning to live in a world where life has been shown by science to be the product of material forces subject to human control I think could prove disturbing to some with religious, theological, or spiritual backgrounds.
My comment here is that the commission may consider trying to urge people to understand that understanding the nature of life mechanistically can also be a source of wonder and even of awe. You can see that in the descriptions of a Steven Hawking about cosmology and many physicists as they try to understand the workings of the natural world. It isn’t just disrespectful and it isn’t just demeaning. It can be in fact quite exciting.
Last comment. I think that some of what we’re going to see in synthetic biology is going to involve moving products into people. There’s some work being done and some thought being given to things like taking a genome of a bacteria and putting it in the human eye and using that as a shortcut to try to boost vision in people who have genetic errors or degeneration in cells in their eyes. We heard some about using different microbes to clean out arteries full of cholesterol or to achieve immunization. When we mix species, that gives some people pause. And I think alienness or otherness, the notion of our purity being invaded by species transfer, even synthetically created entities, does leave some people a little bit nervous. I think we have to attend to that as well. My notion for attending to it is to try to make people understand that much of what they do is they eat and interact with the world, also involves interactions with all manner of genomes and genetic material. It’s not quite as alien as we think. It’s just part of how things go, a but it happens at such a small level we don’t notice it.
So in conclusion, let me just say I think there are things that can be done to meet the general and common concern in the religious community but in the public about safety. I think they have to acknowledge both deliberate and careful use of synthetic biology, accident, and even ill?purposes. The other spiritual themes I have tried to raise, I urge you not to let them get lost. They should be a part of what you deliberate about, because I think they, too, are things that drive and shape how legislators and the public are going to see synthetic biology.
Jim Wagner:
Arthur, thank you very much for that thoughtfully prepared and delivered message. Dr. Mattson.
Ingrid Mattson:
Yes, thank you. Let me begin by saying that for from my research into how the Muslim community globally has been looking at some of these bioethical issues, I don’t see that the issues raised by synthetic biology are particularly different in kind of those raised with the development of genetic technologies. However — and this is going to shape my presentation to you today — what I notice is that there is a gap between the theologians and the ethicists from our religious traditions and ordinary people. And I think that’s something you’re going to have to be mindful of. We can sit here and give you the — you know, the views of the official or the authorized theologians from our tradition and not give you a sense of what the majority of the religious community is thinking. That has do with the fact that they are looking to many other sources for their information about these issues.
I can only give you as an example the fact that in my community there’s been an alarming rise in the last ten years of a new, very superficial kind of creationism. When previously — the Muslim community historically was very pro?science and pro?empirical in science, but a particular sort of group of people adopted multi?American conservative sort of superficial creation as doctrines, translated them into Islamic terminology, and have been propagating this globally. I have gone to Malaysia, I have gone to Turkey. I have seen it in the United States where these same very mistaken doctrines have been translated.
So I’m concerned about scientific education and the role of the religious community in making sure there isn’t an increasing gap between what the theologians of our community and ordinary people are doing. What I’d like to say is, I think part of the reason for the adoption of these what I believe scientifically mistaken views are — one explanation is a broader social trend towards a — you mention and I think Arthur, in your paper, reification. Or one of the papers talked about reification of nature from a secular perspective, a kind of simplistic or naive idea of “getting back to nature.”
And that’s something that some parts of the religious community have adopted. Certainly, there’s a perennialist or anti?modernist tendency among all of the Abrahamic religions. It’s minor, but because it’s conflating with a kind of secular environmentalism or certain kind of secular environmentalism, it seems to be gaining some strength, in my opinion.
And to sort of maybe bring us back to a way we can approach it, I just would like to — I think this is a very interesting story that goes back to the origin of Islam, where the prophet Muhammad, who himself was from a community that was primarily involved in trading of goods and nomadic camel trading moved to an agricultural community. And there one day, he passed by some people who were in the date palm orchard, and he saw that there were some people in the top of the trees.
He asked what they were doing. And people told him, they’re pollinating the trees by bringing the male parts in contact with the female parts. And he said, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to do any good.” So that was related to the people who were doing it and they stopped doing it. And then the prophet Muhammad said, “Well, why did they stop doing it? And they said, “Because you said you didn’t think it would do any good. He said, “No, no. I’m just expressing a feeling. If they think there’s a benefit, they should go ahead and do it.”
So this cross- pollenization — but there’s a number of interesting aspects to the story, in my opinion. First, the kind of visceral reaction when you face something that’s new, particularly when it has do with life, something that seems to be unnatural, the kind of engineering of life. I think this is a universal reaction that will continue with us and that we need to educate people about. This is a — this is maybe a natural reaction to the feeling that something is unnatural. So to kind of recognize that feeling and then be educated about the fact that — I mean, as long as we have human history, whether it’s date palms or dogs, we have been, you know, engaging in this cross-pollenization and exchange of genetic material, engineering this forever.
But the other thing is the issue of benefits. So the Muslim jurists have always said, “Well, here the lesson is if people think there’s a benefit in it they should do it. This is not a religious issue unless there’s a specific violation of religious principles.” But here I would say really is the major concern of the Muslim community globally, because it is a community that to a large extent lives in non?Democratic country, authoritarian country, countries that have experienced the corruption of governments through, you know, multinational corporations like oil and gas companies, so that they have benefited neither economically nor politically. They have had environmental damage. And there’s a great fear that another technology that has such power will simply continue that tendency. So from my reading, this is the major concern is the concern about justice.
And you know, this idea about playing God. There’s an interesting story in the Koran about a dialogue between Moses and pharaoh. And Moses tried to bring pharaoh down, put him in his place, says, “Well, it’s God who creates life and death.” And pharaoh says, “Well, I bring people to life and put them to death. Look. And he sends someone to his death.” And the idea of oppression, of using this — it’s not playing God, but of becoming the oppressor, using this as an oppressive tool but then Moses says, well, can you bring the sun from the west? So one of the sort of metaphysical or the spiritual responses is that God’s creative power is far beyond creating life or taking life, there’s a whole big universe under which all of this occurs that we don’t have control over, and so we’re not that threatened spiritually by this power. But for sure, the concern about who is going to decide the benefit is a significant one.
The issue of life, whether life itself is unique, whether God’s creative power of life is something that humans should restrain from imitating is an interesting question, and I’m actually quite curious about the fact that Islam has been iconoclastic through its history. Now, the main reason is that Muslims, theologians, felt there should not be an intermediary between a person and God in their supplications and prayers. So the use of icons in worship is prohibited, yet at the same what developed was a generally widespread prohibition on representative images at all. So that statuary, representative paintings are something that are only in — have a very, very minor part of the Muslim society and is not considered to be the majority position.
Now, I have not seen at all in any of my research any link between the idea of creating life and the fear that if you would make a statue that somehow you’re imitating God. I’m not quite sure if I should be making this link for people, but I’m sure that there will be some at least underlying concern that the more that people have the ability, that scientists have the ability to really, you know, create life, that there is a kind of spiritual arrogance in trying to imitate the creative power of God. But I don’t see that as a major concern at this time.
What I do see as a concern is the issue of human dignity. And that has to do with not just with human life but with all life. Now, human life is distinct in Islam and in, I think, all of the Abrahamic traditions in that humans are endowed with souls. And there’s a difference between life and soul, having a life and having a soul. Certainly, human being — and this is one of the reasons why the majority of Islamic schools allow abortion in the very early stages — is that although there is life from the beginning, from the moment of conception, that the soul doesn’t enter the body, according to Islamic theology, until some time after that.
Similarly, the soul leaves the body at a certain time when the body can still have living cells and organs that then can then be harvested for other purposes. So there is a distinction between life and the soul. Yet at all times there has to be respect for and a sense of dignity of life itself, and this goes beyond human life.
Non?human life, just because it is life, has certain rights once it reach as certain point, and the point is that of being a living thing that has in the classical terminology a moist liver. So what does that mean? It means that once this — you know, biologists would have to draw the line here, but there’s a certain kind of living creature that, once it reaches a certain point, becomes endowed with rights. Those rights include to be to be protected from unnecessary pain, suffering, the right to be prevented from neglect but also the right to have a social life. So that even animals, who are described as having communities like human communities, as part of their rights are allowed to have a social life or social relations, social identity, with others in their animal community.
Now, this is an issue obviously that doesn’t affect only synthetic biology. It’s about the treatment of animals no matter how they’re created or their origin. But perhaps it becomes even more complicated in terms of synthetic biology, because at what point do living things acquire these kind of rights?
I think part of what we have to remember is that historically humans have inflicted — people have inflicted social death on living things in many different ways. On humans through enslavement, on animals through maybe the — the worst kinds of factory farming, withdrawing, taking animals completely away from a social setting. And so at this point, we have to think about that social function.
And this brings me to the final point, that what is particularly important about humans from people in their lives from a religious perspective, I think, in all of the Abrahamic traditions is the fact that they are social creatures and the family is the main — that family needs to be preserved. Family identity needs to be preserved. Now, what is family?
Islam recognizes as part of religious freedom that each community should are have its own laws about what is a lawful family. So what is a lawful family? What is lawful procreation within the Muslim community is different than what is lawful procreation in other religious communities. But in addition to that, there’s a right of each person to his or her lineage. It’s one of the reasons why classically Islamic law did not allow fictional adoption. You could adopt a child, but the child had a right to know his or her identity. You could not pretend to the child or lie to the child that he or she was your biological child. Now, that seemed — a number of years ago that seemed cruel, but now that seems in fact to accord with what people want. There is a certain desire among people to know their lineage.
What will happen if synthetic biology advances to the point where there is a greater kind of mixing of genetic material to the point that will it be difficult for people to even identify what the lineage truly is, and what will their social identity be then? I think this is an important issue that we’ll need to think more about. Thank you.
Jim Wagner:
Thank you, Dr. Mattson, so much. Dr. Wheeler.
Sondra Wheeler:
In recent decades, under the influence of certain prominent political philosophers, it has become common to argue or even simply to presuppose that democracy requires the bracketing of all appeals to religious language or conviction and public debate and deliberation. These are to be eschewed in favor of what are called public reasons alone, reasons that are intelligible and persuasive to persons apart from any particular commitments, traditions, or communities to which they might adhere, even from any highly developed notions of the good to which they might hold. On this view, it seems citizens should aspire to speak a kind of moral Esperanto.
Our overarching commitment to free speech keeps us from actually constraining other appeals, of course, but in many quarters it is regarded as something between bad manners and bad political ethics to indulge in them. And at the very least, the use of explicitly theological language and civic context makes us uneasy, and indeed no one who reads the paper can fail to appreciate good reasons for that unease. Nevertheless, the letter which asks the commission to take up synthetic biology for consideration specifies that you are to consult the views of faith communities, and this panel was presumably convened to further that end. And unless we are prepared to speak in our voices out the gathered wisdom of our own traditions, it is hard to see what of distinctive value we can contribute to the conversation.
Fortunately, we are not run into an immediate impasse because there are no explicit rules in religious or common traditions about synthetic biology, as in fact there are no rules about planes, trains, and automobiles, because the formation of our canons is far older than the creation of those technologies. What there is, though, is a rich body of reflection, observation, and conviction about what sort of thing a human being is, what kind of world we inhabit, and how we can foster its flourishing rather than its devastation. This is not neutral discourse, of course. As a moral philosopher, I would argue that once we go beyond the banalities of kindergarten ethics — “everybody be nice” — or the empty formalism of “good is to be done and evil avoided,” there is no such thing. As Nietzsche demonstrated in the 19th century, even those moral truisms we commonly take for granted have foundations, and they are contestable. But since that’s a larger conversation than my remaining 13 minutes allows for, I am just going to offer a few observations that are rooted and explicit Christian theological convictions that may nevertheless prove to be generally illuminating. At the at least they may help those without religious commitments sympathetically to understand the thinking of those who may have them, and insofar as they represent insights grounded in millennia of shared and recognizable human experience they may also help us to avoid moral and practical errors.
As we speak of the ethical issues raised by what at least some in this field call the creation of new forms of life, I happily observe that other practitioners dissent, proving that scientists are no more unanimous than theologians, which comforts me. I want to observe for a theist, creation is a theological term of great weight and profound implications. There is a difference between fabrication from parts, even molecular parts, and what theological tradition has called creation ex nihilo. In the understanding of God as creator, which Christian thought has insisted upon, God is the source not only of life but matter itself and of time and space as the framework of matter.
In classical Christian theology, God is also the very cradle of being, the one who sustains the universe in existence by active attention. Humans are part of this creation, occupying a place within it rather than above it or on some other plane of being. They are creatures whose existence is contingent. However, their place is distinctive. To use the language of Genesis upon which so many generations of thinkers have extrapolated, they are said to be made in the image of God, and in that capacity to exercise dominion over the creation they inhabit.
This language of dominion has a long and not altogether happy history, having occasionally been used to justify arrogant and destructive, not to mention short?sighted indifference toward the earth and non?human life. But there is an internal check on such exploitative readings. It is the fact that humans are made in God’s image in order that they might exercise dominion modeled on God’s own, and God’s dominion is exercised in the establishment of contexts in which life flourishes. proliferates, diversify, and is nurtured and prized in its own right, proliferates, diversifies, and is nurtured and prized in its own right, not merely instrumentally.
The pinnacle of divine creativity on the traditional view is precisely the creation of human beings who are also creative. Gifted with reason and imagination and ingenuity, who are makers in their own right, dazzling in their daring and their cleverness. Art, science, engineering — the whole astonishing human enterprise is evidence of their capacities. And topping them all is the human capacity to freely choose what to do with those abilities.
Seen in this way, the vast and growing human powers are at once a divine gift and a sort of test. And the long, sorry evidence of history is that it is a test we often fail. As every form of human power, strength, speed, knowledge, political authority, intelligence, technological prowess from better spears to better rocket, has been turned to do harm as often as to do good. This is not dogma but observable fact. As an 18th century theologian observed, the human propensity for evil is the only Christian doctrine for which the empirical evidence is overwhelming. We may not be sure about redemption, but we’re real sure about sin.
So it is fair to say that Christian theological anthropology, its appraisal of what sort of beings we are and what we are capable of is profoundly ambivalent, and that ambivalence is the richest contribution of Christian thought to moral reflection about science and technology, and the realm of synthetic biology is elsewhere.
Christian tradition holds by God’s work of creation and redemption, we are made to share some measure of divine wisdom and goodness, to borrow again the language of Genesis, so we might be fitted to care for and keep the garden of creation. This makes it natural to affirm and delight in all we are and can do. Human capacities for analysis and investigation that enable us to figure out how things work, the ingenuity and inventiveness that enable us to use that knowledge to our benefit. The imagination and ability to extrapolate that make innovation possible, and the empathy and nobility of purpose that have turned those capacities to the amelioration of human suffering and the amelioration of environmental degradation, all of these are real and real cause for celebration and for gratitude. The present achievements and incalculable potential of the infant science of synthetic biology is a breathtaking example of all of those human abilities. But they are not the whole picture.
Insofar as we allow ourselves to stop with these self-characterizations, to think about or to govern our scientific pursuits and their application as if they were the whole truth, we are at best naive and at worst willfully self?deceptive. For alongside them and just as perennial and undeniable are the other realities about human beings. Their familiar capacity to ignore the long-term consequences of their acts. Their deeply rooted preferences for themselves and all their calculations of goods and arms. Their susceptibility to errors of judgment, to fatigue, to their capacity for self?deception and banality and corruption outright. These are not theological commitments so much as observable facts, and they are as observable among scientists as among any other group of human beings.
Judging wisely how and to what ends and to whose benefit new forms of human power conferred by exponentially growing biotechnical skill will require us to look at ourselves with an unblinking gaze and to recognize that scientific knowledge and technical virtuosity are not the same as moral wisdom, nor do they somehow confer goodness.
The last aspect of Christian theological anthropology to bring to bear on your ongoing reflection is the inherent sociality of human beings and the social and communal nature of human flourishing. A secular study of human development will tell you that we are born in human bodies but we become human person, bearers of language and culture and a sense of self only over time and in relation to others. Humans survival and well?being is a group undertaking, and we realize our good in connection with others. What Christian tradition contributes here is the conviction this is not merely a concession to practical necessity. A grudging tolerance for the presence and demands of other people constrained by the fact that solitary life is nasty, brutish, and short as Thomas Hobbs famously put it. Our need for each other is a gift and not merely a regrettable limit, but it is also a form of vulnerability. You all have experienced this, for nothing is more intrinsically collaborative than the life of the academy or the process of research. We learn in advance partly in competition, as we heard about this morning, but also in cooperation and mutual dependence on each other’s work. Also, we are harmed by the errors, misjudgments, and outright deceptions of our colleagues.
But if human flourishing is social and relational, the nature of human evil is deeply corrosive, destructive of the connections between us in favor of the pursuit of individual or group advantage at others’ expense. At its extremes and in the cases of megalomania and sociopathy, it is wildly isolationist, so that the actor becomes the only real person in his or her world with everyone and everything else reduced to either a tool or obstacle. Both insights were put succinctly already 1600 years ago: “Nothing is so social by nature or so unsocial by corruption, as the human being.”
Separable from their particular and confessional foundations are the fundamental insights about human beings that Christian tradition maintains, many of which have empirical warrants as well. These include insights into their capacities and vulnerabilities, the reach of their achievements but also the depth of their failures, and the permanent susceptibility to error, misjudgment and moral failure that they all share. Commitments to the social nature of human progress and well?being point us to toward norms of human solidarity, respect for fundamental equality, and particular attention to the vulnerable. Our appreciation for the complex interdependence of life forms and the environments that sustain them point us toward norms of non?instrumental regard for the earth and its creatures. Human power, insofar as it puts those values at risk, confers fiduciary responsibility. It is a kind of entrustment. The greater the potency of the technology, the greater the disparity of power it creates, the more difficulty in entering the ranks of those who exercise such power and can oversee it, the greater the moral burden. And the more stringent the demand that our power be not nearly power over other beings, human and non?human, but power for them.
We cannot think about how to protect and promote the goods we aim at only in the abstract and idealized world of imagination, where science is altogether noble and unselfish, and competition for status and profit and pride of place have no role and exert no force on what we do, where human beings and human communities seek only to defend themselves and another unjustly to dominate others. We have to think and plan and decide in the actual world we inhabit among the actual people we know ourselves to be.
If we take for granted that humans are fallible, subject to failures of care, if we take seriously that they are capable of sustained self?deception to their own motives, susceptible to corruption that precedes subtly, insidiously by unrecognized degrees so that we find ourselves in places we never thought to be as people we never imagined we might become, if we take this ambivalent anthropology seriously, then many practical things follow. Contributions to ethics as an activity of practical reason.
Let me draw some of those quickly and hush. It will appear from all of the above that we will continue to need rules, actual limits on what is permitted that stand as barriers against the human tendency for overreaching and for overestimating our capacity to control the effects of our technology.
At the level of legislation, these can be only quite general, practically self?evident, like don’t make the creatures you have made loose on the world before they are ready for it. But legislation is too blunt an instrument and too clumsy to do everything that needs to be done. It makes sense for obvious general aims to be filled out at the regulatory level by levels of biosecurity suited to particular risks and ways analogous to biocontainment requirements that were subscribed to in the use of recombinant D.N.A. technology 35 years ago. Self?regulation will necessarily form the foundation of that apparatus for the science is too potent and too fast-moving to be regulated successively entirely from without. Self?imposed limits may, as in the example of above, be taken up in federal funding oversight as well as external surveillance as potentially dual?use research. But here’s the point, and then I really will hush.
The wise use of these powers, like all forms of human power, will require other practices beyond rule?making oversight and regulation.
For these to be effective, we will require the inculcation and sustenance of certain attitudes, habits of mind, and dispositions. I short, for our rules to work will require the intentional formation of character, as an indispensable part of scientific education.
If we had to take into our hands the capacity to re?engineer living things, to synthesize working copies of organisms or novel ones that will take on life, we will need to cultivate prudence as well as technical optimism. And if we are even to entertain, as some enthusiasts have, the possibility of re?engineering ourselves and our offspring, we will have to educate affect as well as intellect, cultivate humility as well as ambition, and nurture healthy self?distrust as well as self?confidence.
Jim Wagner:
Dr. Wheeler, thank you very much. In fact, thanks to all three of you. Dan, do you want to start off our conversation with our panelists?
Daniel Sulmasy:
Well, thanks for three very fine presentations again. We’re really blessed on this panel. I would like to ask something about the metaphor of playing God as a way to sort of bring all of the — maybe all of your presentations together. It’s been observed that this metaphor is more typically used by secular thinkers, the press, and maybe faithful members of religious congregations and never used by theologians. And one of the tasks, then, for the commission is education of the public. So I want to ask all of you, whether in the secular or religious perspective, how we can work with that metaphor that’s out there to educate people not to be fearful to the point of totally rejecting every possible good that can come from this, but yet to be vigilant about what I take to be all of you in some ways as saying is the force of that metaphor, is to guard against arrogance, against greed, against exploitation, against recklessness as we pursue the potentially appropriate and good news of this new power.
What suggestions do you have for us?
Jim Wagner:
Who wants to begin?
Arthur Caplan:
By the way, I think it is true that 90 percent of the people invoke to playing God metaphor do so from a secular or non?religious point of view. I don’t know why that is, but it’s sociological interesting. Instead of the allegory of the golden calf, let me use a parable of the glowing goldfish.
Some years ago an organism was made with a luminescent gene from a bacteria that was put into a goldfish and sold at pet stores. I was interested in that because it was the first genetically engineered organism, really. When you went out to find out who did this and how did this thing get on the market, it turned out nobody knew. All of the regulatory agencies said, I don’t know; is it ours to worry about? You don’t eat it. It’s kind of an entertainment thing.” And when I was talking about playing around, it was that kind of an example that I was using. I think the public in some way says, oh, that’s kind of interesting, or if an artist makes himself glow in the dark with a luminescent gene you get this suggestion that no one is watching the store, Anybody can sort of head off in any direction, things get made for fun and amusement with serious technologies. To me, all of that message is wrong. It doesn’t reflect the deliberations of you all as you think about synthetic biology. It doesn’t reflect the fact that different presidential administrations have thought long and hard about genetic engineering. It doesn’t even reflect the fact that in our commercial activities we don’t have some license or clearance to say, well, if we’re going to use these technologies to make these kinds of critters at least you should register somewhere.
So my point is on the playing part, I think there have been instances of playing. And I think that they are dangerous. And I think that both educating the public about the steps, barriers, reflection that has to take place to release the new technology, accountability for what’s being made and where it’s going — all of these things, I think, will tamp down the playing part.
Last comment on playing God. I think playing God is an argument that is tossed up sometimes as an obstruction. It’s more an obstructionist argument than it is a serious “let’s engage the question whether we should play God” kind of argument. And as such I think that argument needs to be addressed by asking people to cash out what they mean. In other words, it’s a little bit like the precautionary principle. If I want to invoke playing God, I would like to hear what exactly do you think about that metaphor in terms of what you want us to avoid or not do. I can interpret it, and maybe interpret it in ways that not every critic would find accommodating. But nonetheless, you have to call the objection on the carpet. It isn’t just one that ends a debate, but sometimes it does in the hands — in certain circles.
Jim Wagner:
Ingrid Mattson:
I guess at a time when a large percentage of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah, we have as much of a problem with religious education as we do with science education. So there’s two sides of it. What’s the science, and then what do we know about what God is and God’s power. And I think here, you know, to some extent we’re helped by the separation between religious and scientific education, but we’re also harmed by it. Because many Americans have such a superficial understanding of their own religious ethics and theology that they have this, you know, simplistic, cartoonish idea of what it means for God to have power, to have a relationship with life.
You know, there’s beautiful, prophetic tradition that, in my tradition, where the prophet Muhammad said, “There is a cure for every disease except death. So seek the remedy.” And that really has been the impetus for continuing to push scientific research and medical research and new medical technologies. But, you know, these teachings without a place to really discuss them, they pass by in many ordinary people, and what they have is just this — as I tried to explain in the beginning was the story about Muhammad and seeing the cross-pollenization of the date palm, there’s this visceral, kind of “icky” reaction that this isn’t natural. And so we’re left with that. We’re left with this untaught visceral revulsion to things that are new and different and seem somehow unnatural to us.
So maybe, you know, the integration of religious theological ethics more — at least education about religious theological ethics into scientific education as well as vice versa will help.
Jim Wagner:
Sondra, did you want to —
Sondra Wheeler:
Quickly, let me make a very Protestant comment about “playing God.” I don’t think that the people who throw that term around, at least — all right, there is the press, who will do anything to create a controversy because we have shown them that’s what sells papers or brings up TV ratings or whatever. So if we get stupid journalism, it’s because that’s what we buy. So your own doing. But apart from that, when people use that language, I don’t think they are thinking of something lighthearted at all. They are thinking of the absolute core of evil as Protestant Christianity has understood it, where the serpent, who is the wisest of all of the creatures, tempts the human couple. What he says is, “if you eat from this tree, you will you be like gods” and, blimey, it’s the first thing they do.
And so if you think of the sort of root of human evil is the striving to be your own god, that that is the nature of what is wrong with the — the chasm between us and goodness, then this language invokes the sort of just newest technological dress on the oldest problem in human existence. So that’s what’s being played with and that’s why it has the weight it does.
Now, like Ingrid, I am horrified by not the things my students don’t know but the things they’re sure of that aren’t so. I spend a great deal of time not only in the classroom but in churches addressing communities of faith in various settings, and clergy as well as laity. And because I teach bioethics and do things like talk about why it might be a good idea to withdraw treatment, which inevitably brings up the “Aren’t you deciding who lives and who dies? And doesn’t that mean you’re playing God?” I spend a great deal of time trying to say what we are doing is working very hard at how to be human, and how to be human in a world where these powers exist, where the knowledge is out there.
The Smallpox genome can be looked up on your local Internet Explorer anytime you want. And, like Genies, knowledge does not go back in the bottle all that readily. And so if we are going to live as at human beings, as responsible agents in a world in which dangerous knowledge is out there and possible, in a world in which medical technology can extend metabolism and respiration and heartbeat and circulation long past the point that it’s easy to see how it’s a benefit, then in order to take responsibility for what we have done we have to think together, and hard, about these. And bumper sticker ethics is not going to cut it.
So we have to, I think, both take the concern seriously and take the underlying recognition that we do overreach, we do overstep, and we are accessibly optimistic about ourselves seriously at the same time that we say the response is to think well, not to stop thinking.
Jim Wagner:
As I invite anyone from the audience who cares to come to the microphone, you have a very specific —
Amy Gutmann:
I have a specific question that I have to say has caused me some bewilderment since Craig Venter said it and repeated it and alluded to it and, Art, you alluded to it or said it. I want to address it to one of our two representatives of religious traditions. So here’s the specific question. There’s a view that life is special versus the view that you can create life mechanistically. And Craig Venter has said he wants to put the “life is special” view to death, to say that you can create life mechanistically.
So here’s why I’m bewildered as a philosopher or moral thinker. First, Craig Venter hasn’t created life out of non?life. He put together non?living parts into a living cell. That’s number one. Number two, let’s assume somewhere down the road we do create life out of non?life. That doesn’t tell us — that doesn’t mean that nothing special happens when you create life out of non?life. It seems to me that’s just a logical statement I have just made. We don’t know from a scientific perspective, if we do make life out of non?life, that nothing special happens. I want to ask the religious representatives, am I right about that? I mean, I think logically I think I’m right about that. Whether you are religious or non?religious, you can’t know that.
So from our commission’s perspective, I don’t see how we can claim that by virtue of what’s been done in synthetic biology or even what potentially might be done, we have put to death the view that life is special.
Sondra Wheeler:
We probably have taken apart the naive “life is a kind of impenetrable magic” view, which I’m not sorry to bury. The mystery of existence from a Christian theological standpoint is that anything is rather than nothing, that there is something rather than nothing. That life is possible. The dynamism and the energy of matter and being itself are taken as an expression of the very vitality of God. And neither wonder nor mystery it seems to me are vitiated by the fact that we have figured out the biomechanical and bioelectrical and biochemical mechanisms thereof. So I don’t really take that it’s done what some of the scientists think it will do or what some religious communities are afraid that it has done by sort of stripping life of its dignity or its wonder.
Nita Farahany:
Can I build on the dignity question? I am hoping that Dr. Mattson will address it. Thank you. You said something that has also likewise made me pause and wonder along the way. You said the respect for life, period, and dignity with respect to life, period, is something important to consider. We have also heard both in this talk and in earlier talks about toggle genes and kill genes and things that we can build into organisms to prevent them from producing and from kind of going crazy and becoming the Blob and things like that.
Is there any concern about that from a religious perspective, that when we build in mechanisms to end life that we are not respecting the dignity of life?
Sondra Wheeler:
That question occurred to me as I was listening to the presentations this morning. I was wondering at what point, what level of complexity of an organism would I be happy with a built?in kill switch?
Nita Farahany:
Sondra Wheeler:
You know, a suicidal gene or mechanism within a living creature. And I guess, you know, from — at this point what I know in terms of my own ethical tradition and what I feel is that there is a — that when I talk about the dignity of life, it is that living thing that is a creature that has an ability to, you know — and this is going to sound very simplistic to neurologists, but something that has — a creature that has an ability to experience pain and suffering. And so how does that line form that’s the result of more research?
Nita Farahany:
Thank you.
Jim Wagner:
Raju Kucherlapati:
I want to pose a scenario, listening to all of the things they’re talking about, the sanctity of life and the importance of keeping them. So let us say that there is an individual who gets infected with some — you know. And unless you actually intervene, that person is going to die. And the only way that you can intervene is by the technologies that we have heard this morning, and that would be the creation of a new synthetic organism that would be capable of saving that person’s life.
That seems like conundrum to me. How do you do deal with those two sets of issues? On the one hand, you would be able to say — one argument might be that making synthetic life is not good. On the other hand, we consider human life to be — you know, sanctity of human life and we want to be able to do everything that we can to be able to save that. How do theologians think about that?
Sondra Wheeler:
I actually haven’t heard anyone in the bioethical community or the theological ethical community that I’m in conversation with offer the premise that the creation of a synthetic life form is an intrinsic evil, which is sort of a Catholic buzz word for you don’t do justice, let the heavens fall. There are places you don’t go no matter what.
No one has triggered that particular norm, and you would have to develop a pretty extended theological ethical rationale for doing so, it seems to me. There are reasons for caution. There are reasons for concern. There are reasons to invoke what I, like a good Protestant, have done about, you know, don’t get carried away with yourself. But there is no clear reason that that in itself inherently constitutes an ethical barrier, so I don’t find it a dilemma.
Jim Wagner:
Others are in the same place there? In fact, that might be the summary statement that we have heard today, is that there is not an inherent evil here, but it calls on an even higher sense of accountability and responsibility, wisdom, and judgment in order that it work for benefit. Is that a fair summary statement?
Arthur, Ingrid, Sondra, thank you so much for being with us. We’ll take a fifteen minute break.

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