Tag Archives: DNA

Genetically Modified Food

While the majority of scientists believe that genetically modified foods (or, more accurately, crops and animals) are safe for human consumption, there is considerable opposition to these genetically modified organisms. As might be suspected, this matter is philosophically interesting.

There are two stock moral arguments against such “tampering.” One is the playing God argument in which it is claimed that such modification is playing God and it is then argued (or simply asserted) that humans should not play God. A closely related argument is the unnatural argument. This argument works somewhat like the playing God argument, but involves arguing that because such modifications are unnatural, they are morally wrong. Rousseau famously lamented the horrible impact of advances in the arts and sciences—and he was writing when the height of technology included the musket.

One stock reply to the playing God argument is to show that people have been “playing God” in a similar manner and that this is morally acceptable. While the ability to directly manipulate genes is relatively new, humans have been engaging in genetic engineering via selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture. This has been done with plants and animals, both for those raised for food and those kept for other purposes. For example, the various breeds of dogs are the result of human engineering via selective breeding. So, humans have been playing God a very long time and if dogs are morally okay, then genetically modified crops do not seem to be a special moral problem. To use an analogy, if it is okay to make houses and structures by hand, then using power tools and construction equipment would not seem to make modern building methods morally wrong—the technology is just better.

A stock reply to the unnatural argument is to show that what is allegedly unnatural does occur in nature. For those who believe in evolution, the process of natural selection functions as a natural “engineer”, leading to changes in species and the creation of new species. In the case of genetic engineering, humans are doing what nature does—only faster and with a purpose. If this seems to be playing God, this takes the matter back to the playing God argument.

There are those who argue against genetic modification of food sources on the grounds that such foods are dangerous. This can be a reasonable concern and it is certainly wise to confirm a modified food source is actually a safe source. As noted above, most scientists regard these modified food sources as safe for human consumption. This seems reasonable, provided that the food sources were tested for potential dangers, such as being toxic. Some people do express the concern that the modified genes will somehow get from modified food sources and change the genes of the people who eat them. Given the way digestion and genes work, this is extremely unlikely. After all, humans eat normal food that contains genetic material all the time, yet do not undergo mutation. For example, eating chicken does not cause a person to gain chicken genes. As such, genetically modified food sources do not seem to present a special danger, provided that they are tested to see if the modifications had an unintended and dangerous results (such as making the previously safe to eat plant poisonous to humans).

Some people are not especially worried about the genetic modifications themselves, but are worried about the use to which such modifications will be put by the agricultural corporations. This worry is not (in general) that corporations will make science fiction monsters. Rather, the concern is that the modifications will be used as a means to exploit farmers, especially those in developing countries, and to lock them into having to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year. For example, a company might develop a type of rice that can handle higher levels of salt and drier conditions very well and sell that to farmers who need such a plant because of the impact of climate change. Since the company owns the rights to the seeds, the farmers will need to buy from that company if they wish to keep growing rice.

In defense of the corporations, they could avail themselves of Locke’s argument: they are taking plants and animals from the common and “mixing their labor” with them, making these plants and animals their property. As such, they can insist on ownership rights and bring lawsuits against those who might, for example, try to create similar plants and animals. After all, one might argue, corporations have a right to make a profit and this right must be protected by the laws. It can also be argued that farmers can, in a free market, purchase seeds from another company. Surely, one might argue, farmers can easily find competing products at lower prices that are as good.

In any case, the corporation problem is not a problem inherent to genetic modification of food sources, but rather with the behavior of people. There are, in fact, researchers who are developing modified plants and animals that will be available to farmers and not owned by corporations.

Those who support genetically modified food sources do have a very good general argument. The argument is that genetic modification allows the creation of food sources that can solve various problems. As an example, a plant might be modified so that it can survive harsher environmental conditions than the original, while also being more resistant to pests and producing a greater crop yield. Since genetic engineering is faster, more reliable and more precise than the old method of selective breeding, it can produce positive results more effectively. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, genetic modification seems morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some potential harms in genetic modifications. While it is very unlikely that any science fiction disaster scenario will arise and play out, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences and these are worth considering—but in terms of their relative likelihood and not on the basis of the plots of bad science fiction.


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Owning Human Genes

Human genome to genes

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.

In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.

John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.

On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.

Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.

It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.

Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.

The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).

While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.

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Should Zygotes be Considered People?

Oocyte viewed with HMC

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In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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Resurrection & Immortality in the Flesh

When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s ideas, I assumed he was a science fiction writer. After all, the sort of transhuman future he envisioned is stock sci-fi fare. I was mildly surprised when it turns out that he is quite serious about (and well paid for expressing) his views. I was somewhat more surprised to learn that he has quite a following. Of course, I wasn’t too surprised-I’ve been around a while.

Oversimplifying things, Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and makes you look cool (your actual results might differ).

While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll be looking at the ideas of technological immortality and technological resurrection.

In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts.  In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.

Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can “jump start” people who have died, Kuzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be  “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.

One aspect of both immortality and resurrection that is of philosophical interest is the matter of personal identity. Immortality is only immortality if I keep on going as me. Replacing me with something that is like me does not give me personal immortality. Resurrection is only true resurrection if it is me who has returned from the dead. Recreating my body from my DNA and telling him stories about me does not bring me back to life.

Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes? Personal identity does seem to survive through fairly robust changes. For example, I’m confident that at 43 I am the same person as the very young kid who staggered down the aisle of church saying “I’m drunk” after drinking the communion wine. I’m larger now and a bit wiser, but surely still the same person. However, the changes required for technological immortality would be quite radical. After all, eventually the brain tissue will fail and thus will need to be replaced-perhaps by machinery.

This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer. If whatever it is that makes a person the person she is can keep on going in the increasingly strange flesh, then such immortality is possible. If not, then it would not be immortality, but a strange sort of death and succession. Since I don’t know what it is that makes a person the person she is, I lack a definite answer to this question. I am sure that it is quite a shock that no definite answer has been reached.

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the concern. Assessing whether we should take the path that Kurzweil desires involves deciding whether this sort of immortality is real immortality or not. That is, determining whether we would go on as the same people or whether we would simply be dying a strange and prolonged death as we are being replaced.

Now, for resurrection. This matter has long been of interest to philosophers. Plato wrote about reincarnation (the difference is that resurrection is supposed to restore the same person and the same body while re-incarnation is supposed to restore the same person with a different body) and Locke explicitly wrote about resurrection. Naturally, philosophers who were also religious thinkers tended to write about this subject.

True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a rather miffed squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke’s view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).

Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material  and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe,  that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.

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