December 13, 2010
“Ethical and Spiritual Dangers of Genetic Engineering”
Research professor, Ron Epstein of the Institute for World Religions and lecturer in
Philosophy at San Francisco State University tells us for all the benefits of genetic engineering,
the price is too high for us to pay be seriously compromising l
ife on our planet and losing what it
means to be a human being. His argument is that we need to have respect for life with
selflessness and compassion as our guiding principles, not overwhelming profit with no regard
to the effects of our biosphere.
has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkley in Berkley in Buddhist
Studies and an M.S. in Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Washington, and
an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Harvard University.
He has been a board
member with the Institute of World Religions since its inception in 1962. He says there has been
little public consideration of the religious aspects of how genetic engineering reflects on the
teachings of religious organizations of
the world and the future health of generations of humans,
plants and animals.
But many religious organizations around the world have weighed in
on the controversial subject of genetic engineering.
Christian discussion centers on our relation to th
e rest of creation, and our attitude and
responsibility to it. Bishop Jaydee Hanson of the United Methodist church states, “Genes are
given and thus man should not be glorified as the creator of genes.” Evangelical minister
n says, “The altering of life
forms, and the creation of new life
forms, is a revolt against the sov
ereignty of God and an attem
pt to be God. It is radically
ncompatible with faith in God’s creation.” (
Epstein, 2004, p. 9E) He acknowledges that
changes in species have occurred in the process of evolution, but he says that the wisdom behind
those changes belongs to God and may not be claimed by us. Pope John Paul II has expressed
to genetically modified products telling farmers that the “use of these techniques is
contrary to God’s will and that God entrusted the earth to human beings to ‘till and keep it.
When this principle is forgotten and they (we) become the tyrants rather
than the custodians of
nature, sooner than later the latter will rebel.” (Epstein, 2004, p. 10A)
In Buddhism, the fundamental principle is a “non
harming” respect for the intrinsic value of
all sentient beings, not just human life. Sentient bein
gs are not merely respected for their useful
ness as a tool or means to an end, but that respect for life comes as selfless acts one for another.
In terms of genetic engineering, this would exclude any instrumental use of human or non
human sentient life
From an ethical perspective, Dr. Epstein asks us what this future would be like if our
parents designed our genes. Would they be pressured by current social fads if they had the
money? Would they want to make you a enhanced clone of them, or w
ould they go with
cloning you like one of the fam
ous celebrities of the period? If your parents were poor, would
they tailor you genes for a particular occupation that you could excel at and make loads of
money like a doctor or lawyer?
tells us that if our world is completely made over and invaded and distorted
by genetically engineered plants, animals and insects bacteria and viruses both old and new
would run amok. Humans could be suffering from unknown pathogens and toxic organisms.
He states it would be caused by misguided, misplaced naïve altruism in the quest for short
term profits, power
domination and emotionally fueled vengeance. He gives us a past example
of DDT. It was the scientific miracle that was going to rid the world of those noxious insects
and wipe out insect
borne diseases and feel the world’s starving masses. T
he promise of benefit
in the short
term has been overwhelmed by long
term disaster. DDT kills birds, bats, fish and
birth babies in humans as well as the potential for breast cancer
Unlike other techno
logies, genetic engineering has no margin for error. Results of flaws in
this technology cannot be recalled and fixed, but become the heritage to many future generations.
As early as 1976, George Wald, Nobel Prize winning biologist and Harvard professor
told us that
“DNA technology places in the human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the
product of over three billion years of evolution. It presents to us the largest ethical problems that
science has ever had to face. Potentially, it cou
ld breed new animals and plant diseases, new
sources of cancer and novel epidemics.” (Epstein, 1999, p. 2)
Examples of ethical problems with the use of genetic engineering include: Biowarfare that
has been produced secretly in many countries that
includes engineering bacteria and viruses for
biological warfare. It is impossible to regulate because the same technology and equipment is
now used commercially and can be transferred to use in military applications.
As more and more human genes
are being inserted into non
human organisms to create
new forms of life, ethical questions like, “What percent of human gene does an organism have
to contain before it is considered human?” The Chinese are now putting human genes into
tomatoes and pepper
s to make them grow faster. You can now be a vegetarian and a cannibal
at the same time! What about the same question
dilemma for meat
eaters, eating pork with
human genes. Going even further, how about mice that have been genetically engineered to
uce sperm? How would you feel if your father was a genetically engineered mouse?
So that we are no longer dependent on petroleum
based plastics, scientists have now
genetically engineered plants to produce plastic within their stems. Scientists claim that it
biodegrades in six months. What if these genes escape into the wild, through cross
with wild relatives and our natural areas are littered with plastic spines and the plastic would
of course pose real danger by disrupting our food chain. If our primary foods are inedible or
poisonous, then the whole food chain could die off.
Dr. Epstein has a unique perspective on genetic engineering as he has a degree in
biochemistry as well as a being a professor of Philosophy, Buddhist and Christian studies.
He tells us that today’s scientific community is unfortunately dependent upon
corporations for most of their funding. Many scientists have to go out and fund
raise for major
portions of their own salaries. With this being the norm, many scientists are “in
to produce and product that the companies can make substantial profits on.
Because of this, ethics and respect for life is thrown out the window. As Dr. Epstein lectures
his students and writes papers about genetic engineering he offers this advise, “W
e cannot be
% certain of the ultimate effects of any genetic changes we make for all the advantages
claimed for genetic engineering, in an overwhelming number of examples, the price seems to
high to pay.” (Epstein, 1995, p. 5)
God built barriers
between created plants, animals and humans. Redesigning creatures of
any kind cannot be predicated like new elements on a periodic chart can be predicted. While
this technology should be used to repair genetic disorders and defects, it should not be use
to grant the role of God on scientists.
If scientists are beholden to multi
national companies for their inventions of the future,
shouldn’t the public have a say in what is going to affect them and future generations by what
they produce? The p
ublic needs to be informed so they can make wise decisions about products
that will have direct impact on them. Dr. Epstein says that compassion, integrity for human life,
spirituality and ethics need to play a substantial role in our upcoming decisions on what pa
to follow in genetic engineering.
We can’t mortgage the biosphere and seriously compromise life on the planet and risk
losing what it means to be a human being. Genetic engineering can pose serious risks to human
health and to the environment.
It raises ethical questions about the rights of humans to alter life
on the planet and we cannot be certain of the ultimate effects.
Epstein, R. (2004, February 22). Another Voice: Religion and Measure H.
Ukiah Daily Jo
p. 9E, 10A.
Epstein, R. (1999, September 14). Ethical Dangers of Genetic Engineering.
Ukiah Daily Journal,
p. 2, 5.