Genetic Engineering: The Subversion of Natural Order -

mixedminerBiotechnology

Oct 22, 2013 (4 years and 2 months ago)

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Quote as:

Wagner, W. & Kronberger, N. (2000). Genetic engineering: The subversion of natural
order
-
Images of life and living beings in the biotechnology debate. In C. Garnier (Ed.),
Proceedings of the 5
th
International Conference on Social Representatio
ns
, Montreal,
August 29
th
through September 2
nd
,2000.
[http://www.geirso.uqam.ca/publications/monographies.php]







Genetic Engineering: The Subversion of Natural Order
-


-
Images of Life and Living Beings in the Biotechnology Debate


Wolfgang Wagner
1
&
Nicole Kronberger

Johannes
-
Kepler
-
Universität, Linz, Austria









1
Addre
ss for correspondence: Institut für Pädagogik und Psychologie, Universität, 4040
Linz. w.wagner@jku.at.

The Subversion of Natural Order…
2

Genetic Engineering: The Subversion of Natural Order
-


-
Images of Life and Living Beings in the Biotechnology Debate


Thinking about life is not just like thinking of any other thing. L
ife is a very special
issue that permeates our very mind, body and existence in our life world. I remember a
conversation with an Irakian friend of mine, an engineer by education. When for some
reason the topic of evolution came up and I jokingly remar
ked of man being related to
ape. His rejection of this idea was highly emotional and made us quickly change topics.
It is not, however, only islamic religion which attaches a high values to human beings
being something special and standing separate fro
m the kingdoms of plants and animals.
It is in several states of the US where the so
-
called science of creationism is blooming as
an official subject in biology, side by side with evolution theory (cf. Scott, 1996). While
this is a highly political iss
ue in fundamentalist Christian circles and, at least in the US,
state politics, its basis lies not only in people adhering to the teachings if the Holy Bible,
but also in a widely shared image of what life, and specifically human life, is about. This
imag
e or representation widely transcends the limited circles of fundamentalist believers
and can be found with virtually every person in the Western world. In a nutshell, life is
perceived as a given, as dignified and as being encapsulated in a circular defi
nition of
what is nature and natural and consequently, any artefact cannot be life or natural.

The world
-
wide discussion and argument about the use of biotechnology and
genetic engineering during the past 10 years is the scenario within which popular
con
ceptions of life, nature and human existence come to the fore. While scientists, bio
-
technicians and some politicians think and argue in terms of a concept of scientific, i.e.
probabilistic, risk when talking about technological hazards, wide portions of
the general
public do not share, and are not willing to share in this kind of discourse. As a short
-
hand
of their shared representation of life and nature they prefer to think and argue in terms of
moral concerns and not in terms of riskiness. No other
global technology has ever been
referred to as a moral threat to the extent that genetic engineering has been, not even
nuclear technology; the latter being the second massive controversial technological issue
in the second half of the 20
th
century.

In t
he year 1999 we probed about 200 Austrians about technologies they would find
to be risky or morally objectionable. Figure 1 shows that risk is highly associated with
gentech and nuclear technology simultanously, while moral issues are highly associated
p
rimarily with gentech. So, biotechnology is a special stuff in the mind of the people.

The Subversion of Natural Order…
3


Condition


Technology




Figure 1.
Optimal scaling for condition (risky vs. immoral) by technology (nuclear energy
vs. genetic engineering).


Our respondent
s were also asked to give short written justifications for their choice
of technology. When accounting for their choice of nuclear technology, they
overwhelmingly engaged words referring to risk, while their choice of genetech was
accompanied by worries a
bout genetech being unnatural, being a tinckering with nature,
and being unforeseeable in its consequences for nature and evolution. Few respondents
alluded to justifications related to risks in the strict sense.

All this is not surprising and actually we
ll known. Therefore we should ask
ourselves now, whether or not opponents and supporters of this technology differ in their
images of life and living beings. Our data cover only representative samples of the man
und woman on the street as well as focus g
roups of such “normal” people.

Life is utterly dependent on the mechanism of heredity and procreation. Therefore
we asked 1000 Austrian respondents of how they think about the hereditary mechanism:

(A)
The hereditary mechanism can principally be unders
tood like a technical
process; It is akin to reading a computerprogram, a bar code on a product, or the
architectural plan of a house.


(B)
The hereditary mechanism can only be understood as an indivisible whole; It is
akin to the unfolding of a musical m
elody or like the secret of life. The whole is
more than the sum of its parts.

Cross
-
cutting our respondents’ preferences for one or the other metaphor to
characterise the hereditary mechnism with the respondent being either optimistic,
indifferent or pes
simistic towards the consequences of biotechnology in the future, shows
clearly that the majority of respondents exhibit a strong preference for the “poetic” or
Risky

-
.34

Gentech

.32

Nuclear tech

-
.45

Immoral

.42

0

The Subversion of Natural Order…
4

“esoteric” image of the hereditary mechnism (Figure 2). This is utterly independent of the
gen
eral biotechnology optimism vs. pessimism of the people.



Figure 2. Hundred percent stacked columns for style of thought about genetic mechanism
(esoteric vs. analytic) by optimism vs. pessimism vs. indifference vs. don't kn
ow.


Despite the universal prevalence of an esoteric thought style about the genetic
mechanism, optimists and pessimists in Europe differ significantly in their evaluation of
biotechnology. Pessimists, i.e. those respondents who view biotechnology to mak
e the
future worse, agree slightly more than optimists, that is, those respondents who think that
biotechnology will help to improve the future, that biotechnology

1.

threatens the natural order of things,

2.

is simply not necessary,

3.

even if it has benefits, is
fundamentally unnatural,

4.

if anything went wrong, it would be a worldwide catastrophe,

5.

is dreadful

On the other hand, optimists agree slightly more than pessimists that biotechnology

1.

will bring benefits,

2.

is a majority issue

The Subversion of Natural Order…
5

3.

and its risks are acceptable,

4.

and
it will not pose a risk for future generations.



Figure 3. Percent respondents high on agreement on deliberation and affect items
(factors).


Figure 3 shows the average factor scores on a factor analysis of all items. In
genera
l, optimists respond very similarly to indifferent respondents, that is those who
think that biotechnology will not have an effect on the future. Figure 4 depicts the single
item averages. Optimists do not differ from pessimists in terms of agreeing or
d
isagreeing. In their median values both are either on the agreeing or on the disagreeing
side. The difference lies only in the degree of their agreeing or disagreeing to the items.
This means that where optimists agree strongly, pessimists agree somewha
t, and vice
versa, where pessimists agree strongly, optimists agree somewhat (Figures 3, 4).


The Subversion of Natural Order…
6

Strongly
agree
Somewhat
agree
Neither
nor
Somewhat
disagree
Strongly
disagree
1.00
2.00
3.00
4.00
5.00
Optimists
Pessimists

Figure 4. Average response on nine deliberation and affect items by biotechnology
optimism.


It must be noted that this pattern is re
latively stable across countries. There are only
a few countries, all of them more marginal in their contacts with biotechnology business
and low in awareness of the new technology in their public, that lie beyond the
-
.5 to +.5
region of a correspondence
table depicting the matrix country by optimism with the
percentage of being high on each of the two factors as the cell
-
entry (Figures 5, 6).

The issue at stake for the vast majority of people, irrespective of their being more or
less in favor of biotechn
ology’s achievements, is the position of life, of living beings and
The Subversion of Natural Order…
7

primarily of man in the natural order. The structure of the natural world, the natural kinds
defining our view of what is life per se, is the stake that is being threatened by genetic
man
ipulations.

pessimists
no-change
optimists
AT
SW
FI
UK
PT
NL
LX
IR
FR
SP
IT
GR
GE
DK
BE
Affective
evaluation
factor
Percent
of
each
subgroup
high
on
agreement
to
affect
items
Expl.
variance
.74
1.0
.8
.6
.4
.2
0.0
-.2
-.4
-.6
-.8
1.0
.8
.6
.4
.2
.0
-.2
-.4
-.6

Figure 5. Correspondence pattern of countries by biotechnology optimism. Cell entry:
percent of respondents agreeing to affect items.

Note
: AT (Austria), BE (Belgium), DE (Germany), DK (Denmark), ES (Spain), FI
(Finland)FR (France), GR (Gr
eece), IR (Ireland), IT (Italy), LX (Luxemburg), NL
(Holland), PT (Portugal), SE (Sweden), UK (United Kingdom).


People possess a strong and, one is tempted to say, hegemonic representation of life
across European countries. Life is what there is, life is
what our senses tell us to be living
and what is living is per definition natural. Genetic tinkering introduces an invisible threat
to that definition (because not every manipulation may be expressed in the phenotype) and
therefore undermines that struct
ure of the world, including the position of mankind within
this world. Since people know that a genetic apparatus exists and because people in their
The Subversion of Natural Order…
8

majority think that this genetic apparatus has a strong, if not a one
-
to
-
one mapping onto
the phenomenolog
y of living beings, changing that underlying script, invisible to the
unaided eye, will automatically challenge if not subvert the natural order.

pessimists
no-change
optimists
AT
SW
FI
UK
PT
NL
LX
IR
FR
SP
IT
GR
GE
DK
BE
Deliberation factor
Percent
of
each
subgroup
high
on
agreement
to
deliberation
items
Expl.
variance
.67
.8
.6
.4
.2
0.0
-.2
-.4
-.6
-.8
.8
.6
.4
.2
.0
-.2
-.4
-.6

Figure 6. Correspondence pattern of countries and biotechnology optimism. Cell entry:
percent of respondent
s agreeing to deliberation items.

Note
: See Figure 5 for country codes.


Besides these concerns, people also are convinved that the beneficiaries of
biotechnology will not be the consumers or the “normal” people. It is industry and
commerce that benefits
from biotechnological, and particularly agricultural and food
products.

One point, however, deserves mention. Bacteria, for example, are not seen as being
an extremely significant part of the natural order by the majority of people. As long as it
is th
ese bacteria that are altered genetically to produce medicines or to be of some other
help in medical applications, our respondents rest in peace. All other living beings,
however, are part and parcel of nature and its eternal and above all, moral, order.
In fact,
The Subversion of Natural Order…
9

nature and life are often equated in people’s discourses. That also explains why nuclear
technology, where in fact one natural element is transformed into another element, i.e.
uranium into lead etc., is not seen as a threat to morality but on
ly as a safety hazard.

The challenge of biotechnology is its juxtaposition to one of the most universally
entrenched and most strongly objectified representational systems. Biotechnology
questions the very definition of our personal existence and place
in the natural order, as a
well
-
delimited natural kind. Attacking this order is in the magnitude of hubris and has
been dealt with in many classical sagas and myths of our Judeo
-
Christian cultural heritage.
It is these myths that underpin a way of thinki
ng that has been in existence in mankind for
ages. These myths also tell us the morally necessary outcome of hubris. It is destruction,
run
-
away desaster and nature eventually "hitting back". Both, opponents and supporters,
as weak as their supportive a
ttitude may be in the average population, and religiously
versus less religiously minded people, share in this way of thinking. There is no clear
divide between these groups of people in terms of their widely shared social
representation of life and the t
hreat posed by genetic manipulations.

References

Scott, E. C. (1996). Creationism, ideology and science. In Gross, P. R., Levitt, N. &
Lewis, M. W. (Eds.),
The Flight from Science and Reason
. New York, NY: The New
York Acedemy of Sciences.