New—although we agreed that synthetic biology is maybe not that new after all—things often lead to general public concern. In our belief, it is the (biological) reductionism, both bottom-up and top-down, that leads to this concern. Synthetic biology touches the very nature of nature. People who are not fully informed about synthetic biology will indeed feel a certain uncertainty. And as master Yoda said:
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
We believe that this is why a rational discussion about the ethics concerning synthetic biology is necessary.
Hopes and doubts
Synthetic biology sounds very promising, but together with the rise of this new science, many questions came up. What can we expect from synthetic biology? Which practical implementations are possible? Many people are very excited about the possible applications, but not everybody shares this enthusiasm. Since synthetic biology is scarcely out of the egg, it is a bit rash to make concrete prognoses. However the field is already so widespread, that one can easily get carried away fantasizing about the endless possibilities.
Some think that synthetic biology will be a solution to our daily problems. We are, after all, biological in nature. They reason, that if we look at the success of medical science concerning all kinds of diseases, we can not be ignorant towards the great potential.
Other people say that synthetic biology is something created by humans, and when we look at other systems humans created, we notice they aren’t flawless. Our computers, for example, are never perfect. Would we, then, be any better at creating life? If we can in fact make new life, it can be a solution for some existing problems, but inevitably we will create new ones doing so. Other scientists counter this opinion, by saying that synthetic biology provides us the possibility to prepare ourselves till those new problems appear. Synthetic biology presents us new goals and drags scientists across uncharted fields. Synthetic biology is a recipe for discovery.
Creating new life is one of the most extreme forms of synthetic biology. In their attempts, scientists and society get an enormous responsibility: they become able to play god. This development comes with great uneasiness, because we now can design and create living organisms that didn’t exist in nature.
It all boils down to one big issue: is it morally right to change the nature of life on earth to suit man’s desire better?
To answer this question we should take a look at man’s position on earth. Are we truly superior to animals? Is it right to think that humans aren’t supposed to give account for their actions to no one? And if we are in fact not fundamentally different from other species, do we then have the right to meddle with evolution? We can state that we don’t own life, but life owns us. Genetic engineering, and synthetic biology even more, gives us the chance to change the very nature of nature. So the major ethical dilemma of synthetic biology is basically the same one of genetic engineering. There’s a precarious balance between the possible great rewards of synthetic biology and the dangers it can bring with it. One should ask the question whether genetic engineering and synthetic biology will do more harm than good or not.
The film Jurassic Park exemplifies this whole discussion. The scientists in the movie are so focused on the question if they were able to clone dinosaurs, that no one asked whether they should be doing it! This should learn us a lesson and make us ask ourselves whether we should be practicing synthetic biology at all. Other questions follow on this one: is synthetic biology inherently wrong? If we act out of a deep respect for nature and life, doesn’t this require that we let go synthetic biology? (2)
The edge of acceptance
It’s important to make a clear distinction in this discussion: on the one hand we have completely new living organism and on the other one we deal with ’just more of the same’ organisms. The latter are commonly distributed, for example genetically modified organisms. Synthetic biology goes further then that, we are talking about the creation of new living organisms. We have to ask ourselves if this really brings fundamentally new questions to the discussion on morality.
One major aspect is the problem of not knowing how the resulting organisms will act, react and interact in any given environment. We can make models and run tests, but making something that nature would never build, will always hold the risk of threatening outcomes. We have to ask ourselves what properties and traits we want to give to our new organisms.
Scientists have tried to provide answers to this and we can generally divide them up in three big categories. First we consider people who do believe that living organisms have a large intrinsic value. So according to these people synthetic organisms might be ethically problematic, because their moral status is not clear. Do we have to look at them as just ordinary animals or do they have the same value as machines?
A second group sees living organisms as independent, autonomous things. Most importantly, living natural organisms can’t be synthesized by human beings and therefore we cannot freely dispose of them.
The last group we can distinguish, gathers people who ask themselves if scientists aren’t in fact doing exactly the same thing like architects and engineers do on a daily basis. According to them we should ask ourselves if there is something special in the act of creating life. And more in particular, if there is something special about creating life for human purposes?