Faith & Reason: Three key principles on gene modification

The boundaries between creation and manipulation may be blurred but it is still possible to set sound guidelines on genetic experimentation
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THE GIVENNESS of creation is one of the deepest realities we face. All around us is a complexity and glory which is not of our making. Cloud formations, oak trees, insects and our own digestive systems are all provided for us, and scientific understanding in these areas has to involve respect for what is there. Genetic manipulation is born of the unravelling of codes, of elaborate languages that communicate in ways we yet dimly understand. Those scientists who are believers rightly respond with awe for the Creator and the complexity of creation. God creates in ways which are beyond the cleverest. We normally just manage to describe adequately and use successfully what we are given.

But awe for the Creator is not the only response. Something less modest is often in evidence. Take one of the issues thrown up by gene technology in the current controversy, ownership. If sun, wind, rain, earth, minerals, organisms and cell structures are all given to us, we can use the word "owned" only loosely. The natural things around us are owned by the God who has made them and us. We receive things, steward them and pass them on. Land is shared out and used, but we do not possess it. Bottled water is sold, but the price is for the bottling. We are surrounded by a vast priceless creation, and what we pay for simply reflects our labours, technology and trading patterns. It is added value.

However, agribusinesses involved in genetic modification see it another way. They claim rights of ownership. Yet the gene technologists do not actually invent the genes. They get them from existing brands. In creation terms the technology can be quite crude: using enzymes and plasmids to transfer genes from one organism to another, and even gunpowder to blast particles into the target cell. The genes in all their breathtaking, coded, life-shaping power are as supplied by the Great Technologist. The junior mechanics just fiddle around a bit.

Indeed, the analogy is apt. If a manufacturer supplies a magnificent car, and a mechanic does some slight modifications, no one would expect the mechanic to turn round and say, "The car is mine now, and I have the right to sell it for the full price." Yet that is precisely the move that the GMO agribusinesses have made, and have established in international law.

They have moved around a few genes and are claiming ownership of the genotype; adjusted the carburettor and taken over the car. And, whereas it is reasonable to pay a good mechanic, it is unreasonable to have to buy something we've already been given.

But there is another issue. The knowledge built into the Creation is vast and we know only a little. In Einstein's phrase, we are dipping our toes in an ocean of knowledge. A philosophy of science and technology based on Christian foundations builds in humility, because we need awareness of what we do not know. But it is easy for some at the boundaries of technology to focus only on what they do know, to have a doctrine of effective omniscience. Belief in omniscience makes it become possible to take on any modifications, and assert: "These changes are safe" - even, it seems, to the extent of suppressing evidence to the contrary. And yet every human and technological activity is surrounded by unintended and unforeseen consequences. In this area the range of unintended consequences could be vast - digestive and human body effects, antibiotics, bacterial modification, effects on plant, animal, insect, bird populations, body and health implications and so on. We are talking large crops. It is possible to have tunnel vision and not see what is outside our tunnel. Some of what we are doing will be beyond our vision and our ken.

The GMOs may be good and they may not be, but if we respect the already excellent creation, we approach possible changes with some constraint. Titanics sink. Technologies fail. We are still discovering why we need a range of natural foods which artificial foods cannot replace. What we do not know has been built into the procedures of good quality science. There are research routines, trials, tests, patterns of review and structures which prevent self-interest leading to biased results.

It seems that if this issue is to be tackled properly we need three principles in place. The first requires respect for the integrity of creation and of the boundaries that have been established. Technological manipulation can never be a free-for- all. Transference of genes must rest on a sound ethical basis. The second principle is that there should be open access to what the Creator has given us. The manipulation of genotypes is something like horticulture or patenting a technology and does not amount to ownership in perpetuity. The third principle is that we need to recognise the limits of what we know. When new steps like this are taken the company must be patient with research, and be prepared to be held responsible for all unforeseen consequences.

What has become evident is that these principles have not been followed. Marketing has nudged ahead of scientific ethics, appropriated ownership, caused deep concern in the Third World, and knowledge is asserted rather than proven. A pause now would be better than recrimination later. It would also leave us still free to enjoy what the Creator has given.