Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature

Edited by Gregory E. Kaebnick and Thomas H. Murray, MIT Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780262519595, 192 pages, US$21.00 (paperback).

The rapid advancement of gene sequencing and synthesis technology has fostered the development of a new field of inquiry called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology aims to build or create new living organisms either from raw materials or from materials borrowed from other organisms. Although arguably only a short step away from the techniques already practiced in molecular biology, there is something about synthetic biology that strikes a cord of concern in most individuals. Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature provides a thoughtful exploration of why synthetic biology troubles us so deeply and allows us to determine for ourselves whether these feelings are well founded. The book is a collection of nine essays that are grouped categorically into three sections: “The Human Relationship to Nature,” “The Value of Synthetic Organisms,” and “Values and Public Policy.” The editors, Gregory E. Kaebnick and Thomas H. Murray, have both worked as investigators on research projects focused on synthetic biology. They have included an introduction on the topic of synthetic biology and therein provided an overview of the included essays.

Section 1, “The Human Relationship to Nature,” explores the ways in which synthetic biology affects and challenges our understanding of nature. Essay 1, by religion and science professor Andrew Lutig, provides an overview of how social and religious ideals inform our perception of nature and whether synthetic biology fundamentally opposes these ideals. In Lutig’s view, our perception of nature is rife with seemingly conflicting ideals. Synthetic biology forces us to grapple with our own dichotomous views of nature, and it is the reason why it is such an unnerving field of inquiry. Essay 2, by medical ethics professor Joachin Boldt, explores the moral impact of the shift away from the scientific analysis of existing organisms to the synthesis of new life. The synthesis of new life, he argues, supports a reductionist view of life and encourages the idea of humans as creators of life. Although current synthetic biology techniques have beneficial applications despite this reductive view, it remains to be seen whether future applications uphold these socially valuable ends. Essay 3, by editor Gregory E. Kaebnick, is less concerned with the impact of synthetic biology on nature. While conceding that synthetic biology touches a nerve and raises a general concern about a changing relationship with nature, he argues that a thorough investigation of this concern leads to no concrete conclusions. The most promising applications, he argues, are industrial and require no additional regulation beyond that which is currently available.

The collection of essays in Section 2, titled “The Value of Synthetic Organisms,” explores the question of whether synthetic organisms have intrinsic value, i.e., a good of their own that requires protection. ­Essay 4, by philosophy and humanities professor Mark A. Bedau and biophysicist Ben T. Larson, examines whether synthetic organisms have intrinsic value according to the principles of environmental ethics. Bedau and Larson conclude that the principles of environmental ethics do apply to synthetic organisms and that they should receive moral consideration equivalent to that of other living organisms. Essay 5, by philosophy professors Jon Basil and Ronald Sandler, also assess whether synthetic organisms have inherent worth. They argue that synthetic organisms can be considered to have inherent worth only in an “etiological” sense, where their value is grounded in the purpose for which they are selected. As the authors note, acceptance of this etiological argument is troubling as it ascribes inherent worth to artifacts (which also have etiological value) as well as synthetic and natural organisms. Essay 6, by philosophy teacher Christopher J. Preston, assesses the intrinsic value of synthetic organisms according to Aristotle’s principles of “the four causes.” Preston concludes that the intrinsic value of synthetic organisms is not only different but weaker than that of natural organisms.

The third and final section, “Values and Public Policy,” addresses concerns of public policy. In Essay 7, philosophy professor Jon Mandle provides an overview of the principles of public reason, which hold that a society’s reasons for its actions must be shared. Mandle argues that intrinsic moral objections (supported by one particular doctrine) against synthetic biology are not appropriate bases for political decision-making. Concerns of shared public well-being are, however, legitimate bases for political decision making and can be strong public reasons to enforce restrictions on synthetic biology’s use. In Essay 8, bioethics director Bruce Jennings recounts the events that have shaped the cultural perspective on biotechnology and led to the public’s sense of mistrust in its future application. Jennings provides a number of suggestions to bring the field into a more ethically and environmentally centered position and temper public mistrust. In Essay 9, sociology professor John H. Evans explores claims that synthetic biology teaches a different understanding of our role as humans and addresses why these claims are ignored in public policy bioethics. Evans provides a model and preliminary data to systematically measure and assess the legitimacy of these claims so that they may be considered in public policy decision making.

As you might expect, a thorough examination of the ethical questions provoked by synthetic biology is no small task. If you’re looking for a bit of light reading, you may want to look elsewhere. If you’re highly interested in environmental philosophy, ethics, and policy, however, you will enjoy this collection of essays. The essays are comprehensive, well balanced, and thought provoking; however, some sections are dense, and some of the rhetoric is sinuous. There is also a bit of overlap in background information between essays, but this allows each essay to stand alone without depending on the others for contextual information.

I think this collection of essays would be an excellent supplement for a course on environmental ethics, particularly considering the fact that it touches upon a number of threshold issues regarding our “rightful” relationship to the natural world and the extension of moral consideration to synthetic organisms.