|Posted on November 3, 2013 at 8:05 AM|
Written by Ellie Skelton
Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, is a term constantly referred to in this modern day as being, and quite rightly so, a massive breakthrough in the biological and consequently scientific world. However, when mentioned in everyday life, amongst those less acquainted with the terms ‘plasmids’ and ‘genomes’ I feel it significant, if not obligatory, to ask ourselves, is this biological terminology expressed with acceptance or apprehension?
By definition, genetic engineering is ‘the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material’ which involves changing the genetic makeup of cells and moving genes across boundaries to produce novel organisms, using biotechnology. However, the definition, although it gives an idea of what genetic engineering comprises of, it does not offer reference to the moral and ethical questions that inevitably surround it and potentially preclude its practice in society.
Arguably, the general main issue raised over the topic of genetic engineering is to what extent does the human have the right to immerse, and in many aspects, interfere with the outcomes of genetics and the process of natural selection. To many cultures, genetic engineering is seen as ‘playing God’, whilst interrupting the customs of ‘Mother Nature’ leads us to be considered socially arrogant.
It is also important to consider the place of genetically modified plants for the use in farming where the specific plant is given a new gene which makes them resistant to certain chemical treatments, herbicide for example. In 2010 10% of the world's croplands were planted with genetically modified crops and research has been undergone into the local use of genetically modified plants in developing countries such as insect-resistant cowpea for Africa and insect-resistant brinjal (eggplant) for India.
Although the benefits of genetic engineering in farming are evident, the use of selective breeding in humans has the potential to become more fatal, somewhat down to the possibility of becoming ‘carried away’ and not knowing ‘where to draw the line’. Despite this, the idea does hold firm with many and, if one considers it, the benefits of man’s next biological step being the increased social practice of self-improvement through genetic engineering does sound tempting. Additionally, although many western cultures do indeed have qualms about ‘playing God’ when considering the ins and outs of genetic modification, many Asian cultures do not share these reservations; they make the point that since this advanced technology and ability to self-improve exists surely there should be no objection as to its amplified practice in society.
Julian Savulescu, Professor at Oxford University speaks of genetic engineering as a “moral obligation” due to the “ethically better children” that would ultimately be born. The Journal of Medical Ethics Editor in Chief specifies that “rational design” would aid society into becoming more intelligent and less violent, diminishing many of the societal problems that surround us today. He goes further to insinuate that traditional reproduction is becoming insufficient with regards to parents and their roles in their offspring’s lives; "surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?" This train of thought is somewhat controversial when compared to our knowledge of natural selection involving the random combination and fusion of genes consequently creating variation.
While there is obvious conflict between beliefs in different cultures and the conclusion that all seem to stand on differing ground the question still stands; is it morally acceptable to consent to the alteration of an individual’s characteristics so much so that it physically moulds the future generations. This question appears, presently impossible to answer with a definite yes or no, and, in some ways, it is comforting to know that much thought is being gathered concerning this topic; an objective ‘no’ might lead to the rejection of human’s greatest discovery. Conversely, an undisputed ‘yes’ could potentially lead to the obliteration of originality within society and its many inadequacies that we feel the need to eliminate.
Image © Holly Brandon, original student work.