You can be too careful

May 3, 2012

In a surprisingly hysterical article from the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Julian Savulescu claims that synthetic biology "introduces new jokers into the pack" so that among other dystopian scenarios, the "human-chimp chimeras of Planet of the Apes are a live possibility". He also tells us that the current biological revolution is "terrifying" ("Master the new loom before life's tapestry unravels at our hands", 19 April).

Savulescu's standpoint represents an unfortunate tendency among some bioethicists to base their arguments on doomsday scenarios. With synthetic biology, apparently, "one mistake or abuse could be catastrophic", as the technology allegedly carries "unprecedented risk to natural ecosystems and human health". Savulescu follows these claims with a plea for (yet more) oversight and prohibitive legislation, complete with a wish to restrict access even to the basic tools of bioscience research (such as reagents), lest disaster occur.

Had such "negative" bioethics prevailed a few decades ago, bioscience would not have come so far, so quickly. Benefits to society have already accrued from its advancement, and those that are promised are vast and include, inter alia: improved healthcare; better food and more of it; and ultimately great enhancements of human potential. It is telling that Savulescu favourably cites the (predictable) call from Friends of the Earth for a moratorium on synthetic biology. This is an organisation notorious for Luddite views based upon the same kind of pseudoscientific "precautionary" approach that Savulescu implicitly assumes.

Bioethics need not and should not be negative, amounting merely to shrill cries for prohibition and restriction. Instead, a rational approach is required: the risks associated with any new technology should be coolly evaluated and weighed against the likely benefits. Given the nebulous and putative risks identified, contra Savulescu the proper ethical response ought to be one of positively welcoming and enabling progress in synthetic biology.

Kevin Smith, Senior lecturer (genetics and bioethics), University of Abertay Dundee

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