Genetic battlefield acquires philosophical umpire

April 20, 2001

A Canadian philosophy professor is aiming to minimise the risks of advances in biotechnology and genetic manipulation by introducing an ethical dimension.

At the University of Guelph, where scores of university researchers are exploring the frontiers of genetic manipulation, David Castle is working with scientists to optimise the global health benefits and minimise the risks of advances in genomics and biotechnology. He says his perspective, from the philosophy department and not food science, gives him a healthy detachment.

Biotechnology's need for ethical analysis is becoming more apparent and is being reflected in grants that require an ethical component. His role as a bio-ethicist is to try to understand the larger implications of the changes taking place in this area.

Earlier this year, a report by an advisory group of academics to the Royal Society of Canada said it was not enough for the research into genetically modified organisms to have an absence of evidence about risk to human and environmental safety.

GMOs tend to bring out strong words from both sides. "This is definitely a time of entrenchment," Professor Castle said.

He said ethical arguments by their nature polarise. When they touch on something as vital as food, the heat is inevitably turned up. He finds himself watching from the centre. "It's a Canadian thing to say, but I find myself horribly in the middle. The poles are so extreme, you can't help but land in the middle."

He has lectured to biotechnology lobbyists who have been open to criticism. He has talked to cutting-edge scientists, and found them not to be advocating unbridled gene manipulation. He has also been seeing students blending arts and sciences in philosophical research projects.

Professor Castle does not believe the university is using him merely as window dressing for an unpopular area of science.

He said: "The only way this would help them look good is by the fact that they recognise the ethical questions this research produces and that it needs to be farmed out to someone with a philosophical expertise and not just scientific experts who will speak well of them."

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