April 28, 2013
I remember the worst speech I ever gave. Or at least it was the worst received speech I ever gave. I was standing up in front of a bunch of scientists who were working on cloning adult mammalian cells in about 2001. This was the line of research that gave us Dolly, the celebrated sheep. I think both of my readers are old enough to remember Dolly, although it’s always a bit humbling to remind yourself that most of the undergraduates in my classroom probably don’t.
I tried to begin my speech by drawing a distinction. One of my good friends once said that the motto of contemporary philosophy is “No distinction is so trivial that it’s not worth making.” So I know that we can go overboard with drawing distinctions, but I didn’t think the one that I was making was trivial at all.
I started with the question “What is biotechnology?” When asked this question, I usually answered something like this: “Biotechnology is a cluster of laboratory techniques that use recombinant DNA.” This captures gene splicing, which relies on rDNA’s capacity to bind with itself, as well as cloning, which involved removing the entire DNA molecule from an adult cell (in Dolly’s case it was a mammary cell), and then placing it into an embryo that had had its own DNA removed. That’s what the guys in this room were working on, and it had the potential to produce exact genetic copies of individual animals (including humans, so far as we know), as well as to produce “stem cells” that could potentially be used for both research and medical therapy.
“But,” I said, “there is another way that people use the word ‘biotechnology’, as when they say ‘My daughter works in biotechnology,’ or ‘I’ve got my life savings invested in biotechnology’”. Here they are thinking about human organizations rather than laboratory techniques, though of course these companies or universities or labs generally use those laboratory techniques. The point I was trying to make to those guys was that it was important to sort out which ethical objections to biotechnology are focused on the laboratory techniques and which are targeted to the way that organizations were conducting themselves.
It seems like we’re witnessing another round of outrage against “biotechnology”. For my money, it’s almost entirely focused on the second sense I was talking about. People are incensed by the conduct and business strategy of some large agribusiness firms, most notably Monsanto. But I’m not sure that these incensed people have a very good idea what the laboratory techniques we associate with biotechnology actually are. And if not, how can they be so sure that there aren’t some ways to use those techniques (by different organizations, perhaps, with different motivations) that would be ethically acceptable?
I’m still not sure why my 2001 audience was so angry with me, but perhaps they were all so focused on the $$$ to be made from cloning that they took me to be criticizing them for being greedy. Sometimes the lady doth protest too much. But what about today’s outrage against biotechnology? If I couldn’t make this speech to a roomful of scientists, could I make it to a roomful of foodie protestors?
Golly gee, fellas! Find her an empty knee.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University