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Asking the Right Questions about Genetic Engineering

Religious voices are valuable in considering the implications of human genetic engineering.

By David Barr|May 22, 2024

Reservations about human genetic engineering generally fall into two camps: those who worry it is unnatural and those who worry it will be unfair. The ways these concerns are deployed are often unhelpful, but they point us toward real areas of concern where religious voices are valuable.

We can wave aside the superficial versions of these worries easily. The first is far too general in its condemnation. Genetic engineering is unnatural, but so is nasal spray. The whole project of medicine is an effort to make us healthier than we find ourselves naturally. If we are going to condemn human bioengineering because it is unnatural, we’d have to find an argument that would not condemn all medical technology.

The second concern, rather than condemning too much technology, is often not about technology at all. Walter Isaacson, in an interview after writing a book on the subject, commented that, “One of the problems when people discuss technology is that they often speak as if they’re afraid of technology when what they’re afraid of is capitalism.” When my students share worries about an engineered human future, they are not usually afraid of genetics as some scary frontier – they don’t remember a time when we couldn’t program DNA like computer code. What older generations may assume is still science fiction – using an engineered virus to alter genes and cure a disease! – my students simply take for granted (these techniques have already received FDA approval). No, my students tend to be afraid that new technologies will reinforce existing inequalities and systems of oppression. They aren’t worried about genetic technology; they are worried about genetic capitalism. 

Worries about capitalism dominate dystopian depictions of our bioengineered future. My students regularly reference Gattaca, a movie which depicts a future with a strict class division between those who have been genetically engineered and those made the old-fashioned way, with only the former given access to professional opportunities. (Students bring up Gattaca often enough that I suspect high school biology teachers must all show the film in class).  

In stories like Gattaca, nothing goes wrong with the bioengineering itself (stories of experimental medicine going wrong and producing zombies is a whole other genre). The problem in these movies is that successful bioengineering literally incarnates social inequality. These movies make visible the present reality that inheritance restricts our destinies. They are myths about capitalism as much or more than technology.

So, the objection that genetic technology is unnatural can fail because it criticizes too much technology, and the objection that it is unfair is inadequate because it may not criticize technology at all. But each of these concerns can point in a helpful direction, and more sophisticated versions of these arguments deserve consideration. 

First, it is a thin definition of nature that calls all uses of technology unnatural. But there are different ways in which a technology can alter nature. Some technologies facilitate and reinforce existing relationships of care; others warp such relationships. To treat a child’s cancer with chemotherapy isn’t “natural,” but caring for a sick child certainly is. To select your future child’s traits from a menu seems unnatural in a fundamentally different way. The former uses new technology to aid an ancient vocation of care. The latter introduces a novel power dynamic into intimate relationships, changing parents into consumers and children into products. Calling such engineering “unnatural” may be a shorthand for legitimate concerns about how these practices could distort relationships at the heart of human life.  

Second, there are concerns about capitalism and genetic engineering that pertain directly to these technologies. Unfortunately, our ideas about justice have become so dominated by concerns about social oppression that we struggle to see anything underneath relations of power. We can forget the biology beneath sociality. If our moral aspirations are limited to achieving equity, we may not anticipate that a human population which radically alters its biology might be equally and freely victim to its own lack of foresight. We have an array of needs – food, water, shelter – as a result of having bodies, needs that we should strive to meet equitably. But bodies are more than things with needs; the fact that we are genetically diverse, ecological bodies shapes our goods and our experience of them. Genetic variation undergirds our social life in ways we may not recognize until they are removed by the flattening effects of biotechnology. I worry that, if we miss that fact, we may welcome Huxley’s “brave new world,” as long as it comes with universal engineering and single-payer soma distribution. 

We might imagine a just biotechnological future in which all races and classes have access to opportunities to engineer their children. But such a society, despite its social justice, may be worse off than one without genetic engineering, even if it is healthier, taller, and more athletic. We shouldn’t just worry about capitalism making the future unfair. We should also worry about consumerism bioengineering a banal human monoculture (a concern that is intrinsic to the potential homogenizing effects of the technology). Yes, we should worry about a future where some people are born into a genetic ghetto, but we should probably also worry about a future where all people are born into a genetic suburb. Seeing that danger requires that we think about more than social justice when we think about genes and capitalism. 

Refocusing moral concern on what is “natural” and bodily is a task for which religions may be critical. One reason why I value the work of religious ethicists in addition to philosophers is that religions often maintain closer contact with the messiness of bodily life. Religious communities tend to remain in touch, through spiritual disciplines, ritual, and confession, with the biological basis of human flourishing. They should be less prone to forget the limits that bodies put on agency. Religions can help us articulate visions of the human good that have positive content, rather than just negative condemnations of injustice. They can help us learn the lesson that there are realities – sacred, natural, or both – before which we ought to hold back, that there are mysteries to be respected, not removed.

Featured image by National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

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David Barr

David Barr (AB ’06, PhD ’19) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Berry College (Rome, GA), where he teaches courses on bioethics, race, and environmental ethics. His current book project, The Irony of Human History: A Christian Realist Environmental Ethics, draws on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr to propose a more realistic method for religious environmental ethics.