April 23, 2024

Naturalism, but not as you know it

A new environmentalist movement believes in protecting all life — “right down to the cellular level”.

It’s surprising when you encounter an ethical framework radically opposed to the utilitarianism predominant in bioethics. Here’s one example: the anti-synthetic biology lobby group Friends of the Earth.

In a curious neo-romantic return to nature, Friends of the Earth inveigh against the whole field of synthetic biology, seeing it as an attack on the fundamental building blocks of reality – DNA. The group recently hosted a conference discussing the “the false premise of synbio” and its potential to undermine traditional knowledge, livelihoods and community.

As Hasting Center researcher Gregory E. Kaebnick observes, Friends of the Earth believe that life is a sacred, “right down to the cellular level”:

“The thought underlying this view is that the DNA contains, in a kind of code, the essence of an organism; it is the DNA that makes a living thing the thing it is. By altering the DNA, we necessarily and immediately make a living thing synthetic, which is to say unnatural. The departure from what is good and acceptable is manifested by an inherent dangerousness”.

Several speakers at the recent conference suggested that modified DNA are somewhat like radioactive atoms: danger infiltrates them, and they infiltrate, and ruin, the natural world. The overarching claim was that genetic modification of an organism is by definition a harm to nature; nigh the most fundamental harm to nature possible.

Kaebnick is sceptical about the extremes to which Friends of the Earth take the ‘sacredness of life’ ethic: “An across-the-board opposition to genetic modification tends to put a somewhat strained emphasis on the value of DNA.”

Indeed, most of our readers will be no doubt sceptical.

But the idea isn’t just an eco-manic flight of fancy. Kaebnick himself, a well-known figure in environmental ethics, has published a book arguing that goal of protecting life and preserving nature is a “good moral starting point.” Governments should work to promote a ‘respect for nature’ by taking a cautious approach to disciplines like synthetic biology. Kaebnick does, however, describe his position as more of an ideal than a matter of obligation. 

Environmentalist activist group campaigns against synthetic biology
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
environmental ethics
human exceptionalism
synthetic biology