What will it be like to be a Buddhist in a future world where your life starts with your parents designing your genes? In addition to screening for unwanted genetic diseases, they select for sex, height, eye, hair, and skin color, and, if your parents are Buddhists, maybe even genes that allow you to sit easily in the full lotus position. Pressured by current social fads, they may also choose genes whose overall functions are not clearly understood, but are rumored to be connected with temperament, intelligence, mindfulness, and, perhaps, psychic powers. There is no longer any need to search for tulkus. They now clone themselves and are reborn in their own clones.
That future is a lot more plausible than you might think. From a Buddhist perspective, we need to analyze how current developments in genetic engineering are providing the causal seeds that will influence the world of the future. Because genetic engineering has the potential to radically transform both nature at large and human nature in particular, it poses a much greater threat than other technologies. It may also have the potential to do great good. The question is, at what price?
According to Buddhist teachings, nature as we experience it is a label for the shared karma of sentient beings on the planet; human nature is a karmic mixture of thought and emotion that has to be overcome on the path to enlightenment. Since karma—and suffering—will still be with us in the Brave New World, some have suggested that genetic engineering is not a big deal for Buddhists, that the work cut out for us now will, essentially, not change. But maybe we should take a deeper look.
What, for instance, is the relation of genetic engineering to our potential for enlightenment and its realization? The Buddhist view is that the condition of our bodies and nervous systems affects our minds, and vice versa. That is why karmic-based ethics insists on purity of both mind and body as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. For example, as we meditate, subtle changes take place in our bodies that resonate with our level of spiritual progress. Some of these changes have already been recorded in scientific research on how meditation affects brain function. The deeper our meditation, the more profound the body-mind transformation. Likewise, from the time of the Buddha, Buddhists have recognized that certain geographical locations have special natural energies that enhance progress in meditation and insight.
Genetic engineering has the potential for altering both our bodies and environments in ways that lessen their ability to support the process of personal transformation. When a person takes a drug such as marijuana or cocaine, the bodily physiology becomes altered so it becomes harder to concentrate and remain focused for an extended period of time, which makes meditation more difficult. Similarly, genetic engineering may impact our bodies in ways, as yet unknown, that will impede our progress on the path to enlightenment. Even if there is only a relatively small possibility of genetic engineering affecting progress on the spiritual path, it is a serious cause for concern. Because science deals only with the physical realm, no scientific experiment can possibly assess this kind of risk.
Another key concept, which Buddhism cherishes and science ignores, is the first moral precept: the principle of nonharming and respect for all sentient life and for its potential for enlightenment. Sentient beings have a central nervous system, so they are aware of pain. An important corollary is the alleviation of suffering and the notion of selfless compassion as a guiding principle in our actions. Buddhism, then, condemns any instrumental use of human or nonhuman sentient life – by geneticists or anyone else. That means Buddhists shouldn’t treat sentient beings as objects or tools to be used without regard for their own wishes or aspirations. Thus, the Buddhist approach to genetic engineering is no different from its approach to all mental, verbal, and physical actions. It begins with analyzing genetic engineering’s effect on life, how it creates or alleviates suffering, and how it aids or cripples the efforts of sentient beings to realize their potential for enlightenment.
Many geneticists do have good intentions. Some hope that genetically altering vegetables will alleviate starvation. Others are attempting to eliminate disease. In the field of medicine, they are trying to develop new genetic cures for cancer and inherited genetic diseases. And in agriculture, they are experimenting to increase crop yields and resistance to harmful insects. However, since neither labeling nor prior testing of genetically engineered food for potential danger to humans is legally required, the people who consume it, usually unknowingly, are being treated as guinea pigs.
Nonetheless, even good intentions often look dubious from a Buddhist viewpoint. For instance, animals are transformed genetically in ways that are often cruel. It is usually impossible to know all the effects of splicing a particular gene beforehand, so grotesque malformations that are painful to the animal and shorten its life span are not rare. Because of the short-sighted and blatantly commercial focus of most agricultural applications of genetic engineering, concern for the basic health of ecosystems and the longer-term health of life on the planet is usually absent. For instance, despite evidence that a genetically engineered bacterium migrates from plant to soil, causing a measurable drop in soil fertility, regulators of biotechnology have shown no concern about the possibility of genetically engineered organisms that destroy soil fertility spreading into the wild.
The benefits of genetic engineering are often calculated while wearing blinders. A particular good is usually considered without precautions taken to assess possible harm to particular individuals or to the collective welfare of the planet and all its beings. In many cases the overriding consideration is corporate profit, regardless of the consequences outside the corporation. The second moral precept, the prohibition against stealing, can be applied here. Biotech corporations, and even some universities, are stealing our genes. Under current law, if you are admitted to the hospital and the doctors find that you have some special, useful gene, that gene doesn’t belong to you and it can be exploited commercially without your having any recourse. For example, doctors exploited cells taken from John Moore’s body during an operation in 1976 and patented them in 1980. In 1990 the California Supreme Court ruled that Moore did not have the right to control the use of the DNA from his own cells. Indigenous peoples are complaining about the same type of exploitation happening with their genes. And a new gold rush is now in full swing for the genes of native herbs and plants, which have been used for millennia by Third World cultures. Now corporations are trying to patent them and charge the very people who originally discovered them for their use. Yet the Buddha taught that, in interacting with others and with the environment, we should emulate the honeybee as it takes pollen from flowers. Then the advantage is mutual and there is no harm.
Furthermore, the conceptual framework chosen for assessing the potential for possible harm from particular instances of genetic engineering is extremely important. Buddhism analyzes causality in much broader scope than that of the modern science used in genetic engineering. Buddhism’s emphasis is on a vast, interpenetrating and interdependent network of causes and conditions. In contradistinction, most scientific risk assessment is done in the laboratory. In order to limit the causal variables being studied, the scientific method operates best within hypothesized, artificial, and closed systems that are assumed to have some meaningful, but incomplete and imperfect, correspondence with the “real” world. What seems to be the case in the laboratory may or may not be valid in the natural world. Such scientific methodology cannot, because of its inherent limitations, assess the full extent of the possible effects of genetically engineered alterations on living creatures in a world that has countless causal factors. Because genes cannot be recalled from the environment once they are released into it, the disjunction between the laboratory and the environment takes on added importance.
From the viewpoint of basic Buddhist morality, specific developments in genetic engineering are troubling and point to a future riddled with ethical uncertainty and complexity. Buddhist practitioners first need to know what is actually going on in the field before they can do their own karmic analyses of how they and the world we all live in will be affected – and what their appropriate responses might be. There are various examples of some of the areas of greatest ethical concern:
Plants and food continue to be subjects for genetic engineering. First publicly revealed in a press release by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in March 1998, a U.S. patent on a technique that genetically alters seed so that it will not germinate if replanted a second time was issued to the Delta & Pine Land Company. The so-called “Terminator” seed loses its viability unless sprayed with a patented formula primarily containing antibiotics. According to RAFI, Monsanto Corporation wants to use the “Terminator” technology to keep farmers from collecting genetically engineered seed, forcing them to buy it every year.
A recent letter to the journal Nature (May 20, 1999) has caused an international furor by reporting that the pollen from corn crops that are genetically engineered to kill corn borers is poisonous to Monarch butterflies. In addition to showing that the corn pollen kills a nonharmful insect outside of the planting area, the reported study raises questions about unanticipated effects of genetically engineered plants on the environment.
To avoid dependency on petroleum-based plastics, some scientists in the United States, Europe, and Canada have genetically engineered plants to produce plastic within their stem structures. They claim that it biodegrades in about six months. If the genes escape into the wild, however, there is the prospect of natural areas littered with the plastic spines of decayed leaves. Aesthetically repugnant, the plastic also poses a real danger since it has the potential for disrupting or killing entire food chains. It can be eaten by invertebrates, which in turn are themselves eaten, and so forth. Dr. John Fagan, professor of molecular biology at the Maharishi University of Management, founded by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and formerly research group leader at the National Institutes of Health, has warned that the new constituents used in these plastics are oils that are toxic to animals.
Another distressing idea is to genetically engineer plants with scorpion toxin, so that insects feeding on the plants would be killed. Even though a prominent geneticist, Joseph Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, warned that such genes could be horizontally transferred to the insects themselves – thereby risking injecting the toxin into humans – research and field testing continue.
Many scientists have claimed that the ingestion of genetically engineered food is harmless, because the food is broken down by stomach acids. However, research has shown that significant portions reach the bloodstream and also the brain cells. Furthermore, the natural defense mechanisms of the body’s cells are not entirely effective in keeping the genetically engineered substances out of the cells. Recent experiments also show that genes transferred to plants in the process of genetic engineering can mutate up to thirty times faster than normal ones, so that there is a strong possibility that genetically engineered food will contain mutated genes. What those genes will do inside our bodies is anybody’s guess.
The creation of xenographs – genetically altered animals, which often contain human genes – is one of the more horrendous uses of this technology. Often experiments result in horribly deformed animals that undergo terrible suffering. Even when experiments are “successful,” the scientific model is that of the animal as a factory that efficiently produces some substance – meat, milk, or pharmaceuticals – for human consumption. What Buddhists need to pay attention to here is the degrees of negative karma. The killing of animals for meat violates the precept against killing.
Factory farming adds incredible suffering to the lives of animals. The creation of xenographs is an even more fundamental violation of the animals’ lives. Whether or not the genes inserted to create new animals are human ones, xenographs are created for human use and patented for corporate profit – without regard for the suffering of the animals, their feelings, thoughts, natural life patterns, or potential for enlightenment.
Recent examples of this type of genetic engineering include putting human genes into fish to make them grow faster. PPL Therapeutics, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, the biotech companies Nextran and Alxion in the United States, and others, are racing to place human genes into pigs in order to genetically match them to individual human. In other words, you can have your own personal organ-donor pig, with your genes implanted. When one of your organs gives out, you can use the pig’s.
Of course, many would say that it is better to sacrifice the pig so that they or their loved ones can live, even though such thoughts and actions are not in accord with the Bodhisattva ideal. Yet other, more humane, solutions are available. For instance, in the Netherlands, everyone is considered a potential organ donor unless they specifically file with the government not to be, so there is no shortage of organs for transplant there and no need for sacrificing genetically engineered pigs. As more and more human genes are being inserted into nonhuman organisms to create new forms of life that are genetically partly human, new ethical questions arise. What percent of human genes does an organism have to contain before it is considered human? For instance, how many human genes would a green pepper have to contain before you would have qualms about eating it? For meat eaters, the same question could be posed about eating pork with human genes. This is not merely a hypothetical query. Scientists at Beijing University are now putting human genes into tomatoes and peppers to make them grow faster. And what about the mice that have been genetically engineered to produce human sperm?
What about humans themselves? A few years ago, Granada Biosciences of Texas applied to the European Patent Office for a patent on a so-called “pharm-woman,” the idea being to genetically engineer human females so that their breast milk would contain specialized pharmaceuticals. A geneticist, Jonathan Slack, of England’s Bath University, has recently proposed genetically engineering headless humans to be used for body parts. Some prominent geneticists, such as Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London, have supported his idea.
In addition, we have the slippery slope that leads to “designer genes.” We are already administering genetically engineered growth hormone to healthy children who are simply shorter than average but whose parents would like them to be taller. Buddhist parents may want to think about whether societal fashions for kids’ bodies are more important to them than raising their children to be good people.
Viruses also pose special dangers when they interact with genetically engineered organisms. We can presume that ordinary viruses, no matter how deadly, if naturally produced have a role to play in an ecosystem and are regulated by that ecosystem. However, if cells are genetically engineered, then when viruses enter cells – whether human, animal, or plant – this viral material can also be transferred to the newly created viruses and spread to the viruses’ new hosts. Since viruses with genetically engineered material could never naturally arise in an ecosystem, there is no guarantee of natural defenses against them. This alone might lead to damage to the ecosystem and widespread death of humans. (Of course, when viruses are genetically engineered to be used as military or terrorist weapons, the risks are correspondingly greater.) The notion that ecosystems can ultimately deal with any threat, however extreme, is without scientific basis. No evidence exists that the life and welfare of human beings have priority in those self-organizing systems. Nor is there any evidence that anything in those systems is equipped to deal with all the threats that genetically engineered organisms may pose.
Genetic engineering can affect the whole of nature, as well. In Buddhist terms, “nature” refers to the patterns of causes and conditions that reflect the karma of sentient beings who live on the planet. In terms of respect for life, which is the foundation of all Buddhist practice, nature can also be understood as the sum total of ecosystems that support life. Humans, animals, and other sentient beings are dependent upon a wholesome environment for a healthy life. Harming that environment causes those beings to suffer and, ultimately, could cause them to die prematurely. Even on the level of microorganisms, it can have deleterious effects on more complex organisms because of the interconnectedness of all life. Release into the wild of genetically engineered organisms, whether viruses, bacteria, fish, plants, or animals, has the potential for seriously upsetting major ecosystems, yet very little research is being done about this danger.
Furthermore, nature as wilderness provides an effective place for meditation, one where rapid progress can be made. In self-cultivation, harmony with nature involves the ability to find a place for practice where the natural energy is auspicious. Nature acts as a mirror for seeing the deep workings of our own body-minds. In the wilderness, the distinctly human afflictions of others do not reinforce our own affliction. The potential danger from genetic engineering is twofold. First, genetically engineered organisms released into the environment might, in some cases, alter the auspicious energy of natural settings. Second, in genetically correcting problems within our bodies, we may unknowingly transform our genetic makeup in ways that restrict or inhibit our spiritual abilities, so that we are less able to resonate with auspicious natural energies. These are not the kinds of concern that can be laid to rest by any scientific data.
Despite the benefits of genetic engineering trumpeted in the media – primarily to repair genetic flaws, cure disease, and increase food production – in the overwhelming number of cases, I believe the price is too high to pay. To insure megaprofits for multinational corporations well into the next century, we will have to mortgage the biosphere, seriously compromise life on the planet, and we may even harm our potential for enlightenment. Genetic engineering poses serious risks to human health and the environment. It raises serious ethical questions about the right of a few human beings to alter life on the planet in a radically new and irreversible way for their own benefit.
What makes genetic engineering special is both its power and its irreversibility. Its ability to harm all forms of life is greater by a quantum leap than most other technologies and does not leave a margin for errors. Results of flaws in this technology cannot be recalled and fixed, but become the negative heritage of countless future generations.
If there are some areas of genetic engineering that can safely benefit humanity while respecting other forms of life, then efforts need to be redoubled, not only in the area of precautionary assessment of possible dangers, but also in developing broad ethical guidelines. Since the scientific establishment is acknowledging the need for public input, there is a window of opportunity for introducing the perspective of Buddhist ethics to current moral questions about proposed research in genetic engineering. If experts in both scientific and ethical areas are to be trusted and respected, they must be free from the taint of personal monetary gain and other forms of self-aggrandizement. Here, too, there is opportunity for the public to demand regulation of the industry’s interface with academia and government.
Can we really have an influence? Even slowing the inexorable progress of the current trends will be extremely difficult. Yet there is hope. Fortunately, there is a vocal minority of well-trained scientists in the field, such as Prof. Stuart Newman of the Council for Responsible Genetics, Prof. Richard Strohmann of the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of Open University, Drs. Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to name just a few, that sees the dangers of what is occurring. These people have been brave enough to voice their consciences.
Clearly, the key is educating the public. We need to have confidence that ordinary citizens working together can build a foundation of collective wisdom that can show us the way through the incredibly complicated maze of issues surrounding genetic engineering. Can we make the problems go away? Probably not. But successes are possible: The Third World Network, under the leadership of Prof. Vandana Shiva, has mobilized India and other underdeveloped nations to resist multinational corporations in search of genetic profit. In Europe, heightened public awareness of the dangers of genetically engineered foods has recently forced the major corporate players to back off from plans for their widespread introduction there. Here in the United States, the organic food lobby, the Mothers for Natural Law, and others have orchestrated a public education campaign about the dangers of such food, so that attempts to include genetically engineered food as organic under the National Organic Standards Rule have not succeeded.
From a Buddhist perspective, the problems of genetic engineering are no different in principle from most other problems we face in our daily life. They are all the result of kleshas – desire, anger, ignorance, and so forth. There is probably no single answer to the question of what Buddhists or any ethically concerned citizens should do about these problems. Some may decide to work actively with the many groups trying to raise public awareness and stop the most blatant dangers. Others may prefer to work directly on the mind ground and try to generate the wisdom and compassion that transforms the minds of all sentient beings toward awakening. Yet others will undoubtedly put their heads in the sand and let the karma fall where it may.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.