convoluted path

Genetic Engineering and Philosophy of Technology

There is a new book examining the social context of biotechnology – Food, Genetic Engineering and Philosophy of Technology: Magic Bullets, Technological Fixes and Responsibility to the Future.
The author, Dane Scott, holds multiple titles at the University of Montana: Director of the Mansfield Ethics and Public Affairs Program, and Associate Professor of Ethics in the College of Forestry and Conservation.

Dane is a philosopher with a grounding in soil science (I couldn’t help the pun), thus has a unique perspective from which to examine issues in agriculture, conservation, geoengineering, and a number of other topics. Dane was also the faculty member for Debating Science, an NSF-funded workshop that brought graduate students in science and engineering together to discuss the ethics of their work.

This week, we’re celebrating 10 years of the Biofortified Blog, which has me feeling nostalgic. Right about the same time we were starting Biofortified, I was at Debating Science. That workshop in the summer of 2008 led me to examine socioeconomic and ethical issues in my thesis, in my writing at the Biofortified Blog, and beyond. I committed to a minor in sustainable agriculture, asked bioethicist Clark Wolf to join my committee, and continued work on cross-cutting issues, taking on roles such as biotechnology representative to the USDA Organic Working Group and leading Environmental Justice efforts for USDA Plant Protection and Quarantine. Even in these roles I often felt pulled in two directions.

Techno Fixes

convoluted path
Convoluted path to navigate.

I feel conflicted and frustrated by oversimplification of scientific and ethical issues surrounding biotechnology. Even in the title of this book we see the phrase “magic bullet” – my gut instinct is to shout “no one thinks biotech is a magic bullet!” Truth be told, we do think biotech is a magic bullet. Just look at the hype surrounding CRISPR now.

It’s so easy to think a technological fix will work. Often, technology does solve problems, or at least has the potential to. But if we don’t look at all of the other issues that technology alone can’t fix, then a solution won’t get deployed, or other problems will pop up. Consider how long we’ve been talking about Golden Rice. There’s a combination of technological issues that are being addressed and all of these far more complex issues of regulation, consumer acceptance, economics, ethics… And yet when I see people start down this path of discussion, my gut instinct is to shout “but the technology works!” because in many cases, if the social barriers were removed we could solve the problem with technology.

Navigating the path

Dane’s book examines this convoluted back and forth of ideas (technological optimism vs technological pessimism) and ways to move forward. And move forward we must. As Dane points out in a blog post, The Anthropocene and the end of Progress, humans have utterly disrupted the earth in ways that are dangerous for our species. We must adapt quickly, using our technologies in ways “that make progress in achieving social and environmental goals”, not just progress towards technological goals.

The book is a little pricey ($89 from Springer) so most of us won’t be buying the full text anytime soon. I will request my local university library purchase a copy. However, the first two chapters of the book are available for free download for a limited time.

  1. Progress in Crisis, Genetic Engineering and Philosophy of Technology (PDF)
  2. Reinterpreting Progress, Genetically Engineered Biofortified Crops and Technological Pragmatism (PDF)

In chapter 1, Dane identifies “three obstacles: (1) costly and time-consuming precautionary regulations, (2) market failures in the private sector and (3) limited public sector funding for social-goods research.” In Chapter 2, Dane recommends “abandoning conflicting metaphysical assumptions found in techno-optimism and techno-pessimism.” No more convoluted path.

Instead, he argues that we need “a more limited interpretation of progress.” He examines use of biotechnology to further social justice, and proposes “a publicly funded, pay-for-performance incentive system to correct defects in the current incentive system, which is leading to market failures and injustices.”

I invite you to read these two chapters with me, and share your thoughts in the comments below.