Ethical questions are the cornerstone of human society, with people questioning the essence of and motivation behind reality for millennia.
Human decisions have shaped the very world we live in and not a single social endeavor is exempt of thorough investigation into its nature - is it inherently good or bad? The Technion, a fellow Israeli team, published an ethics booklet with a focus on synthetic biology and it was them who inspired us to undertake a similar philosophical investigation, including from a religious perspective. We embarked on our own ethical query regarding the use of synthetic biology in the food industry and here is where we delve into the thought process that led us to this point.
Scientists are among those who shape and determine our future, our very existence as a race on this planet. Climate change, renewable energy, ecological conservation, human health, artificial prolongation of life, the list goes on and on. These are only a handful of areas where science holds unimaginable power, to be wielded magnanimously or destructively. Synthetic biology is pushing science and its ethical ramifications to uncharted territory. For the first time, the possibility of redefining nature is at hand, with contemporary thought frameworks not yet equipped to cope with this formerly fictional reality.
It was important for us to begin with religious perspectives on the topic of synthetic biology, given our team’s unique diversity. Three major religions converge under one scientific goal, the possibilities of philosophical insight were endless. We sat down with religious figures from all three denominations and asked them where their respective religions stand on what we wish to achieve as scientists. A Rabbi illuminated the concept of “sha’atnez”, hybridization. In Biblical times it referred to fabrics made of disparate materials, in the 21st century is has different connotations which have all been scrutinized. Islam speaks of respecting the creation of Allah, interference is allowed only to improve upon it, never to cause harm, as told to us by an Imam. Visiting a church nestled in the hills of the Galillee, a priest differentiated between synthetic biology used on somatic cells and that on embryonic stem cells, highlighting the Christian concept of the sanctity of life. Please see our human practice page for a more detailed discussion on what we learned.
As part of our collaboration with the Technion Team, we read their ethics booklet aimed at junior scientists and were profoundly enlightened on the subject. Next, both teams convened in order to advance further, the goal being for them to add an applicable aspect to their ethical outlook and for us to glean inspiration with which to draft our own.
Dr. Meshi Ori and Dr. Ayelet Shavit,esteemed philosophy professors from Tel Hai college. Dr.Ori specializes in the ethics of transportation and bioethics.Dr.Ayelet’s field is philosohy of science.
led the discussion, which spanned the history of ethics and its relevance to everyday life and more specifically the world of science. Members of both teams exchanged ideas and this brainstorming proved fruitful for all - the Technion team received input on how to develop their booklet and we gained insight into our own ethical standpoint in regards to our project.
The area in ethics most pertinent to our project is predictive ethics in technology. The analysis of our project in accordance with predictive ethics will fall into three categories - the ethics of synthetic biology as a whole, the ethics of synthetic biology in the food industry and finally in the context of wine, specifically.
Let us begin with the analysis of synthetic biology on its own. Technology can be characterized as quintessentially relative. The height of technological innovation ten thousand years ago was the wheel and the hammer, whereas today gene editing is a concept most are familiar with and take for granted. Moreover, technology is only as good or as bad as the intentions of those implementing it. A violin can produce melodious serenity or ear splitting cacophony, depends on the musician.
Criticism in essence, encourages change and improvement. By being open to criticism, it is possible to view things in a different light and learn to be more creative. Synthetic biology has had the honor and privilege to be viscerally criticized by all manner of opposition, meaning that it is constantly required to adapt and adhere to social and moral norms. A major argument wielded by the detractors of synthetic biology is that it allows man to play God by twisting the laws of nature perversely. We challenge this point of view by saying that this technology can and will change the lives of millions of people for the better, as it has already begun to do. Ethically safeguarding the evolution and implementation of synthetic biology will ensure its use for good. It is a tool used by and for people, so it is the responsibility of society to be constantly aware and critical of its effect on humanity and the world around us.
In regards to synthetic biology in the food industry, criticism ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. The latter being statements to the effect of “genetically modified food is bad for you, genetic engineering is evil” etc. The former actually consists of some valid points, such as - by exercising genetic engineering tools in agriculture, we will inadvertently eradicate genetic diversity, by favoring certain genetic makeups over others. In reality, synthetic biology is actually utilized in order to preserve genetic diversity, by ensuring the survivability of certain genes by eliminating debilitating susceptibilities to disease, for example. Another good example is the concept of international species banks, where selected seeds are retrieved from nature in their wild type form and stored for posterity
With respect to wine, we took into consideration the needs that synthetic biology can meet for both the industry and the consumers. Where the industry is concerned, a need to ecologically and responsibly eliminate detrimental microorganisms opens the door for genetic manipulation of yeast, for example. But perfecting the wine with science begs the question - are we turning the art of winemaking into a predictable scientific venture? The same line of questioning was provoked by the industrial revolution. We hold the opinion that innovation has the potential to revolutionize our way of life, as apprehensive as we may be of change. The more creative and daring humanity will be, the more it will challenge the existing reality to evolve.
From the perspective of the consumers, a healthier wine calls for improvement upon its basic characteristics, by genetic enhancement. This raised for us the question of responsible alcohol use - if we were to create a more attractive wine that will cause greater consumption, what is our role in educating the community in regards to safe use of alcohol? Every product created for the consumption of people holds with it the ethical responsibility regarding the effects of said product.
We hope that the scientific community will continue to spearhead life altering revolutions and to challenge prejudice and misconception. The only way to do so is to be mindful of the ethical ramifications of technological innovations and to include philosophical and social considerations, alongside monetary and practical ones.