The biotechnology culture clash

Embedded religious perspectives in East and West create distinct responses to genetic engineering

By Lee M. Silver
(July 18, 2006)

In the year 2000, my family and I spent nine months traveling across Asia. Since then I have traveled across most other areas of the world, most recently sub-Saharan Africa, talking to people about their spiritual beliefs and what they think about biotechnology in particular. I will describe my interpretations of what I saw and heard.

Differences in religious perspectives

If you look at the national law/political climate of embryonic research, you will notice three different areas: America, Europe (Mendocino, Calif., I include with Europe) and Asia. Asia, including Singapore, has a very liberal political climate when it comes to embryo research in contrast to the other two regions. Conversely, you get a very different picture in Europe and America on genetically engineered crops. In America you have positive national laws and political climate for genetically modified (GM) crops, whereas Europeans reject GM crops. And in Asia they accept GM. So you have these three different categorical responses to these two different technologies. Europe and America are essentially inverse, but Asia accepts everything.

All of Western culture is influenced greatly by Judeo-Christianity. The general idea we learn as children is that there is a master of the universe and there is a master plan. That’s what directs our future. If you reject the church, it is not uncommon, judging from people I have talked to, to transfer this belief in a higher power from a material God in the sky to the material Earth below. Mother Nature becomes the master of the universe with a master plan, which is what has happened in Europe.

Some polls show that 78 percent of Americans believe in a Christian version of God as presented in the Bible. Europe has become very different in its religious beliefs, in a very specific way. The number of people who have traditional Christian beliefs and attend church is way, way down. Instead, what is rising is a belief in a higher power. And so Europeans answered, “Yes” to the statement, “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.”

Asian culture and traditions are completely different from those in the West. Western spirits are discrete and static — you are given a soul, you die, you go to heaven as a distinct individual. On the other hand, Eastern spirits evolve. The idea is that all spirits start off in the simplest organism and then, during each life, a plant or animal gains karma. When the body grows old, the spirit leaves the worn-out body behind and jumps into a new one. This is a very different perception of the world.

Human or not human

My colleague Robert George, a politics professor at Princeton University and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, says in The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis: “The scientific evidence establishes the fact that each of us was from conception a human being. Science, not religion, vindicates this crucial premise of the pro-life claim.”

Is this really science? Or, is this just hidden theology? If early embryos are human beings, embryonic stem cell derivation is not only unethical, it’s murderous because you’re taking a human being apart and growing cells out of it. If early embryos are just a bunch of cells, embryo research is not really human research, it’s cell research. I would call it “ethically innocuous” as opposed to murder.

The claimed scientific evidence works as follows: At any moment during development, there’s no substantial change in the biology of the organism. Development is a continuous process — we know that. If we look at a baby, and then step back a nanosecond, she wouldn’t be substantially different. Then go back another nanosecond, and there’s no substantial change. It’s all continuous change. If you accept that, then any cutoff for defining human beings is arbitrary, because if you draw an absolute line, on either side of that line are going to be organisms that are substantially equivalent. Therefore, all lines are arbitrary. And since a baby is a human being, an embryo is also.

The problem with this argument is that it is based on an unstated assumption. We instinctively believe that a thing either is or is not a human being. We have this either/or perception of life. And if something is either a human being or not, then this argument stands, because any line you draw arbitrarily is going to separate two organisms that are biologically equivalent. So how could one be a human being and the other one not be a human being?

The theology of embryos

This assumption comes from an interpretation of Genesis made by certain religious groups that strictly follow the Bible. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image.” And that is interpreted by some as meaning that God created man instantaneously. There can be no such thing as gradual creation, because then you have partial man, and man would not be in the image of God. There is no such thing as a partial God. God is absolute.

Embryonic stem cells can develop into an actual person. So, based on the definition of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, embryonic stem cells are equivalent to embryos. Yet based on the molecular signals that you give the cells, the cells can change from embryonic to nonembryonic and back to embryonic. You can do this easily.

So then you can ask, “How many human beings are there in a dish of embryonic stem cells?” If there are a million cells in the dish, and you separate all the cells, then you have a million human beings. But you can then put them back together to form a single organism. What happened to the 999,999 human beings? Robert George would say they all died. Scientists would say that this is not a scientific question, but a theological question. Science can’t answer the question because it is theological not scientific.

Genetically modified beliefs

Genesis 1:28–29 says, “God gave man dominion over every fish, bird, living creature and every seed-bearing plant.” What does that mean? It means that plants and animals exist for our benefit and that belief extends into the idea that genetic modification of plants and animals is not inherently unethical. It doesn’t mean that you might not worry about the effects on health or the environment, but that you use rational cost-benefit analyses to determine the legitimacy of any use of the technology.

Six of the top 10 countries producing GM crops in the year 2004 were in the Western Hemisphere, which is a traditionally Christian hemisphere. Europe has rejected GM crops, and so has Mendocino, Calif. China has rapidly advanced beyond the rest of the world.

The European proclamations all say, “We want to preserve Mother Nature. We don’t want your American genetically modified crops. We don’t want to harm Mother Nature.” Genetic engineering is seen as a violation of Mother Nature’s master plan.

The Europeans I have talked to couldn’t care less about human embryos, but don’t touch their crops, they say. The problem with this picture is that it is 99 percent artifice. There is almost nothing in Europe that is natural. Take the Loire Valley in France, for example. The corn growing there comes from Mexico; it doesn’t belong there. The weeds growing along the side of the fields weren’t growing there 1,000 years ago. They were selected by nature because they are able to grow alongside fields like that. None of the meadow trees were growing when Europe was forested — those trees can’t grow in the forest. All of this happened because of agriculture. Wild cattle, wolves, bears and all the other wild animals in Europe went extinct.

Western spirits are tightly bound to the material, either Jesus or the Earth. Eastern spirits are detachable. I went to cremation services all across India. The idea is that in this process, the spirit is going up to heaven and comes back down into another organism. In Buddhism, there is no single God and no master plan. As a consequence, the idea of playing god is meaningless.

China, India and Singapore — which is so tiny that people there don’t grow crops — upset the Western mindset entirely. Singapore would grow crops if it could. But embryos are tiny and the country has a huge embryo research effort going on. Moreover, they’re stealing a lot of scientists from America.

A woman I met in Sumatra, Indonesia, calls herself a Muslim, but her beliefs are purely Eastern. She says that she is reincarnated in her grandchildren. A quarter of her spirit goes into her grandchildren and other quarter portions of their spirits come from the other grandparents. And when I heard this, interpreted through her son, I realized that what she called spirits I would call genes.

Playing god only makes sense in the context of the traditional monotheism that prevails in America or the post-Christian monotheism of Mother Nature common in Europe. In Asian culture it doesn’t make sense, which is the reason why there’s no grassroots opposition there to either embryo research or genetically engineered crops. Western humanitarians and environmentalists who oppose the current reigning policies on biotechnology and hope to benefit humanity and the environment need to take a place at the discussion table. It can happen only if they can separate subliminal spiritual beliefs from scientific evidence and theory.

Lee M. Silver is a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

This article is adapted from “Challenging Nature,” remarks delivered at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Used with permission.