What might it be like to be a Buddhist in a future world where your
life started 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 have chosen 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 get reborn in their own clones.) .) If
your parents are poor, they may have been paid to design you with genes tailored for a
particular occupation, together with a pre-birth contract for future employment. As in the
film Gattaca, you probably belong to a clearly defined social class according to the
degree of your genetic enhancement. Of course there may still be a few weird, unenhanced
naturals-by-choice meditating in the mountains.
From the very first milk you suckled, your food is genetically
engineered. The natural world is completely made over, invaded and distorted beyond
recognition by genetically engineered trees, plants, animals, insects, bacteria, and
viruses, both planned and run amok. Illnesses are very different too. Most of the old ones
are gone or mutated into new forms, yet most people are suffering from the aftermath of
genetically engineered pathogens, either used in biowarfare, or mistakenly released into
the environment, or recombined in toxic form from originally harmless but rapidly mutating
engineered organisms. Genetic engineering is so commonplace, you started your own simple
experiments with it in elementary school.
That future is 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 worlds of the future. Because genetic engineering has the
potential to radically transform both nature and human nature, it poses a much greater
threat than other technologies.
According to Buddhist teachings, nature as we experience it is a label
for the shared karma of sentient beings on the planet, and human nature is a karmic
mixture of thought and emotion that has to be transformed on the path to enlightenment.
Since karmaand sufferingwill 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, when we meditate, subtle physiological changes take place
in our bodies that resonate with our level of spiritual progress. The deeper our
meditation, the more profound the body-mind transformation. Likewise, from the time of the
Buddha, Buddhists have recognized that certain places 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. For
instance, when a person takes drugs, the bodily physiology becomes altered 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. Even if there is only a relatively
small possibility of genetic engineering affecting progress on the path to enlightenment,
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 non-harming 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 (plants are not considered sentient). An important corollary is the
alleviation of suffering and the notion of selfless compassion as a guiding principle in
Buddhism, then, condemns any instrumental use of human or non-human 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 begins with analyzing its effect on life, how it
creates or alleviates suffering, and how it aids or cripples the efforts of sentient
realize their potential for enlightenment.
Some geneticists are well-intentioned in their desire to use genetic
engineering in altruistic ways. For example, in agriculture they are trying to increase
yields and resistance to harmful insects. In the field of medicine they are trying to
develop new genetic cures for cancer and inherited genetic diseases. Yet many get caught
up in their own desires for profit, power, and fame.
Even well-intentioned efforts often look dubious from a Buddhist viewpoint. Animals are
transformed genetically in ways that are often cruel, and humans are being treated as
guinea pigs to test genetically engineered food. The basic health of ecosystems and the
longer term health of life on the planet are also disregarded.
The second moral precept is the prohibition against stealing. Yet,
biotech corporations and even some universities are stealing our genes, the genes of
indigenous peoples, native herbs and plants, patenting them, and then charging for their
use. The Buddhist approach is much different. The Buddha taught that, in interacting with
others and with the environment, we should emulate the honey-bee as it takes pollen from
flowers. The advantage is mutual and there is no harm.
Furthermore, Buddhism understands the cosmos as an open system. In
contradistinction, the scientific method usually operates 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. 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 is an open system.
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 in ways that are important to them and what their appropriate
responses might be. The following is a representative sampling of some of the areas of
greatest ethical concern.
Plants and food continue to be subjects for genetic engineering . The Delta & Pine
Land Company received a U.S. patent on a technique that genetically alters seed so that it
will not germinate if replanted a second time, so that their seeds lose their viability
unless sprayed with a patented formulae, containing primarily antibiotics.
Monsanto Corporation wants to use this "Terminator Technology" to keep farmers
from collecting genetically engineered seed, forcing them to buy it every year.
To avoid dependency on petroleum-based plastics, some scientists in the U.S., Europe, and
Canada have genetically engineered plants that produce plastic within their stem
structures. They claim that it biodegrades in about six months. If the genes escape into
the wild, 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 eaten, and so forth. Dr. John Fagan, Professor of
Molecular Biology at the Maharishi University of Management 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 probably toxic to animals.
Another distressing idea is to genetically engineer plants with scorpion toxin, so that
insects feeding on the plants would be killed. 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 the
creation of insects whose stings or bites would inject scorpion toxin into their victims,
including us. Nonetheless, research and field-testing continue.
Many scientists have claimed that the ingestion of genetically
engineered food is harmless because stomach acids break down the engineered substances.
According to research, however, 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 show that genetically engineered organisms can mutate up to thirty
times faster than normal ones, so they are a serious potential health hazard.
The creation of xenographs--genetically altered animals who often contain human genes--is
one of the more horrendous uses of this technology. Often experiments result in horribly
deformed animals that have to undergo terrible suffering. Even when experiments are
'successful', the scientific model is that of the animal as a factory which efficiently
produces some substance--meat, milk, or pharmaceuticals--for human consumption. What
Buddhists need to pay attention to here are 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 before they are killed. 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 human
individuals. 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 ideal of the Bodhisattva. Yet, other more humane solutions are available.
For instance, in some Western European nations, 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 non-human
organisms to create novel 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? This is not merely a hypothetical query. The
Chinese at Beijing University are now putting human genes into tomatoes and peppers to
make them grow faster. For meat-eaters, the same question could be posed about eating pork
with human genes. And what about the mice that have been genetically engineered to produce
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. Work is also ongoing to use
genetic engineering to grow human breasts in the laboratory. Not only would they be used
for breast replacement needed due to cancer surgery, but could easily foster a vigorous
commercial demand by women in search of the "perfect" breasts. A geneticist,
Jonathan Slack of Englands 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.
Gene therapy for replacement of "defective" human genes that
are associated with the risk of contracting diseases involves the intentional introduction
of new genes into the body in an attempt to modify the genetic structure of the body.
Since genes easily move from one organism to another, introduction of a new gene can have
unforeseen effects. In
addition, we have the slippery slope that leads to "designer genes." One
indication that the slope is becoming more slippery is the experimental administration of
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.
When considering the potential of genetic engineering for curing illness, we should
remember that, according to Buddhist teachings, we get sick for one of two main reasons.
Our "four elements" may become imbalanced, which may be roughly interpreted in
modern terms as "we are run-down and our resistance to pathogens is low." And
sickness or a shortened lifespan may in some instances be karmic retribution for the
taking of life. As Buddhists, we should be especially sensitive to geneticists
degradation of what it means to be a human being. Do we want a "cure" at any
price? We may want to ask ourselves whether the karma from the harming of life involved in
the development and application of the gene therapy is going to cause us even heavier
karmic problems down the road. Or how are transgenic animal body-parts in our bodies going
to affect the human quality of our everyday awareness?
Viruses pose special dangers when they interact with genetically engineered organisms.
Plant, animal, and human viruses play a major role in the ecosystems that comprise the
biosphere and are viewed by some as one of the primary factors in evolutionary change.
Viruses have the ability to enter the genetic material of their hosts, to break apart, and
then to recombine with the genetic material of the host to create new viruses. Those new
viruses then infect new hosts, transferring new genetic material to the new host. When the
host reproduces, genetic change has occurred. 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.
If cells are genetically engineered, then when viruses enter cellswhether human,
animal, or plantthis 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 widespread death of humans, animals or plants,
thereby temporarily or even permanently damaging the ecosystem. Widespread die-off of a
plant species can affect its whole ecosystem, and the possibility of widespread die-off of
human beings should command our attention.
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; it is the essential condition for preserving living beings
from harm. Humans, animals, and other sentient beings are dependent upon a wholesome
environment for a healthy life. Harming that environment causes those sentient beings to
suffer, and, ultimately, to die prematurely. Harming life-energy itself, even on the level
of microorganisms, can have deleterious effects on more complex organisms because of the
interconnectedness of all life.
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.
Imagine what would happen if we genetically engineer ourselves so that we can no longer
resonate with the natural patterns of nature. These are not the kinds of concerns that can
be laid to rest by any scientific data.
Biogenetic warfare is the most serious short-term threat of genetic engineering to human
life. Because Buddhism is a fundamentally pacifist tradition, it should be gravely
concerned with the use of genetic engineering in warfare as an efficient means for causing
widespread suffering and death. International terrorists have already begun seriously
considering the deployment of genetically engineered viruses. This use is almost
impossible to regulate because the same equipment and technology that are used
commercially can easily be transferred to military application. During the late 1980's,
the former Soviet Union had 60,000 people working on biowarfare, including genetically
engineered pathogens. In one of their more frightening projects, they attempted to combine
smallpox virus with Ebola virus. No one knows for sure where most of the scientists have
gone, or what they have taken with them.
In June, 1997, US Defense Secretary William Cohen warned about "certain types of
pathogens that would be ethnic specific so that they could eliminate certain ethnic
groups." Several countries have reportedly already been genetically engineering
viruses which target specific ethnic groups.
Despite the benefits of genetic engineering trumpeted in the
mediaprimarily to repair genetic flaws, cure disease, and increase food
productionin 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 may even
harm our potential for enlightenment. Genetic engineering poses serious risks to human
health and to the environment. It raises serious ethical questions about the right of
human beings to alter life on the planet, both sentient and non-sentient, for the benefit
of a few.
What makes genetic engineering special is both its power and its
irreversibility. Its ability to harm human, animal, and plant life, etc. is a quantum leap
greater than most other technologies and does not leave room for mistakes. Results of
flaws in this technology cannot be recalled and fixed, but become the negative heritage to
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
scientific risk assessment and use of the precautionary principle, 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. It is
also important for the public to demand scrutiny and regulation of the industry's
revolving door relations 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, 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, see the dangers of what is
occurring and are brave enough to voice their consciences.
Clearly the key is educating the public about what is happening. 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 with genetic engineering are
no different in principle from most other problems we face in our daily life. They are all
the result of klesas-desire, anger, ignorance, and so forth. What makes the
situation with genetic engineering unique is the difference in the degree of damage it can
do to life on the planet and the irreversibility of its effect on us and the environment.
There is probably not a single answer to the question of what Buddhists 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.