Moral Code

The Ethics of Engineering Life
By David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson
Stoddart; 384 pp.

Imagine a society in which it’s possible to identify people who appear to be especially resistant to cancer. (Your great-uncle Eddie, for example, who smoked like a chimney, was never sick a day in his life and died peacefully at 87.) Imagine also a society in which certain occupations are flagged as carrying increased risks of contracting cancer – asbestos mining or toxic-waste disposal.

Now suppose a system under which jobs that can be statistically shown to pose a cancer threat are reserved for employees who are cancer-hardy – not by any coercive means, of course, but by prohibiting those who are not cancer-resistant from holding them.

It would all be done under the banner of worker safety – the sensible solution to a fact of the industrial workplace. But the question is this: Is such a society “ethical”? Which is to say: Would you want to live in it?

This is the type of scenario David Suzuki would like us to think about long and hard, because it’s the sort of thing he suspects is just around the corner. The new techniques of microbiology are galloping ahead faster than our meager moral sensibilities can cope. They are about to make possible things that were always impossible – and in doing so they’ll raise as thorny a series of dilemmas as any the 20th century has had to confront.

Genethics, written in collaboration with West-coast freelance writer Peter Knudtson, is Suzuki’s attempt to grapple with the issues spiraling out of cutting-edge genetic research. (The title, the authors explain, is a “recombinant” word, splicing genetics and ethics.) The book promises not only to explain what the lab coats are up to, but to provide an ethical framework that would guide both research and its practical application.

It’s a bold ambition, but if any discipline needs a chart through the moral minefield to come, it’s microbiology. Brewers, horticulturalists, dog and horse breeders have long engaged in a brute sort of genetic engineering, but it’s only since the 1970s that scientists have had the ability to intervene directly in the raw stuff of heredity. Or, as the science documentaries are apt to put it (in alternating tones of wonder and horror): the ability to manipulate life itself!

In the case of microbiology, therefore, the usual social tremors that accompany any science in a moment of grandiose expansion are amplified by the feeling that something sacrosanct is about to be violated. It’s one thing for scientists to dabble in the re-arrangement of the inanimate world, but quite another for them to tinker with the building blocks of the animate.

Genethics does a creditable job of making clear the risks that attend the revolution in microbiology. Scylla is marked by the physical hazards, Charybdis by the social dangers. One false tack in either direction and circumstances get very nasty indeed.

There are two major physical-disaster scenarios. One involves a vicious experimental bug — perhaps a virus built especially for cancer research – escaping the containment of the laboratory and triggering pandemics of incurable disease.

(Far-fetched or not, this was one of the earliest fears associated with recombinant DNA research. Recently, it’s resurfaced as an undercurrent explanation of where AIDS came from.)

In the other scenario, a genetic variation introduced deliberately, for clearly benevolent purposes – say a new strain of disease-resistant wheat  – produces unforeseen side effects. The lesson of thalidomide was that the biological order is a finely balanced entity, and ham-fisted tampering rarely ends happily.

However, even supposing the science itself is flawless and the new research poses no environmental danger, Suzuki and Knudtson see boundless potential for its political misappropriation, particularly since this is a science harnessed to the interests of capitalism and militarism.

They worry about the rise of a new eugenics – a system under which certain genetic traits are deemed more desirable than others. They worry that a society which can select for specific genetic characteristics may not be able to resist the temptation to do so. They worry, in short, about the possible use of genetics as an instrument of social control.

Suzuki and Knudtson therefore place the right question marks in the right places. Alas, it’s not enough. The book does worse than offer no answers at all: it substitutes the simplistic and the sentimental for rigor and reason, muddying the waters of an extremely important issue with ersatz solutions.

One doesn’t make such a pronouncement lightly. In English-speaking Canada, after all, David Suzuki is the reigning voice of popular science, and a much-loved monarch to boot. (Let’s face it: he’s better known than Jeanne Sauvé, more popular than Brian Mulroney and, unlike John Turner, he doesn’t come across on TV like a Madame Tussaud’s effigy of himself.) Even to whisper that his majesty might be stepping out in public topless is to court sedition.

Nonetheless, the unpleasant fact is that Genethics is neither engaging nor illuminating nor even particularly well thought out. Embarking from the notion that a basic grasp of the scientific fundamentals must precede any ethical discussion, the first half of the book is a textbook-dry introduction to genetics of the sort with which undergraduates are all too painfully familiar. The eyes glaze over and 20 pages or more flip past before one realizes one cannot remember a word of what one has just read.

It’s not its grey prose that undermines the first portion of the book, however, but its superfluous detail. If the truth be told, one need not be drilled in the mechanics of mitosis or the chemistry of base-pairing in order to reach a decision about whether surrogate motherhood, for example, is morally acceptable. The “correct” ethical choices, contrary to the teachings of Genethics, simply do not flow from a solid acquaintance with the science involved.

The second half of the work offers a number of case studies to flesh out the ethical issues: the erroneous suggestion in the 1960s that males with an extra Y chromosome might be genetically disposed to violent crime, the current risks of lessening diversity in the world’s food crops, and so on. It’s on the basis of these case studies that Suzuki and Knudtson arrive at their 10 “genethic principles” – the commandments by which they would regulate research.

Unfortunately, what were billed in the preface as “concrete moral ‘solutions’ . . . that are at once imaginative, humane and scientifically sound,” turn out to be largely mealy-mouthed slogans that do little beyond advocating caution in research.

Hence Genethic Principle No. 3 reads: “Information about an individual’s genetic constitution ought to be used to inform his or her personal decisions rather than to impose them.” Sounds great, but what does it mean?

Confronted by the Pandora’s box of microbiology, the authors have nothing more helpful to suggest than, when in doubt, stuff it back in the box. Such a prescription hardly does justice to the complexities of research in advanced capitalist countries. It’s not only implausible, it’s in all likelihood impossible.

The failing of Genethics is perhaps nowhere more clear than in its steadfast refusal to engage the most prominent and divisive biological issue of the day. If anything provides an exemplar of the moral uncertainties surrounding technical intervention in the course of nature, it’s abortion. But Suzuki and Knudtson have absolutely nothing to say on the subject beyond the cursory admission that they favor the right of choice.

Perhaps they avoid the topic because, strictly speaking, it has little to do with genetics. But if their grandiloquent principles shed no light on such a fundamental issue, what hope is there that they might guide policy in areas not yet extant?

The very fact of the abortion debate is itself enough to put paid to the entire “genethics” project. The ferocity of conviction on either side is neither inspired nor affected by the technical details of fetal growth, and one is unlikely to change one’s views simply as a result of more schooling in the intricacies of blastula differentiation. What one camp sees as nothing less than infanticide, the other views as the mere harmless abrogation of cellular development.

It’s foolhardy to suppose that there might be a single “ethical” course satisfactory to everyone. Indeed, it’s foolhardy to suppose that an ethical code is a set of transcendent rules imposed from above. “Ethics,” such as they exist, are the historical products of political struggle, and the intransigence of the abortion debate is only one stubborn sign of what lies in

Montreal Gazette July 23, 1988