The Impact of Biotechnology-M.S. Srinivasan

THE IMPACT OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Much has been said and written about the ethics of bio-technology.  Recently there was a lot of controversy and debate in India on genetically modified food products.  However biotechnology raises some fundamental questions on the ecological consequences of tampering the gene.  This chapter examines these deeper issues related to biotechnology in a holistic, ecological and spiritual perspective.

Playing God

There is at present a growing recognition in the scientific community of the tremendous potential of biotechnology for doing good as well as harm for humanity.   If Information Technology can be described as a technology of Knowledge, bio­technology is a technology of Power, an awesome power for altering the DNA structure of an organism, or “the blueprint of life” as the modem biologists calls it. So, through bio­technology, human beings for the first time in human history, get the power to “Play God” at the physical level. Bio-technology gives the power to alter, modify, or “re­engineer” biological matter at an essential level. Until now man took whatever Nature has given and used it as it is or modified it to suit his needs. But with the advent of bio­technology, human beings acquire the power to persuade Nature to produce according to their specifications and needs or, in other words, convert Nature into some sort of a “bio factory”. According to an article on recent trends in bio-technology in Technology Review, one of the commercially promising areas of future research in bio-technology is “to redraw the genetic blueprints and redirect the metabolic pathways of many common crops” and “rewire plants into cheap production units that can grow everything from modified foods to human vaccines to commodity chemicals.” And the type of questions which the futuristic bio-tech researchers are asking are, “Why make synthetic dyes for cotton using highly toxic chemicals… when the plants themselves could be genetically engineered to produce coloured fibres. Why not turn plants into chemical factories?” (1)

The potential benefits and dangers of bio-technology and its ethical implications are now being discussed extensively in scientific as well as popular journals. Bio-technology, it is said by experts, can bring enormous benefits to humanity in agriculture and food production, in fighting diseases, especially cancer and genetic disorders, in new drug discovery, and many others. On the flip side of bio-technology there are ominous possibilities like for example, intentional or unintentional release of deadly microorganisms for which there is no antidote.  A recent news item describes a rather fearsome possibility of “biological weapons that would attack one ethnic group but leave others untouched.” But the crucial issue in bio-technology is much deeper than its immediate short-term material benefits or dangers to humanity. The real question is whether it is right to alter the “blueprint of life” drawn by Nature and that too for commercial considerations which will convert Nature into a factory for serving the commercial interests of businessmen. Such questions acquire enormous importance because the changes effected by bio-technology are not mere superficial technological modifications.  They are done at the deepest and essential levels of biological Nature where universal Nature has drawn the entire blueprint for the biological life of our planet.

Here comes the importance or relevance of one of the fundamental philosophical issues involved in bio-technology which we have indicated earlier. Is it right to tamper in an ad hoc manner with the DNA of individual organisms without knowing the blueprint for the whole of the physical and biological life and the long-term consequences of such tampering for the totality of terrestrial life? To answer this question we have to understand a great and fundamental law of life.

The Genetic Ecology

This brings us to one of the greatest discoveries of Indian spirituality.  As we have discussed briefly in the first chapter of this book, Indian sages  saw, not merely thought or felt, but saw with their inner spiritual  vision, an indivisible Oneness behind the manyfold diversity of Nature and life.  They saw that the entire creation from the lowest physical to the highest spiritual levels, is linked together by a hidden unity which is the spiritual foundation of ecology.   Modern science is rediscovering this ancient Indian discovery at the physical and biological level. The New Physics has come to the conclusion that the apparently solid world we perceive dissolves or resolves into a unified web of dancing energy at the essential subatomic level. According to modern physics there is nothing like an independent “thing” or object; there is only an indivisible and unified flow of process and relationship of energy; each “thing” exists only by its relationship with other things.  As the physicist, Fritjof Capra points out, “subatomic particles are not separate entities but interrelated energy-patterns in an on-going dynamic process” (2) which is a dynamic whole or a “holomovement” as it is called by David Bohm a Noble Laureate in physics.

Similarly, biologists and ecologists are discovering this unity at the biological level.  Dr. Sharon Maolem, a research scientist in neurogenetics and evolutionary medicine states, “Nothing in our world exists in isolation.  We, humans and animals and plants and microbes and everything are evolving together.  Life is an almost impossible assemblage of biology, chemistry, electricity and engineering that adds up to a miraculous whole so much greater than the sum of its parts.” (3) And Fritjof Capra states that the new concept in environmentalism, deep ecology, “is rooted in a perception of reality that goes beyond the scientific framework to an intuitive awareness of the oneness of all Life, in interdependence of its multiple manifestation and its cycles of change and transformation.”  (4) Thus if unity and interdependence is such an all-pervading law present in all the dimensions of creation it cannot be absent at the genetic level of the DNA.  The following passage of Sri Aurobindo which describes the nature of unity at the biological level, using the example of a tree, can help us to understand the nature of this genetic unity.

“The tree and its process [which makes the tree] would not be what they are, could not indeed exist, if it were a separate existence; forms are what they are by the force of the cosmic existence, they develop as they do as a result of their relation to it and to all its other manifestations. The separate law of their nature is only an application of the universal law and truth of all Nature; their particular development is determined by their place in the general development.”  (5)

So, if this law of interconnected unity is such an all­ pervading law, then we can safely presume that it operates at the DNA level of biological matter.  This means the DNA of each individual organism is related to the DNA of all other organisms or, in other words, the DNA of each organism is determined by the DNA of all other organisms; the law of evolution or development of a particular DNA or organism is determined by the law of evolution of all the other DNAs and the universal law which governs the gene pool or bio-diversity of biological Nature.

What are the consequences of these insights for bio-technology? Tampering with the DNA of a particular biological organism may have consequences and repercussions for the entire biological world of earth; it will have consequences for the health of human beings because our human body is made of biological matter. Do we have at present sufficient insight or foresight to predict or understand the nature of the long-term consequences of tampering with the “blueprint of life” of individual organisms?  Nature has designed the world to be a great interconnected Harmony and Rhythm. Tampering with a note of this harmony may disturb the whole rhythm. If the tampering is only at the superficial level of matter the consequences may not be significant. But if the tampering is at the deeper and essential level of matter, as in bio, nano or nuclear technology, then its long-term consequences for the material world may be substantial. This is because the law of unity works much more powerfully and intensely at the deeper levels than on the surface. For example, if we break a stone its consequences for the material world may not be very significant. But when we break an atom there is such a tremendous release of energy, it may have a substantial impact on the whole material world.

In fact, some far-sighted scientists who pursue pure science and research in biology look down upon genetic engineering as something rash and immature, indiscriminately tampering with things without trying to understand what it may lead to in the future.  For example, Geral Joyce, a leading research scientist in the field of genetics, states: “It’s not known what adding or removing one gene in a whole system of genes will do.  It all depends on how its effect play out in a network of interactions.”  And the President’s Council of Bioethics of US released a report which sounds a warning against any indiscriminate tampering of genes:  “The human body and mind, a highly complex and delicate balancing as a result of aeons of gradual and exacting evolution, is certainly at risk from any ill considered attempt at ‘improvement’.” (6) Robert Frenay, science writer, gives the following suggestions for the future of biotech research, which are worth pondering over:

“This simple wisdom suggests encouraging pure research while re­straining its application where fundamental impacts are likely, a policy that is also in line with nature’s urge to maintain a tension between im­pulse and restraint. That approach, for instance, would sanction most ex­isting medical procedures but resist germ-line modification, which brings permanent change to the human genome. It would also curb the spread of genetically modified organisms into natural systems around the globe, a practice that changes them inalterably.”(7)

The Evolutionary Perspective

We are now brought to another question.   Does this eastern, ecological and spiritual vision is against bio-technology? Does it counsel abandonment of bio-technology? The answer is, No. Change, evolution and transformation are also a part of Nature. Nature permits change, modification and transformation as long as they do not go against some of her fundamental and universal laws governing the totality of life or her evolutionary aims. We must also remember that all the laws of Nature are not eternal and immutable. They are laws which evolve along with the evolution of Man and the Universe. As British biologist Rupert Sheldrake puts it: “A lot of my work is based on the assumption that the so-called Laws of Nature may not have been fixed through all time. In an evolutionary universe, why shouldn’t they evolve?” (8) In periods of radical evolutionary transitions in which Nature wants to establish new laws it may be necessary to break old laws. In these periods, Nature may permit radical violations of her older laws.

According to many evolutionary thinkers like Sri Aurobindo and Teil-hard-de-chardin, at present our planet is moving towards a radical evolutionary transition, towards a revolutionary spiritual transformation. In this great transformation, there will be a radical and quantum change in Nature, in human nature as well as terrestrial nature. There will be a radical change in the physical and psychological nature of man and also in the very nature of Matter or the material world. Matter itself will undergo a spiritual transformation. This means, in the great transformation which is coming, all the so-called established laws of Nature,-even some of them considered as eternal, for example, the law of Death-will change. This includes all the laws of physics, biology, psychology, sociology or politics.

There may not be any changes in the fundamental laws of life like the laws of unity and interdependence but in the secondary laws which determine the nature, quality and functioning of things.  For example the laws of physics which makes matter rigid may gradually loose its grip and matter may become more plastic and flexible.  Similarly laws of chemistry or biology which produces poisonous or harmful substances in nature may change to produce only beneficent, healthy and healing substance.  According to Ayurveda there is nothing in Nature which doesn’t have medicinal properties.  The future evolution of matter may lead to an increasing manifestation of these medicinal elements, gradually replacing the harmful and poisonous qualities.  For example, coffee and tea which were considered as very harmful to health by old science are now found to have many qualities which are beneficial to health by new research.  There are fascinating areasin biological research with far-reaching consequences, like for example, the process of Ageing.

Recently, it was reported in the newspapers that scientists were able to isolate the gene which causes aging.  This brings us to the question on the nature of death.  Is the death of the body an eternal law or only a millennial habit of Nature?  Is it possible to overcome death by a combination of transformation of consciousness through yoga and a scientific neutralization of the aging process through bio-technology?  If these are some of the future possibilities and transformations which are in the womb of Nature, then biotechnology can help or aid Nature in her evolutionary march.

What are the indications, suggestions or guidance we get from this spiritual vision for the future of bio-technology? To know precisely and clearly what are the possibilities which are harmful and what are beneficial to humanity we must have an intuitive and holistic vision of physical and biological Nature or better still a direct communion with the universal consciousness of Nature and, as a result, a direct inner guidance from the wisdom of Nature. But at present our scientific community doesn’t have this intuitive vision or inner guidance. So in the short-term the right approach for the future of bio-technology is to proceed cautiously and slowly, weighing carefully all the ethical, ecological, human and social consequences of every bio-technological experiment and project.  More time, effort and money have to be spent on fundamental research, in understanding the laws which govern the totality of the physical and biologi­cal nature; the relationship between various organisms at the level of the DNA; and the long-term ecological consequences of bio-technology. Indiscriminate commercial exploitation of bio-technology by big business for purely commercial motives has to be severely curtailed and regulated.

For the long-term, the scientific and technological community as a whole has to be educated, trained, habituated and sensitized to higher values like holistic and long-term vision, human well-being, ethical issues and a greater emphasis on understanding the total truth of things rather than on immediate practical application. And finally, the community of scientists and technologists of the future have to develop the higher faculties which will help it to come into direct contact with the consciousness of Nature in the physical world.  Here comes the importance of the Indian spiritual perspectives on Nature.

Nature, in the spiritual perception of Indian sages, is not an inert material energy.  Nature in the Indian conception is the universal creative Intelligence and Energy of the spirit or the divine Reality, which gives birth to the whole cosmos, not only the physical universe, but also the worlds of life, mind and spirit. So the “blueprint of life”, in every level of universal existence-physical, biological, psychological or spiritual-is drawn by the universal Wisdom of Nature in the light of Her cosmic vision of the unity, oneness and wholeness of all existence.  The modern scientific thought, must give careful consideration to this Indian concept of Nature.  Does this suggestion or proposition sound unscientific?  But one of the greatest scientific minds ever to have lived on earth, Albert Einstein, wrote in a letter to a young girl,

“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, spirit vastly superior to that of man and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” (9)

This humble reverence and a deep love for he divinity in Nature in the heart, and a calm and silent mind seeking for the truth of nature, make the human consciousness receptive to an intuition beyond the rational mind that can give the holistic understanding of the total ecology of Nature.  When we progress deeper and further in this intuitive consciousness it leads to some form of inner identification of the consciousness of the individual with the universal consciousness of Nature.  When the scientists or technocrat has this insight or knowledge by identity he knows what are the long-term consequences of their experiment, decisions and actions for the well-being of humanity and earth as a whole.  Only such an intuitive understanding among the leaders, scientists and technocrats can make science and technology an entirely beneficient force for mankind and not a mixed thing of good and evil as it is now.

References:

  1. David Rotman, “The Bio-technology Harvest,” SPAN, Jan-Feb 1998.
  2. Fritjof Capra (1982) Turning Point, Flamingo, London, pp.86
  3. Dr. Sharon Maolem, Survival of the Sickest, HarperCollins, p.207
  4. Fritjof Capra (1982) Turning Point, Flamingo, London, pp. 458
  5. Sri Aurobindo, Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, pp.138-39.
  6. Robert Frenay, Pulse: How Nature is Inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century, Little Book, p. 451.
  7. ibid
  8. Rupert Sheldrake, Interview, What is Enlightenment, 1997/summer/spring
  9. Walter Isaccson, (2007), Einstein His Life and Universe, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, Newyork, pp. 388.


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