I was disturbed when a respected friend of mine stated the he thought that GMO's are “an abomination.” He was vehement that the genetic manipulation of life is absolutely wrong and escalating the levels of action in opposing it, and it's chief proponent Monsanto, is necessary. I could not spot the source of my own disturbance with this argument in the moment because the argument seemed internally consistent and logical, so I held my peace. But now I have had time to reflect on the issue and figured out what disturbed me.
The core disagreement is not with his morality, it is with a combination of a factual premise that I take to be mistaken and how key points in the argument rest on an essentialism that I reject. In fact, I agree with an aspect of his conclusion that Monsanto is evil, but the meaning of that conclusion is a little different when it is reached without the lines of argument that I reject.
A blanket argument against genetic manipulation is like arguing against word or paragraph manipulation in Wikipedia, it reflects a misunderstanding of how different levels of the system work together in complex ways to create the outcomes that are typically observed by most people. DNA molecules are made up of four molecular letters that are arranged in sequences that can be considered the equivalent of words, paragraphs, and chapters in a book or pages on a web site. An individual animal or plant is equivalent to an individual book or web site. However, life is not static, like a printed book or some web sites. Life is more like Wikipedia, and all the other wiki enabled web sites, in which there are editing processes happening all the time. Due to the dynamic nature of wikis, in which the structures of languages and wiki programming combine to create the whole, you cannot take any particular words or paragraphs in Wikipedia as essential to what makes Wikipedia what it is. All the particular words and paragraphs are susceptible to change in Wikipedia and the same is true of the DNA of a species. There are editing processes occurring all the time and the genetic material that specifies a species is like the written material that makes up Wikipedia. Changes at the level of genes in DNA or words and paragraphs in a wiki are crucial to the success of the whole enterprise. There are reasonable fears about how inaccuracies in Wikipedia could potentially have a nefarious effect in the world, but the reality is that those effects have not been found due to the dynamics that dominate most of the Wikipedia project. In the same way that there is, in theory, a way to make edits to Wikipedia that could destroy it as a viable source of reliable information there is also, in theory, a way to make edits to DNA that could destroy it as a reliable source for ecologically suitable individual plants or animals. But the core mechanisms of the project as a whole (life or wikis) are such that while the fear may be reasonable, the evil it purports to unleash is effectively mitigated against by the core features of how the systems work as a whole.
Essentialism is the idea that things have an immutable core substance or identity that uniquely makes them whatever they are. It is common to assume today that an animal's DNA contains the essence of what it is to be that kind of animal. Based on reading lots of biology and cognitive science I am not willing to accept the idea of essences as an assumed fact of life but, I am willing to accept that essences can be interpreted as a necessary conceptual ploy. Therefore, it is necessary to ground our working definition of the essence of life, in this case, in a framework with respectable roots in empirical work. And Fritjof Capra's definition of life from his book The Web of Life serves that function for me. Taking that definition seriously then there are three factors that are necessary to constitute life and the absence of any one of the factors means you do not have life. The three factors are a self-making pattern, a dissipative structure, and a cognitive process. This puts forth a tripartite essence test and the DNA molecule does not pass the test independently, only whole cells do. Therefore, DNA does not contain the essence of life.
Given this way of viewing the relationship between DNA and life leads me to conclude that DNA manipulation is no more of a manipulation of life itself than is surgery or pharmacology. We accept that both surgery and pharmacology run substantial risks but we have developed large scale systems to mitigate the dangers. The acceptability of these activities is predicated on the idea that under the right conditions an otherwise dangerous action (cutting someone open or feeding them a toxic substance) is morally good. It is not adequate to reject genetic manipulations wholesale, it is necessary, instead, to establish robust features in the larger system in which genetic manipulation activities are embedded to minimize or eliminate the morally objectionable circumstances that can make it reprehensible.
My friend's argument, as I remember it, was founded on the following moral logic which has three lines of logic that support the conclusion, one line that I agree with and two that I do not. There are two relevant facts of life are crucial to the discomfiture I experienced as I took in his argument:
1. Moral Imperative: Sacred things must be revered and kept pure.
2. Fact of Life #1: Sacredness is a human construct that it is not arbitrary, it has a moral component that is ultimately about how we create well-being. Applications of the concept of “sacredness” that do not contribute to well-being are delusional.
3. Fact of Life #2: Communities/Ecologies make on-going sacrifices of the individual living beings (members) that make up the community/ecology to the greater good of the Community/Ecology surviving and thriving. This can be stated more generally as a universal system dynamic in which a higher level unit of organization always sacrifices some lower level units of organization in order to survive and thrive, though the same sacrifices can also kill it if they get out of hand.
4. Life is sacred since it is inherently necessary to the well-being of living things, therefore, any manipulation
(a) of life itself,
(b) that pollutes life, or
(c) that is irreverent of life,
is wrong and constitutes an evil.
5. (Rejected) The essence of life is in DNA,
(a) therefore, (Untrue) alterations to the DNA molecule are manipulations of life itself.
6. (Rejected) The essence of a species is contained in the set of genes (long sequences of genetic material) within the DNA molecule of the members of that species,
(a) therefore, (Untrue) taking a gene from one species and putting it in the DNA molecule of another species pollutes the DNA molecule of the recipient species.
7. The lives and rights of living beings are inherently valuable to the communities/ecologies in which they are embedded.
(a) therefore, actions that sacrifice the lives and rights of living beings for corporate financial gain that does little or nothing to benefit the exploited communities/ecologies is irreverent of life.
8. Monsanto is evil because it
(a) (Rejected) per #5, manipulated life itself.
(b) (Rejected) per #6, polluted the DNA of some species with the genes of another species,
(c) per #7, has taken actions that sacrifice the lives and rights of other beings for corporate financial gain that did little or nothing to benefit the exploited communities/ecologies. (true)
I do not have a problem with the conclusion that Monsanto is evil, but I do not agree with two of the three lines of argument that lead to that conclusion. Monsanto has not manipulated life itself, they have manipulated genes which are NOT the essence of life. Moving the molecular components of DNA from one species to another is not much different than copying a word from one wiki to another. While it is possible to make potentially harmful changes the fact is that the way that living systems and wiki-enabled web sites work those changes are both unlikely to be viable in the first place and if they reach viability they will likely have only localized effects within the larger system. There are certainly features of the larger system that have enabled Monsanto to act in evil ways and those larger features need to change, but GMO's are not the evil. Corporate power to act without moral restraint is the evil.
I am not against GMO's. But, the immoral use of GMO's should be a part of the conversation about abuses of corporate power and how we should be reigning it in on many fronts. Corporations should not be allowed to act in ways that either violate the sacredness of life through utter destruction of living communities (such as mountaintop removal mining or clear cutting forests) or provide insubstantial benefit to those communities of life that offer up some of their members for exploitation.