Friday, May 2, 2014

1402. Synthetic Criticisms of Real Attempts to Regulate Biology

By Pete Shanks, Biopolitical Times, April 30, 2014

Evolutionary biologist and social commentator Richard Lewontin has written an article about synthetic biology for the New York Review of Books. (Originally behind a paywall, it now seems to be generally available.) Given the publication and the author, this ought to be good news. But it's not.

The piece is presented as a review of two documents: Laurie Garrett's article "Biology's Brave New World: The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution," Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec. 2013); and The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, by Friends of the Earth US, the International Center for Technology Assessment and the ETC Group, endorsed by well over 100 organizations including the Center for Genetics and Society. By convention, the New York Review of Books offers a wide license to roam around a general subject, and this author seems particularly well qualified to do that.

Lewontin has for years been a prominent critic of genetic determinism, and also notable for his leftist politics. He is not only an extraordinarily distinguished biologist, but also a highly rated author of elegant little books for the general public about biology and its social implications. But this article not only fails to illuminate, it actively muddles the discussion it might have illuminated.

The start is promising, though the tone is archly magisterial, with its references ranging from Galatea to Galvanists. As his focus switches to Garrett's survey, Lewontin responds to a quote cited early in that piece:
Venter declared, "There's not a single aspect of human life that doesn't have the potential to be totally transformed by these technologies in the future." Not a single aspect! Does that mean he is promising me that I might literally live forever?
Presumably that is sarcasm, but it's hard to tell, because the subject is immediately dropped in favor of a portentous paragraph of rather hackneyed questions about resolving conflicts between "public and private good" in which "those who control and profit from material production" are unlikely to be reliable counselors.

A brief discussion of the 2011 controversy about engineering a particularly nasty flu virus pivots from a mention of bioweapons, which are Garrett's main focus, to "a broader and seemingly more constructive motivation," namely making money and new things. And this is where Lewontin brings in The Principles. And where his common sense, not to mention generosity of spirit, flies right out the window.

He starts by citing this quote from philosopher and environmental activist Vandana Shiva:
Synthetic biology, the next wave of genetic engineering, allows seed, pesticide and oil companies to redesign life so that they can make more money from it.
He comments:
While it is undoubtedly true that the entrepreneurial desire to make more money motivates much of the innovation in agriculture, as in all other fields of production in a capitalist economy, there are other goals listed by the authors of The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology and any reasonable person must be in sympathy with most of them.
That's just bad writing. Is he agreeing with or trying to qualify the assertion by Shiva that he quotes? Also, the goals he finds sympathetic are not those of the entrepreneurs, they are part of what the document calls the "principles necessary for the effective assessment and oversight of the emerging field of synthetic biology."

The goals Lewontin approves are indeed the easy ones: protecting public health, worker safety and the environment; and holding corporations and manufacturers accountable. But even here, he seems skeptical to the point of cynicism about whether pursuing these objectives is worth doing. Returning to this point a bit later in his article he asserts that a "single complainant would be unlikely to procure relief." (He may be unfamiliar with the lawsuit that molecular biologist Becky McClain filed against Pfizer after she was exposed to genetically modified agents while working for the company; it took her about a decade but she won.)

Lewontin's flip interpretation of The Principles is that it "gives the impression of being primarily intended as an opportunity to challenge present societies by making generalized demands that are in direct contradiction with existing economic and social structures." For example, he highlights the goal that government bodies with the full participation of the public [his added emphasis] should develop a research agenda guided by the public interest. In response, he comments:
But the research agenda of the United States Department of Agriculture is, and always has been, largely guided by the interest of the producers of agricultural products and inputs to agriculture. The voters around Manhattan, Kansas, matter more to the USDA than do the shoppers on the Upper West Side.
The first sentence is regrettably true; the second is cute, but dumb. And why should this unfortunate and undemocratic state of affairs be left uncriticized and untouched?

Beyond that, Lewontin ridicules the idea of public engagement in these issues on the grounds that "the public" — which he puts in quotes, as if the term were strange and in itself ridiculous — "lacks the necessary technical knowledge to decide between conflicting assertions of technical experts." How true that is. And how irrelevant to ethical discussion. Not to mention that improving public engagement is now a task getting significant attention. Interesting innovations such as "deliberative democracy" are now being applied to such tricky technical and ethical issues as privacy in relation to genetic data banks.

But when Lewontin moves on to the issue of inheritable genetic modification, his disdain becomes even more apparent.
The manifesto states that "the use of synthetic biology to change the human genetic makeup…must be prohibited." This is preposterous but is stated as if it were self-evident.
He tries to justify his own preposterous assertion (which is stated as if it were self-evident) by insisting that we have "insufficient evidence of any side effects because they have not been systematically investigated" and that there is "no reason in principle" to ban single-gene alterations that are passed down to future generations. This from the man who wrote (in the same publication, in 1997):
The fallacy of genetic determinism is to suppose that the genes "make" the organism. It is a basic principle of developmental biology that organisms undergo a continuous development from conception to death, a development that is the unique consequence of the interaction of the genes in their cells, the temporal sequence of environments through which the organisms pass, and random cellular processes that determine the life, death, and transformation of cells.
The unpredictability of outcome when genetic changes are made to the human germline is a technical cause for concern — children and their mothers may suffer. It is, however, by no means the only reason for concern. The CGS web page on "Inheritable Genetic Modification Arguments Pro and Con" (see also here) provides a very brief introduction to a debate that has occupied important minds for generations, though it is only now approaching its commercial realization. This is how Lewontin returns to the topic, near the conclusion of his piece:
At the end of the discussion of public health and worker safety a passing reference is made, without any developed discussion, to the possibility of altering the human species as a whole, reminding us of Victor Frankenstein's construction gone wrong:
Any alterations to the human genome through synthetic biology—particularly inheritable genetic changes—are too risky and fraught with ethical concerns. [My italics.]
That's his argument? Italicizing a phrase and adding "[My italics.]"? I take it that he is dismissing these concerns, but he does not even deign to say so! The piece closes, immediately after that, with this magnificent insight:
The question of the relative risks and advantages of various programs in synthetic biology, like all such cost-benefit analyses, cannot be considered without asking, "The costs and benefits to whom?"

Indeed. If only he had tried to unpack that statement and elaborate it, instead of wasting his energy and our time on a glibly dismissive attack. Lewontin could have offered a constructive critique. This article is more like a ferocious assault by a comfortable cynic with a motive to target idealists who actually hope to make a difference. I had hoped for better.

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