Last Friday’s New York Times contained this article on the quickly-growing field of synthetic biology. It is a very interesting and informative piece that is not just about the field itself, but about the way it is attracting students that otherwise may not have considered careers in biology, and the differences between the haves and the have-nots in the competition to make recognized contributions to this exciting field of research.
The author, John Mooallem, clearly intends for the story to have a moral (read the piece and that should be abundantly clear), yet he also points us to different interpretations of what that moral might be.
Should we simply congratulate those who are working so hard to do something good (e.g. create alternative energy sources, fight diseases, and detect health hazards of various kinds), and those who are putting in the time and money necessary for them to do these things?
Should we worry that the spirit guiding these efforts seems to be one that encourages us to skip over serious ethical discussions concerning the choice of means (or methods and tools) for pursuing these, admittedly noble and altruistic, ends?
Should we worry that the enthusiasm inspired by this field encourages us to focus on the possible benefits of these technological creations without much attention to the possible problems they will present?
I am all for inspiring students to get excited about learning and to take an active role in their own education. This is clearly a good thing to be doing. However, too much emphasis on the technical pursuit of generally accepted goods, and too little emphasis on the reflection required to articulate why these things are good, is likely to produce students whose confidence that what they are doing is good renders them incapable of giving serious thought to the possibility that their own best intentions may be paving a proverbial road down which nobody wants to go.
This is not to deny that synthetic biology provides important tools for addressing the problems we face as individuals and as a society. I, for one, am inclined to think it likely that it does, and I will be interested to see where things go from here. I do, however, share Mooallem’s concern that the real ethical challenges it poses will remain largely obscured by the enthusiastic pursuit of the goods it promises.