Genetic engineering attracts heated and often misguided debate. Roger Straughan and Michael Reiss look at what it really involves and the arguments for and against its use
Humans have developed and kept farm animals and pets for thousands of years, but now things are moving at an ever-faster pace and in previously unimaginable directions. Where are the techniques of genetic engineering and cloning leading us? Do we want to go down this road? Let's first briefly look at the science that is involved and then consider the ethical problems surrounding our use of animals.
Genetic engineering usually involves moving genes from one species to another, but sometimes it involves removing or altering genes so that the alteration is passed on to its descendants. One example of how the genetic engineering of animals is being used - though still only in research - is in xenotransplantation. This involves moving (transplanting, for example) cells or organs from an individual of one species into an individual of another species. Since the 1980s researchers have been attempting to genetically engineer domestic pigs so that their organs can be given to humans.
The science involves putting a human gene into the pig so the pig's heart fools the immune system of the individual receiving the transplant into thinking it is human. Worldwide, there are around 150,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. Each year many thousands of people have their lives saved as a result of human-to-human transplants.
However, each year many thousands of people die who would have lived had they received a transplant, so additional organs from xenotransplantation could produce substantial human benefits. As yet, however, the technology does not work well. Scientists have tried transplanting the hearts from suitably genetically engineered pigs into monkeys, but the monkeys always die within a couple of months and their suffering is considerable. Fears also exist that viruses might be transferred from the pigs to humans and prove very serious.
Another controversial example of the genetic engineering of animals is in fish farming. Research is under way to genetically engineer a number of fish species, including Atlantic salmon, for faster growth, tolerance of low temperatures or resistance to certain diseases. This could result in salmon, a desirable and nutritious food, becoming more abundant and cheaper.
However, again a number of potential problems can be imagined. The genetically engineered salmon might escape. Fish farmers may give assurances that their animals are safely contained, but the reality is that escapes of farmed Atlantic salmon from commercial fish farms frequently occur off the coasts of Norway, the UK and Canada. The escaped fish might spread diseases to other fish and might also cause problems through competition or predation. Countless examples of the introduction of non-native species have shown that it is extremely difficult to predict the ecological consequences of the release of a species into a foreign ecosystem. Some escaped farmed Atlantic salmon (not genetically engineered) have successfully bred along the coast of British Columbia, giving rise to concern that they will compete with slower growing native Pacific salmon.
Cloning, the technique which produced Dolly the sheep, is almost the opposite of genetic engineering, in that the aim is not to change animals but keep them the same. Genes are not altered in the cloning process, but transferred from an adult cell to produce a genetically identical copy of the original animal. One possible use for this would be in copying a farm animal that was exactly right for its job, such as a cow with an unusually high milk yield. Perhaps an even bigger market is in the cloning of pets. A lot of people say they would pay serious money to clone a pet cat or dog. Have a look at the fascinating website of The Missyplicity Project (www.missyplicity.com) These are just a few examples of the many purposes for which genetic engineering and cloning can be used with animals, the aim in all cases being to select a particular feature or capacity of the animal which could be of use to us. (For convenience, these techniques will be referred to as "animal biotechnology"). Some scientists argue that there is nothing particularly new or dramatic about this, because we have always altered animals for our own purposes by means of selective breeding, the results of which can be seen in any farm or domesticated animal today. But doesn't the speed of the new technologies and the fact that we can now directly modify animals' genes present us with possibilities and responsibilities?
The questions raised by animal biotechnology are not only scientific ones. Just because something can be done, it does not automatically follow that it ought to be done. Scientific possibilities always raise further moral questions and animal biotechnology is no exception to this, indeed it represents a "double-whammy", from the moral point of view, because many people have concerns, not only about the treatment of animals, but also about the very nature of the technology itself.
How can we evaluate such concerns? It is fashionable to see all moral beliefs as subjective and purely matters of personal opinion, while concerns about animals are often dismissed as just emotional responses, particularly if the animals in question happen to have furry coats and soulful eyes. So must we conclude that it is impossible to have a rational debate about the rights and wrongs of animal biotechnology?
This is where ethics can be a useful tool, as it can help to analyse and clarify the arguments and justifications offered when moral claims are made. So ethics (in this sense of the term) puts our moral beliefs under the microscope for scrutiny, which is just what is needed in the case of animal biotechnology. However, ethics cannot provide conclusive proof or answers about what is right or wrong. You cannot prove, for example, that animals ought or ought not to be used in cancer research in the same way that you can prove that cancer kills animals.
We first need to distinguish between two different sorts of argument. Animal biotechnology may be considered wrong in itself ("intrinsically") or wrong because of its consequences ("extrinsically"). Let's look at these separately.
Intrinsic concerns about animal biotechnology often have a religious or spiritual basis. Interfering with the genetic structure of any organism is seen by some as a form of blasphemy or "playing God", though not all religious believers would agree with this. Some theologians see biotechnology as a positive opportunity for us to work with God as co-creators.
Believing that animal biotechnology is intrinsically wrong need not rest upon religious convictions. Agnostics and atheists may share the widely felt concern that it is somehow unnatural and therefore wrong. Closer inspection, however, reveals some big problems with this viewpoint. First, we have to be able to identify and agree about what is to count as "natural" and "unnatural", and this is not easy in today's world where we are routinely offered natural toothpaste, natural margarine and numerous other allegedly "natural" products. If "natural" is to be contrasted with "artificial" or "man-made", that makes practically every element of our modern Western life-style, including agriculture and medicine, "unnatural".
Second, even if we can find a workable definition, why should we assume that whatever is natural is good and whatever is unnatural is bad? A natural event, product, process or tendency, however defined, is not automatically good or desirable. Many natural substances are harmful. Many natural events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, create destruction and suffering, and are indeed usually labelled natural disasters. Many natural organisms cause pain, disease and death. Simply because something happens in nature does not mean that we have no justification for interfering with it.
In the case of animals, however, some people have claimed that it is intrinsically wrong to genetically change their essential nature. Leaving aside the tricky problem of defining this "essential nature", the ethical question is whether such changes might sometimes be justified if they led to a reduction in the animals' levels of frustration and suffering. What if battery chickens, for instance, could be engineered so as not to suffer the frustration of having their natural behaviour thwarted? Should we use biotechnology to produce "happier" animals of this kind or does designing animals with reduced capacities show a basic lack of respect? The Banner Committee's report to Government Ministers in 1995 was clear on this point, arguing that it would be unacceptable to increase the efficiency of food conversion in pigs by reducing their sentience, responsiveness and level of activity, as this would be treating them as raw materials to be used for our own ends, regardless of what is natural to them. Whatever the answer to that particular dilemma, many fear that animal biotechnology is unlikely overall to produce an increase in animals' happiness or welfare. This takes us into the second area of concern - that animal biotechnology is wrong for extrinsic reasons, because of its likely consequences.
One popular way of grappling with these issues is to try to assess the technology in terms of costs and benefits or risks and rewards, although the unpredictability of any new technology makes such calculations very difficult. The Royal Society, for example, last year produced a report on this subject, listing a wide variety of potential risks.
These included the possibility of toxic effects, allergic reactions, environmental harm and the creation of a new human disease reservoir. However, not all scientists share these concerns and the magnitude of such risks remains highly controversial. On the other hand, many believe that some of the possible human benefits could be dramatic, particularly in the field of medical research and so outweigh a certain level of risk. This has led to claims that it will be human beings who reap the benefits and animals who incur the costs.
So what might these costs be? Could they involve levels of suffering which are morally unacceptable? In the case of farm animals, experiments with growth hormone genes have produced a number of serious disabilities and abnormalities, resulting in early death or euthanasia. Most of the designer animals created so far could not survive in normal farming conditions. Cloning frequently involves difficult births, abnormal offspring and a high mortality rate. Also, when disease resistance is genetically engineered into animals, the diseases in question are likely to be associated with intensive farming methods, leading to an increased use of these methods. Can costs in animal welfare of this kind be justified simply by the possibility of increased productivity?
However, most animal biotechnology is currently practiced, not on the farm for food purposes, but in the laboratory for research purposes, where there is a steady increase in the number of genetically engineered animals used, particularly as models of human diseases. The ethical issue here is whether it is justifiable to alter an animal's genetic structure with the clear purpose of causing it to be defective and to develop a painful, lethal condition. This was done with the so-called "Oncomouse" (the first creature to be patented), which is genetically programmed to develop cancer. Research into other diseases where animals are likely to be increasingly used as models will need to keep those animals alive for as long as possible to study the full course of the disease, so there seems to be the potential here for considerable animal suffering.
But does such suffering matter if humans benefit? This fundamental ethical question applies to a much broader range of issues than those raised specifically by animal biotechnology, but the increasing pace of that technology gives it an added dimension. Why do animals matter ethically? The Treaty of Amsterdam recognised in 1997 that animals are "sentient beings", capable of feeling pain and suffering. This gives them, according to many philosophers, a moral status which requires moral respect - animals have interests which we should take account of and which cannot be ignored just because we belong to a different species. However, there is no agreement on how we are, in practice, to make ethical decisions about animal biotechnology and to weigh possible human benefits against probable animal suffering. Science and ethics need to proceed hand-in-hand in exploring these new territories and in deciding what our responsibilities and obligations should be towards other species.
Dr Roger Straughan is Reader in Education at the University of Reading, specialising in moral education and ethics. He has written extensively on ethical issues arising from genetic technologies, particularly concerning animals and plants. Revd Professor Michael Reiss is professor of science education and head of the School of Mathematics, Science and Technology at the Institute of Education, University of London. He directs the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology Project and is currently a member of the Science Review Panel (GM issues) of the Office of Science and Technology.