Synthetic biology aims to design and build organisms to serve human ends, such as producing inexpensive biofuels and developing new kinds of medicines. But this new form of biotechnology also raises ethical questions. The concerns range from environmental and public health risks to social and economic impact, but perhaps the foremost is, Should we be "creating life" in the first place?
The last question is explored in Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature, a collection of essays edited by Hastings Center scholars Gregory E. Kaebnick and Thomas H. Murray, just published by MIT Press.
"Synthetic biology seems to involve a quest for a degree of control over the basic mechanisms of life that human beings have never attained before; is that quest desirable? Is it troubling?" write Kaebnick and Murray in the introduction.
The book is the product of a Hastings Center project on synthetic biology that examined and debated the idea of synthesizing life. The first section of the book focuses on the human relationship to nature, with essays identifying basic questions about the ethics of making new organisms. The second section asks whether synthetic organisms, far from being morally troubling, might actually be intrinsically valuable. The last section concerns values and public policy-whether and how intrinsic moral objections to synthetic biology might be integrated into policy-making and public discourse.
Gregory Kaebnick is research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. Thomas Murray is President Emeritus of the Center and a senior research scholar. Kaebnick and Murray were principal investigators on two Hastings Center projects on synthetic biology.
"Synthetic biology is a hot topic and deserves ethical scrutiny, and this is one of the first volumes that attempts it," says Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies, New York University and author of Ethics and the Environment.
Jonathan D. Moreno, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor, University of Pennsylvania, calls the book "as innovative as synthetic biology itself."
Other contributors to the book are John Basl, assistant professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University; Mark A. Bedau, professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College; Joachim Boldt, assistant professor of medical ethics and the history of medicine at Freiburg University in Germany; John H. Evans, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego; Bruce Jennings, senior advisor at The Hastings Center and director of bioethics at the Center for Humans and Nature; Ben Larson, of the National Institutes of Health; Andrew Lustig, the inaugural holder of the Holmes Rolston III Chair in Religion and Science at Davidson College; Jon Mandle, professor of philosophy at University at Albany; Christopher J. Preston, philosophy teacher at the University of Montana; and Ronald Sandler, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University.