Legitimating Genetic Engineering

Legitimating Genetic Engineering

If I am to convince you that it is really in your interests for me to be self-interested, then I can only be effectively self-interested by becoming less so.

—Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction

The field of biotechnology was launched in the early 1970s when the ability to perform controlled genetic engineering was first demonstrated at Stanford University by a graduate student in biochemistry, Peter Lobban, and independently by the chair of his department, Paul Berg, and colleagues. Responses spanned the spectrum from optimistic anticipations of a cornucopia of new products to horror that anyone would contemplate putting tumor virus DNA into a common bacterium (a further experiment contemplated by Berg). Applications from novel plants and animals to novel biological weapons were predicted.

As these possibilities were realized in the 1980s and 1990s, resistance elsewhere in the world contrasted with the remarkably passive acceptance of the technology in the United States. The Clinton administration even got away with the argument that labels for genetically engineered foods were unnecessary. News that the former Soviet Union had used its immense biological warfare resources to develop bioweapons produced only a momentary blip in the collective American consciousness. Now that a public debate is emerging in the United States, it may be useful to examine how genetic engineering originally achieved legitimacy.

In the early 1970s, the community of molecular biologists responded to the controversial new development by making a series of decisions that resulted in an international scientific conference at the Asilomar Conference Center, California, in February 1975. Whatever the state of debate about genetic engineering—and twenty-five years later the debate remains substantially unresolved—this conference established the pattern of American policy for controlling the field and served as an influential precedent for policy making abroad.

There is a curious tension in accounts of the Asilomar conference. The conference has been lauded as an exceptional event in which scientists voluntarily sacrificed immediate progress in their research in order to ensure that the field would develop safely. At the same time, many, perhaps most, of the participants resisted questions raised about the implications of their work and simply wanted to proceed. Self-interest, not altruism, was most evident at Asilomar. Eyewitness accounts (and the conference tapes) make it clear that all moves to address the social problems posed by this field in advance of its development were firmly suppressed.

The tension disappears, ho...