Biotech is Thrusting Us into New Political Territory

Nobody is immune from the feeling that change is accelerating with each passing year. This sense of “future shock” is perhaps most closely associated with information technology. We’ve all experienced the anxiety, frustration and resentment that accompanies the introduction of a new version of software on which we depend, or the realisation that people younger than ourselves have adopted a new technology that makes their lifestyle seem very different from our own.

Worries about rapid change also bubble up in response to scientific progress, especially when it raises moral questions. We’ve seen this time and again with controversies over evolution, reproductive rights, the origin of the universe and nearly all issues in science that relate to human values.

Biology is an especially volatile source of sensitivities. The old biology was mainly observational, but the new biology, or biotechnology – including stem cells, embryo research, synthetic biology and reproductive technology – has unprecedented power to change basic life processes.

Such sensitivities are understandable. People rightly feel that high stakes are involved when science challenges our customary and largely workable moral framework.

And there is, of course, hyperbole associated with biotech. But even if only some of the predictions bear fruit, the new biology will challenge everything in its path, including our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with the world, our social arrangements and values and our political systems. The new biology is thus becoming part of political life. Candidates for national political office need to have staked out positions on these issues.

Biology and politics already intersect, of course. A good example is the abortion controversy, a recurrent theme in the US since the 1970s, with both sides trying to influence the decision over whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

But this issue is relatively uncomplicated compared with what is to come. The straightforwardness of the available positions (anti-abortion or pro-choice) is vastly outstripped by the scenarios that will be forced on us by the new biology.

This article was originally published in The New Scientist.