The Dalai Lama’s View of Genetics

Considering how much I agree with what the Dalai Lama has to say in The Universe in a Single Atom, it’s no wonder I continually find myself attracted to Buddhism, at least philosophically. Since the last two chapters are relatively short and I feel the need to get back to poetry, I thought I’d summarize them and be done with what has been a more challenging book than I thought it would be when I first dove into it. This exploration that began with Maslow and then led, in turn, to Rollo May and the Dalai Lama has at times seemed more like a post-graduate course than a casual read. Although I’ve enjoyed the challenge and learned more than I have in awhile, all three have inspired considerable outside reading on the internet in order to understand what was being said by one of these authors. I suspect I’ll be following threads that I picked up here for a considerable length of time, and I’m sure I’ll be picking up another of the Dalai Lama’s books shortly, too.

I didn’t find a single idea in the last two chapters I disagreed with. The biggest problem is not citing all the ideas I agree with. The chapter entitled “Ethics and the New Genetics” looks at one final aspect of science. Although the Dalai Lama states that he has no complaint about genetic studies in general, like many common citizens he has some reservations about how those studies should be applied in the real world because he worries about the long-term effects:

But by doing these things, we are changing the genetic makeup, and do we really know what the long-term impact will be on the species of plants, on the soil, on the environment? There are obvious commercial benefits, but how do we judge what is really useful? The complex web of interdependence that characterizes the environment makes it seem beyond our capacity to predict.

Like me, he worries about introducing rapid changes into a ecosystem that has evolved over centuries:

Genetic changes have happened slowly over hundreds of thousands of years of natural evolution. The evolution of the human brain has occurred over millions of years. By actively manipulating the gene, we are on the cusp of forcing an unnaturally quick rate of change in animals and plants as well as our own species. This is not to say that we should turn our backs on developments in this area-it is simply to point out that we must become aware of the awesome implications of this new area of science. But with the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point. The rapid increase of human knowledge and the technological possibilities emerging in the new genetic science are such that it is now almost impossible for ethical thinking to keep pace with these changes. Much of what is soon going to be possible is less in the form of new breakthroughs or paradigms in science than in the development of new technological options combined with the financial calculations of business and the political and economic calculations of governments. The issue is no longer whether we should or should not acquire knowledge and explore its technological potentials. Rather, the issue is how to use this new knowledge and power in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner.

It’s hard not to agree that with “the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point.” On Facebook I’ve pointed to several articles that question whether the use of Bayer products are the source of problems with the destruction of bee colonies. It’s all to obvious that when it comes to a conflict between economics and “ethically responsible behavior” that economics, more often than not, take priority.

The Dalai Lama, and perhaps rightfully so, is even more concerned when it comes to the use of genetic cloning when it comes to humans:

In principle, I have no objection to cloning as such-as a technological instrument for medical and therapeutic purposes. As in all these cases, what must govern one’s decisions is the question of compassionate motivation. However, regarding the idea of deliberately breeding semi-human beings for spare parts, I feel an immediate, instinctive revulsion. I once saw a BBC documentary which simulated such creatures through computer animation, with some distinctively recognizable human features. I was horrified. Some people might feel this is an irrational emotional reaction that need not be taken seriously. But I believe we must trust our instinctive feelings of revulsion, as these arise out of our basic humanity.

It seems to me that “revulsion” is a good minimum standard for judging biogenetic manipulation, but it’s obvious that we are going to need higher standards than that, as the Dalai Lama points out:

Today’s challenges are so great-and the dangers of the misuse of technology so global, entailing a potential catastrophe for all humankind-that I feel we need a moral compass we can use collectively without getting bogged down in doctrinal differences. One key factor that we need is a holistic and integrated outlook at the level of human society that recognizes the fundamentally interconnected nature of all living beings and their environment. Such a moral compass must entail preserving our human sensitivity and will depend on us constantly bearing in mind our fundamental human values. We must be willing to be revolted when science-or for that matter any human activity-crosses the line of human decency, and we must fight to retain the sensitivity that is otherwise so easily eroded.

He ends his discussion of genetics on a note

The fate of the human species, perhaps of all life on this planet, is in our hands. In the face of the great unknown, would it not be better to err on the side of caution than to transform the course of human evolution in an irreversibly damaging direction?

that I often use when discussing Climate Change, formerly Global Warming. Climate Change is a theory, a prediction, but only a fool wouldn’t hedge his bet when the stakes are that high. Climate deniers claim environmentalists want to stop “progress,” but I would argue that what they really want is sustainable progress.

In conclusion, the Dalai Lama tries to tie his discussion of the three great areas of science with his own beliefs:

The insights of science have enriched many aspects of my own Buddhist worldview. Einstein’s theory of relativity, with its vivid thought experiments, has given an empirically tested texture to my grasp of Nagarjuna’s theory of the relativity of time. The extraordinarily detailed picture of the behavior of subatomic particles at the minutest levels imaginable brings home the Buddha’s teaching on the dynamically transient nature of all things. The discovery of the genome all of us share throws into sharp relief the Buddhist view of the fundamental equality of all human beings.

It’s definitely refreshing to have a religious leader address scientific thinking in such a thoughtful way, while still willing to state his reservations about what is happening:

Throughout this book, I hope I have made the case that one can take science seriously and accept the validity of its empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism. I have argued for the need for and possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific. I say this because I believe strongly that there is an intimate connection between one’s conceptual understanding of the world, one’s vision of human existence and its potential, and the ethical values that guide one’s behavior. How we view ourselves and the world around us cannot help but affect our attitudes and our relations with our fellow beings and the world we live in. This is in essence a question of ethics.