HTML> Bioethics in Asia pp. 284-286 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

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8.5. Will Nature Protect Itself Against Irresponsible Genetic Manipulation? The New Biology and Israeli Mystical Tradition

Frank J. Leavitt* and Ron Alexenberg**.

* The Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics ** Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology

Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel

The test of ancient spiritual tradition will lie in its success or failure at guiding us in bioethics, and perhaps especially with respect to questions about the ethical limits to our genetic manipulation of nature. But when we turn to halacha, Jewish law, we find indecisiveness on this matter. There are Biblical prohibitions against mixing species by cross-breeding animals or by tree grafting. But neither the Bible nor the Talmud says anything about mixing by genetic recombination, suggesting that this matter is left totally to human discretion. Indeed there appears to be a growing consensus among some authorities in Israel that what the Tora did not explicitly forbid is prima facie permitted and that there is therefore no place for religious restrictions on genetic experimentation.

On the other hand it must be acknowledged that halacha, Jewish law, is not the only source to which Jewish biomedical ethics may turn for guidance. There are many sources for Israeli bioethics including Jewish philosophy, Kabala (Israeli mysticism), and Agada and Midrash (Rabbinical legend).

In looking at these other sources, however, one does not find a clear, unambiguous line. On the one hand we find stern warnings against tampering with nature, while on the other hand we see remarks expressing faith in natures ability to take care of itself.

An example of the first approach is in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends and interpretations of the Book of Ecclesiastes. It says there that God warned the first people to treat nature responsibly because: if you destroy it no one will repair it (Section VII).

An example of the second approach is in the writings of Maimonides the great medieval physician, rabbi and philosopher, who was Israelfs first bioethicist. Maimonides sometimes seem to warn us against tampering with nature, as he frequently warns physicians against too aggressive medical intervention. But there are on the other hand many passages in his medical and philosophical writings where he writes lyrically about nature as wise and crafty, able to take care of itself. In the Guide to the Perplexed, for example he refers to nature as :wise, having governance, (II, 10). And in his Regimen Sanitatis, the Guide to Health, he says that nature is: wise and crafty : it will do what is necessary and has no need for others [to help it] to cure the sick.

The two approaches which we have mentioned are not unequivocal guides for bioethical behavior. But we think they can clarify our thinking by leading to useful speculation. The first approach would urge caution in genetic recombination, especially when it comes to germ line manipulations. Donft mess around, it seems to say, because if you make a mistake no-one will be able to fix it.

The second approach suggests a cheery optimism. Go ahead and experiment it seems to say, because if you make a mistake nature will be smart enough to repair it.

The cheery, optimistic approach has a lot to recommend it. Walk around a wasteland some day, a garbage dump or a forest which has been clear-cut or land which has been strip-mined for coal. See how the greenery and the fauna so quickly strive to re-establish themselves. You even see green weeds popping up from cracks in the pavement of airfields.

Science also seems to suggest the cheery, optimistic approach. It seems we have mutations taking place in us everyday. But mechanisms like DNA repair enzymes and apoptosis (programmed cell death) tend to keep us healthy, either repairing mutations inhibiting cellular proliferation or kicking them out by killing the affected cells.

We are therefore led to the following speculation. Perhaps we can go ahead freely with genetic experimentation relying on nature to take care of itself. Any monsters we might create will not prevail because nature will be wise and crafty enough to protect itself with devices like DNA repair enzyme and apoptosis.

Unfortunately however this cheery optimism is too extreme. A survey of the appropriate literature, prepared by R.A., suggests that scientists are learning and will continue to learn to overcome those very mechanisms by which nature protects itself on the molecular level.

Restriction enzymes (1) are cellular protecting agents against foreign DNA, scientists use their potential as gene manipulation tools. Gene therapy techniques (2) require high titers in treatment since they are basically not efficient for the most part, but after all some procedures succeed. Mouse-human hybrid cells throw out human chromosomes and so mend themselves. Chromosomal organization during mitosis prevents successful YAC gene transfers. But these phenomena are based on some genetic mechanisms. The genetic basis can be uncovered and specific genes can be knocked out, allowing any of these monstrosities to evolve. Random homologous recombination of foreign DNA in nature is rare, but in the laboratory any appropriate sequence can be synthesized. Whole organisms protect themselves by allowing mutagen affected cells to commit suicide, that is apoptosis. p53, bcl-2 pRB, etc., are just a few of the genes that regulate this programmed cell death mechanism. Every one of these genes has been knocked out or selected out to reverse this phenotype and not allow the cells to die, and so affect the whole organism. DNA repair mechanisms (3) are under intense research, and as previously noted, nature tries to protect itself, but nice try.

It seems, therefore, at least on the basis of information available today, that we may be learning how to make radical changes in nature at the molecular level, creating new species and changing existing species beyond recognition. Of course this is in a way not totally different from what we have been doing for thousands of years, developing new strains of plants and animals through selective breeding. But the new genetics may increase the pace of this development to the point that religious views of the relationship of human beings to nature will have to be re-examined.

There is an interpretation of the opening passages of the Bible according to which God created each species separately and unchangeably. It is not clear whether this doctrine of the immutability of species began in religious circles or rather in the artificial wedding of the Bible to Aristotelian biology which Western philosophers decreed in the Middle Ages. But in any case it was because of this doctrine that Darwinfs theory of evolution through natural selection was fiercely attacked by Christian theologians. The opposition to Darwin was so fierce that it was forbidden to teach his theory in the schools in some parts of the United States.

But although some Jews joined forces with the Christians against Darwinism, not all Jews did so. Darwin even reported receiving a letter from a rabbi, saying that the theory of evolution agreed with the Biblical doctrine of creation.

Now we are going into a new era, going beyond both Darwinfs natural selection and beyond selective breeding - which of course Darwin also wrote about at length - and entering an age of redesigning nature through recombinant genetics. This new era will require new developments in theology, developing ancient ideas in new ways, recognizing that nature is not an immutable datum, but something which is always being created anew. And we humans are partners with God in its creation.

We wish to conclude with a number of specific points about this new development of old theology.

1. Although we use the phrase new theology we really mean only a new light on very old ideas. Israeli mysticism, Kabala, has always referred to the possibility of unlocking the secrets of nature and changing it. The Talmud for example tells a story of two rabbis who every Friday used the letters of Gods name to create a calf, which they then ate on the Sabbath.

2. Saying that we are partners with God in creation may sound a little speciesist, putting humans in a special position. But this may only seem to be so. Viruses change ecosystems. So do bacteria and so do migrating animals and floods and earthquakes. We too are part of nature and participate in changing it as do all other parts of nature. Whether there is an essential difference between our intervention in nature and that of other creatures is a large question depending on whether we have free choice and a level of consciousness unique to humans. We coauthors are divided on this questions.

3. But as we have seen, nature will not protect itself against our irresponsibilities. We shall probably overcome every mechanism which nature has to protect the integrity of genomes. So we must learn to be responsible. This is where bioethics comes in. But this will not be easy. We shall make many mistakes. Just as the industrial revolution brought much tragedy along with much progress, pollution and occupational disease, for example, along with antibiotics and vaccines, so we should not be surprised if the genetic revolution brings, along with the great benefits which we hope to receive from gene therapy for example, also great unforeseen disasters. We might find transgenic organisms running wild, for example, in quite surprising ways, or the use of molecular genetics for hitherto unimaginable kinds of biological warfare.

The future will be full of surprises, not all of them good. One of the greatest contributions which spiritual tradition can make to this future will be meditative techniques which can help us remain calm and centered and in control of ourselves even when the world is turning upside down. These techniques will be a part of bioethics, i.e. part of the ethic of life in the world which the new biology is creating. It is therefore of crucial importance that the Asian spiritual traditions which have developed meditative techniques, Zen Buddhism, Yoga, Shinto, Japanese martial arts, Israeli Kabala, pool our resources together to learn to live calmly and meaningfully in this new world.


1. Nathans, D., 1979. Restriction endonucleases, simian virus 40, and the new genetics. Science 206: 903-909.

2. Hanania, E.G., et., al., Nov. 1995, Recent advances in the application of Gene therapy to human disease. American Journal of Medicine 99: 537 - 552.

3. Cleaver, J.E., 1986. DNA repair in man: regulation by a multigene family and association with human disease. Bioassays 6: 122-127.

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