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I had a conversation with old friend of mine regarding genetically modified food (specifically transgenic crops/animals), and their stance was that

It's just wrong to put stuff from one animal/plant into another

Right now, I see no way of justifying this position. Yet I'm of the opinion that when someone I know has a gut feeling that something is wrong that I should at least make some effort to see if there are any viable arguments that might support their case. Moreover, I can empathise somewhat with them. There is indeed something intuitively wrong about it, whatever that might be.

On the basis of the ecological risks, economics and other practicalities one could easily form a utilitarian argument against genetically modified organisms (as well as for them). But I am wondering if there are any other arguments. I'm interested, in particular, in the idea of mixing up species being wrong.

I am not really concerned with human genetic modification unless it is essential for making the non-human case.

  • It might be useful to refine the question and consider the various possible senses of "wrong". An offense to the Creator? A resemblance to the mad scientists of popular fiction, dating at least to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? Unforeseeable and potentially dire consequences of sudden changes to the genetic code of organisms without many generations of natural testing for viability? A sense that chimeras or artificial hybrids of complex organism don't work? Instinctive rejection of the new and unfamiliar? Some of these might lead to philosophical objections, others might not. – Confutus Mar 17 '14 at 17:09
  • Wasn't this an answer before? – Lucas Mar 18 '14 at 2:28
  • I decided it was better as a comment. – Confutus Mar 18 '14 at 2:29
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I've followed the literature for a while, and no, there aren't any strong arguments I know of against all cases of transferring genetic material between species.

You've already noticed that there are some utilitarian arguments against some kinds of cases, based on risk of the unknown. But it's also clear that those don't apply to all cases. As for arguments that apply to only some cases, and yet still don't get humans involved, some are ecological, but another kind of argument focuses on the experience of the created being, where an animal is mixed with another species. It might be fun to try to add bat wing genetic material to monkeys to see if you can generate flying monkeys. But there is a real risk of creating a hybrid creature (sometimes called a chimera) whose experience of living is terrible, because it turns out wrong. Indeed, because this is such a complicated process and genetic and developmental processes are so intricate, we would likely have to create a lot of hybrids before one succeeded, and these animals might suffer considerably. Yet, this sort of argument only applies to animals, not plants or other species. Still, such arguments are worth taking seriously, I think.

The other main kind of argument I know of starts from the idea that species mixing is unnatural. There are two problems with most variations on this argument:

  • “Species” can be defined various ways. But even assuming a single definition of species (like the Biological Species Concept best defended by Ernst Mayr, which defines species based on breeding potential), species boundaries are often vague. It is often not clear, even now that we have access to genomes, when two species existing at the same time are really one species, or not. Evolution also requires that each species becomes distinct from ancestral species at a certain point, but this point is typically vague. In both cases, it's not just that there are facts we don't know, but that these boundaries are blurry.
  • In nature species hybridize fairly often, so it can't be right that mixing species is unnatural. But it's sometimes argued that it is unnatural for us to hybridize species. I would argue against this whole class of arguments that there is no good way of defining “unnatural” in a principled way to designate things people should not do. We sometimes use that term to express disgust at things. We don't use it to designate a set of actions or events that belong in a group for non-moral or non-aesthetic reasons, which we then ought to avoid because of their unnaturalness. Our inability to identify such a class of things suggests that there aren't good arguments from unnaturalness against species mixing, or anything else.
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  • Agree, and I would note that one should be no more alarmed by the poor living experience of some chimeric creature than the poor living experience of factory-raised cows and chickens, for instance. Something is wrong if a lifetime of suffering is okay so we can eat cheap meat, but not okay on a one-time basis where we might learn something really enabling. (I'm not saying which way we should resolve this, just that one can't support both positions at once.) – Rex Kerr Mar 16 '14 at 23:11
  • Good point — I've revised the answer to reflect that I think there are reasons successfully creating many hybrids wouldn't be a one-time thing. – ChristopherE Mar 16 '14 at 23:26
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The argument against GMOs usually seems to be predicated on as far as I can tell two things to suppose its wrongness. First, some see it as a crime against nature. As @Confutus suggests in a comment, this could be construed as a crime against God's creation or a crime against some sort of sacred natural order that has given us the best possible things (sometimes these claims are some sort Gaia-religion-inspired thing; sometimes not). I will focus here on the latter only. I don't really think that form is valid. The first reason to suggest it might be wrong is that horticulture already involves the manipulation of crops and their selection for certain attributes. The second reason is that nature does not give us the best of all possible outcomes. Consider Ebola. If we think nature's dictates are wise, we shouldn't try to stop it from doing its damage throughout Africa and then spreading. Or on a more mundane level, we redo the landscape so that we can farm better. If nature is sacred, then we shouldn't do that.

More subtly, the claim can be redirected that we shouldn't move genes from one species to another. But species is becoming a somewhat specious concept. We're having to rework how we understand it when cross-species breeding seems much more prevalent than we thought (one former definition was if two things can breed and regularly produce viable offspring) and intra-species breeding does not always work (Great Dane and Chihuahua).

Generally when pressed on this point, those who say GMO is wrong fall back to a second argument: we shouldn't risk the unknown because the consequences could be great. It is true that every time we manipulate nature, we risk making a situation that is perilous for us or for the ecosystem, but this is not specific to GMO. They need to say GMO has some sort of higher risk. But let's grant their moral principle, mutatis mutandis, and ask them this: do they use this moral principle elsewhere? Is limited risk of great catastrophe a principle they apply in all of their moral and policy decision making? Do they for instance oppose surgeries that have risk? I'm guessing the best arguments will have more subtle explanations, but I haven't read enough of the literature to know (usually anti-GMO pontificating gets a pass in the sort of circles where it happens). If the risk argument is only being used on this question and does not constitute a more general principle, then it's not really the basis under which anti-GMO groups think it is wrong.

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My thought is that by using GMOs, we are essentially trying to improve on billions of years of the evolution of life (evolution primarily being a massively parallel optimization for survival)... with what is essentially a big health experiment for mainly financial motives.

It seems to me (in that context) that GMOs are very unlikely to be healthier for us than non-GMO alternatives that we have symbiotically adapted to over the very long term.

Here's a small snippet from a respected health website:

http://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/issues/2013-august/gmoscancer.html

enter image description here

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  • This neither seems to be an answer to the "it's just wrong" part of the question--the OP already agreed that utilitarian arguments were a possibility!--nor does it make much logical sense, unless you're also arguing that antibiotics, aspirin, and steel are all bad for us (since we didn't evolve with any of them). – Rex Kerr Mar 17 '14 at 1:23
  • @RexKerr It does answer the non-utilitarian argument part, even though it misses the "just wrong" bit. Considering it to be a health experiment lets allows some of the non-utilitarian arguments from human experimentation apply to it. – Lucas Mar 17 '14 at 7:24
  • @Lucas - I suppose that's somewhat true, but that GMOs are meaningfully "trying to improve on billions of years of the evolution of life" in a way that hybrid crops or aspirin are not is doubtful at best. So with a flawed or at least suspect premise I'm not sure how useful the observation is. (I agree that if one believes that this is what's going on with GMOs, then it's sensible to believe that it is just a big health experiment that is unlikely to be positive, and thus trigger human experimentation arguments.) – Rex Kerr Mar 17 '14 at 8:36
  • @RexKerr I don't agree with the premise as Brad put it either. But I'm less convinced that it would not be possible formulate it in way that would rule out Asprin at least. – Lucas Mar 17 '14 at 9:04
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    I don't know what sort of background you have in science, but it is extremely likely that we can improve the nutrition in ways normal horticulture cannot -- by adding vitamins to cereal crops like rice (look up golden rice). – virmaior Apr 4 '14 at 2:00
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Is modifying life creating life? If you don't believe so, then there should be no problem. You really aren't messing with things in anyway we don't already. We selectively breed, same thing, different mechanics. We may have produced results that nature is unlikely to produce, but the fact they exit makes them "natural".

But, what is "mixing species"? If nature is always mixing DNA, and we can produce a "stable configuration", is it not inevitable (million monkeys) that at some point that configuration will exist in nature? Does the question then become is time-travel ethical? We have just moved to a DNA configuration that will eventually exist in the future. There could a problem with this argument if we assume a gradual change and there are no stable intermediate states. But DNA does not require life to exist and organics rain in from space all of the time. Discontinuities are possible.

If you believe the modification is creating life, the question moves towards religion. Whether starting from the "Spirit on the Water", or pre-built components (DNA), is the concept of "Creator God" valid? If so, is there any constraint that prohibits man and god from being the same or equal? If we are gods, mixing species ethics doesn't matter to gods. From the religious perspective, it's probably unethical. Most myths tended towards bad results, from Greeks to Jews, so we might assume the ethical message was "don't".

For me the question is about balance. Physics allows particles to pop in and out of existence, but only in opposing pairs. Anything is possible as long as the net effect is zero. There are schools of thought that there is something in nature that maintains balance. If there is a disease in nature, somewhere there is also a cure. I don't like the idea of creating a proton without creating an anti-proton. Or creating a bio-weapon without a cure. If we create a new lifeform, we should also create a new predator at the same time to allow maintaining balance. So the species mixing (creating a new species) is fine, as long as you create a specialized anti-species.

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