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In their recent piece, "Synthetic Biology and the Ethics of
Knowledge," Thomas Douglas and Julian Savulescu argued for an "ethics of
knowledge," in which bioethicists engage with the ethical issues
surrounding the pursuit and dissemination of scientific knowledge.1 Their
focus, as the title suggests, is the rapidly expanding field of synthetic
While I agree with the general claim made by Douglas and Sa...
While I agree with the general claim made by Douglas and Savulescu, I
might suggest that they underestimate the nature of the field of synthetic
biology, and precisely what it might do to the life sciences in general.
In this, they undersell themselves in what precisely this emerging field
demands of the bioethics--and indeed the academic community--in general.
An ethics of knowledge, particularly of what research should or
should not occur for moral reasons, is so important because of the way in
which the life sciences is being radically deskilled. That is, the
science is not only becoming ubiquitous within the traditional academic
and research communities, but within a community of enthusiastic amateurs
who are only beginning to manifest their genius at synthetic biology.
Websites such as DIYBio,2 or the Personal Genome Project,3 are rapidly
breaking down the walls between the professional and the "expert amateur"
Douglas and Savulescu noted in their initial thought experiment that:
[An old college friend has] discovered a new, cheap way to produce
synthetic viruses using out-of- date bench top DNA synthesisers that are
now ubiquitous, even in developing countries... [but] every major military
and terrorist group in the world has access to these obsolete
synthesisers. It would take only one malevolent agent and one such machine
to produce enough vaccine-resistant smallpox virions to devastate
While the authors date this 2020, the truth is that 2020 is an
optimistic assessment. "Garage," "Open Source," or "DIY" Biologists have
already constructed a low-budget PCR thermocycler, the LavaAmp.4 While
they are still a ways away from the synthesis of life, we ought not to
underestimate the potential these groups possess to alter the way the life
sciences is pursued.
With this in mind, ethical analysis of the pursuit of research needs
to advance and engage not just with the professional, but with the amateur
(and in this sense, amateur is far from a pejorative term) community in
terms of an ethics of knowledge. This requires greater public engagement
by bioethicists and life scientists with the growing communities all over
the world who may one day become a significant player in synthetic
An ethics of knowledge must not only aim to encompass professional
guidance and ethics, but practical ethics for humanity at large. This is
no small feat. As Douglas and Savulescu argue, it is often--and
unconvincingly--argued that knowledge is separated from its use.
Challenging and providing an alternative to this accepted wisdom will
require not only serious academic endeavour, but positive and constructive
public engagement regarding the appropriate uses of knowledge, and how
best to avoid, mitigate or manage the harms that may result. Without
engagement with the relevant communities, we risk alienating them, which
may cause serious setbacks or even exacerbate the harms caused by the
misuse of synthetic biology.
Moreover, we need to seriously reexamine the ways in which the
advances in one area affect other areas of research. DIY biology may
someday come to pose a serious public health hazard, and the sooner we are
prepared for that eventuality, the better. As it is, the folks engaged
with DIY biology are already hard at work on these problems. But there is
always room for more engagement with the field. This in turn requires a
more sustained engagement by bioethicists with the field of public health,
a field which is still underdeveloped.