Biotechnology

Jan 00

We have now begun a new century. Perhaps not by a strict reckoning which would have had us store the fireworks for 2001, but by an almost universal popular consensus. (This impatience itself may be a sign of the times.) Now is a natural time to look back and to look ahead, and to locate ourselves in history.

The twentieth century was certainly one of unprecedented growth in scientific knowledge and technological know-how. But has our spiritual and ethical growth kept pace? It seems impossible to answer this positively. Many of our proudest advances have been turned to purposes of destruction, in the terrible wars of this century. Wars that have surpassed any other age's in the ferocity of their barbarism, targeting civilian populations with mass death from the air. We are not above this even yet, witness Kosovo and Chechnya.

The discoveries that have been most beneficial to mankind, for instance in the field of medicine, have not been evenly distributed. We may have the skills to perform heart transplants, but children still die in Africa from dehydration.

These considerations will become even more important in the twenty-first century. We are on the edge of even more astonishing breakthroughs in many fields, not least in the biological sciences. Cloning, genetic modification, the new drugs which alter brain chemistry, in short the whole field of bio-technology raise many profound ethical questions that admit of no easy answers.

Spiritually minded people of all faiths need to take an interest in these questions or they will be abandoning the field to those who deny the spirit. The decisions which govern our use of technology have so far been dominated by what Buddhism sees as the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. That is, in contemporary social terms, the profit-motive, militarism and the folly that sees a human being as no more than a meat machine.

It is no good for us to retreat into an obscurantism that would block the advance of scientific knowledge either. As a religion, Buddhism has never opposed science. In fact, the core teachings about Insight Meditation come to close to a scientific method of disciplined introspection. Ignorance is seen as darkness and knowledge of thing as they are one of the chief goals.

Nor is technology inherently good or evil. At its best, it has tremendous potential for the relief of human suffering. But it most be used more wisely than it has hitherto. Another of the core teachings of Buddhism is the inter-connectedness of all things. Every thing we think, do or say has profound effects rippling out through the world at large. This has not been recognized in our head-long rush for material satisfaction, and we are starting to pay the price in environmental degradation and climate change.

So how can we begin to think about the use of technology in a spiritually wholesome way? To make a beginning, we need to put some thought into our system of values. What is our highest good? And now that we are on the threshold of being able to tinker with the biological basis of life, what is the intrinsic nature and value of a human being, or any being for that matter? It is of no use whatsoever for me to provide pat answers for you. If we, as a species, are to get through the coming century we all need to start seriously examining these questions. If you do not define your own space, others will define it for you. We cannot afford any longer to leave the field of the world to the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. There are sharp tools coming soon that have to be taken out of such childish hands.

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