In the early 1970s scientists developed the fundamental techniques of recombinant DNA technology—the artificial addition, deletion, or rearrangement of genetic sequences in order to alter the form and function of an organism. The resulting technologies, known as genetic engineering (GE), include gene therapy, which aims to replace defective genes with healthy genes; gene splicing, which involves the genetic modification of crops by inserting the genetic material of a natural insecticide or vitamins; and cloning, the production of identical genetic copies, which is often used to create the genetic material needed for the other techniques. Almost immediately after these technologies were introduced, some analysts began to voice their fears about potential abuses.
Hoping to calm public fears and thus, some analysts claim, prevent restrictions on their research, in 1975 scientists held a conference at the Asilomar Center in California. Science historian Susan P. Wright claims, “Asilomar was about fashioning a set of beliefs for the American people and their representatives in Congress that would allow scientists to pursue genetic engineering under a system of self-governance.” The scientists assured the public that genetic engineering was under control, Wright maintains, and proclaimed that, “the fruits of genetic engineering would benefit everyone.” Despite these initial efforts by scientists to alleviate the public’s fears, opponents of genetic engineering continue to question the safety and the ethical and social implications of genetic engineering technology. Some commentators note that because the concepts and technical vocabulary used in the genetic engineering field are difficult for nonscientists to understand, those on both sides of the debate manipulate language to misrepresent the nature of the technology. According to columnist and former congressman Jack Kemp, “Solid scientific evidence has been all too lacking in this debate— a war of words and slogans, not ideas and initiatives.”
The war of words begins with the definition of genetic engineering. Some scientists claim that genetic engineering is a form of biotechnology—the use of biological processes to solve problems or make useful products. Thus, they assert, genetic engineering is not “new” because farmers some ten thousand years ago used biotechnology to domesticate wild plant species by selecting seeds for cultivation. People have also long been involved in selectively breeding animals, they note. However, molecular biologist Michael Antoniou contends that this definition is misleading:
The proponents of the use of GE in agriculture argue that mankind has been selecting and manipulating plant and animal food stocks for millennia and that this new technology is simply the next stage in this process. . . . [However] GE employs totally artificial units of genetic material, which are introduced into plant and animal cells using chemical, mechanical or bacterial methods. . . . Clearly these procedures are worlds apart when compared to cross fertilisation between closely related species.
Genetic engineering’s opponents also claim that scientists obscure the truth about genetic engineering by using terms that minimize the life on which they are experimenting, particularly when discussing therapeutic cloning, which uses embryonic stem cells—the cells that exist before they differentiate into body tissue cells—to replace defective cells in patients with genetic diseases. According to Kerby Anderson, columnist and national director of Probe Ministries, “The debate about cloning and stem cells is not only a debate about the issues but a war of words where words and concepts are redefined.” Anderson maintains, for example, “A human embryo is merely called a blastocyst. Though a correct biological term, it is used to diminish the humanity of the unborn.” Anderson also argues that the term “therapeutic cloning,” with its shift of focus away from the embryo used in the research and onto those suffering from disease, was introduced by procloning advocates to make cloning more acceptable. He says, “In the stem cell debate, it was disturbing to see how much attention was given to those who might potentially benefit from the research and how little attention was given to the reality that human beings would be destroyed to pursue the research.”
Those who support genetic engineering claim that anti– genetic engineering activists use language to inflame the public and misrepresent the true nature of genetic engineering and biomedical research. New Zealand Libertarian Party leader Peter Cresswell asserts, for example, that “technology’s attackers litter their statements with arbitrary attacks full of ‘might be,’ ‘could-be,’ and ‘could-lead-to’—observe how often you hear the speculative words ‘may,’ ‘might,’ and ‘perhaps’ in the anti-GE literature.”
Another rhetorical method anti–genetic engineering activists use is to draw analogies from science fiction. Robert W. Tracinski, editor of the objectivist journal Intellectual Activist, points to the oft-cited reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
The common theme of these literary works is that too much science and technology—too much human control over nature— is dangerous. . . . Just as Mary Shelley’s mad scientist warns, “learn from . . . my example how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how [miserable is] he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow”—so Leon Kass, a University of Chicago professor and “medical ethicist,” warns against “the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny, man playing at being God.”
By using fiction to warn of the imagined horrors of genetic engineering and the inhumanity of genetic scientists, argues Tracinski, genetic engineering opponents need not point to any real dangers.
Despite pleas for reasoned public debate, the war of words in the genetic engineering debate continues. The authors in Opposing Viewpoints: Genetic Engineering share their views about the risks and benefits of genetic engineering in the following chapters: How Will Genetic Engineering Affect Society? Is Genetic Engineering Ethical? What Is the Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops? How Should Genetic Engineering Be Regulated? Those who lead the genetic engineering debate use words not only to facilitate the public’s understanding of genetic engineering technology but also to influence people’s attitudes toward these technologies. Lee M. Silver, professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University, concludes, “With the political debate at fever pitch . . . it will come down to an argument over words, not biology.”