What are the ethical issues surrounding artificial selection, the breeding of animals with favorable traits?
A question that involves a discussion of the ethics of eugenics is fraught with emotion, given the role of science in the interpretation of evolution as “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin conducted enormously important research, as did others such as Francis Galton, that resulted in emotionally-charged debates regarding ethics that continue to this day (in fact, they have increased in emotional intensity in the current era, as the sciences of gene therapy, cloning, etc. transition from theory to reality).
Additionally, any such discussion inevitably brings into its orbit arguably the greatest atrocity in human history: the rise of Nazi Germany and the institutionalization of eugenics as official government policy. An attempt at incalculable cost to humanity to socially-engineer the evolution of a species through the ruthless elimination of those deemed "unfit" to survive resulted in World War II. Such was the manifestation of theories of racial superiority that were, or are, a close cousin of the science of eugenics.
So, what does any of this have to do with a student’s question regarding “ethical issues in artificial selection in the breeding of animals with favorable traits?” Dolly the Sheep could have provided the answer if she were still alive and capable of communicating across species. Dolly was the first successful result of the use of cloning to replicate a mammal. It was a scientific achievement that answered a fundamental question as to whether humans could successfully carry out such experimentation. It also opened a conversation regarding the ethical merits of such experimentation—a door very much open today in stem cell research.
Whether artificial selection in the breeding of animals is ethical is a matter of perspective. These types of scientific studies are invariably surrounded by emotionally-charged debates regarding ethics. Any student assigned to read Mary Shelley’s classic of Gothic literature, Frankenstein, has been introduced to the moral quandaries surrounding scientific experimentation carried out without due regard for broader questions of morality and practicality. Just because a scientific advance can be done does not necessarily mean it should be done. Specific to the use of artificial selection in the breeding of animals, one can contemplate the wisdom of engineering a more favorable form of a species in terms of its practicality (e.g., will such a human-engineered interruption in natural selection have unfavorable long-term consequences?) as well as its morality (e.g., will such actions result in expansion of experimentation to include humans and, if so, will those actions represent a reintroduction of the very kind of eugenics carried out by the Nazis under Hitler?).
It is very difficult to categorically reject the option of scientific advancement, especially if the potential promise of cures for certain diseases or the elimination of certain disabilities can result. After all, what’s the problem with simply learning? It is within the application of that research, however, that the devil lies. That is why oversight is essential: carry out the research, certainly, but have measures in place to guard against expansion of that research into more potentially problematic directions. Then, hope that those measures are successful.
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The primary ethical question is what agents determine which traits are “favorable” in changing the genetic make-up of domestic animals. That is, the free enterprise system will dominate the taxonomy, not the community health interests or the FDA. Fatter cows, woolier sheep, dogs that can't bark, etc.--who decides? Should scientists be allowed to manufacture any animal they want, for any reason? So, the effects on the community will be ignored in favor of the profit motive. The next ethical issue is the application of the belief that Man has dominion over the animals—do we have the ethical “right” to interfere with natural selection? Then, we have to ask ethical questions about our responsibility to the future, to the possibility of damage in the long run to future generations. Ethics is a human construct that preserves certain often unspoken principles, and any “artificial selection” process, by definition, must answer to those basic principles inherent in being human.
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