- How should the naturalness of the MycoSynVac product be assessed in light of different understandings of what is natural?
- In what ways is the process of developing the MycoSynVac product unnatural, and what can be changed to encourage people to perceive the process as more natural?
- Are there religious objections to synthetic biology and the way it is used in MycoSynVac?
1. How should the naturalness of the MycoSynVac product be assessed in light of different understandings of what is natural?
The unnaturalness of synthetic vaccines and the animals inoculated with them is a major
Another way to approach this issue is by asking whether the label “naturalness” attaches to the product or the process. If it attaches to the product, the label will pick out a specific set of features of the product itself (and some of these will be safety features, as described above). This understanding of naturalness is in widespread use in the philosophical debate, and it has led to a debate
However, this conception of naturalness is not the main one with which the general public operate. They tend to deploy a process-oriented understanding of naturalness. This means that consumers base their assessment of the naturalness of a MycoSynVac product largely on the process by which the product reaches them. In essence, it can be said that opaque, highly technical and convoluted processes involving many researchers and labs consumers know little about can make a product feel more unnatural. The contrast would be the transparency of “farm-to-table” foods which are perceived as natural products.
- The general population assess the naturalness of a MycoSynVac vaccine partly by its safety
- Another important measure of naturalness is how opaque the development process has been, as well as the use of the vaccine in animals
- The expert debate on naturalness is more product-oriented, and because of this MycoSynVac should be aware of the need to be able to engage in the naturalness debate based on different conceptions of the natural
2. In what ways is the process of developing the MycoSynVac product unnatural, and what can be changed to encourage people to perceive the process as more natural?
The work undertaken within a project like MycoSynVac is understandably opaque to most people. The research is ongoing over long periods of time, and public interest is low, at least so long as there is no product on the market. Thus, consumers are likely to have very limited information about any potential MycoSynVac product and how it has been developed. This limited information can lead to uncertainty and fear about the safety of the product. It may also mean there is a lack of understanding of what exactly the vaccine consists of and whether it will impact in negative ways on food for human consumption. This
This insight is important for MycoSynVac. It highlights the fact that the potential to affect the debate surrounding the naturalness of synthetic vaccines will be limited if efforts to engage are focused on providing information about the contents of the vaccine itself. Rather, it is possible to tackle public perceptions of the naturalness of the final product by making changes to the process by which the vaccine is developed and goes into production. By being transparent about the research being done, and by being thorough in assessing and communicating the possible impacts on human health, it is possible to make the resultant vaccine both safer and more “natural” in the public’s eyes.
Because the public take naturalness to be mainly a matter of process rather than product, the disagreement found in the earlier report between synthetic biology experts and the general public over the naturalness of a synthetic vaccine is not necessarily, or solely, a result of the two groups having different knowledge (although this will also be the case). The disagreement may stem from the fact that the two groups apply the label “natural” on the basis of two rather different conceptions, or measures, of naturalness.
- By studying and communicating well about the human health concerns people have about the project, MycoSynVac can simultaneously influence the perceived naturalness of a future vaccine and its perceived safety
- Focusing on the product itself may impact expert opinion on the naturalness of a MycoSynVac vaccine, but it will not be likely to gain much traction among the public
- Focusing on the process and the development work being done is more likely to reach and influence public opinion on the naturalness of a vaccine
There has been a general discussion in the philosophical literature about the view that synthetic biology somehow represents an attempt by humans to “play God”. As was described in the earlier literature review in this project, this view is mostly discussed by people arguing that it is not the case. It can also be difficult to specify exactly what the charge is. The complaint has both secular and religious interpretations. However, attitudes to synthetic biology in mainstream religions are generally
To the extent that one might have worries founded on the religious belief that we, human beings, should not take on the role of creator, these worries can perhaps be placated by pointing out the ways in which synthetic biology relies on the fundamental building blocks of nature: synthetic biology may represent quite a drastic and fundamental rearrangement of these building blocks, but it stops short of true creation in the religious sense. However, the principal differences between more traditional methods of modification and the methods of synthetic biology remain, and more work is needed to uncover how these differences impact on the moral standing of synthetic biology in general.
- There is a generally positive view of synthetic biology in the mainstream religions, and there is no reason to think this would not also apply to a MycoSynVac vaccine
- It should be made clear that the tools being used by MycoSynVac are reliant on natural building blocks and conform to the laws of nature
4. Does synthetic biology represent a commodification of nature that damages its perceived sanctity or integrity?
There is a larger worry that synthetic biology represents a “commodification
- In developing a potential product, it is important that MycoSynVac remains aware of how its work impacts on the naturalness of the products being developed
- MycoSynVac should also be mindful that synthetic biology in general can be perceived as something that diminishes the value of nature, making it purely functional, and therefore MycoSynVac should take steps to promote alternative views of the value of nature
Andersen, S., & Holm, L. (2018). Naturalness as a safe haven: parental consumption practices and the management of risk. Young Consumers, 19(3), 296-309. https://doi.org/10.1108/YC-12-2017-00763
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. (2010). New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies. Washington DC: The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.