C Shannon

Europe and the Age of Biotech


The world is in a state of rapid change. It is not a sense of irony to say this has always been the case for the lifetimes of much of everyone living today. Constant upheaval may be the recipe for European modernity, and our societies are based in the act of replacing old with new. However, there are directions that seem to make the European public squeamish. Biotech in particular has poor PR with Europeans.

One phrase comes to mind: GMOs. There is a wide gap between perception of GMOs between Europe and North America to be sure. A professor of mine once attributed this gap to two competing values: societal security and individual benefit. The hypothesis goes that Europeans place the value in making sure that innovation and introductions do not harm society and the intangible “social fabric” that weaves culture and national myth into a proud heritage. On the other side is individual benefit, which is as it sounds. North America places value on what good people get out of an introduction, with less consideration to how it will change the social dynamic. Segment theory might explain this event as the creation of Anglo-North America at a time when liberalism was coming in as a force on it’s own imprinted culturally on North American society.

Biotech is the future. In the past five years we’ve made major breakthroughs in synthetic biology, which led to designer animal life and is projected to lead to genetically modified human life, according to the 22nd August edition of the Economist. Foreign Affairs published two essays of note on biotech in November 2013, one written by Laurie Garett and the other by Ronald K. Noble.

The Foreign Affairs articles illustrated beautifully the utility and the danger of synthetic biology. Even today, designer life has real world applications. Life has been engineered that glows in the presence of certain agents in water supplies. However, the same technology can and has been used to make potentially pandemic diseases. This is regularly in an effort for epidemiologists to research methods to fight the spread of disease.

If the thought that scientists are designing super-diseases in labs is something you find concerning: don’t panic. This is a normal reaction. The tools for genetic manipulation are incredibly powerful and, like any power, has no morality to govern its use. How could they? They’re just tools.

I think that’s part of European public’s problem with biotech. Even with the EU’s version of perpetual peace, I believe there is a deficit of trust in the European psyche. If we return to the idea of societal security, this whole idea is dependent on the concept of an us and them and that the values of the two groups are not convergent. Without shared, exclusive identity, this external pressure is unsustainable.

It’s okay to reservations about changing and making new life in a laboratory, but innovation-shy Europe has to manage neo-luddite populists to ensure that biotech is not stifled in Europe, if it wants to remain competitive in countless fields that will rely on biotech innovations; not least of all of which is medicine.

With Human genetic engineering on the table, mankind has gained a weapon for future generations against countless genetic ailments. We may soon have the potential to have healthier, smarter and stronger citizens. Problems we had assumed were intrinsic to humanity might soon be wiped out like Small Pox of yesteryear.

If “societal security” keeps Europe back, while North America and Asia charge ahead in biotech research, then they will have needlessly and pointlessly crippled themselves until the next technological revolution.


“Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child which carries the heavy burden of genetic disease.”

-Bob Edwards

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