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13 June 2013

Nanotechnology and religion: a complex relationship

There is much evidence that public views on nanotechnology will be shaped by religious beliefs. In the science fiction short story Halo, a panel of Muslim scholars discuss a strip of bacon made by a "molecular assembler", a device capable of producing the meat directly from individual atoms, instead of slicing the meat from an animal. All meat from a pig is forbidden according to Islam's halal laws. Synthetic bacon is identical to the real one, but it has never been part of a living pig. Is it still forbidden?
"The story may look like a joke, but it shows how the capacity of nanotechnology to manipulate atoms may change the material world in such a way to raise religious questions," says Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of South Carolina, who has studied in depth the relation between nanotechnology and faith.
It is mostly secular voices who have expressed their thoughts and concerns on nanotechnology until now, but there is a lot of evidence that public views on it will be shaped by religious beliefs. For example, a 2009 survey found that strength of religious beliefs in the US is negatively related to support for funding of nanotechnology. A study of the same year found that the more religious a country is, the less it tends to find nanotechnology morally acceptable.
Until now, religions have been remarkably silent on nanotechnology, Toumey points out. Nothing compared to the harsh bioethical controversies about in vitro fertilisation in the Catholic world, for example. "Nanotechnology is a heterogeneous body of sciences and technologies: few faith communities have enough universities or journals to examine such a complicated issue," says Toumey. "Their attention may be attracted if some dramatic event happens: either positive, something like a cure for a cancer, or negative, like an environmental disaster." The scarcity of official documents makes it difficult to guess religious views, but it is an opportunity for scientists to get prepared in advance.
"I think there has not been much concern about nanotechnology in religious thinking, because if you look into it in detail, the concerns that arise don't come from nanotechnology in itself, but rather from specific applications, like those to food and environment," says Donald Bruce, founder of the Edinethics consultancy based in Edinburgh, which has worked for the Church of Scotland.
Toumey's analysis of the few studies done on believers' opinions has found a worry shared by several religions: that nanotechnology will reshape human nature. "Faith communities are reacting to the representation of nanotechnology made by a popular group of writers, called transhumanists," Toumey points out.
Transhumanism is a cultural current that thinks that technology (including nano) will steer human evolution artificially, eliminating diseases, extending life indefinitely, and using information technology to achieve cyberimmortality, something like storing a person's "soul" on a hard-disk. One of its most famous proponents is the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Transhumanists' ideas about immortality and the soul clash directly with postulates shared by most religions. "However, identifying nanotechnology with the kind of human enhancement that transhumanists talk about is a mistake," says Bruce.
A second shared concern is the fear that nanotechnology may take away individual control of one's life, by creating environmental impacts without people's consent, or by providing tools for a better life only to the rich. "These worries echo the general concerns of believers with respect to technology in general," says Toumey. "Some of them may be even shared by non-religious people, but studies show that believers are more articulate in discussing them." The vocabulary of God, soul, spirit, and eternal life provides a whole set of metaphors, symbols, narratives, and figures of speech which are useful to navigate ethical issues raised by technology, according to those studies.
Beyond shared worries, different religious denominations display a variety of approaches, in the few official documents available. Catholics relate the issue with classical bioethics problems: will new embryo diagnostics coming from nanotchnology lead to abortion? Will nanomedicine respect human dignity, even when health conditions deteriorate up to a point where euthanasia could be considered?
Non-Catholic Christians express their concerns about human hubris: for example, one author compares nanotechnology to alchemy, warning about the dangers of "total control over nature in the ability to transmute any substance into any other". Muslims take a very different path: rather than debating whether nanotechnology is right or wrong, they discuss who has the authority to make a decision: the question is casted in terms of ijtihad, the Islamic procedures for issuing legal rulings. Jewish writers frame the debate in the narrative of the Golem, This is a human-shaped creature assembled by men with religious or magic powers, whose behaviour can be beneficial or dangerous, in different stories: the baseline is that technology can improve creation, but this comes with a burden of responsibility for humans.
"I think that neither the scientific nor the faith communities are prepared for a debate on nanotechnology," says Toumey. "Believers are reacting to the extravagant ideas of transhumanism, which in fact have little to do with real nanotechnology. They would be wise to dedicate some attention to nanotechnology before making a decision. On the other hand, scientists should recognise that religion can bring thoughtful and constructive opinion. It would be wonderful if everybody knew a lot about nanotechnology, and if decisions could be taken based on this information, but unfortunately this is extremely unlikely."
According to Toumey, non-experts will form their opinion based on their values – well established and polarised positions on technology, which bring in concepts such as privacy, autonomy, justice – rather than on objective information.
"It would be good to steer a two-way dialogue between scientists and non-experts, where they could exchange information and concerns," says Toumey. He thinks that this dialogue is urgent. It will not be necessary to wait for transhumanists' promises to become true: something as prosaic as a slice of synthetic bacon may trigger the controversy.
Michele Catanzaro is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona with a PhD in physics. He is co-author of Networks: A Very Short Introduction .
Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world's first synthetic life 
Genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter explains how his team of researchers created a new life form – and what happens next.
Video: Science Link to video:

Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.

The controversial feat, which has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost of $40m, was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology".

Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.

However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.

The new organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

The single-celled organism has four "watermarks" written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their creator, should they go astray.

"We were ecstatic when the cells booted up with all the watermarks in place," Dr Venter told the Guardian. "It's a living species now, part of our planet's inventory of life."

Dr Venter's team developed a new code based on the four letters of the genetic code, G, T, C and A, that allowed them to draw on the whole alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks to write the watermarks. Anyone who cracks the code is invited to email an address written into the DNA.

The research is reported online today in the journal Science.

"This is an important step both scientifically and philosophically," Dr Venter told the journal. "It has certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works."

The team now plans to use the synthetic organism to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist. From this, new microorganisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, said: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally."

This is "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology", Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, told Science.

Dr Venter became a controversial figure in the 1990s when he pitted his former company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project. Venter had already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising concerns that the company might claim intellectual rights to the building blocks of life.

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