Naturalness

Introduction                       Benefits and Risks                      Animal Welfare                     Human Health                      Distributive Justice                     Naturalness

 



Overview

1. How should the naturalness of the MycoSynVac product be assessed in light of different understandings of what is 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?
3. 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 concern, and one that was often brought up by the public in the previous report in the project. However, it is unclear exactly what the worry about naturalness amounts to. In some cases, the term “natural” seems to be connected with the term “safe“, and the boundaries between the two are not entirely clear. This issue is not unique to synthetic vaccines. The overlap is found in public discourse across a range of topics (Andersen & Holm, 2018). This overlap in the two definitions means that the unnaturalness concern interacts with concerns about human health in many cases. Whether the public are concerned about the long-term effects on human health of synthetic vaccine use in livestock because they consider the vaccines unnatural, or whether, conversely, synthetic vaccines are considered unnatural by the public because they have general worries about their safety, is not always clear. In this sense, it will be important for MycoSynVac to engage with the broader concerns about human health that are discussed in the “Potential Risks and Benefits to Human Health” section on this site. But safety is not the only standard by which “naturalness” is measured.

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 centering on the notion of life. Here, the arguments revolve mainly around how to categorize the products of synthetic biology and other technologies given that they engineer the genetics of organisms, and whether such products can rightly be said to be “alive”. This is a highly complex debate – there is no clear consensus on the status of engineered organisms. This could present an ethical challenge for the MycoSynVac project, but the need to engage in this debate depends to an extent on whether this same product-oriented understanding of “naturalness” is present among stakeholders in MycoSynVac and the general population. The understanding was detected in the earlier report, which revealed that this usage is present in some of the synthetic biology expert interviews. Here, synthetic biology, as a field, was assessed to be more “natural” than chemistry precisely because the experts found that products of synthetic biology are closer to the natural world.

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.

 

Quick Points

• 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

 

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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 in turn can mean that consumers perceive of the use of a MycoSynVac vaccine as an unnatural intervention in the “farm-to-table” process.
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.

 
Quick Points

• 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

 

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3. Are there religious objections to synthetic biology and the way it is used in MycoSynVac?

 

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 favorable, and there is no reason to think that matters should be any different for a MycoSynVac vaccine. The concerns expressed to date have not been aimed at synthetic biology as such. Instead they focus on misuse, and on the importance of ensuring that the tools of synthetic biology are used in a thoughtful way, and only for good purposes (The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, 2010).
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.


Quick Points

• 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

 

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Cited Works

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.


 

MycoSynVac the documentary