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Godfrey B. Tangwa

Genetic Technology and Moral Values

An African Opinion


This paper reflects, from a cross-cultural perspective, on the implications of biotechnology on moral values. Today, biotechnology, an aspect of Western industrialized culture, is capable of manipulating or modifying the genes of living organisms. This raises many ethical problems, some relating to biodiversity and the environment in general. Bioethics owes its own development to awareness of the seriousness and magnitude of these ethical problems which cannot leave any culture indifferent, no matter its own level of technological development. Africa, for instance, which presents remarkable biodiversity, against the background of which human values and attitudes different from those of the Western world have developed, cannot be indifferent to the problems raised by biotechnology. It is possible for global bioethics to emerge, provided globalization does not simply translate into Westernization.




Biotechnology and especially genetic technology and allied processes raise serious ethical problems in the face of which no culture can remain indifferent, whatever its own level of technological development. 1 Molecular biology has achieved great advances, especially in the domain of human genetics, in our historical epoch, thanks to comparable advances in biotechnology, especially gene technology. These advances and the developments they have made possible are fraught with both positive possibilities, on the one hand, and grave dangers for human culture in particular and the entire biological world in general, on the other. The positive possibilities lie in the domains of human health and agriculture, where the prospects of banishing both famine and gene-related diseases seem within reach of human achievement. The negative possibilities involve the spectre of triggering, accidentally or otherwise, a biological or human catastrophe and of widening the global inequality gap, leading to an increase in the sum total of human suffering in the world. In short, modern technology has created both the possibilities and the means by which humankind can enhance its well-being or destroy itself and, perhaps, all life on earth. This situation calls for an attitude towards biotechnology that is neither too enthusiastic and over-confident nor too panicky and hostile, but rather one that is cautious, rational and controlled.
2 There can be no human society without some form of technology or morality, no matter how rudimentary these may be. But modern technology, as we know it today, is the fruit of science and the scientific ethos which reached their high point in the European Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Biotechnology, by which the building blocks or basic stuff of living organisms, otherwise known as genes, can today be manipulated and modified, is a result of advances in molecular biology and the engineering sciences. Biotechnology and especially genetic technology and allied processes raise serious ethical problems in the face of which no culture can remain indifferent, whatever its own level of technological development. That something is technically feasible is, in itself, not a justification for doing it or bringing it about. Ethical issues and problems, no matter the domain in which they arise, are in themselves never technical problems and require nothing more than ordinary human rationality and moral sensitivity to address. That is why any human being or human culture can express equally valid ethical judgements and opinions on biotechnology and its allied processes, even though these have their home base in the Western world and are the gift, as it were, of Western culture to global culture.

Western Culture and the Industrial Revolution

Science and technology infused in Western culture a penchant for spreading and promoting its ideas, vision, convictions and practices under the guise of universal imperatives of rationality and morality which ought to be binding on all and sundry. 3 The Western Industrial Revolution drew its impetus from the slogan that »knowledge is power«, convertible into commercial value; from the idea that all knowledge is unqualifiedly good; from the belief that nature is, in principle, completely knowable and controllable; and from perception of the universe as something which should be explored, subdued, dominated and exploited. This world-view, although it had its origin and foundation in Judaeo-Christianity, led to secularisation, desacralization and profanation of everything in the universe, processes which, ironically, are the antitheses of the Judaeo-Christian ethic and ideology. Since the Industrial Revolution, Western technology has been propelled to great heights by commerce and the profit motive, by war and the will to dominate, by pure scientific curiosity and, to a lesser extent, by the urge to improve human well-being.
4 The Industrial Revolution and the technologies resulting from it greatly assisted Western imperial nations in their voyages of exploration, discovery, subjugation, colonisation, domination and exploitation of other peoples. One of the cumulative effects of these very important achievements was to infuse in Western culture a spirit of omnivorous discovery, an automatic impulse to unify, patent, monopolise and commercialise such discoveries, and a penchant for spreading and promoting its ideas, vision, convictions and practices under the guise of universal imperatives of rationality and morality which ought to be binding on all and sundry. Today, Western culture is, indisputably, the dominant culture of the world. And, particularly in the domain of science and technology, Western culture is the acknowledged master at whose feet other cultures sit as pupils and apprentices. But this does not mean that other cultures also have to learn and accept all other things from Western culture. Science and technology in themselves have nothing to do with our moral sensibilities and sensitivity or how, for example, people conceive of or worship God, how they marry or bring up children, how they organise their social system, how they relate or harmonize their culture with nature, or even the uses to which they think technology should be put.


5 The biodiversity of the world, which is very similar to its cultural diversity, is simply a datum of evolution that we recognise and attempt to understand and explain. The Darwinian theory of evolution, with its key ideas of »natural selection« and »survival of the fittest«, goes a long way in explaining biodiversity as a scientific fact within a cause-effect nexus. But biodiversity cannot be completely explained and any attempt to do so cannot go beyond sterile metaphysical speculation.
6 Among the continents of the earth, Africa presents remarkable diversity, ecologically, biologically culturally and otherwise. African social systems, ethical and metaphysical ideas, are largely shaped and coloured by this diversity. The African world-view can be described as eco-bio-communitarian, implying interdependence and peaceful co-existence between earth, plants, animals and humans, by contrast with the Western outlook, which can be described as anthropocentric (some would say androcentric) and individualistic. Within the African outlook, and in the outlook of many other non-Western peoples and cultures, humans are less venturesome, less prone to an exploitative disposition, more humble and cautious, more mistrustful and unsure of their own knowledge and capabilities, more conciliatory and respectful of other peoples, plants, animals, inanimate things, as well as invisible/intangible forces, more timorous of tampering with nature, more disposed towards an attitude of live and let live, be and let be.
Mae-Wan Ho et al.:
»Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases«.
In: Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10 (1998),
external linkArticle
7 Increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity should lead to further awareness that the problems which arise in connection with the preservation and exploitation of the globe's biodiversity can only be tackled from a global perspective. The ›Convention on Biological Diversity‹ – which attempts to address issues of fairness and equity in the global sharing of the benefits arising out of the world's genetic resources – and the ›Human Genome Project‹ – which envisages completely mapping out and sequencing all of the human DNA in the world – are some of the concrete attempts at such globalisation. The dangers here, however, are that globalisation may end up as Westernisation, given the Western world's monopolistic leadership of such projects and processes, its exploitative impulses and proselytising drives.
8 The dangers of technology in general, and of biotechnology in particular, have further made concern with biosecurity or biosafety a preliminary pre-condition of globalisation prospects and projects. For, while we are still awaiting the probable positive possibilities of gene technology, for instance, some of its negative effects are already palpable in some domains. Horizontal gene transfer, for example, has been identified as being responsible for the evolution of pathogenic virulence and the spread of drug and antibiotic resistance. According to the British biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and her colleagues, many pathogens, thanks to gene technology, have successfully crossed species boundaries, undergone mutation, recombined with genes from unrelated species, and contributed to the emergence of pathogenic virulence and antibiotic resistance. Such horizontal transfer of genes has remarkably coincided with the development of genetic engineering technology, which facilitates horizontal gene transfer and recombination on a commercial scale.
9 It is hard to shrug off the feeling that the world could be heading for a public health crisis, if we consider the emergence within the past two decades of such novel diseases as AIDS, Ebola and many varieties of hepatitis, or the re-emergence and reinforcement of such other diseases as tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, and malaria. The theory that the HIV virus was deliberately created by some biotechnologists as an experimental biological weapon is still circulating today in some circles, unrefuted and unproved.

Westernization or Globalization?

Biotechnology is inescapable for all peoples of the world today; but, who will deny that it is also fraught with possible dangers of abuse or of accidents. 10 From the discussion above, some of the socio-economic and ethical issues involved are already apparent. I raise them schematically below. But, before doing so, the following general remarks need to be made. While efforts at a global perspective of biodiversity and biotechnologies are prima facie very good at the conceptual or intentional level or, at least, on paper, there is, at the practical level of implementation, the real danger that globalisation may simply translate into Westernisation, for fairly obvious reasons. Is a truly global approach to these issues really possible in a world of different cultural groups whose respective material situations, levels of technological development, power relations, ideas, experiences and attitudes differ rather markedly and who, moreover, are not even equally represented in contexts and fora where globalisation decisions and projects are discussed? One index of the pertinence of this general question is the fact that the possibility of a global perspective is today already being increasingly marred by accusations of biopiracy, theft of bioresources, biocolonialism, and the like.
11 Biotechnology is, in a sense, inescapable for all peoples of the world today and, in principle, no one would want to deny that it holds revolutionary positive possibilities in such domains as human health, agriculture and animal husbandry that will impact on all peoples and cultures of the world; but, who will deny that it is also fraught with possible dangers of abuse or of accidents as well as the possible consequence of further deepening the wide gap that polarises the modern world into rich and poor nations and into haves and have-nots within each nation? And such being the case, is it not reasonable to urge that technological innovations be bracketed, as much as possible, in their places of origin, until such a time that others would feel safe and confident enough to invite them to their own domains?

Provisional Checklist for a Consensus

Godfrey B. Tangwa:
»Bioethics, Biothechnology and Culture: A Voice from the Margins«.
In: Developing World Bioethics 4.2 (2004),
external linkArticle

Henk J. Van Rinsum / Godfrey B. Tangwa:
»Colony of Genes, Genes of the Colony: Diversity, Difference and Divide«.
In: Third World Quarterly 25.6 (2004),
external linkArticle
12 1. Nature may be a blind force, but evolutionary history would seem to indicate that it has within itself mechanisms for correcting its own ›mistakes‹. Human interventions in nature, especially at the basic level of genes, are equally liable to mistakes, but human beings don't have any ready mechanism for systematic correction of such possible mistakes. This worry is particularly relevant in the domain of human gene technology, where the possibility of, say, cloning, in spite of the scientific excitement it arouses, evokes the danger of a catastrophic fall over a fatal threshold.
13 2. Scientific knowledge is, by its very nature, gap-filled and incomplete, based as it is on observation, induction and experience, which are no guarantee of the future state of things. There is no guarantee that our future experience will conform to our past or present experiences. We don't know what hidden hazardous properties may lie within the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or living modified organisms (LMOs) or transgenic creatures that human biotechnology is creating today which may take us by surprise tomorrow. So there is need for great caution.
14 3. Genetic engineering and biotechnology, like technology in general, are potentially dangerous to the environment, two such dangers being pollution and a resurgence of infectious diseases. The way in which a relatively simple technology like that of commercial-scale production of plastics has adversely impacted on the physical environment of many countries of the world, including some without an iota of polymer chemistry and others without an iota of need for plastics, should be very instructive to all peoples and cultures of the world. In this regard, the movement of transgenic organisms across national borders needs to be very carefully reflected upon and implemented with great care and caution.
15 4. Genetic technology in and of itself is, no doubt, important and of great potential economic benefit in the domain of animal and crop production, especially of widely consumed foods. It could possibly help to raise the socio-economic strength of poor countries with vast expanses of unexploited lands and to reduce the wide gap between the developed and developing worlds. But this would very much depend on who takes the initiative and on the fairness with which agreements for the transfer and use of the technology are negotiated, as well as on the general willingness to view the world and all its resources, not as the exclusive property of the rich and mighty of the earth, but as the common patrimony of all its inhabitants.
16 5. There is a well-founded fear that the technologically more advanced countries might simply appropriate, for free, the genetic heritage and accumulated indigenous knowledge of less advanced communities, patent these acquisitions, and proceed to commercialise them in a manner that would put their benefits out of the reach of those very communities; in a fashion similar to what has often happened in the case of other industrial raw materials, in a way that has become standard practice since the invention of nationalism, imperialism, colonialism and the so-called liberal open-market economy. (How many people in cocoa-producing communities, for example, can afford a Western-processed and -packaged bar of chocolate?)


It is in the interest of humanity that Western culture, like other cultures, should learn to budge a bit and also to listen to others' narratives of the dancing masquerade, so that globalization may not boil down to the indoctrination of Western culture among other cultures. 17 Human cultures are like spectators at a festival of the dancing masquerade. No single spectator is capable of having a full, complete and adequate view of the festivities, and especially not from a static position. To even approximate such a comprehensive view of the masquerade, it is necessary to move around a bit, to change the viewing angle and perspective, from time to time. Among the cultures of the world, Western culture, the proprietor of modern bio- and other technologies, has been the veritable »unmoved mover«, thanks to its industrial revolution, spirit of adventure, voyages of discovery, colonisation, monopoly, commerce and proselytisation. For these and other reasons, Western culture has developed a high sense of transcendentalism and imperviousness to outside influences, particularly to the moral values and sensibilities of non-Western cultures. It is in the interest of humanity that Western culture, like other cultures, should learn to budge a bit and also to listen to others' narratives of the dancing masquerade, so that globalization may not boil down to the indoctrination of Western culture among other cultures.
18 In the colonial era, the colonised people learnt by rote the catechetical doctrines and dogmas of the colonial masters, and once they could repeat them accurately and practice them faithfully, they were certified for baptism and confirmation and admitted to the reception of Holy Communion. In our post-colonial, post-modern, globalisation era, such methods should be a far cry from our thoughts and actions. Other cultures also need to stand up for themselves, to count their non-material blessings and to realise that artificial material possessions, while they surely change life and the conditions of living, may not always do so for the better. Otherwise, in this age of gene technology, it is to be feared that, should things be left to the initiative of the industrialised world and allowed to continue with their present thrust of momentum, we could all become the unenviable non-witnesses of the end of human culture and civilization.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/6/ftg-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2005 Author & polylog e.V.


Godfrey B. Tangwa (*1957 in Shisong, Cameroon) obtained his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 1979, he obtained his M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Ife, and in 1984, his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Ibadan (all Nigeria). He lectured at the University of Ife from 1978 to 1986. In 1987, he joined the University of Yaounde (Cameroon), where he is presently an Associate Professor. From 1997 to 2003, he served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Bioethics (IAB), and was Vice-President of the Association from 1999 to 2001. His areas of specialization are bioethics, social and political philosophy, and African philosophy.
Prof. Godfrey B. Tangwa, PhD
University of Yaounde 1
P.O. Box 13597
Fax +237 231-2880
external linkhttp://www.gobata.com
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