Sikh Perspective on Modern Scientific Technology
Dr Surjit Kaur
There are various species on this earth. Of these, none is as powerful in having an impact on the environment as mankind. With the scientific progress and technological advancements, man has been bringing about changes in nature, controlling nature, all in the service of mankind. Our religious traditions place man at the highest position. This superior position is being misused by man. He is dominating over nature and misusing it. Till now nature had the capacity to undo the damage done to it; if not immediately, after a span of sometime. However, this is no more possible. We are pushing nature to such a position that the possibility of a recoup is not there. Human species is just one of the 84 lakhs of species found on this Earth. However “never have so few done so much damage to the environment in so short a time.”
The scientist has always isolated his work from its impact on nature and humanity. He believed in objectivity, descriptions of nature and therefore thought that nature and culture were apart and should be handled separately. Our consumeristic attitude has made us forget our ethical values vis a vis nature and environment. We need an ethic which will not place man at a dominant position but will rather place him along with the other species, as a member of the biotic community. The impact of the scientific research on the ecosphere can no longer be ignored by the scientist.
Man is gaining immense power to modify the planet earth, the biosphere, through genetic engineering. This power cannot be exercised without any restraints or without values. We cannot use this power with our finite and egoistic mind and destroy the biosphere and its biodiversity. Power should be used only with moral constraints otherwise it would result in egoistic destruction. The pace with which genetic engineering is proceeding, it will completely make the biosphere unnatural, artificial, presumably aimed at making mankind more comfortable and free from pain and disease. It promises a Brave New World. Unfortunately as is clear from the accidents occurring due to genetic engineering that are taking place, we are nearing the doomsday very fast.
Sikhism, places mankind along with the other species as a part of nature. Man’s mind is finite, his creativity is finite, his understanding of the ecosphere is limited. Under no circumstances can man ever completely comprehend the ways of working of the Universe, which is created by the Infinite God. The Infinite God has not given any permission to man to modify or improve the earth. In fact Sikhism clearly states, there is no scope of improvement. The entire universe (not merely the planet, Earth) is made by the Infinite God. Due to our dissatisfaction with the present state of the world and our egoistic tendencies we are exploiting the world, bringing about irreversible changes through genetic engineering. These changes are basically rooted in man’s egoism, that he is the master of the universe and the universe is given to him to do whatever he pleases to do. We are engaging in violence and destruction of the planet earth. Our aim is to reduce suffering but will we really be successful if we proceed the way we are proceeding? We need a rethinking and a realization that it is time for us to act, before it will be too late!
Genetic engineering is an awesome power. It promises relief from various diseases and along with it, it also promises new forms of life. Rather it promises an entirely new type of planet. Life forms will no more be the same. Human beings and all other life forms will be transformed both intentionally as well as unintentionally. Genetic engineering places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, which are the result of three billion years of evolution.
“Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists? ….. The world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to those who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine has been the first one to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.”1
Are we so inconvenienced by the present state of the earth that we need to make changes on it by creating new forms of life. The core issue behind the ethics of genetic engineering is that is it right to change the nature of life on earth to suit man’s desires better? Are we superior to animals and the rest of the creation? Are we answerable to no one? If we are not fundamentally different, do we have the right to meddle with evolution? If we are accountable to God for our actions, should we risk insulting His creation by trying to better it?
Germ-line manipulation opens up, for the first time in human history, the possibility of consciously designing human beings, in a myriad of different ways, it opens up the concept of playing God. The advocates of genetic engineering point out that humans constantly ‘play God’ in a sense, by interfering with nature. Human genetic engineering is not just a continuation of existing trends of bringing alterations in nature. Once we begin to consciously design ourselves, we will have entered a completely new era of human history, in which human subjects, rather than being accepted as they are will become just another kind of object, shaped according to parental whims and market forces.
Genetic Engineering is Intrinsically Wrong
The concerns about genetic engineering can either be intrinsic or extrinsic. The extrinsic concerns about genetic engineering refer to the problems/disadvantages that might/will result from genetic engineering. According to theologians, we need not really assess the risks involved and the benefits of genetic engineering. We evaluate the benefits and risks only if we feel that genetic engineering is right intrinsically. From a theological point of view, genetic engineering is intrinsically wrong. Genetic engineering is unnatural. Anything that is going against the laws of nature is questionable and immoral. ‘Nature knows best’ and the evolutionary processes of nature have a well-established track record. Genetic engineers are gambling with their unproven introductions. In their gamble they may cause disastrous changes.
Genetic engineering is said to be unnatural because it violates natural species boundaries and the natural integrity of species:
‘Genetic engineering makes it possible to breach the genetic boundaries that normally separate the genetic material of totally unrelated species. This means that the telos, or inherent nature of animals can be so drastically modified (for example by inserting elephant growth hormone genes into cattle) as to radically change the entire direction of evolution . Is that aspect of the animal’s telos we refer to as the genome and the gene pool of each species not to be respected and not worthy of moral consideration?’2
The above argument can be refuted by taking recourse to the process of evolution. The species variety that we have today is all in fact as a result of the process of evolution. Hasn’t the genetic composition of species changed over a period of time? Every species has evolved out of the early single celled species. Also, the viruses and bacteria carry genetic material from one species to another. Thus, for many species, their telos includes the ability to cross species barriers.
To say that in evolution, the species evolve from one type to another and also cross species barriers, so there is nothing unnatural about genetic engineering is misguided. In evolution, the changes take place over hundreds and thousands of years whereas in genetic engineering, the changes take place within months or a few years. On the other hand the exchange of genetic material between species through viruses and bacteria is very rare and limited. In the case of genetic engineering, the exchange of genetic material is frequent and of major importance.
According to the Guru Granth Sahib, “Nature is created by the Will of God. He knows best and He has created everything complete. He has left no process incomplete.”3 Our Gurus do tell us that man is superior to all other forms of creation, iesu DrqI mih qyrI iskdwrI ]4 yet in no way does he have the right to exploit nature. Since the earth is created by God, everything has the right to live, exist and flourish. We are not within our rights to destroy or exploit or modify any species or any part of the ecosystem in general. Since we have not created it, we do not have the right to destroy it or make any species extinct in it.
There is a Divine Purpose, a Divine Design behind nature. We are not aware of this design, of this Cosmic Purpose. The day we are self-realized, we would understand this Design and we would never think of interfering, making any changes in this. Guru Arjan Devji states
qyrI kudriq qUhY jwxih Aauru n dUjw jwxY ]
ijs no ik®pw krih myry ipAwry soeI quJY pCwxY ]1]5
“He alone has created nature and alone knows, understands it. Only that person, who is blessed by God, can understand Him and His Creation.”
He has created the world and He sits and enjoys it. We are permitted to use the natural resources but not to exploit them for, they are not merely meant for our use but also for the use of the future generations. We do not have the right to tamper with nature. If God has created it so that we, the existent generations can enjoy it, the future generations are equally valuable in God’s eyes. In fact nature has not been created merely as a resource for man; it has its own inherent worth. But the whole ecosystem is such that one species depends for its survival on another. Guru Angad Devji says
jIAw kw Awhwru jIA Kwxw eyhu kryie ]6
“One organism eats the other, that is its food.”
Being part of the complex web man may use other organism. However, man is not permitted to exploit, tamper with nature beyond his basic requirements.
One point worth mentioning here is that according to Sikhism although nature, the ecosphere, has its independent value, yet it is not on par with humans. Humans have dignity which nature does not have. This dignity they have because man is a rational animal. Man alone is capable of realizing the Self in him. Man alone has self-consciousness. The biosphere and perhaps ecosphere could be said to be having consciousness but not self- consciousness. By this we do not mean that the value of non- sentient beings is less but the implication is that there are certain capacities, which we have because we are human.
If I am not allowed to tamper with nature, how can I justify genetic engineering? If we start playing with genes, creating new organisms, or aiming to better the already existent organisms by modifying their genes by genetic engineering, we are ‘playing God’. We are very finite beings knowing only our present and past. Our future too is unpredictable. It is not possible for us to know the long-term consequences of our actions. When we genetically engineer organisms, we are trying to create new organisms, a new type of a world. We think we have the power to create. Do we really have this power? We must be humble. We are like a speck of dust. Guru Nanak says that we are finite beings and cannot know the limits of God. If we cannot know God, how can we ‘play God’? How can we create? If we do so, our action would lead to disastrous results and we would not know how to reverse our action. Especially in case of genetically engineered organisms it may not be possible for us to reverse the process.
How should we understand ‘no tampering with nature’? Every technology attempts to bring about changes in nature. This raises another question as to how should we relate to nature or to the creation? Should we merely be silent observers and let flood, famine, disease affect us, and make no scientific technological advancement, make no attempts to control disease or should we use our intellect, advance scientifically, satisfy our curiosity and understand and also to an extent use nature. Is every change in nature unjustifiable and is every change brought about unnatural? Is every scientific development immoral, bad?
All the crop plants of the world, the domesticated animals are the result of artificial selection. We all do benefit from inventions in agriculture, medicine, and industry. So where do we draw the line of demarcation? When is an action, scientific innovation, technology acceptable and when is it not acceptable?
As per the Sikh tenets, the creation of the Lord is infinite and a Sikh dives into its unfathomed ocean by harmonizing with nature. One can explore the mysteries of the universe by exploring his own mind as dictated by the Guru. A Sikh always cherishes to lead ahead and engages in scientific researches for the benefit of mankind.
Medicine and Playing God
If we are rigid about ‘playing God’ then no advancement in the field of technology, medicine and science is justifiable. We cannot use the benefits of modern medicine. If bringing about any change in the world as it was originally created is tantamount to playing God, then almost all of us have played God or benefited from someone who has ‘played God’. For example, the benefits of medicine change the course of nature. How many of us have never taken any medicine and have let nature take its own course.
In fact even our Gurus have opened hospitals, dispensaries and given medicines to cure not only humans but birds too. When all attempts to cure a person through modern medicine fail, we invariably fall back on religion, pray and hope some miracle, some supernatural power will cure us. Isn’t this also tantamount to changing the laws of nature or breaking the laws of nature? The difference here is that, when we cannot change nature and its laws, we leave it to God to change them. We think that, after all, God only has made laws, diseases, illness. He can always reverse the process, cause miracles to occur. In the earlier case we pray to God or request God-men to pray to God. With genetic engineers, there is no praying. It is the egoistic playing God, a claim that man can bring about a change in the natural functioning.
This leads us to many further questions. If we say that genetic therapy amounts to playing God, are not we doing something similar in any therapy for that matter? Should we let nature take its course, let a person suffer from the Karmic effects and not take any measures to cure him? Be it plain fever or a more serious disease such as cancer. The advanced medical technology would be much more questionable with the help of which a dying patient is kept alive by life-support systems. Same argument can be applied to cases of organ transplantation. One can argue that due to a person’s excessive drinking, liver malfunction or bad eating habits, his heart malfunction resulted. In case of an eventuality like this, should we let the patient die and suffer the result of his karma or should his damaged organ be replaced? If we replace his organ by either taking from a live human donor or a cadaver or from an animal, are we not playing God? It is God’s prerogative to give or take life. However, usually our conscience and our sense of morality accept such traditional as well as advanced medical technology. Then why such a fuss about genetic engineering?
One could argue like Ruth Chadwick that in the case of ordinary therapy, when a doctor treats a patient, he is not creating anything new. He is merely repairing an organ or the patient’s body to make it healthy and make the body function normally like the other healthy human bodies. But in genetic therapy especially germ-line therapy, the doctor is changing the genetic make up which will affect not only the concerned patient but the future generations too. We as human beings have limited knowledge. When we genetically engineer an organism, we think that its quality of life is not worth living and that by genetically engineering it, we can raise the quality of living of that organism. Here it can be argued that with our limited capacities how can we judge what type of life is higher qualitatively and what type is lower. Only a super human can pass such judgment. It is arrogance on our part to try and improve the quality life of a person. If we try to overstep the Divine Will and go against it we will have to suffer the consequences. These consequences would be really worse. While aiming at a better quality of life, one might under the impact of our limited knowledge and under the impact of pride land ourselves in further complications and trouble. Another argument is that in case of germ-line therapy, the patients of future whom we want to cure and for whose sake we are playing God are presently non-existent. Should we take such risks for the future, non-existent persons? Do we have the right to act without the informed consent of the future persons?
The Superiority of Humans
All the crop plants of the world, the domesticated animals are the result of artificial selection. As a matter of fact, we all do benefit from inventions in agriculture, medicine, and industry. So where do we draw the line of demarcation?Even though we can say that humans are having rationality, which is absent in animals and other species, yet Sikhism does not allow us to hold that we are superior to animals and have a right to use them. We do not have the right to genetically alter them to suit our requirements and even to make some species extinct. Pain is an evil. It is an evil, whether it is caused to animals or other species or humans. Under normal circumstances, one species may hunt another, kill it, use it as prey and eat it. This is the pain, which an animal or a species in the ecosystem would have. However, when we take the animals out of nature, domesticate them, use them for food or for experimentation, alter their genetic structure for our benefit, or grow organs which may be used by humans for xeno-transplantation, we are taking these species out of nature into a cultural environment. The context in which these species suffer is a cultural context of man-biosphere relationship. Here, we cannot ignore their pain and suffering. Their pain has been caused out of context due to our cultural relationship. Human genetic engineering is not just a continuation of existing trends of bringing alterations in nature. It involves changes in the various species that are made to suit human purposes for e.g. increasing the milk in the cows or the brain of the mice is engineered by introducing the human brain gene into mice so as to be able to treat Alzheimer’s disease. These changes take place at a very rapid pace without preparing the biology of the organism to really adjust to such changes.
Our concern for suffering should not merely be restricted to others of our kind and species, but should extend to all species.
kbIr jIA ju mwrih joru kir khqy hih ju hlwlu ]
dPqru deI jb kwiF hY hoiegw kaunu hvwlu ]199]
kbIr joru kIAw so julmu hY lyie jbwbu Kudwie ]
dPqir lyKw nIksY mwr muhY muih Kwie ]200]7
We cannot call ourselves moral if we cause undue suffering and kill or cause suffering to these innocent creatures for our own benefit. Reverence for all life is a fundamental principle of morality. John Muir echoes the same principle, which Sikhism propounds: “Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?8 ” Guru Nanak Dev said that if equals use one another or misuse one another, there isn’t much cause of concern. However, if a superior maltreats an inferior, it is immoral.
jy skqw skqy kau mwry qw min rosu n hoeI ]1] rhwau ]9
Thus since we as humans are superior, we have no right to misuse, alter or cause pain and suffering to the mute biosphere. Rather, we have a duty to protect the ecosphere and biosphere.
Man as a Co-creator with God
Genetic engineering may be acceptable if we accept the view that we are co-creators or co-workers with God. If creation is an ongoing process then there can always be changes in the world. The world need not be the same always. Continuous evolution is taking place. Till now only God made changes and guided the process of evolution. Now man too is in a position to do so. The mere fact that God gave us the mind, intellect and capacity to bring about changes in the world, there must be some purpose or aim behind this. Why should we not use our capabilities to better the universe in which we are living? On the one hand we better it by technological advances and on the other hand we alter the living world too. We are altering the future of the world by creating new species of organisms, by making certain species that are harmful to us extinct and by altering the genetic constitution of others by the traditional technique of artificial selection as well as by the newer approach of genetic engineering.
Can we really become co-creators with God? God creates out of nothing. Can we do that? We can only make alterations and bring new organisms into existence but can we make the basic stuff of the universe, ‘the basic cells’ which can be genetically engineered? Sikhism would at no stage accept that man could be co- creator. God is infinite. Does He need the help of man to create a better world? Does God not know what is best for us? This world is created under the Will of God and it is enjoined upon every Sikh to accept the Will of God. We should not try to equal God, for we can never really do so. He has created us ! He is all- powerful. We are very small beings, who have been given an intellect, that too by God and how can we try and match Him or create like Him.
Ideally, man should adjust himself to the environment. He should let nature take its course and not interfere with it either by miracles or by science. This is what is called as Hukam in Sikhism or accepting the Will of God or the Law of Nature.
Today we are not satisfied with mere artifacts designed to serve our purposes. We are now aiming at nature, animals and even humans designed to serve our purpose. How arrogant and selfish we have become! We want to make human, plant and animal artifacts too. By doing this, the biodiversity and ecodiversity would all vanish. We would merely be finding copies of humans, plants and animals when we clone.Isn’t biodiversity in itself also valuable? Doesn’t man also want diversity, change? Then, why are we cloning, genetically engineering organisms? We are heading towards monoculture. God on the other hand has created so much of biodiversity that no one cell/organism is like the other.
myrY pRiB swcY ieku Kylu rcwieAw ]
koie n iks hI jyhw aupwieAw ]10
This itself is a fascinating phenomenon. It is this diversity which brings in us admiration of nature. This is what takes us to a state of bliss and wonderment. It elevates our soul. It is a pity that we are going all out to destroy this diversity in the name of progress.
Genetic engineering seems to open up the possibility of negating the karmic effects. By genetic engineering, I can make my child disease free. How would the law of karma operate under such circumstances? While inserting a healthy gene, during gene therapy, it is possible that the genetic makeup of the child may be disturbed causing some other incurable ailments or abnormalities in the child. Would we have then negated the karmic effects?According to Sikhism, the world is made by God, according to His Will and desire. The imperfections that are there in the world, in the human as well as the natural world are all under the Will of God. If He so desires, he can himself make this world absolutely perfect. He can Himself root out the imperfections. He does not require man’s help for this purpose. Thus we cannot justify genetic engineering by saying that by genetic engineering, man will be able to root out all suffering and restore creation to its full glory. It is really unacceptable or a contradiction to presuppose an omnipotent God who is the creator of this world and at the same time hold that man can restore the creation to its full glory. If man, who is created by God, can root out suffering, can’t God Himself do that? Is he not capable? If so then how is He omnipotent? Is it really possible for man to root out all suffering or would he actually make us much more miserable than what we are now?
We may perhaps justify the imperfections in the world by referring to the theory of Karma. The question that may arise here is, what karmas would one attribute to the imperfections found amongst animals, plants and inanimate nature? According to the Sikh philosophy, which believes in the transmigration of the soul, the soul does not merely acquire human form. It also transmigrates into animals, plants, trees, rocks and mountains.
keI jnm Bey kIt pqMgw ] keI jnm gj mIn kurMgw ]
keI jnm pMKI srp hoieE ]keI jnm hYvr ibRK joieE ]1]
imlu jgdIs imln kI brIAw ] icrMkwl ieh dyh sMjrIAw ]1]
keI jnm sYl igir kirAw ]11
Which means this soul has taken the form worms and insects for several lives, the form of elephant and fish for several lives. He has been bird and snake for several lives. Similarly he has acquired the life of trees several times. This soul has several times also taken the form of stones and mountains. Thus we reap the fruit of our karmas not only while we are in human life but also while in plant or animal life. This would explain why animals have imperfections and why they suffer.
Genes form a holistic system, with one gene affecting multiple traits and multiple genes affecting one trait. Consequently, scientists cannot always predict how a single gene will be expressed in a new system. Human beings have the right to choose between what is right and what we want. We should reject science that is not in the public interest. Human genetic engineering degrades human subjects into objects, to be designed according to parents’ whims. Accepting such a change would have consequences both for individual humans and for the society at large, which we can barely imagine.
As citizens, we must take responsibility for the future. We are at a time in our world’s history where we can no longer afford to violate the laws of nature in our haste for progress. We must not only acknowledge, but also honor the intimate relationship we share with everything in the universe. There is an order in the universe, a seamless web that nourishes and connects us all from the tiniest seed, to the beating of our hearts, to the stars in the galaxies. Every time we act without reference to this underlying intelligence of natural law, we harm ourselves, we harm each other, and we harm our planet. If we align ourselves and our society with the nourishing power of nature, we will create a civilization that upholds the integrity and dignity of life for all of us. We need to come forward and make a decision as a society to embrace technologies that support all of life, technologies that not only uphold and promote our collective growth, but also do not damage anyone or anything in this process. It’s all too big and happening too fast. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. As George Wald, Nobel prize winning biologist and Harvard Professor says, “Our morality up to now was to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Reconstructing nature was not a part of the bargain but now going ahead in this direction may not only be unwise but dangerous. Potentially it could breed new animals, plants, diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.”12
We have the right to choose the science that we want and to define our vision of progress and at the same time to oppose science, which is not in the public interest.
1 Erwin Chargoff, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, New York, Rockfeller University Press, p. 190
2 Michael J Reiss and Roger Straughan, Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering, p. 53, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
3 pUry kw kIAw sB ikCu pUrw Git viD ikCu nwhI ] SGGS, M. 1, p. 1412
4 SGGS, M. 5, p. 374
5 SGGS, M.5, p. 1185
6 SGGS, M.2, p. 955
7 SGGS, Bhagat Kabir, p. 1375
8 John Muir, quoted in Holmes Rolston, III,Environmental Ethics,Duties to and Values in the Natural World, p. 65, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1988.
9 SGGS, M.1, p. 360
10 SGGS, M. 3, p. 1056
11 SGGS, M. 5, p. 176
12 George Wald, “The Case Against Genetic Engineering” in The Recombinant DNA Debate, Jackson and Stich, eds. P. 127-128 (Reprinted from The Sciences, Sept/Oct 1976 issue)