Can democracy and genetic engineering co-exist?

New technologies are not neutral tools, and their wholesale adoption could threaten future human lives.

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There are many reasons to oppose some current and future applications of genetic engineering technologies. Agricultural genetic engineering has been abundantly shown to pose unacceptable environmental and human health risks, and some medical applications of the technology – such as somatic gene therapy – have turned out to be more problematic than early promoters assumed; in that case, there are purely technical reasons for caution. Even the use of genetic engineering to manufacture pharmaceuticals is producing discouraging results by way of unanticipated human responses to GE proteins. These topics are already being widely discussed in the growing literature on the subject.

In this paper, I would like to bring up a subtler issue, or set of issues, that bears on the biotechnology debate. Is it possible that the new gene technologies could have social repercussions to do with the ways that power is distributed and exercised in modern societies? The question that is the title of my paper – Can democracy and genetic engineering co-exist? – is of course philosophical and speculative in nature, and is meant to be provocative. But it rests on solid footing. I believe that it is a question that demands to be explored today, lest a negative answer be proven by default in the near future.

By ‘genetic engineering’, I mean the range of technologies that confer transformative power over the genomes of living creatures. I would exclude from this discussion all traditional breeding techniques, and focus exclusively on the relatively recently developed techniques that include gene splicing and cloning.

By ‘democracy’ I refer to the social means whereby citizens collectively and consciously control the conditions of their lives. The latter term, though older and better-known, is perhaps more in need of discussion, since its very familiarity may mask unexamined and misleading assumptions. In most instances, democracy is more an ideal than a realised achievement; more a process and set of priorities than a specific set of institutions. Democracy appears to require:

  • Citizen involvement in every level and phase of decision making
  • A free flow of accurate information
  • The complete transparency of all decisions and decision-making processes
  • Systems of accountability and citizen review
  • Mechanisms for representing and incorporating minority views in decisions, in proportion to their appearance among the population as a whole
  • The exclusion of wealth and other forms of concentrated power from the public decision-making process

For the past two centuries, a global democratic revolution has been under way. Great progress has been made, in that many nations now have democratically elected governments. However, most military, financial, and corporate organisations are still characterised by the exercise of authoritarian power. And with the growth in influence over elected governments of corporations, banks and armies, democracy is as much threatened in actual practice today as it is lauded in the self-congratulatory rhetoric of politicians.

For the remainder of this essay, I will take it for granted that, despite these threats, the world community regards democracy as an inherently worthy goal.

What does genetic engineering have to do with democracy?

Most people tend to assume that all technologies are socially and morally neutral, and that technologies’ effects depend entirely on how tools are used. According to this view, a technology such as genetic engineering would have little inherent bearing on a purely social ideal such as democracy; the only relevance the latter might have to the former would be in the necessity of making sure that the technology’s applications are approved and regulated by institutions with some accountability to an electorate.

This view that technologies are ethically and socially neutral has been challenged by a host of historians and other social scientists who have shown that technologies have inherent socially transformative qualities, and that past adoptions of new technologies – from the plough to the nuclear power – have had vast impacts on society, changing the psyches of the people themselves as much as their economies and institutions. As James Burke and Robert Ornstein put it in their popular book The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of our Minds and Culture, technology unleashes ‘a kind of power that first changes the environment and then changes our way of thinking and our values.’ A popular adage goes: ‘To the person whose only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.’ That saying encapsulates considerable wisdom. It tells us that the more we depend on a particular technology or problem-solving strategy, the more it tends to shape our view of the world. We must choose our tools carefully.

Going further, the great historian of technology Lewis Mumford once observed that some technologies inevitably cause societies that use them to mutate in authoritarian directions, whereas others are much more amenable to democratic control by citizens. Mumford wrote:

What I would call democratic technics is the small scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill and animal energy but always, even when employing machines, remaining under the active direction of the craftsman or farmer […].

He contrasted this with developments beginning around the 4th millennium BC, in which,

[…] under the new institution of kingship, activities that had been scattered, diversified, cut to the human measure, were united on a monumental scale into an entirely new kind of theological-technological mass organisation. [–––]. The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organisation rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines [composed of living human beings] that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented.

A modern example of authoritarian technics might be the nuclear power plant – managed by armies of experts, financed by giant corporations, protected by armed guards, and producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons as well as waste products so dangerous as to require that, for thousands of years hence, future generations will also employ armies of guards to keep those materials and wastes from being dispersed.

My contention will be that, on the whole, the new gene technologies represent another instance of authoritarian technics, but on an unprecedented scale, in that universal processes of genetic inheritance and evolution are being captured and privatised by an elite social class of corporate owners that employs a uniquely indoctrinated class of specialists for that purpose; and that these technologies – which have the power to irreversibly transform not only human societies, but the very fabric of nature – have far more potential to subvert or hamper democracy than to support it. I further assert that this tendency toward authoritarian control is, to a certain extent at least, encouraged by the nature of the technology itself, rather than merely by extraneous or coincidental social factors such as the recent vast increase of the economic power of transnational corporations.

I therefore conclude that these technologies demand extraordinary attention on the part of society prior to implementation. I will not claim that each and every instance of genetic technology is morally reprehensible; I would leave such determinations to a citizen-based process of inquiry and deliberation. I question instead whether the technology has intrinsic qualities that may lead any society that adopts it in an increasingly authoritarian direction.

In what specific ways could genetic engineering be undemocratic?

There are several instances in which genetic engineering has already made it more difficult for citizens to consciously control the conditions of their lives. Among these are:

  • Inadequate or non-existent labelling of genetically engineered foods: Many have concerns about the ecological and human health consequences of genetically engineered foods. Yet in some countries, such as the US, there is no requirement that such foods be labelled. Citizens are therefore deprived of the ability to exercise moral choice in the selection of their foods. Companies that produce genetically engineered agricultural seeds or gene-altered foods generally oppose labelling precisely because they believe that the public would tend to avoid their products if it had the opportunity to do so. Meanwhile, the intrusion of genetic engineering into society’s food systems becomes an irreversible fait accompli due to –
  • Genetic drift and contamination: Some genetically engineered crops easily cross-pollinate with traditional landraces, making it impossible for farmers to exempt themselves from biotech agriculture and to preserve heirloom varieties. Already, some farmers – such as rapeseed farmer Percy Schmeiser of Saskatchewan, Canada – have been prosecuted for violation of biotech seed patents, when the patented genetic material was introduced involuntarily through wind-blown pollen. In effect, Schmeiser has been legally penalised because his crop became genetically contaminated without his knowledge and against his will. A recent report by the European Community’s Joint Research Centre concludes that organic farming will cease to be viable throughout Europe if biotech crops are grown commercially, because of genetic contamination.
  • Life patents: Patent rules for organisms and DNA sequences have been so broadly written and interpreted as to permit the patenting of unaltered plant species known for untold generations to indigenous populations. We thus face the prospect of a few companies effectively ‘owning’ the germ plasm of virtually the entire human food supply, much of the human genome, and eventually perhaps most of the rest of the biosphere. Current patent law is so liberally applied that the University of Missouri was recently able to obtain a patent that includes human clones, thus in effect opening the way toward the patenting of human beings. Critics justifiably claim that this might constitute a legal form of slavery. Virtually all of this recent liberalisation of life-patent laws has come about as a result of pressure from the biotech industry, arising from inherent characteristics of the technology itself.

There are also potential uses for genetic technologies that could have dramatically undemocratic effects. Perhaps the prime example would be the germline genetic engineering of humans. Here it could be argued that, in the initial instance, the technology would give individual citizens greater control over the circumstances of their lives, since parents would be able to prevent their children from inheriting genetic defects and could even confer genetic advantages such as musical ability, good looks, etc. However, since such treatments would be expensive, in countries without universal health coverage – such as the US – only wealthy parents would be able to afford them. As Dr Lee Silver has informed us in his book Remaking Eden, over time this would likely lead to the bifurcation of society into a class that has been genetically ‘improved’ and a class that has not. This would in turn result in a dramatic widening of class divisions within the society, a situation disastrous for the fostering of democratic attitudes and processes. It is not so far-fetched to envision the creation of a ‘master race’ and a ‘slave race’ on this basis. Thus an initial advance in individual control over biological destiny might rather quickly result in the mutation of society as a whole in the direction anticipated in Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian literature which depicts the extremity of totalitarianism.

Other examples of potentially undemocratic effects flow from genetic screening: insurance companies might prefer to shun genetically ‘defective’ customers, and employers might seek to exclude genetically undesirable job applicants. Given our historical propensity to judge one another – or various ethnic groups – as superior or inferior, such easily accessed genetic data might simply tend to give such judgements a quantifiable, ‘scientific’ basis.

Do these problems arise from qualities inherent in the technology?

Clearly, some of the undemocratic realities and possibilities just described arise from, or are exacerbated by, the nature of existing social institutions – including corporations, regulatory bodies, courts, and laws.

However, there may be attitudes and assumptions embedded in the science itself that have questionable social impacts, and that therefore require discussion and review by disinterested parties.

In her book The Molecular Vision of Life, the late MIT science historian Lily Kay documented the origins of molecular biology in projects funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s. Many of the scientists hired for those projects were physicists who doggedly adhered to 19th century Newtonian principles that were at that time being called into question by the originators of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Kay shows how these scientists’ rigid mechanistic assumptions became embedded in the new science of molecular biology, whose spectacular practical successes over the following decades tended to confirm those assumptions in the minds of succeeding generations of students, professors, researchers, and corporate managers. In effect, by creating an entirely new branch of science that was rooted in the foundation’s own eugenic political agenda and soaked in a certain outmoded scientific worldview, the Rockefeller foundation skewed the direction of the development of the life sciences throughout the remainder of the 20th century. That process continues to the present, at least to a certain extent, and especially in the world of commercial biotechnology.

Again, one could say that we are dealing here with unique historical factors – the confluence of Rockefeller wealth, the eugenics movement, and the prejudices of a few physicists steeped in the Newtonian worldview – and that genetic engineering might have developed differently in another time or place. Perhaps so. But I would argue that, were it not for that particular confluence of events, people, and ideologies, genetic engineering might not have developed at all. Discoveries about DNA and its role in the organism might have come about, but in the context of an appreciation of the complexity and autonomy of the organism – an appreciation that might have discouraged attempts to mechanistically alter organisms through the direct manipulation of genes.

Because the exploitation of genetic-engineering technologies is a project suited more to giant financial interests than to small communities or modest individuals, large profit-seeking corporations have tended to underwrite university research into genetic techniques. Consequently, university research that furthers corporate biotech projects is systematically encouraged, while research that challenges the merit of such projects is undermined. In effect, corporate research grants have become the functional equivalent in science of campaign contributions in politics.

A series of events serves to underscore these statements. In 2001, two researchers from the University of California, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, wrote a paper summarising their study of the spontaneous transfer of genes from genetically engineered corn to its wild Mexican relatives. Their paper was published in Nature in November of that year, and immediately generated a firestorm of controversy. Biotech industry funded public relations representatives soon began pressuring Nature to distance itself from the report. The authors admitted some technical shortcomings in their research – a common enough occurrence which would otherwise hardly be cause for the extraordinary event that followed. In April 2002, Nature published an unprecedented disavowal of the paper, this in spite of the confirmation of its essential findings by an independent study conducted by the Mexican government. A report on the study authored by the organisation Food First quotes Dr Jorge Soberón, Secretary of Mexico’s National Biodiversity Commission, as saying ‘This is by far the world’s worst case of contamination by genetically modified material because it happened in the place of origin of a major crop. It is confirmed, there is no doubt about it.’ Further confirmation of Chapela’s and Quists’s basic findings came in late August, 2002, from a study by Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, whose president, Exequiel Ezcurra, was quoted as saying, ‘This is basically the same result that Chapela reported in his study, and both results suggested the presence of transgenic constructs in native maize varieties.’

This affair is typical of the broader situation: university biotech research that can be commercially exploited is funded and supported, while research that could even potentially call commercial applications of the technology into question is suppressed or discouraged.

Isn’t the adoption of these technologies inevitable anyway?

Historical and cross-cultural studies show clearly that every technology is a social product that reflects the values of whatever group is empowered to make decisions for society as a whole. That dominant group’s priorities determine whether technologies are developed and implemented, or simply passed over.

In the present case, we see that wherever there is increased involvement of ordinary citizens in decisions about issues surrounding genetic engineering, more restrictions on gene technologies are typically proposed or put into effect. Citizen movements in Europe, India, Brazil, and Mexico have been more prominent and successful in this regard than have those in the US.

In contrast, genetic technologies tend to be implemented quickly and with minimum regulation in those instances in which there is less citizen participation. This was classically the case in the US, where regulatory agencies recruited biotech industry employees or consultants to write crucial rules, as when the Food and Drug Administration hired Michael Taylor of Monsanto to write regulations governing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH), the first biotech food product to arrive on the market. Indeed, the development and commercial implementation of genetic engineering appear almost to require opacity to citizen involvement. Biotechnology seems to wither in an environment of openness and public debate, while it thrives on secrecy and the privatisation of the genetic commons.

Let us return to an issue cited earlier in this paper: with regard to the labelling of biotech foods, every poll taken in the US has demonstrated a preference on the part of consumers for labelling, with that preference being expressed, on occasion, by up to 90 per cent of those questioned. (According to the recent Greenpeace report ‘Risky Prospects’, more than 35 countries have laws in place or planned requiring the labelling of food containing GE ingredients, or else laws that restrict the import of some gene-foods.) However, the US regulatory agency concerned, the federal Food and Drug Administration, has ruled that no such labelling should be required, and that no human health safety testing should be required either. In 1999, in an effort to defuse mounting criticism, the FDA held open meetings at which it invited public comment on its regulations.

Naturally, biotech industry representatives offered comments supporting the current regulations. However, a clear majority of the members of the public who spoke (I was among them) offered comments critical of the regulations and demanded labelling and safety testing. The public was politely thanked for its input, and no policy change was forthcoming.

Secrecy surrounds much corporate research – whether into advanced laser weaponry or soft-drink formulas. Biotech adds another vastly important arena in which citizen awareness and opportunities for review and comment are squelched. On 16th July, 2002, Friends of the Earth and the Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA) coalition released a report revealing that secret biopharm crop experiments are being carried out at over 300 undisclosed locations across the US. At these experimental farms, powerful pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines, viruses (some related to the Aids virus), and industrial chemicals, gene-spliced into common food plants, are being grown in the open environment. In at least 200 test plots, powerful drugs and chemicals have been engineered into the genome of corn, a plant whose pollen (with its altered genes) can be carried by wind far and wide.

In sum, there is nothing inevitable about these technologies’ development and implementation, unless the suppression of citizens’ movements and other spontaneous manifestations of democracy is itself inevitable.


If genetic engineering is to some extent inherently authoritarian, then the best way to assess it and to restrain its implementation must be through democratic means.

With but a few historical exceptions, it is only within the past half-century that the general public has gradually become aware of the need for systematic efforts to democratically assess the environmental, human- health and social impacts of technologies, and thus of the need for citizen efforts to control, delay, or halt the deployment of some new technologies. The largely successful international citizens’ campaign against nuclear power plants in the 1980s was a signal effort in this regard.

It could be argued that government regulatory agencies already function as democratic institutions for the assessment and regulation of technologies. However, as already noted, experience has shown that such agencies are easily corrupted and often serve the interests of industries they are ostensibly regulating

Thus the democratic response to new technologies must inevitably consist at least partly of the actions of existing environmental and other advocacy groups, as well as new ad hoc, issue-oriented citizens’ groups. Such groups should be viewed as essential manifestations of democratic civil society.

Currently, the legal and regulatory playing field is tilted away from the interests of citizens’ groups and toward those of transnational corporations. Global trade agreements and national laws tend to favour corporations, whose economic clout is manifested in lavishly funded public relations and advertising campaigns, in their ability to influence politicians through campaign contributions, and in their ability to influence university research through the giving or withholding or research grants. Even supposedly independent research journals now appear to be vulnerable to corporate pressure tactics. That playing field needs to be altered to limit the power of corporations, so that the latter become subservient to the interests of the citizenry. This is a strategic need well understood by the emerging global justice movement.

Another part of the solution must come from an even broader reshaping of existing social institutions so that they are more responsive to citizens’ interests. Necessary reforms include the ending of government secrecy in all of its forms, the encouragement of press freedom and discouragement of corporate control over the media, the implementation of fairer voting procedures, proportional representation in the selection of legislative bodies, and so on. A fuller discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay.

If all of these recommendations were fulfilled, and if the citizenry were empowered to perform the kinds of technology assessment and regulation that are called for in the case of genetic engineering, we would likely see:

  • Bans on human cloning and human germline genetic engineering
  • Requirements for the strict labeling of genetically engineered foods,
  • Bans on life patents
  • A moratorium on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, lasting at least until we have established full, transparent means of risk assessment for each release, monitored by organizations with no financial stake in the outcome
  • Full civil and criminal liability for harm caused by the release of any genetically modified organism

These, at any rate, are steps currently being called for by citizens’ movements. In view of the irreversibility of the implementation of many genetic technologies (i.e., those that entail the proliferation of gene-altered species), prudence would dictate that national governments and global trade regulatory agencies adopt the above precautionary policies immediately, and maintain them in place until it can be determined, through truly democratic means, that the citizenry wishes otherwise.

The potential peril of genetic engineering is not just that some of its applications may be damaging to the environment or human health – though these are certainly compelling concerns – but that its wholesale adoption now may make it far more difficult for future generations of citizens to exercise control over the technology, and thus over the conditions of their lives. The only effective remedy to this peril is to control or restrain the technology now, prior to its full implementation. There are good reasons for thinking that the science of molecular biology has developed in an authoritarian milieu and that, had its fostering social environment been more open and egalitarian, the science itself would have developed quite differently.

Thus, genetic engineering could be said to comprise a set of technologies that both arises from, and reproduces, authoritarianism.

If advocates of biotechnology believe that democracy and genetic engineering can indeed co-exist, the best way to prove the point would be to cease all backroom manoeuvring and permit the public to decide. Citizens’ movements working toward regulation and reform should be taken seriously and given access to regulatory officials. Bans on cloning and life patents, and requirements for biotech food labelling, should be debated openly and voted upon in referendums.

Until this is done, citizens should persist in questioning and actively opposing the implementation of the new technologies through organising, letter writing, boycotting and demonstrating. These, after all, are the tools of democracy presently available to them, and citizens should not be shy about using such means when they are so obviously called for.

This essay originally appeared in Consciousness, Genetics and Society: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2002.


Richard Heinberg