Science Policy from Wisdom: A Worked Example in GM Technology

Faith and Wisdom in Science is that we are missing a ‘cultural narrative’ for science that would support a positive and balanced public ownership and discussion of new technology.  Evidence of the lack is the entrenched and oppositional conflict around public debates of ‘troubled technologies.  I also quote from work by philosopher Jean-Pierre Depuy (2010) and others (Davies and Macnaghten 2010) who have identified profoundly negative narratives at work in such debates around nanotechnologies, three of which have ancient roots:


  • Pandora’s Box
  • Be Careful for What You Wish For
  • Sacred Nature

The ‘missing narrative’ implicit in this work  and also explicitly appealed recently by Bruno Latour (Latour 2011),  needs urgently to be discovered and explored.  I have suggested an interdisciplinary approach to a third narrative resource – that of the ancient wisdom literature. After hearing from Depuy that Pandora is alive and well in discussions around nanotechnologies, and from Latour that theology is needed to lead technology back to its environmental responsibility, perhaps this does not seem impossibly strange. I have developed in Faith and Wisdom in Science the substance and consequences of a scientist’s reading of the timeless and remarkable Book of Job elsewhere (McLeish 2014), but its worth will only be proved in application.

An opportunity to do this arose recently in a fascinating research project run from Durham University investigating the complex communities invovled in GM technologies in Mexico, Brazil and India and their interactions.  The GMFuturos project (PI Prof. Phil MacNachten, Manager Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda) carried out extensive interviews with farmers, consumers, scientists and politicians in all three emerging countries, in all of which the development of GMOs has been troubled in very different ways.  Just as in the case of nanotechnologies, we might anticipate that deadlocked discussion and impasses of suspician stem in part from the implicit presence of underlying and incompatible narratives about our relationship with nature. BlakeonJob

The book of Job in the Old Testament wisdom literature is a text deeply and continually concerned with the natural world, and within its device of legal debate between contested voices (those of Job, his ‘comforters’ and ultimately that of God himself) creates an area in which different accounts can engage. The text offers six differentiated views of human response to the natural world that emerge from its complex discourse. I have previously remarked how striking it is, both how closely they map onto the narrative categories of the nanotechnology analysis in general.  As a first step in showing how an ancient wisdom tradition might serve first to analyse, then to assist, a current technological debate, here is an attempt at showing how the narratives of Job (five of which closely parallel the full Depuy set)  serve  as categorising tools when listening to the plural voices of GMFuturos:

(1) Enshrining retributive moral law. The well-known accusation of Job’s comforters is that the suffering he has undergone must have resulted from his own wickedness (or from that of others closely related to him). In this brittle (and ultimately condemned) view, nature provides unequivocal returns on investment – good for good and harm for harm. But this closely parallels the narrative of exploitation. It surfaces today as well: in the GM Futuros research with Mexican actors, fears surfaced of genetically altered food being ‘not good’ that it will ‘case harm and problems’ and that such consequences are due to human greed.

(2) Eternal Mystery. Invoked in the text as a device to silence Job’s demands for justice as inappropriately arising from a darkened mind, this is an ancient form of the ‘kept in the dark’ narrative that frames nature as forever hidden and human ignorance as a permanent state. It is of course profoundly antithetical to natural philosophy and science, yet it still surfaces today. Even in the scientific communities we interviewed, there was expressed a doubt that we understand enough of the genome (of, e.g. maize) to be confident about modifying it.

(3) Book of Nature. This form of the narrative of the sacred endows nature with coded messages for humans to read. In Job, natural phenomena are appealed to metaphorically in support of moral standpoints. We learn from nature but we do not attempt to modify our teacher. So an articulate voice, from a consumer’s association in Mexico, advocated learning from the barriers to gene transfer that nature has enshrined.

(4) Uncontrolled chaos. The view of nature as capricious and out of control is that of the unjustly suffering Job himself. Essentially the root lies in the text of the link between the moral and cosmic worlds; Job’s accusation is that God allows wild and damaging excesses in nature (the storm, the flooded wadi, the earthquake) as he does of the moral sphere (innocent suffering). One professional group we interviewed in India spoke of the inability to control nature, ‘Something, anything, can happen…’ even appealing to ancient (Mahabharata) mythology in support of their warning

(5) Object of worship. Unfamiliar to the modern world, this response to nature is also only hinted at in the text, where Job denies “kissing his hand to the moon”. But intransigent modern denials that such a reaction is ever an issue today look less convincing when arguments appeal, even implicitly, to the narrative of ‘sacred nature’. ‘We reject the approval of Bt brinjal. We traditionally save our own seeds and consider them as sacred’ affirmed an Indian farmer in our study.

(6) Way to wisdom. There is another response to the natural world that the ancient text on Job describes in a way that differs radically from all the foregoing in its radical openness, and in its elevated view of both human responsibility and human potential. I have elsewhere called this narrative the ‘Way to Wisdom’ (McLeish 2014). It draws on a coherent dualism of knowledge paired with insight into nature, whose historical arcs connect with contemporary science and technology. However it brings these strands of understanding Nature’s structures and wisdom in using them, in much closer and more complex relationship than the linear and unidirectional framing currently exemplified in national science policies and strategies. It also affirms that it is deeply significant of human nature to interrogate and to husband the world. Bringing into life as yet unrealised potential within nature is not necessarily an inappropriate ‘playing God’, providing that it is not driven by an anthropocentric avarice. The essential rebalancing, in this radical narrative, of a purely exploitative manipulation of the world is provided by the twin imperatives of an ethics of human responsibility and an aetiology that centralises and prioritises the wellbeing of the world before the wealth of human beings. It provides a worked answer, rooted in very long tradition, to Latour’s call for a ‘servant mastery’ in relation to the environment. Some of the more thoughtful reflections of scientists as identified in the GM Futuros research represent a path that balances openness to the new with recognition that care is needed to avoid unanticipated consequences – so in Brazil, for example, we heard, ‘it is necessary to use technologies in an integrated and combined manner. The exclusive use of a specific technology can lead to imbalances’, yet, ‘Genetic Modification is seen as allowing for the indefinite extension of human intervention in nature.’

The challenge is to create a functional contemporary connection between an approach that draws on the ‘Way to Wisdom’ and the process of policy-creation around troubled technologies such as GMOs. The potential to break the current forms of deadlock evinced in all the examples of GMFutoros, no less that in the current UK and EU, is provided by its doubly-radical content. On the one hand it makes a positive affirmation that human intervention in nature can be both a good, and supportive rather than destructive of the human condition. On the other it challenges and ultimately condemns any framing that makes its principle goal the material benefit of people, in this case, the ‘feeding of the world’ narrative. This must be secondary to a deliberate prioritisation of a sustainable world. Introducing a set of principles built on such values within a fraught contest between ‘technological progressive’ and ‘ecological conservative’ voices sides with neither. It contains fundamental directions that both will embrace, yet presents both with severe challenges as well. But, like all third views, it also diverts the deadlocked opposition characteristic of all discussion that has been reduced to a simple dualism.

Such are the potential benefits of reframing the value-structure of debate around an explicit, rather than implicit, set of underlying narratives. But any implementation begs severe questions of process and definition. How should the prioritisation of ‘responsible care’ for nature be articulated, weighted and defined? How can a language of negotiable underlying narrative be developed, and deployed? How can the different levels of discussion and consultation recognise multiple levels of motive that play out, whether we make the explicit or not, and in particular how can a positive narrative such as the ‘Way to Wisdom’ be led to engage with, for example, ‘Pandora’s Box’ in a way that unlocks a real deliberation about new technology rather than an entertaining sideshow? If nothing else, we need to create a deliberative framework that recognises the sterility of any idea that all that needs to be discussed is the level of risk.



Davies, S. and Macnaghten, P. (2010) ‘Narratives of mastery and resistance. Lay ethics of nanotechnology’. NanoEthics, 4, (2): 141-151

Dupuy, J-P. (2010) The narratology of lay ethics. Nanoethics, 4: 153–170

Latour, B. (2011) Love your monsters: Why we must care for our technologies as we do our children’, in T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenberger (eds.) Love your monsters. Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. Breakthrough Institute, pp. 17-25

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