Thompson talks genetics, philosophy

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For Paul Thompson, hot dogs made out of actual canines are not “pollutants,” but cultural beliefs.

Thompson, a professor of agricultural, food and community ethics at Michigan State University, spoke Tuesday to an audience of about 20 students and professors in Marsh Hall on the significance of genetic pollution in a philosophical context. Organized by the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, the talk focussed on defining the term “genetic pollution” in light of different cultural beliefs and new technologies that allow genes to be manipulated. Attendees, though confused by his approach and many of his arguments, said they enjoyed hearing a different, non-scientific viewpoint on gene engineering.

“[With biotechnology,] any genome sequence of base pairs is possible,” Thompson said. “Are your Fritos or the daffodils in your garden polluted if they have a quote from James Joyce genetically written on them?”

The consumption of dogs and cats as food in Asian countries, Thompson said, is a good example of cultural beliefs with regard to ideas of pollution. A common dinner platter, there have not been any reported health risks associated with eating dogs and cats in countries, he said. But in the United States, a hot dog made out of man’s best friend would horrify the average consumer, and even raise issues with the Food and Drug Administration, he said.

“To consider something a pollutant or not depends on the wording and their meaning for different cultural groups,” Thompson said. “Beliefs reflect the way people talk to one another.”

Thompson said he is interested in conducting research on the effects of these beliefs in areas such as economics and law. Thompson said that he predicts slow and eventual changes in the way people define pollutants.

He asked his audience to think about what makes gene manipulation count as “genetic pollution.” For instance, artificial genetic material that does not produce any physical harm on the individual, may or may not be considered a pollutant, he said. For Thompson, the answer lies in anthropology rather than science. He cited the theories of British anthropologist Mary Douglass, who believes that pollution arises from cultural beliefs.

“Pollution beliefs come out in places where no apparent moral or physical harm is visible,” he said. “They are reinforced by culture rather than science.”

Thompson also said that sometimes foreign agents are considered pollutants in the new land, pointing to the movement of genetic material across the world as an example.

“In that case, everything new or foreign, even people, would be considered pollutants,” he said. “At times we might not even realize the existence of the pollutant until we discover it.”

Audience members interviewed said they enjoyed the talk, although it was very different from the rest of the ‘Biotechnology in Agriculture’ lecture series.

“It was good. It gave a different perspective,” Francine Carland, Associate Research Scientist, said. “It provided with knowledge and aspects that one does not regularly think.”

But MCDB associate research scientist Nancy Kerk said the talk was somewhat off topic, describing pollutants in a larger context than she had expected.

MCDB senior research scientist Ian Sussex agreed.

“It was more philosophical. Philosophers read their papers. That is something a scientist never does,” Sussex said. “In his context, everything that travels can be considered a pollutant. I might be a pollutant myself. I come from New Zealand.”

Thompson is the author of 13 books and is secretary of the International Society for Environmental Ethics.

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