Patenting Genes

August 26, 2010by

One of the more pressing philosophical problems in the world of biotechnology is the understanding and use of the concept of ownership. For the purposes of both business and research in the physical sciences, ownership takes the form of the patent.

The standard yarn is that the kind of control offered by the patent over these very personal natural resources fosters both research and economic growth. It turns out, though, that this story may be on it’s last thread. There is an increasing degree of evidence strongly suggesting it is simply untrue. In fact, these patents may very well be detrimental to both scientific and commercial growth.

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Studies: Jensen & Murray, Heidi Williams

Book: Who Owns You?

Molly Kottemann wrote a brief review that offers a useful summary of the text.

For more information on the current state of this debate, see David Koepsell’s website. [/sws_grey_box]

Who Owns You? – A Documentary – Trailer from Taylor Roesch on Vimeo.

Problems surrounding the human ownership of the natural world are of course not new, from the Monsanto driven seed patenting debate–along with all the social and political elements of how and why it played out as it did–all the way back to the earliest debates about the very possibility of land ownership. What is new, however, is the legalized ownership of human life. In conjunction with the still unresolved legal and ethical problems regarding the patenting of plant life, the corporate initiatives to issue patents on human life are going to cause of storm of controversy.

A Word of Caution

In the United States the classic statement of caution against the idea of legalizing and marketizing human ownership of natural resources comes from the lands’ earliest inhabitants, who viewed the very idea not only as misguided, but entirely inconceivable. As the Pokanoket leader Massasoit expressed it:

What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?

In a strikingly similar tone, Jean Jacques Rousseau gives European voice to the issue in his Discourse on Inequality, where he offers the following reflection:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Perhaps it’s time to begin paying more attention to these echoes of caution from the past. At the very least it might temper the power of the marketplace to stake out the grounds upon which people live their lives.