Blogging the Kintisch Point of Inquiry Show, Part II: Is It Reasonable to Fear "Playing God"?

By Chris Mooney | April 12, 2010 8:33 am

Once again: If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to download or stream my fourth (and so far, I think, best) Point of Inquiry program–with Eli Kintisch on the subject of geoengineering. All this week on the blog, I’m going to be discussing issues raised on the show–so having heard it will be kind of an essential baseline.

I’m always trying to become a better interviewer, so with this next post, I want to zoom in on an area where I failed to press my interview subject as I probably should have. And that is the relationship between religious beliefs and opposition to geoengineering.

At around minute 9:15, I asked Eli about religious opposition to geoengineering–basically, about the folks who say that we shouldn’t “play God.” He gave a very detailed answer, essentially signaling that, hey, yeah, this is a lot like genetically modified foods–some people think the impulse to interfere with “nature,” to remake it in the way that only “God” is supposed to do, is wrong.

I have no doubt this impulse is out there. But I don’t find it to be at all a rational argument, or a sound basis for public policy. When it comes to the genetics of plants, or the global environment, humans have already been “playing God” throughout the ages–bringing about vast and significant changes. If the only question is whether this interference is intentional or not, then I don’t find it to be a theologically relevant distinction.

So I should have pressed Kintisch on whether this is really a legitimate argument to make–that we shouldn’t “play God.” I mean, yeah, it’s out there; and yeah, it’s rhetorically powerful. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it. I actually find the careful, consequentialist reasoning of the scientists who tilt towards at least studying geoengineering to be much more intellectually rigorous and convincing.


Comments (13)

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  1. The phrase “playing God” isn’t a particularly religious expression.

  2. William Furr

    From a Christian textual perspective, one can make the opposite argument, that geoengineering is actually our duty as the duly appointed rulers of the earth, Genesis 1:28, NIV.

    As for the “playing God” argument, on the one hand, it’s good to be aware of our human nature and fallibilities. On the other hand, there’s the Pandora’s Box principle: once something has been proven to be technically feasible, it’s much easier for anyone to figure out how to do it. Throwing up our hands and saying, “we were not meant to do this” doesn’t do any good, because someone is going to anyway. We should instead do it ourselves, but with humility and caution.

  3. TTT

    Use of the term “Playing God” suggests that our behavior is both entirely possible and entirely controllable, and that the only objections are based on philosophy–that man is reaching beyond his natural station.

    Obviously it is a complete straw-man, as the people who argue against geoengineering do so because the techniques tend to be wildly imaginative if not in fact completely unworkable, and are also highly vulnerable to breakage or severe systemic aftereffects since they don’t solve the real problem.

    Ignoring your doctor’s advice and eating unhealthy fatty foods because you plan to have a heart transplant someday isn’t a bad idea because it’s “playing God,” it’s a bad idea because it’s incredibly risky, expensive, and irresponsible.

  4. Albert Bakker

    I think like William Furr said either side is theologically defensible. But that goes too for genetic modification and sure enough as long as there is no modification to human cells going on (e.g. stem-cell research) my impression is that the opposition to GM foods is not particularly religiously motivated, rather (mostly leftist) political ideology is what unifies and motivates people. The Catholic Church gave multiple blessings, the Evangelicals are mum for the most part and the Rabbinical board after careful study doesn’t see any Kasruth problems with it and declared GM food officially kosher. Islamic authorities don’t much deviate on the issue. So there isn’t much concern to playing God for religious people per se with this particular type of toying around with God’s creation.

    I think for religious people the playing for God argument is not really a matter of perceived danger to altering God’s creation or even wreaking havoc on God’s creation but to any perceived danger of endorsing or adopting ideas that are incompatible with God’s theology and the central role therein of the uniqueness of man.

    So the first question for christians will be is geoengineering incompatible with christian theology? The second question for Evangelicals will be is it incompatible with GOP-ideology. And the answer to these questions will decide one of two options, either there will be a fierce religious war on geoengineering or their voice will be absent from the debate entirely.

  5. Guy

    Most of the opposition to geoengineering will come from environmentalist, especially when it has averse side effects like ocean acidification that kills off endangered species.

  6. Was it “playing God” to respond to the earlier realization of “Silent Spring” with legislation and other, more direct government action? It turned out that we didn’t want rivers to be strange colors and alight, and fish, animals, and insects to die in millions, enough to be willing to engineer expensive changes to industry. A lesson the Chinese are relearning.

    The widely used word in Christian circles is “stewardship”. This seems to me slightly less loaded with Biblical connotations than William Furr’s discussion at #2, so that it is to some extent an accessible concept both secularly and non-secularly. Stewardship is not a passive endeavor.

    Albert Bakker’s introduction at #4 of GOP-ideology is significant. Stewardship comes up against pocketbook, employment, and big-government issues, which in enough people’s minds are not well left to those who are so far most associated with global warming. The environment will have its tipping point, but it appears, amazingly, that we have not yet found this century’s Silent Spring, something to galvanize concerted political action.

  7. GM

    But that goes too for genetic modification and sure enough as long as there is no modification to human cells going on (e.g. stem-cell research) my impression is that the opposition to GM foods is not particularly religiously motivated, rather (mostly leftist) political ideology is what unifies and motivates people.

    My impression is quite different – a lot of opposition to GM indeed comes from the left, but it is by no means exclusively associated with it and it is by no means a left ideology that drives it. The biggest driver of opposition to GM is the mistrust of government, big business and scientists among the public, i.e. the small person “us vs them” / “they’re out to get us” mentality, combined with the extremely sorry state of basic scientific literacy. No matter what the “deficit model” critics say, when you ask people “Why are you opposed to GMO foods” and they answer “Because they have DNA in them”, you know something’s very wrong on a very basic level.

    Now a good portion of the mistrust towards big business and government is quite justifiable historically, but deeply rooted anti-intellectualism is also a very big driver of the whole thing, and this is a problem

  8. It depends on whether or not we do it well or poorly.

  9. William Furr

    @Peter Morgan: Thank you. “Stewardship” is a great philosophy. I used the wording straight out of the NIV, which makes me a little crazy.

  10. Marion Delgado

    I think what mindless boosters of unregulated interference with nature call the naturalistic fallacy is actually quite a good heuristic/rule of thumb, and simply dismissing it out of incredulity – you, Chris, “can’t imagine” why that’s a consideration – is not an empirical approach. That it’s bound up with the precautionary principle is one reason to afford it respect.

    Most of the arguments for things like unregulated genetic engineering, and geoengineering instead of limiting pollution, etc. are also completely unfair – a combination of faits accompli and simple economic might bulldozing quite rational objections. In fact, that pretty much sums up the entire history of the environmental movement.

    Unless you want a crude, thuggish principle that corporate technology and engineering have to trump the ecology and all human culture, Chris, I think you’re fantastically off-base there.

  11. Brian Too

    My impression is that the objection raised by “playing God” is almost never theological. It’s a notional idea that mankind has had some pretty destructive characteristics in nature. Even when there was some thought given to an environmental intervention the results can be bad.

    Witness the release of exotic species into the wild. If they take hold in large numbers they can become a real nuisance, dangerous or destructive. Witness Purple Loosestrife, Zebra Mussels, Cane Toads, Asian Gypsy Moths, and many others.

    Witness the rise of large scale, mechanized agriculture. This has led to monocultures of plants and animals with some pretty odd side effects.

    It’s that whole concern about unintended consequences thing.

    However I think the concern is often taken too far and stems from a philosophical viewpoint that Man is a Destroyer and a plague upon the Earth. You get the feeling that some who complain about mankind playing God, really wish we weren’t here at all. These are the folks who think that everything natural is good, and everything artificial is bad.

    Well, lead, mercury and arsenic are natural. Snake and spider venoms are natural. Nettles and thistles are natural, not to mention poison ivy/poison oak and sawgrass. Wasps, hornets and skunks are natural too. I choose not to play with these things no matter how natural they are!

  12. Eric the Leaf

    The thuggish principle in geoengineering. It has a nice ring to it.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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