Genital games

Engineering Genesis: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering in Non-Human Species

Donald Bruce and Ann B

Half-way down Edinburgh's Royal Mile, John Knox's house looks down with dour disapproval at the lawyers, bankers and intellectuals of the medieval Auld Toon. Here, in the very cradle of Calvinist Scotland, from a first-floor room reached by an outside stairway, the Church of Scotland has outstripped every other denomination in attempting to make sense of the modern world and in finding the appropriate place for religion in an age of science.

No atheist has managed so considered, profound and well-researched an analysis of the age of biotechnology as Engineering Genesis. Arising out of the work of the Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) project, which the Scottish Kirk has been quietly developing, it is simply the best available exposition of what is going on in plant and animal biotechnology and of the rights and wrongs of what is being done in this sphere.

The SRT's official purpose is to open questions of technology and social change to Christian ethical examination, seeking to engage those involved in technology with the ethical and social implications of their work through expert working groups. It also acts as adviser to the Kirk on a range of technical and environmental issues. To say that the SRT project is unique is to measure the failure of the other denominations and other religions. Ever since Galileo, certainly since Darwin, and urgently since Watson and Crick, science and technology have been posing questions to which the religions must find their answers.

Why then, one wonders, has only the Kirk realised that there is more to morality than sex? The Anglican communion is distracted by gay priests; the Catholics by divorce, contraception and abortion. The developments of science and technology, all the social changes of our times - and they are still pruriently obsessed with what individuals do with their genitalia. It is as if they have been in denial for most of the 20th century and remain so at the start of the 21st. The Kirk, in contrast, thinks that there are moral issues in genetically engineered food, in cloning, in genetically engineering animals for human organ transplants. Is patenting genes and animals, for instance, simply a fulfilment of the injunction in Genesis that humanity was given dominion over the natural world? This is a church that is engaged with the world, that is grappling with the dilemmas of modernity.

Perhaps it could only be done in a comparatively small country such as Scotland. The SRT project was able to set up a working party which contained figures as diverse as Ian Wilmut, a member of the team which cloned Dolly the sheep, and John Eldridge, professor of sociology at Glasgow University. Abstract problems are given concrete form by case studies of the application of modern techniques of genetic engineering. The pros and the cons are spelled out. As one might expect, there is no withdrawal from the world into a blanket condemnation of new technology. Neither is there a naive acceptance that all will be for the best in the new world opening up for us. The arguments on both sides are lucid and cogent, and where the book does have its own position, there is no shirking from controversy. There is Christianity here, but it is gently stated and all the more effective for that. Precisely because there is neither sermonising nor pronouncement of dogma, it should reach a wide readership.

John Knox, famous for his preaching and an advocate of education, would approve of what has been done in his house.

Tom Wilkie is head of biomedical ethics at the Wellcome Trust

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.