Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Amata: Thai attitudes to human cloning

My Thai friend Jeerathida has been sending me some articles relating to a sci fi novel about human cloning that was popular in Thailand. I found the following article particularly interesting for its attempt to not only contextualise Amata with respect to Buddhism, but as symptomatic of the growing sense of resentment in the country after the so-called Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, in which irresponsible currency traders devastated the Thai economy.

Derridata, if your own interests in the philosophy (ies) of anime touch on any similar themes I'd be happy to see some of your references.

"The path toward nirvana starts with elimination of greed, anger and delusion and thus anything that contributes to the elimination would for the Buddhist be of positive ethical value. Hence it seems that the intrinsic nature of an act, such as human cloning, is neither positively and negatively valued according to Buddhism; it is whether the act contributes to the Buddhist supreme good that decides whether the act is good or bad.

This does not, however, mean that Buddhism teaches that there is no intrinsic value at all. Some acts will lead one astray from the path toward Enlightenment no matter what, such as killing, stealing, performing wrongful sexual conduct, and so on. However, since human reproductive cloning by itself does not necessarily consist of killing anybody (providing that there are no aborted embryos and there is no harm done to any organisms), it does not seem to be intrinsically bad. If this is so, then the main reason why Arjun is so opposed to human reproductive cloning is that it is done for the purpose of farming human bodies for their organs, with the ultimate aim of creating a business.

To the Buddhists’ eyes, this is intolerable, for the act would certainly involve killing and would mean that human beings are created solely for the purposes of others. (Here we have an affinity between Buddhism and Kantian ethics in the West.) So what this story tells us about Asian genomics is that (1) the Thai attitude toward recent advances in science and technology, as exemplified in Amata, is highly negative. The reason is that these technologies are perceived to be subservient to business interests and more poignantly to egoistic desires to prolong one’s life indefinitely. However, an examination of basic Buddhist tenets reveal that (2) Thai Buddhists do not view the processes and products of the advanced technologies as a necessarily bad thing. The technologies are bad only when they are applied with a frame of mind which leads one away from the path toward Enlightenment. That is, when they are applied for the purpose of fulfilling one’s egoistic desires. Thus, if human reproductive cloning is performed with a frame of mind that furthers the movement toward Enlightenment, such as when it is performed with loving-kindness or compassion, then the act is not necessarily bad. Furthermore, (3) since Theravada Buddhism largely informs the Thai indigenous knowledge system, we see in Amata a concrete example of the interplay between the indigenous and the system of knowledge that originates from the West.

What we see is that Buddhism is still the superior mode of knowledge in that it integrates the epistemic and the ethical dimensions of knowledge systems. Knowledge is not to be divorced from ethical considerations. Prommin’s dissecting a dog in order to learn where its soul resides is a typical example of how modern western science is perceived to be alienated from ethical considerations. And it is precisely this reason that modern science has to be reined in by the Buddhist teachings.

In my recent book, Science in Thai Society and Culture (forthcoming), I discuss that the way out of the problems arising from negative attitudes toward science and technology is that science and technology need to be part of the people’s lives. A way needs to be found in order that science and technology become integrated into the cultural fabric of Thai lives. I proposed many ways to do that, chief among which is that the direction of scientific research should be geared toward solving local problems and catering to local needs rather than toward serving the globalized corporate interests".

No doubt in coming years we will see even more debate as to whether human cloning could fill the vacuum created by the "fertility crisis". Let's hope the debate will feature a broad cross section of the public,including social scientists [to battle the next generations of Malthusians], and not just self-styled futurist entrepreneurs in the style of Patrick Dixon of globalchange.com

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