Archived Voice Articles
Dordt College faces difficult issues in biotechnology
By Sally Jongsma
Dr. Wesley Jamison described the opportunities the arrangement with Trans Ova will bring to Dordt College students. The agreement was signed by Dr. Jan Schuiteman of Trans Ova and President Carl Zylstra at a public event on Dordt's campus.
What is biotechnology? That’s a question the Biotech Working Group at Dordt College has been wrestling with for most of this calendar year. It forms the background for a bigger discussion about whether Dordt College will begin to offer a biotechnology major in the near future.
Asking that question is important, say Dr. Wes Jamison, chair of the group and director of the Agriculture Stewardship Center, and Dr. Charles Adams, dean of the natural sciences.
Biotechnology includes a complex set of activities and issues. “Too few people are engaged in asking questions at this level of meaning,” Jamison says, adding, “And too often biotech is seen as a quick fix to the system, usually driven by a profit motive.”
Adams believes that defining what we mean by biotechnology gives the college an opportunity to go back to its Reformed theological and philosophical grounding to understand how to offer a distinctively Christian program and response to the complexity of questions, problems, and challenges that biotechnology presents. Only by doing that will Dordt College be able to offer leadership in biotech discussions, he believes.
Students in agriculture, biology, business, chemistry, and engineering will be eligible for doing biotech internships with Trans Ova.
“This kind of discussion is fun,” Jamison says in his hearty and enthusiastic manner. “Biotechnology is a real phenomenon and there are few prohibitions against it in our culture. This is what should be happening on college campuses. I’ve never had opportunity to engage questions at this level of meaning before.”
“People often want a simplistic set of criteria for making judgments,” he says. In this and many other issues, what is at stake is too complex for easy answers. “It is often difficult to understand the nature of freedom and grace in such issues,” he adds.
The working group began with three questions:
- What is biotechnology?
- What can Dordt College do?
- What should Dordt College do?
From that discussion the committee plans to develop a strategy to direct biotechnology efforts in the academic program.
“We are not going to be doing cutting edge biotechnology; we’re going to be laying a foundation for students who want to work in the area,” says Adams. He hopes that as a result of this work they can also provide some direction to Christians and others who are thinking about these issues in the broader community.
Members of the working group realize that the word “biotechnology” itself sparks passionate reactions because of popular perceptions equating it with cloning humans.
“It’s a good thing to feel passionately about such issues,” says Jamison. We need to wrestle hard with issues like transgenic manipulation, asking questions like: How do physical laws constrain us? Are physical laws moral norms? Is it different for plants and animals?
“On the one hand it is simply a part of creation that biotechnology studies,” says Adams. But once you get into transgenic manipulation, the stakes are different, he notes.
“There is so much potential for misdirection,” Adams says, adding that our students are in and will choose occupations in which they will squarely face such issues. He receives literally three or four notices a day announcing new programs in biotechnology from every imaginable institution. “We need to bring our faith commitment to the issue and train people who can have an impact on our culture.”
Like technology, Jamison and Adams believe, biotechnology can be used for good or evil. That’s the challenge they are trying to address.