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Charity No: 262404
& Genome Editing
Sikhism & Genome
Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Call for evidence on genome
editing Sikh Faith perspective: Statement by the Sikh Missionary
(Note: Paper collated and edited by the author on behalf of The Sikh
Missionary Society UK, in response to a request received through the
Sikh Council UK )
A Introduction & summary
This statement considers the ethical aspects of genome editing in
For a layperson, the main pointers to ethical challenges are given
in the questions in the Nuffield Council’s “call for evidence”.
Genome editing is a “revolutionising biology”. It has the potential
to solve many problems that humanity is facing, but at the same time
can be used to alter and make irreversible changes on earth. While
the evidence is still emerging, past experience suggests that
without global regulation and direction to ensure constructive
applications, proliferation of technologies like genome editing can
pose major threats to life as it has been known to exist on earth.
- The first part identifies the concerns and issues which in the
Society’s view merit ethical consideration from a faith
- the second part lists the relevant Sikh faith ethics and
precepts which can be applied; and,
- the third part attempts to give a Sikh faith perspective
regarding genome editing based on Sikh faith principles.
Sikh theology is clear that when the collective good is seen to be
the objective, to solve the overarching problems confronting
humanity, we should not be constrained by any school of thought or
orthodoxy [Jagath jalandhaa raakh lae apnee kirpaa dhhaar jith
dwaarae ubhrae thithhae laee ubhaar - Sri Guru Granth Sahib
(SGGS) p 853]. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Sikhs are not
seen as intensely opposed to or obsessed with reservations on most
of the scientific or technological advances. They are, however,
guided by an overall ethical and moral validation and management of
change: that validation is holistic in character that it should take
care of all facets and stakeholders' concerns.
Sikh faith perspective suggests that acquisition of knowledge is
part of human quest for union with the divine, because all knowledge
contributes to individual as well as collective abilities to hone
the quality of action choices [gian]. The faith however
commends for the believers to explore further into the
interdependencies and interconnectedness inherent in creation. This
would enable one to understand the divine vision of natural
phenomenon and help fit human choices better into totality of
existential realities. This approach necessarily ensures inter
disciplinary integrated problem solving rather than being restricted
to any specific speciality. Therefore, the use of emerging
techniques and technologies with their undisputed potential for
common good, would need not only imposition of global disciplines
and the need for timely ethical direction to ensure social justice
and fair distribution of benefits for all, but also add urgency for
science and religion to find joint solutions to the challenges and
threats posed. Involvement of faith groups in deliberations
therefore is needed, welcome and appropriate.
The need for global regulation and control will become even more
compelling due to the possibility of dual civil/military use of the
technologies. The alternative would be a free-for-all leading
towards global ecological imbalance and disaster. It may be argued
that some of the advantages mentioned e.g. cheaper and universal
availability and application, can also pose global threats to human
beings, animals, plants, and micro level life forms through
un-checked civil/military exploitation of the genome technologies by
those most in need of them e.g. the developing countries.
Sadly, human experience to date e.g. in connection with the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, is that the global
socio-political and regulatory organisation, which can also promote
science and religion working together, has a long way to go to meet
the imminent challenges posed by genome technologies.
From a Sikh perspective, deeper exploration of integrated benefits
and costs to quality of life and sustainability of global resources
would help to draw optimal dividend from these emerging
B. Concerns and issues which in the Society’s view merit ethical
consideration from a faith perspective.
These have been gleaned from the background paper “Identifying key
developments, issues and questions relating to techniques of genome
editing with engineered nucleases” by Drs Newson & Wrigley, and
the indicative questions in Nuffield Council’s “call for evidence”.
The list is in shorthand and mostly source wording has been used.
Clearly, the list below is not comprehensive, but only indicative of
some of the main concerns:
- Genome editing is a revolutionising biology and it requires
reassessment of the ethics, policy, governance and law
surrounding its use.
- Applications of genome editing are diverse and potentially
- There are serious ethical issues arising from the use of
genome editing in humans which pose “irrevocable and unforeseen
risks to future generations”.
- It presents the possibility of a ‘tipping point’ in genetic
- There are threats to biodiversity.
- There is concern about customer/consumer-driven modifications
to human and non-human animals and plants (animal welfare is
very much a Sikh religious concern).
- There are serious resource and Social Justice concerns. The
wider issue of equity in distributing its benefits has not been
resolved. There are restrictions to technology transfer between
- There is a possibility of the North–South socio-economic gap
widening due to (non)participation of developing countries in
the global debate about the use of these technologies and the
“differential affect on the interests of people in vulnerable or
marginalised groups”. The technologies are mostly funded and
exploited for their own benefit by the Western countries. The
equitable sharing of the benefits of research needs to be
- There are concerns relating to biosafety and biosecurity at
micro and macro levels. The ease and speed of colonisation of
environment of microorganisms may pose problems for other
organisms, including gene transfer and the multiplication of
- Possibility of military applications would categorise genome
editing as “dual use research of concern” (DRC) raising concerns
about security and misuse e.g. gene transfer can be used as
- It raises ethical concerns about “directed evolution” as
opposed to natural evolution.
- Biodiversity would be at risk from the dominance of
genetically modified crops through widespread use of genome
editing. Fewer varieties might, ultimately, be unable to respond
to new environmental problems without human intervention,
creating the potential for widespread crop failure and famine.
C. Relevant Sikh faith principles which can be applied to seek
Instead of providing fixed unchanging answers to changing problems,
Sikh faith provides an unchanging process based on moral framework
in which one can devise moral and ethical criteria by which an
ethical dilemma can be negotiated. [This is Guru Nanak's approach
well appreciated by Western scholarship (Ref: Guru Nanak in Western
Scholarship, 1992, by J S Grewal)] Inherent in Sikh teachings is the
principle that all rights come with responsibilities and no actions
are free of accountability. [Jeha beejay so lunnay karma sandra
khet. SGGS p 134] Human beings are at the top of the
biological evolution [SGGS p 374] and carry much responsibility for
all animal and plant species Before committing to an action, a human
being must delve into his or her essential being. “Recognise the
divine spark within you”.[“Mann toon Jote Saroop hain apna mool
pacchaan.” SGGS p 441 ] The divine spark is discovered and
nurtured by love, by service to the community [SGGS p. 26] and
sharing, and by recognition of the same spark in all [SGGS p1349].
The creation came into being and is managed through Hukam, an
expression for known or unknown immutable divine laws and other
discretionary divine interventions. The Divine Law is the same at
micro and macro levels of existence. The macro balance in creation
is through the forces that ethically are represented by compassion,
contentment and total devotion to duty [dharam]. All is in
Divine Will/Hukam [SGGS p1] interpreted as dharam not by
choice but due to reward & punishment [SGGS p132]. As a result,
self-centred consciousness continues to evolve (or is compelled to
evolve) towards collective consciousness, responsibility and
Therefore, decision making process does not occur in isolation and
individual choices are ratified collectively.
"Significantly, while human experience has been indicative of
incidents of possible lack of sufficient forethought before opting
for what seemed to serve the immediately compelling needs,
unchanging adherence to these ethical principles [of dharam]
have kept the systems and operations of the universe stay engaged in
their routines almost endlessly in a state of conflict free
operation from beginning of time." (Prof. Nirmal Singh, “Development
& Ethical Boundaries: Human Conditioning to Learn from
Afterthought.” ) [also SGGS Shabad Je ko bujhay hovay
sachiar….Dhol dhram dya ka poot….SGGS p 3]
D. Sikh faith perspective: ethical aspects of genome editing
The challenge before all faiths is to reflect on the universal human
and ethical values inherent in their ideologies and to interpret
them in the context of the global impact of genome editing
technologies and the related ethical and moral issues emerging
and/or even unenvisioned at the moment.
From the information which has been provided, we are convinced that
genome editing is indeed a revolutionising technology which has
profound implication for life on earth. However, the Sikh faith view
is that all is within and according to Divine Will (Hukam).
That includes human quest for knowledge, and it is not within man’s
power to (ultimately), nor even advisable, to stop research or the
acquisition of knowledge.
It is possible that by divine direction, science and technologies
like genome editing are moving rapidly (gearing up) to meet the need
for life to survive in anticipated and unanticipated changing
environmental conditions. (For example, these technologies could
also make habitation by earth life forms possible even in the harsh
environments of the planets.)
The need is for man to be aware of own imperfections and proceed
with great caution and continual vigilance when applying science and
technology to the alteration of own hereditary characteristics
evolved over millions of years by nature.
To quote Prof. Nirmal Singh,
“The problems that we are talking of have been
experienced by and between the micro created life forms. What our
choices may have been doing to the macro system is only now
beginning to be a subject of concern. The macro balance in
creation is through the forces that ethically are represented by
compassion, contentment and total devotion to duty (dharma).
Natural evolution over millions of years has been a slow process,
but, generally, it has been time-tested and self correcting. Until
the advent of the nuclear technology, the short term
predictability of the consequences of development of human
knowledge, brought about improvements in human condition over the
However, short or even medium term predictability of genome editing
is not a satisfactory solution to its unpredictable long term
consequences, which have been so well brought out in the Background
Paper and as suggested by Nuffield Council’s own discussion around
the (rather leading) key questions. The need is for a longer term
global level assessment which brings together science and religion.
Hitherto, socio-political organisation, foresight and sense of
global responsibility of human beings at the top of natural
evolution of life, have lagged behind advances in science and
technology. There are many examples e.g. vast range of defence
technologies; preventive health care leading to massive population
increases preceding political, economic and other developments; food
production through intensive cultivation to meet food needs but
resulting in ecological disasters in some parts of the world;
climate change and related well known issues etc.
A revolutionary and irreversible technology like genome editing
requires a global perspective and a long term view. Like the nuclear
energy, depending on man’s sense of responsibility and practise of dharam,
it is either a gift which offers the technology for human survival
and ability to face future threats to life on earth or a curse with
the potential to destroy life. We must proceed in humility and
prayer and be prepared to take full personal and collective social
responsibility for the consequences of genetic modifications. The
mental/spiritual approach required is that of complete harmonisation
with the Will of the Creator, sense of service to all creation and a
highly responsible attitude which promotes human values and the
progress of human institutions. The ethical objectivity of knowledge
must never be lost.
Regrettably, the indications are that the hitherto practice of
“human conditioning to learn from afterthought” would continue.
Sadly, we do not get the sense that we have the required
ethical-regulatory internationally enforceable framework in place as
yet. We also get the sense that some ground level realities
regarding different stages of human socio-political development and
the diversity of nation states, are being glossed over in the wake
of scientific research and development zeal. Yet, stopping
scientific research is not a viable option.
In this context, Nuffield Council’s initiative to alert the world
community to the vast potential and consequences of genome
technologies is highly commendable.
Collated and edited for The Sikh Missionary Society UK by
Gurmukh Singh OBE
Chair, Advisory Board,
The Sikh Missionary Society UK
21 March 2016
Acknowledgements: Interpretation of Sikh ideology in this paper
draws on an earlier paper “Sikhism & Bioethical Issues” based on
the writings of Dr I J Singh (New York), Dr G S Mansukhani (renowned
scholar author) and Bhai Dharam Singh Sujjon of UK. The Society is
grateful for the invaluable advice by Professor Nirmal Singh [USA]
presently at Delhi.
Relevant Web links:
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