Human Exceptionalism

“Plant Dignity”

I reported a few days ago here at SHS about how an ethics committee in Switzerland expounded on what could be called the rights of plants. Now Nature has weighed in about the ridiculous matter of “plant dignity,” worrying that it could impede biology. From the editorial:

The Swiss federal government’s ethics committee on non-human biotechnology has mapped out guidelines to help granting agencies decide which research applications deeply offend the dignity of plants–and hence become unfundable.

Although most people might be bewildered that a discussion on how to define ‘plant dignity’ should be taking place at all, the stakes for Swiss plant scientists are high. The Gene Technology Law, which came into effect in 2004, stipulates that ‘the dignity of creatures’ should be considered in any research. The phrase has been widely criticized for its general woolliness, but it indisputably includes plants.

All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. “But scientists don’t know what it means,” says Beat Keller of the

Institute of Plant Biology at the University of Zurich who is running the first field trial–of disease-resistant corn (maize)–to be approved under the new legislation.

“At the moment not even authorities who decide on grants know what the ‘dignity of plants’ really means,” says Markus Schefer, a constitution lawyer at the University of Basel and a member of the ethics committee. “That’s why we were asked to deliberate.”…

The committee does not consider that genetic engineering of plants automatically falls into this category, but its majority view holds that it would if the genetic modification caused plants to ‘lose their independence’–for example by interfering with their capacity to reproduce. The statement has confused plant geneticists, who point out the contrast with traditional plant-hybridization technologies, for example in roses, which require male sterility, and the commercial development of seedless fruits...

The definition of what constitutes dignity in animals is currently being tested in a Zurich court. Primate-research projects at the ETH Zurich technology institute, which involve separating young marmosets from their mothers, have been put on hold while the court decides if they conflict with the animals’ dignity. A ruling is expected this year. Whichever way it falls, the decision is likely to end up in the federal constitutional court.

In one sense, I think the Science Establishment asked for this. It has been a prime mover in seeking to stamp out human exceptionalism as the reigning ethic of society. Well, this is what happens when we lose our self concept as a species of unique importance. Once we are knocked off the pedestal, all fauna and flora get thrown into the mix of “creatures” entitled to “rights,” even to the point that human beings are the world’s villains in some eyes. We are, in effect, eating our own tails as we move from human rights, to animal rights, and now plant “dignity.” This is beyond satirizing and, if we are not careful, can stop our own flourishing in its tracks.

Oh yes: This is the same country that has a constitutional right to assisted suicide for the mentally ill. Where is the “creature dignity” in that?