Nanotechnology Morally Unacceptable?

Nano-gear ban signNew survey results show that only 29.5 percent in a sample of 1,015 adult Americans consider nanotech morally acceptable. Europe ranked significantly higher. The hypothesized reason? Religious beliefs.

The results of the survey were presented by Dietram Scheufele, professors of life sciences and communication, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on February 15th, 2008. Scheufele conducted the survey in liaison with his colleague Elizabeth Corley of Arizona State University (ASU).

According to Scheufele the participants of the survey were well informed about the benefits and nature of nanotechnology. This would include the potential to prolong our lives, cure diseases (nanotech is already improving our medicine), the immense impact on technology et cetera. Yet, oppose it they did.

Only 29.5% of 1,015 adult Americans considered nanotech morally acceptable

In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.

In European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology to people in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, significantly higher percentages of people accepted the moral validity of the technology. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology. [via ScienceDaily with ScienceDaily]

I imagine the percentage of people who find it acceptable would be even higher in Iceland, given the results of a 2005 survey of acceptance of the Theory of Evolution (Icelanders rank number one, see National Geographic’s chart).


Why the difference between Europeans and Americans?

The answer, Scheufele believes, is religion: “The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples’ lives. The importance of religion in these different countries that shows up in data set after data set parallels exactly the differences we’re seeing in terms of moral views. European countries have a much more secular perspective.”

The catch for Americans with strong religious convictions, Scheufele believes, is that nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research are lumped together as means to enhance human qualities. In short, researchers are viewed as “playing God” when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine, says Scheufele.

There are two things we must note. The first is that this is Sceufele’s educated guess. The second is that convergence of nano- and biotechnology can in some cases involve animal testing — which might play a part in people’s answers.

But given that the participants of the study were aware of how nanotechnology could catapult mankind’s well-being, and I dare say all the animal kingdom, Sceufele’s assumption sounds reasonable. Unfortunately.

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7 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. I wonder how long it took those same types to accept antibiotics? I know there’s some pretty conservative sects of christianity in various pockets of the US, but the most obvious application of nanotechnology on humans is as medicine and treatment.

    I don’t hear outcries against kemo and the like.

  2. mike

    faith healing…
    they like to enjoy the benefits of science while at the same time living in their fantasy world where they feel that they’re more special than anyone else. doesn’t it make you proud that they’re part of the same species as us…?

  3. It will probably be better accepted once the technology enters the mainstream anyway. The argument against seems flawed… cellphones don’t naturally occur in nature. Cellphone’s parts don’t naturally occur in nature. It’s a technology constructed of base materials, sometimes at a really tiny scale (cpu circuits). It also enhances human qualities — supernatural communication. Yet just about everybody uses a cellphone, they are simply too useful.

    In my view nanotechnology is the same way, it’s just that the base materials are cut down to atomic size, before assembling the end product. Actually current transistors on integrated circuits are on a close enough scale already.

  4. @Alex
    Exactly. We started augmenting ourselves and nature a long time ago, to a much greater extent than many people realize because it’s such an integral and accepted part of our everyday lives.

    I don’t blame or hold a personal grudge against anyone. But it does lead me to think that those of us who think differently have to make ourselves and our reasoning heard.

    There’s an issue though, lack of public acceptance leads to difficulties with regards to funding, and thus might delay nanotech reaching the mainstream. But yeah, we’ve already started using nanotechnology-or-close-to-it in various areas. Given that that trend continues I’m sure the benefits will eventually triumph. And like you say, the argument is flawed (but on the other hand, there’s usually no reasoning with religious convictions).

  5. I think American Christian qualms about using nanotechnology to “augment” humans revolve around the concept of Natural Law. Some Christians (Princeton University’s Robert P. George, for example) use Natural Law as a moral basis for legal reasoning based on what is consonant with human nature. But we change human nature, we undermine the basis of Natural Law itself.

    On the other hand, asbestos is a chemically unreactive material. In the human body, it can cause disease because of the small, respirable size of its particulates – or perhaps I should say, nanoparticles. My personal reservations about nanotechnology have more to do with what looks like a headlong rush to embrace yet another new technology without sufficient in vitro, in vivo, and environmental testing. Lack of such testing is something I regard as a lack of Prudence, and therefore as a moral failure.

  6. Your assumption on the qualms of Christians sounds likely. But in it lies the question of whether it isn’t an integral part of human nature to augment itself. After all, the mere act of procreation entails augmentation of human nature — we are not the organisms we were half a million years ago. And in addition, as I touched on above and continue below, we’re already augmenting ourselves through various means.

    A handheld computer improves our memory and extends our means of communication. Prosthetics replace our “natural” loss of limbs. Medicine battles our natural demise.

    All of these are creations devised to augment our state, each a heartbeat closer to integrating with- and augmenting our physique on a smaller scale. Where is a line drawn on what counts as natural, and who draws it? On what basis do we place an artificial boundary at a particular scale through which we augment ourselves and the world? Certainly none rooted in the realms of science.

    On your stance; it’s obvious the technology has risks. But I disagree on lack of experimentation. Rigorous simulations and physical experiments are being conducted in highly controlled environments.

    But another and quite intriguing consideration is our means of evaluation. You mention environmental testing. Natural environments are extremely complex; their evaluation requires use of machines, computers. The smaller the scale at which we create and control computers, the better they get at evaluation. Thus, advancing nanotechnology endows us with greater capabilities to evaluate, predict and control all consequent advances.

    Although humanity has made naive mistakes in its adolescent stage of technological growth — it would be lack of prudence to consider it a reason to halt our advances, for that would leave us suspended in a stasis of naivety.

  7. I think it’s unfortunate that the original article didn’t explain why Scheufele tagged religion as the reason for the difference. If the survey results showed a correlation between religion and particular responses, it should have been simple to describe that correlation. Instead, I’m left with the feeling that Scheufele’s own preconceptions about Americans and their views colored his conclusions, since no evidence one way or the other was offered.

    I could just as easily say, for example, that Americans are more suspicious of new technologies than Europeans. Or that Americans are more likely to reserve judgment on a new technology until they understand how it’s going to be used and by whom. I have no idea if either of these generalizations are true, but if I was conducting such a survey, I’d make sure to have some “cultural context” type questions — without which, I could only report numbers.

    Interesting article, and I like the way you navigated among the different sides of this issue, especially in your responses to the comments.

    Bye for now,


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