The Ethics of Nanotechnology: A Lutheran Reflection

[1] This year, my three-year-old granddaughter wanted a doll for Christmas – but a very special kind of doll. “I want a doll just like me,” she instructed the family. “Only better.”

[2] My granddaughter was not envisioning a doll manufactured by cloning her genetic material, or generated by cultivating an embryonic stem cell line, or any other technology currently ballyhooed by the media. Indeed, cloning and embryonic stem cell reproduction are now becoming doubtful mechanisms for producing anything “just like me,” despite the glowing predictions made for them just a few years ago. Cloning, it turns out, seriously compromises an organism’s immune system; embryonic stem cell lines are fragile and not always malleable enough to produce the desired cellular ensembles.

[3] But there is another emerging technology that promises simply and swiftly to overcome the problems involved in making things “just like me, only better”: nanotechnology.

[4] Nanos is the Greek word for “dwarf,” and in the context of nanotechnology, refers to one-billionth of a meter (That’s a nanometer. A human hair is some 50,000 nanometers in girth. One nanometer is the length of ten hydrogen atoms. Nanoscience is the empirical discipline that studies the properties and behavior of these tiny entities. Nanotechnology is technical design and assembly at the smallest possible level currently available – the level of atoms and molecules. The potential for nanotech is suggested by a quote from the National Science Foundation in 2001, in a document announcing the creation of a Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) program:

… A revolution has begun in science, engineering and technology, based on the ability to organize, characterize, and manipulate matter systematically at the nanoscale. Far-reaching outcomes for the 21st century are envisioned in both scientific knowledge and a wide range of technologies in most industries, healthcare, conservation of materials and energy, biology, environment and education…1
[5] If anything, this fanfare from the National Science Foundation may be understating the case. What scientists and engineers hope to do – indeed, what they are already starting to do – is rebuild everything from the ground up, atom by atom, molecule by molecule. The molecular structure of steel and cement, oak and pine, will be restructured to make those materials significantly lighter and stronger and more durable. Atoms will be arranged and chemically bonded for the purpose of making minuscule machines, only a few nanometers wide, that will live in the bloodstream and monitor plaque buildup in our arteries. Even human somatic cells, damaged by disease or injury, will be rebuilt, one atom at a time: first the cells, then the tissue, then the organs of the human body.

[6] It all sounds fantastic; but unlike cloning or embryonic stem cell cultivation, the launching of this technology has not been held back by the lack of relevant yet elusive scientific knowledge. The knowledge was available; nanotechnology has only had to wait for better tools to manipulate atoms and molecules. More than 40 years before the 2001 NSF statement on nanoscience, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman insisted that, “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom,” and then counseled, “The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things at the atomic level, is ultimately developed.”2 That development is currently underway and skepticism about the future viability of nanotechnology is no more justified than past skepticism over the viability of personal computers.

[7] The maturation of nanotechnology took a major step forward with the publication of K. Eric Drexler’s remarkable 1986 text, Engines of Creation.3 His specific insight was to combine the notion of atomic and molecular manipulation derived from physics with the idea of self-replicating “assemblers” borrowed from biochemistry. He then applied these to the emerging science of information processing and thus supplied a vision of tiny nanomachines chemically programmed to reproduce themselves as they assembled atoms and molecules into new structures. He was particularly taken with the implication this would have for improving on the speed and scope of human cognitive functioning, as nanomachines recreate the neural networks of the brain in astonishingly more efficient ways through the manufacture of tiny advanced “thinking machines.” After their advent, he argued, the human brain need never again struggle with any computational activity, from balancing a ledger to parallel parking to recognizing the face of a loved one. The “thinking machines,” crafted and sustained by busy nanobots working in the brain, will do all this for us.

[8] Believing that this sort of nanotechnology future was inevitable, Drexler then issued a warning: if these assemblers could be programmed to reproduce themselves, there was no guarantee that they could be “unplugged,” or that they might be induced to “unlearn” how to replicate, or even to “forget” the more efficient configurations of atoms and molecules they had been taught. Thus did Drexler popularize the notion of “gray goo”: the uncontrollable proliferation of nanoscale molecular assemblers, ever busy at their atomic tasks, producing more and more useful artifacts (“thinking machines” being only one among many others), some of which would be “just like me.”

[9] In the intervening 20 years, Drexler has become both a leading advocate for nanotechnology development, as well as one the most insistent voices calling for strong ethical scrutiny of this seismic scientific phenomenon. Based at the Foresight Nanotech Institute in Palo Alto, California,4 Drexler has repeatedly cited four major areas of ethical concern regarding nanotechnology:

Addressing these [ethical] challenges involves many policy areas: from setting an appropriate level of safety research funding, to exploring how to increase access to nanotechnologies; from helping promote specific technical breakthroughs, to reviewing how publicly funded nanotech patents can be better administered for greatest societal benefit.5
[10] Drexler’s four areas of concern are a salutary way to map the ethical terrain of nanotechnology. 1) during development of nanotechnology applications, adequate resources should be devoted to investigating potential risk and safety factors for the public, including the environment. 2) strategies for making the advantages of nanotechnology solutions more widely available to the public should be an intentional goal. 3) priorities should be set among the various possible applications of nanotechnology that favor the most social good over others with less public benefit. 4) legal structures involving patents and intellectual capital should be revised so those who have invested in the development of nanotechnology can realize a significant financial return while not restricting open access to the most useful products of this technology.

[11] Assuming for the moment that Drexler’s inventory is accurate, it is useful to consider these ethical issues related to technology as falling along a means-ends spectrum. Some moral concerns focus on the means for achieving a certain end result, while others are implicated in the impact of the end result itself. Drexler’s initial worry – the risk and safety dimensions of developing nanotechnology – falls largely into the “means” category, inasmuch as it centers on the materials and processes used in nanoscience to achieve the engineering results. This is the source of the fret over “gray goo.” Will the means used to generate the alleged social goods of nanotechnology create a set of side effects that are destructive to the well being of human communities or the environment?

[12] Drexler’s original concern was well-placed. At that time, no one knew the limits of organic assemblers, such as bacteria, which can absorb cellular chemicals, rearrange the atoms, and create new proteins designed to accomplish specific tasks. Might artificial, nano-engineered assemblers take on an unruly life of their own, and wreak unintended havoc within the general environment or the human body? In 1986, it was impossible to tell.

[13] The advances made in molecular biology and genetics over the past two decades have largely put the “gray goo” fears to rest. It is now understood that any replication function programmed into molecules artificially built for certain engineering purposes can be efficiently controlled by more elevated, second-order programming. Indeed, the entire concept of “molecular programming” has been greatly enhanced by discoveries made in the last ten years that depict how DNA programs the sequences of genes to express certain features. It now appears that synthetic molecular nanobots will be less prone to unexpected misadventures than are natural genetic mutations!

[14] But if Drexler’s caveat about environmental and human danger posed by the means used to engineer nanomachines has been largely overcome, the ethical questions surrounding the three remaining issues he cites continue to warrant scrutiny. These questions embrace a wider interest in the public access and specific use of these nanotechnology goods. In short, these are concerns over the ends to which nanoscience will be put.

[15] It is at this point that many ethical reservations emerge. But alongside these apprehensions exist a host of ethical unknowns. Some of those unknowns are the result of various metaphysical uncertainties. Until we have greater clarity, or at least greater consensus, on what it means to be a human being, or what counts as “natural,” or how to discern the place of technology in the moral life of human communities, it will be of little use to intone vacuous ethical pieties about the “common good” or the “public welfare.” Such abstract ideals do little to further our actual collective deliberation on immediate and abstruse social realities like nanotechnology. The public is best served first by a familiarity with the metaphysical currents that flow beneath all technologies, and then by understanding the science that informs these technologies.

[16] Some of these ethical unknowns, however, arise because of our ignorance as to what specific trajectories nanotechnology will assume in the future. For instance, in the spring of 2005, researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were awarded a National Cancer Institute grant of $16 million over five years to create nanotechnology therapies intended to decisively impact the way cancer treatments are delivered to patients.6 The therapies depend on the construction of nanoparticles with an outer lipid layer that are infused with designated chemicals. It is projected that these particles will first carry substances that can seek out early-stage cancers, and even pre-cancerous conditions, and send back imaging signals that will allow medical personnel to evaluate the cancerous conditions. Then, similar lipid-layered nanoparticles will transmit a therapeutic chemical that targets the cancer, isolating or destroying the cancerous cells. That means the invasive chemical attacks only the particular site where the cancer is located. This is a vast improvement on contemporary modes of chemotherapy, which affect entire large systems of the body.

[17] It appears that this application of nanotechnology bears tremendous benefit for the public. It does not require the utilization of scarce resources, it employs natural entities (i.e., atoms) to do its work, it does not bring harm to the patient, it even promises (according to initial estimates) to significantly lower the cost of chemotherapy treatments, thus potentially bringing advanced cancer treatments within the range of all those who might need it. Are there ethical issues that arise from this particular scenario, assuming that its advocates are adequately describing the most likely future result? It appears the answer is: no. Is this example of nanotechnology application going to be a typical expression of this science? No one knows for sure. But from the fact that no one is certain what possible expressions nanotechnology may assume tomorrow, it does not follow that preemptive constraints are warranted today.

[18] There remain the ethical issues of encouraging appropriate applications of nanotechnology, and of patents and other ownership questions. Again, there are a series of unknowns that attend these matters. As the tools involved in manufacturing nanomachines become simpler, cheaper and more widely available, will it be best to regulate nanotechnology as we have, say, the pharmaceutical industry? In pharmaceuticals, the window of exclusive rights to a commercial product is extremely small in most cases – only a few years before a drug goes “generic.” This has the advantage of making the drug more widely available in a competitive market. On the other hand, the American experience will public regulation of pharmaceuticals has not been a success; it has not made drugs less expensive or safer, and it has not promoted an expanded research agenda in this field. Both in economics and in ethics, it has become an open question whether an unregulated environment for pharmaceuticals would better promote the public interest. Would the same be true for the products of nanotechnology?

[19] All of these factors directly impact the question of the Church’s response to the ethical concerns embedded in nanotechnology. Does nanotechnology raise ethical issues that Christians should be especially concerned about? Moreover, do Lutherans, speaking corporately as an expression of the Church, possess the requisite technical insight to address these congested moral situations?

[20] Answering questions about a whole new realm of human power is notoriously difficult because dilemmas that arise in considering the social and ethical impact of new technologies are initially metaphysical in character. In the case of nanotechnology, these metaphysical uncertainties revolve around questions like: What is matter? Inasmuch as atoms naturally cluster into molecules, what significance attaches to the artificial arrangement of atoms into molecules for specific purposes? Is the designed manipulation of atoms and molecules invasive or unnatural? Since everything is made of atoms, how can we reliably detect the difference between atoms comprising non-organic material and atoms that make up living tissue? Does it matter? What constitutes a “benefit” for the human organism? When does a technical advance turn into a social good?

[21] While metaphysical in nature, such questions eventually lead to a preliminary reliance on the disciplines of the “soft” sciences such as sociology, psychology, cognitive science, anthropology and philosophy. This demonstrates that ethics is largely a “dependent” or 2nd order discipline. Ethical concerns emerge out of metaphysical qualms, from within the investigations of the social sciences, and as a result of technological advances. This means-as in the case of nanotechnology- if you don’t know the science, you can’t do the ethics. To assess the ethical dimensions of any new technology, it is imperative that there be a deep familiarity with the scientific details before undertaking the appropriate moral deliberation.

[22] This may seem like obvious counsel, but the Church has occasionally forgotten its wisdom. Too often, various Christian communities have invoked large theological and ethical ideals while paying scant attention to the genuine scope of the science and technology they are warning against. The problem is evident from the condemnation of Galileo, to the resistance of the religious community to the techniques and discoveries of paleontology, from the theological rejection of William Harvey’s description of the circulatory system, to contemporary biblical opposition to Neo-Darwinian evolution and concomitant support for various theories of intelligent design.

[23] If we accept the wisdom that our theological reflections will be parasitic on considerations derived from metaphysics and the social sciences-and cannot be otherwise-then what is unique about Christian reflection on this matter? One answer is the Gospel story that Christians are called to narrate. Yet this narration with its decisive sub-plot of justification by faith through grace emphasized by Lutherans, does not quickly yield up the necessary ethical insights that allow us to frame an immediate response to scientific advances like nanotechnology. Christians, and Lutherans in particular, would be wise to acknowledge this reality in our theological apparatus, and be cautious in our moral judgments on nanoscience. As a confessional people, it is worth confessing that we may not possess, from within the scope of our own theological assets, the essential technical insight to offer definitive ethical critiques of this new technology. In the end, we must have an adequate grasp of the specialized details of nanotechnology before we can grasp the ethical problems provoked by its emergence; and we must grasp the ethical dimensions of nanotechnology before we can engage in theological reflection on this phenomenon.

[24] So what is to be done? I would argue that Lutherans, as bearers of the Christian story and as ethical agents in a democratic and dynamic social milieu, can at this point do two things. First, we can foster continued public discourse on the metaphysical questions that serve as the authentic foundation for our ethical reflection on the costs and benefits of any revolutionary technology. Without passing off nanotechnology as either a panacea or a portent of disaster, we can promote a common discussion of our human identity and purpose, our social and political character, what it means to enhance life and to forestall death. Second, – we can encourage one another to set aside theological pronouncements as the first response to impending major shifts in technology, Instead we can secure an understanding of the science that informs the technology in order to better appreciate what we are dealing with as we struggle to articulate an ethical reply to these developments, many of which may create things “just like us, only better.”

End Notes

1 Roco, Mihail, National Science Foundation, “Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) : Program Solicitation for FY2002,” Introduction. (

2 Feynman, Richard, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” talk given at the 1959 annual meeting of the American Physical Society, reprinted in Miniaturization, edited by H. D. Gilbert (New York: Reinhold, 1961).

3 Drexler, K. Eric, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 1986)


5, “Public Policy”

6 “$16 Million Grant Advances Nanomedicine at Washington University,”

Thomas D. Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.