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David I. Theodoropoulos, Las Sombras Biological Preserve, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020-0337 USA
(408) 236-3728

Comments to the Ethics Committee of the Society for Economic Botany

Original publication: Theodoropoulos, D. 1991. Comments to the Ethics Committee. Society for Economic Botany Newsletter 4:9-11

19 March 1991
Ethics Committee
Society for Economic Botany
The New York Botanical Gardens
Bronx, NY 10458-5126

Dear Drs. Padoch & Boom,

I have read with interest your draft of ethical guidelines for economic botanists, and am very happy to see how well you have addressed our responsibilities to the peoples who are kind enough to share their knowledge with us. Having been 'on both sides of the notebook' so to speak, at times as investigator, and as informant on other occasions, I am particularly heartened to find the Society directing its attention to the ethical considerations inherent in this relationship.

May I suggest that we forgo the formality of the third person 'they', and use 'we' when we phrase our principles? 'They' implies someone else, another upon whom we are imposing our principles. 'We' is more accurate, involves the reader directly, and may be more effective in inspiring voluntary adherence to the guidelines. An ethic which is internal, arising from the heart of the individual, is stronger than one imposed from without. Using 'we' may foster the confirmation of the principle by the individual's internal ethics. For example: l. We have responsibilities to the public., or We, the members of the Society for Economic Botany have responsibilities... or 1A. We will strive to use our knowledge... etc.

Could the Newsletter be used as a forum for the exchange of ideas on the ethical guidelines? This would allow the many far-flung members who may not be able to attend the meetings to contribute their valued insights. If there is urgent need to adopt the guidelines, perhaps they could be provisionally approved until the greater part of the membership has had the chance to comment. Ms. Flaster mentioned that the subject provoked considerable interest at the meeting - considering this, perhaps the Newsletter would be a good place for ongoing discussion by the more distant members.


To Article 1. (Members' Responsibilities to the Public) - add:

D. Germplasm resources being the common heritage of all humanity, we will refuse to work professionally on projects which will result in the appropriation of such resources by private interests via patent protection, or the restriction of the free flow of such resources by governments through the misuse of agricultural regulations or their classification as 'strategic resources'.

E. Imbalanced economic conditions being harmful to the well-being of humanity, we will not use our knowledge and skills on projects which will further the undue concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

To Article 2. (Members' Responsibilities to Those Studied), add:

F. The preservation of ethnobotanical knowledge and germplasm resources being essential to the future well-being of humanity, and in situ preservation being the most effective and efficient means insuring this goal, we will use our knowledge and skills to enhance the self-respect and self-determination of our informants and their peoples. We will foster the peoples' pride in their ethnobotanical traditions, local landraces, and wild plant resources, and assist them in preserving their plants and recording their knowledge, for themselves and their descendants. When introducing new crops or methods to an area, we will fully inform them of the value to the people of preserving their traditional crops and methods alongside the new.

Perhaps the following category of responsibilities was overlooked due to its obviousness, but it can't hurt to codify this fundamental principle:


A. As no organism can exist without habitat, as all basic materials essential to human well-being originate in the non-human world, and as we ourselves are derivative of it, we have a fundamental responsibility to attend to the well-being of the non-human world.

B. Whereas every species has intrinsic worth, beyond any possible utility to, or indirect benefit to humanity, we recognize the fundamental right of all species to exist and to partake of their fair share of the earth's resources. In situ conservation, being the most effective and efficient means of insuring this, we will specifically refuse to engage in work which compromises the ability of a species to exist as a sustainable wild population.

C. As all organisms are related through our common ancestry, and as each individual organism has intrinsic worth, we have a fundamental responsibility to treat all living beings with respect. Specifically, each individual will examine his or her use of other organisms in research to insure as far as possible their humane and ethical treatment, and that the research is fully justified by a necessary increase in our knowledge.

D. The use of our knowledge to benefit humanity must always be balanced by concern for the possible effects our actions may have on the well-being of the non-human world.

To comment on the above, 'natural world' is a more elegant phrase, but might imply the exclusion of cultivated or intensively managed areas, so my preference is with 'non-human world'.

Though some biologists have stated that respect for the intrinsic value of studied organisms can compromise so-called 'objectivity', I doubt that this assertion can be substantiated. On the contrary, Darwin's works, for example, show considerable love and respect for our fellow creatures. In 'The Descent of Man', he states:

"Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be the latest moral acquisition...this virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honored and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion."

He later repeats "...disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man..." He also speaks "....of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life."

His respect and love for our fellow beings shows throughout his works, and rather than being a hindrance to 'objectivity,' it appears to have been an aid to his perception of the essential unity of all living beings, helping him to overcome orthodoxy and formulate his theories. There is also ample precedent for interspecies fellow-feeling among the non-human species - Darwin and many others have recorded observations in this regard, and this should be obvious to all except those most seriously disengaged from the nonhuman environment.

Frequently the respect and ethical treatment extended to other organisms is offered according to their level of kinship. Beginning with the basic self-preservation instincts of the individual, and extended to the family, tribe, nation, race, & species, in concentric circles based on level of relatedness, and as our ethical awareness has evolved, our concern is extended to ever more distant relations. Although it may be the logical and desirable outcome of our ethical evolution to attain equality in our ethical relations with other organisms, in practice it would seem impossible; we have to eat, and we have no method of extending voting rights to bryophytes. However, this should not dissuade us from at least extending the basic courtesy of respect to all living beings and providing ethical and humane treatment according to the three basic criteria of extent of relatedness, level of intelligence, and ability to feel.

Since the guidelines are just that, and do not carry the force of law and prescribe no penalties, we should not be too timid in drafting them. After all, the heart and conscience of the individual will always remain the final arbiters of ethical questions. Our guidelines should serve to educate, raise questions, and provoke thoughtful consideration in the reader of his or her actions.

As the president [of the Society] has pointed out, we do not want our Society to remain small and reactive to world events - I think the drafting of ethical guidelines is a good step in the right direction.

Wishing you a fine spring.


D. Theodoropoulos

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