Sacred genes

Human Genome Project nearing completion : As we foresee the end of the Genome Project, ethical questions abound. Should we use this technology for our own ends ? What would happen to society in such a case ?

We seem to consider modern times as our first foray in DNA manipulation, but that is not precisely true. Humanity has tampered with gene pools for millenias in agriculture and meat production, by selective breeding and hybridization. There is nothing terrible or obscure with this – it has been the driving force of the agricultural revolution, and ultimately a necessary element of early civilization.

Now, we are about to enter a new genetic revolution, as the human genome will soon be completely mapped. It will also be a necessary element of our future societal structures. However most people are reluctant or even fight against this new technology. This seems to be part of a global trend to block advances in genome commerce and manipulation.

Why are we so reluctant to tamper with our own gene pool ? Genes are the stuff that our lives are made of. It may be difficult to accept that our lives may be outdated. Let’s examine some particular issues and see what we can make of this.

First, there is the issue of genetically modified foods. What is the difference between selective breeding and direct genetic modification ? Only the speed and the means with which it is done. Why should species created by guided evolution be any less dangerous than genetically modified foods ? And yet there is a strong current of protest against these practices.

For example, experiments on accelerating the growth of fishes in the UK and the United States were met with complaints from environmentalists, according to ABC News, on the “upset[ting of] the delicate balance of nature”, and “genetic pollution”. “Salmon are unique and highly complex. They migrate thousands of miles and still manage to return to their home river. This has evolved since the last ice age”, complains Christopher Poupard of the Salmon and Trout Association.

What do these complaints mean in terms of ideas ? They are based on the implicit idea that nature should be respected against our self-interest as a species. Otherwise, what importance would the “balance of nature” and salmon migration be, if they were not considered inherently valuable ? We see a reluctance about tampering with nature and adapting it to our own needs.

Human experiments are met with even more resistance. You may remember the time when Iceland’s government sold the country’s gene pool information to a private company for 200 million dollars. Iceland has an incredible advantage on other countries in that it has had almost no immigration in a millenia, and therefore its gene pool is very homogenous. Here the problem was one of property : does someone own his DNA ? As any good socialist country, Iceland did not consider that question as relevant, but it has made the news as an ethical dilemma of sorts.

Last year, the media had another fit when it was revealed that a web site sold eggs from models for 15 000 dollars each. The reaction was mostly indignation at the idea that people would choose their offspring’s future DNA solely on appearance.

It seems therefore that the knee-jerk reaction against genetic commerce is not as much due to the fact that genes are involved, but rather that genes are being manipulated. That’s what seems to be the crux of the problem. It cannot be that lifeforms on our planet are already perfect, because they obviously aren’t, not even homo sapiens. Is it perhaps a fear of seeing humans play god ? Or an attribution of mystical qualities to the forces of evolution (or creation, for the ignorant) ? Both seem to apply.

Because we tend to attribute mystical or grandiose qualities to things we do not understand, and because people’s knowledge about evolution and genetics is so poor, it seems likely that they do not understand its mundanity. This is likely to stop as people get more informed, most probably as a result of the use of genetics in medecine.

Of course there are always a handful of religionists and luddites who will reject this new technology. I suppose a cruel but effective solution would be to not permit them to get the fruits of these medical improvements… “Oh what, you participated in an anti-genetic medecine march two years ago ? Sorry, but we can’t treat your cancer now… So sorry, come back later.”

One particular issue, cloning, may give us another possible solution. There is such a thing as “natural” cloning : that is, identical twins. But the vague concept of “natural” is irrelevant in ethical terms anyway. Who is to say that what we humans do is not natural ? We are, after all, animals. At any rate, cloning is considered to be ethically flawed by many. Presently, all kinds of cloning are banned except Dolly-type cloning. In the United States, laws are being passed in most states against all kinds of cloning. An old USA Weekend article from September 1998 has a possible explanation for this (bold mine) :

“Politicians, ethicists and religious leaders have been denouncing the prospect of human cloning since it became a viable route to increasing human longevity. We understand that if you live longer-perhaps forever-through cloning or other technologies, you will no longer let us bring you to your death. By living a longer, healthier, and happier life, you will increasingly reject our rule over you. That is the precise reason why we parasites urge lawmakers to ban human cloning.”

Is that also why authorities reject the other forms of genetic manipulation ? Because they help decrease the government’s grip over our lives ? Well, that is not as true of genetic manipulation of animals. However it may be an argument for explaining that the government is already planning to ban genetic human experiments.

Denouncing technology in general has become somewhat of a “hip” thing to do. Environmentalists, post-modernists, new age and paranormalists, all the “alternative” movements have it for science, technology and progress. It has become essential to enforce progress by force if necessary, and if this friction continues, our hitherto exponential growth could be slowed down considerably, thus making the future of the technological age uncertain at best. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine what the consequences would be.

We all crave stability in a changing world, and our reluctance to modify nature only adds to this impulse. If we are not careful, our own nature will overtake us. That is a clear and present danger.

The future with genetics

What does the future of genetics hold for us ? If scientists and economists are to be believed, mostly problems. There are three main concerns identified so far : profits made from genetics, designer babies and genetic privacy.

Of these concerns, profits are the least important. What would be the use of a new technology if there was no profit to make from it ? Profits made from genetics should be a positive thing, not a negative. However so far genetic data from the Genome Human Project has been public. More and more patents on genes and information about genes are coming in every year. As in any other domain, the profitability of genetic research will drive the market.

Engineering babies is still in the far future. However one might say that infertile parents already do this, by choosing the egg and sperm with specific criterias – like beauty, or intelligence. But what was the common objection by scientists about this ? That it would threaten minorities, like disabled people. Not that I have anything about disabled people, but I would find it pretty insulting if I was told that my group was so important that we had to keep producing disabled people. Rather the contrary – engineering babies may be our way to finally eradicate a majority of diseases, if not more. There is no ethical qualm to doing so any more than there is in choosing one’s mate or egg donor.

What about our privacy ? Genetic privacy seems to be by far the most serious problem. The leader of Celera Genomics (one of the two organizations working on the project) said that “[it] is virtually impossible to achieve full medical privacy”. And as you know, our genes not only give possible health risks but basically the interval in which a person exists in all characteristics. Starting from that fact, should we try to stop discrimination by genetics ? No, not at all. Of course, the government thinks otherwise. But the role of anti-discrimination laws is basically to enforce racism – and therefore it seems most likely that the role of such a law would be to enforce genetic discrimination (geneism ?).

Genetic discrimination is no more valid than racial discrimination, because genetics do not give any indication of the present state of an individual. To simplify, genes are the blueprint from which people’s bodies are made, and our body delimits our capacities. However this potentiality can only be translated into actuality by “nurture” : growth, parenting, education, etc. You cannot evaluate somebody’s capacities from genetics any more than you can do so from his race. Both are little more than statistical evaluation of probabilities on the possible capacities of any given individual possessing this set of racial traits/genetic traits. Of course that will never stop the ignorant from brushing all people of the same race/genes with the same paint.

The point is that these various concerns are perfectly normal. All technologies have their flip side. However, stable long-term progress in medecine and society in general can be achieved thru the use of gene manipulation. I also say society because social engineering and genetic engineering go hand in hand. As you know, many of our institutions today are born out of instinctual (genetic) need. Therefore it follows that changing the human genetic pattern has the potential to change society dramatically, hence the relation between social engineering and genetic engineering.

It is obvious that the ultimate goal of a new, improved human species is extremely desirable. However, the interim period necessary to implement it may not be as desirable, as is the case for all new technologies. Just imagine all the job movement that still accompanies the computer revolution – jobs in industries that are now automated, jobs in services that are replaced by automatic distributors or machines, and such. But also think of the counter-balance, that is, all the new technology-oriented jobs that are gained.

This revolution would be no different, except we would be dealing in terms of genetics instead of job competence. There is no doubt that genetic discrimination would replace the racism and sexism that we know today. In both cases we will assist to a “middle game” of shifting economic emphasis.

This interim period has alimented science-fiction hits for decades (Brave New World, for example). But it may not be as “science-fiction” today – in fact, it will probably happen happen during this century. If we are ethical enough to use it for our own ends, we may be able to reshape man in a way that has never been dreamed of by the great dictators and revolutionaries of history. We could eliminate a great number of governmental institutions, religion and superstitions, as well as ensure humanity’s progress – but such power would be fraught with peril.