BERKELEY -- Two leading thinkers in the field of genetic engineering told an audience at UC Berkeley last night that human capability to design children is not a distant dream but a coming reality that presents moral challenges American society is not yet prepared to deal with.
The event featured Bill McKibben, author of nine books and a writer for Harpers, New York Review of Books and the Atlantic, and Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a group dedicated to encouraging socially responsible use of new human genetic technology.
"This is not a debate, but rather an issue briefing," said Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor, who introduced the event. "We may have the power to give our grandchildren attributes they might not otherwise have. Should we, as a species, avail ourselves of this power?"
Fifteen years ago the idea of designing corn resistant to pests seemed a far off dream. Now scientists have created rabbits that glow in the dark because their DNA has been recombined with that of phosphorescent jellyfish.
The scientists who addressed the crowd of more than 100 people warned that the ability to genetically manipulate human genes might follow the same comet-like trajectory.
McKibben insists that the technology to genetically modify organisms "came like lightning and never emerged as a major topic of debate in the U.S." He warned the audience that current lack of public debate around genetically cloning and manipulating humans risked creating a situation where this technology "would just happen to us."
These sorts of advances create questions about the very nature of being human, as well as highlight disturbing economic realities present in our culture. The transition from human to product risks leaving a child feeling "like windows '95, moored on their own island of technical obsolescence," according to McKibben.
And the obvious fact that this technology would only be available to the rich, while 45 million people in the U.S. can't even afford to see a doctor, might quickly lead to a generation of humans separated into the "gen-rich" and the "naturals."
The idea of having power our grandchildren's personalities and intellect sounds like science fiction, but world-renowned scientists are jumping on the bandwagon. Nobel Laureate James Watson, famous for his discovery of the double helix of DNA, has urged this technology move forward quickly into areas like improving the human IQ and been a public supporter of human genetic engineering.
Darnovsky explained Proposition 71, the controversial ballot initiative that would mandate the state to issue $3 billion in public bonds to be distributed to public and private researchers doing work with stem cells, prioritizing work not done on the Federal level. The right to conduct this kind of research would become part of the California state constitution if Proposition 71 passes in November.
While the initiative seems like a way to "stick it to Bush", certain aspects of the proposition are troublesome to Darnovsky and her public interest organization. She is worried about cloning, the amount of money that would be dedicated to stem cell research, in light of the state's looming deficit, the lack of "independent disinterested" compassion and overpromsing about a technology that nobody totally understands."
McKibben, Pollan and Darnovsky all agree that fostering open debate about these issues now is the only way to ensure that biologists don't end up with the regrets which plagued the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and created the first atomic bombs.
"This whole discussion probably won't ripen until it's unavoidable," McKibben said. "In the mean time we need to do as much organizing and thinking as possible."
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