We are fast approaching the most consequential technological
threshold in all of human history: the ability to directly manipulate
the genes we pass on to our children.
Development and use of these technologies would irrevocably
change the nature of human life and human society. It would
destabilize human biological identity and function. It would
put into play a wholly unprecedented set of social, psychological
and political forces that would feed back upon themselves with
impacts quite beyond our ability to imagine, much less control.
These technologies are being developed and promoted by an
influential network of scientists who see themselves ushering
in a new epoch for human life on Earth. They look forward to
the day when parents can quite literally assemble their children
from genes listed in a catalog. They celebrate a future in which
our common humanity is lost as a genetically enhanced elite
increasingly acquires the attributes of a separate species.
There is little public awareness of the full implications
of the new human genetic engineering (HGE) technologies or of
the campaign to promote them. There are few popular institutions
and no social or political movements critically that are addressing
the immense challenges these technologies pose.
While some applications of HGE are benign and hold great potential
for preventing disease and alleviating human suffering, other
applications could open the door to a human future more horrific
than our worst nightmares.
Two very different applications of genetic engineering must
be distinguished. One application changes the genes in cells
in your body other than your egg and sperm cells. Such changes
are not passed to any children you may have. Applications of
this sort are currently in clinical trials and are generally
considered socially acceptable. The technical term for this
application is "somatic" genetic engineering (after
the Greek "soma" for "body").
The other application of genetic engineering changes the genes
in eggs, sperm, or very early embryos. This affects not only
any children you might have, but also all succeeding generations.
It opens the door to the reconfiguration of the human species.
The technical term for this application is "germline"
genetic engineering (because eggs and sperm are the "germinal"
or "germline" cells).
Many advocates of germline engineering say it is needed to
allow couples to avoid passing on genetic diseases such as cystic
fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. This is simply not true. Far
less consequential methods (such as pre-natal and pre-implantation
screening) already exist to accomplish this same goal. Germline
manipulation is necessary only if you wish to "enhance"
your children with genes they wouldn't be able to get from you
or your partner.
The ability to directly manipulate plant and animal genes was
developed during the late 1970's. Proposals to begin human gene
manipulation were put forth in the early 1980's and aroused
much controversy. A small number of researchers argued in favor
of germline manipulation, but the majority of scientists and
others opposed it. In 1983, a letter signed by 53 religious
leaders declared that genetic engineering of the human germline
"represents a fundamental threat to the preservation of
the human species as we know it, and should be opposed with
the same courage and conviction as we now oppose the threat
of nuclear extinction."
In 1985, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved
somatic gene therapy trials, but said that it would not accept
proposals for germline manipulation "at present."
That ambiguous decision did little to discourage advocates of
germline engineering, who knew that somatic experiments were
the critical first step toward HGE experiments. Following the
first approved clinical attempts at somatic gene therapy in
1990, advocates of germline engineering began writing advocacy
pieces in medical, ethical, legal and other journals to build
By the mid- and late-1990s, the progress of the federally
funded Human Genome Project in locating all 80,000-plus human
genes fueled speculation about eventual applications, including
germline engineering. In 1996, scientists cloned the first genetic
duplicate of an adult mammal (the sheep "Dolly").
In 1999, researchers mastered the techniques for disassembling
human embryos and keeping embryonic cells alive in laboratory
cultures. These developments made it possible, for the first
time, to imagine a procedure whereby the human germline could
be engineered in a commercially practicable manner.
HGE advocates were further encouraged by the social, cultural
and political conditions of the late 1990s—a period characterized
by technological enthusiasm, distrust of government regulation,
the spread of consumerist/competitive/libertarian values, and
the perceived weakened ability of national governments to enforce
laws and treaties, as a result of globalization.
In March 1998, Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine,
Technology and Society at the University of California at Los
Angeles (UCLA), organized a symposium on Engineering the
Human Germline. It was attended by nearly 1,000 people and
received front-page coverage in The New York Times and The Washington
Post. All the speakers were avid proponents of germline engineering.
Four months later, one of the symposium's key participants,
HGE pioneer W. French Anderson, submitted a draft proposal to
the NIH to begin somatic gene transfer experiments on human
fetuses. He acknowledged that this procedure would have a "relatively
high" potential for "inadvertent gene transfer to
the germline." Anderson's proposal was widely acknowledged
to be strategically crafted so that approval could be construed
as acceptance of germline modification, at least in some circumstances.
Anderson hopes to receive permission to begin clinical trials
The New Ideology
Advocacy of germline engineering and techno-eugenics (i.e.,
technologically enabled human genetic manipulation and selection)
is an integral element of a newly emerging socio-political ideology.
This ideology is gaining acceptance among scientific, high-tech,
media and policy elites. A key foundational text is the book
Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human
Family, by Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver.
Silver looks forward to a future in which the health, appearance,
personality, cognitive ability, sensory capacity and the lifespan
of our children all become artifacts of genetic manipulation.
Silver acknowledges that financial constraints will limit their
widespread adoption, so that over time society will segregate
into the "GenRich" and the "Naturals."
In Silver's vision of the future:
||"The GenRich—who account
for ten percent of the American population —all carry
synthetic genes. All aspects of the economy, the media,
the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are
controlled by members of the GenRich class… .
Naturals work as low-paid service providers
or as laborers. [Eventually] the GenRich class and the
Natural class will become entirely separate species with
no ability to crossbreed, and with as much romantic interest
in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.
Many think that it is inherently unfair
for some people to have access to technologies that can
provide advantages while others, less well-off, are forced
to depend on chance alone, [but] American society adheres
to the principle that personal liberty and personal fortune
are the primary determinants of what individuals are allowed
and able to do.
Indeed, in a society that values individual
freedom above all else, it is hard to find any legitimate
basis for restricting the use of repro-genetics. I will
argue [that] the use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable.
[W]hether we like it or not, the global marketplace will
HGE enthusiasts typically anticipate a future in which genetic
technology permeates, transforms and reconfigures all sectors
of the natural world—plants, animals, humans and ecosystems.
Many look forward to what they call the "Singularity"—that
point in the next few decades when any distinction between the
natural and the technological has been completely dissolved.
Many couple their enthusiasm for genetic engineering with an
explicit disparagement of environmentalist values. Nobel Laureate
James Watson, for example, has complained that "ever since
we achieved a breakthrough in the area of recombinant DNA in
1973, left-wing nuts and environmental kooks have been screaming
that we will create some kind of Frankenstein bug or Andromeda
strain that will destroy us all."
Gregory Stock has stated: "Even if half the world's species
were lost, enormous diversity would still remain. When those
in the distant future look back on this period of history, they
will likely see it not as the era when the natural environment
was impoverished, but as the age when a plethora of new forms—some
biological, some technological, some a combination of the two—burst
onto the scene. We best serve ourselves, as well as future generations,
by focusing on the short-term consequences of our actions rather
than our vague notions about the needs of the distant future."
It is difficult to see how a society that accepts the techno-eugenic
re-engineering of the human species will maintain any sense
of humility, reverence and respect regarding the rest of the
Promoting the 'Post-Human' Future
Supporters of human germline engineering and cloning have established
institutes to spread their vision. In addition to Stock's program
at UCLA, the Los Angeles-based Extropy Institute holds workshops
on how to organize politically to advance the "post-human"
agenda, including sessions on how to talk to the press and public
about human genetic modification in ways that build support
and diffuse opposition. In 1999, the Maryland-based Human Biodiversity
Institute presented a seminar on the prospects for genetically
modified humans at a Hudson Institute retreat attended by former
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Meanwhile, the biotech industry is actively developing the
technologies that would make it possible to offer human germline
engineering on a commercial basis. This work is almost completely
unregulated. Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, California holds
patents on human embryo manipulation and cloning techniques.
Advanced Cell Technologies of Worcester, Massachusetts, announced
in 1999 that it had created a human/bovine embryo by implanting
the nucleus of a human cell into the egg of a cow. No laws exist
that would have prevented this trans-species embryo from being
implanted in a woman's uterus in an attempt to bring a baby
to term. Such a child would have contained a small but significant
proportion of cow genes.
Chromos Molecular Systems, Inc., in British Columbia, is developing
artificial human chromosomes that would enable the engineering
of multiple complex traits. People whose germlines were engineered
with artificial chromosomes, and who wanted to pass complete
sets of these to their children intact, would only be able to
mate with others carrying the same artificial chromosomes. This
condition, called "reproductive isolation," is the
primary criteria that biologists use to classify a population
as a separate species.
Where is the Opposition?
Given the enormity of what is at stake and the fact that advocates
of the new techno-eugenics are hardly coy about their intentions,
it is remarkable that organized opposition has been all but
absent. Why is this?
One reason is that the most critical technologies have been
developed only within the last three years or so—there
simply hasn't been time for people to fully understand their
implications and respond. Further, the prospect of re-designing
the human species is beyond anything that humanity has ever
before had to confront. People have trouble taking this seriously—it
seems fantastical and beyond the limits of what anyone would
actually do or that society would allow.
In addition, attitudes concerning human genetic engineering
don't fit neatly along the familiar ideological axes of right/left
or conservative/liberal. The additional axis of libertarian/communitarian
attitudes is needed to fully categorize currently contending
socio-politico commitments. The libertarian right and libertarian
left tend to consider human genetic modification as a property
right or as an individual right, respectively. By contrast,
the communitarian right and communitarian left tend to be strongly
opposed—the former typically for reasons grounded in religious
beliefs and the latter out of concern for human dignity, social
equity and solidarity.
Finally, although people sense that the new genetic technologies
are likely to introduce profound social and political challenges,
they also associate these technologies with the promise of miracle
cures. Before any sentiment in favor of banning certain uses
of genetic technology can take root, people will have to understand
that this would not foreclose means of preventing or curing
What Is to be Done?
The core policies that humanity will need to adopt are straightforward:
we will need global bans on altering the genes we pass to our
children and on creating human clones. We'll also need effective,
accountable systems for regulating those HGE technologies (such
as somatic genetic manipulation) that have desirable applications
but could be dangerously abused.
Many countries, including France, Germany and India, already
have banned both germline engineering and cloning. The Council
of Europe is working to have these banned in all 41 of its member
countries. The United Nations and UNESCO have called for a global
ban on human cloning and a World Health Organization study has
called for a global ban on germline engineering.
The base of any effective global movement to bring the new
human genetic technologies under societal control will, as always,
be strong activist civil society organizations. Among the most
important of these are the environmental and Green organizations.
In 1999, Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder and
Physicians for Social Responsibility Executive Director Robert
Musil circulated a statement that declared:
||"We believe that certain activities
in the area of genetics and cloning should be prohibited
because they violate basic environmental and ethical principles.
We believe that germline manipulations, for their ability
to change whole generations, not just individuals, go far
beyond the boundaries of human scientific and ethical understanding
and are too dangerous for human civilization to pursue.
Being a product of scientific design and manipulation as
opposed to natural chance will fundamentally change the
place of the individual in society and would profoundly
alter the relationship of human beings to the natural world."
In February 2000, nearly 250 concerned leaders, including environmentalists
Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder
and Mark Dowie, signed an open letter warning that the prospect
of human germline engineering "represents a point of decision—one
that ranks among the most consequential that humanity will ever
make. We should acknowledge that human germline engineering
is an unneeded technology that poses horrific risks, and adopt
policies to ban it."
The next few years will be critical. Advocates of the techno-eugenic
future are racing to create designer babies and human clones
before people realize what is happening and what is at stake.
They believe that once humanity is presented with such fait
accompli, resistance will crumble and the new epoch will have
been launched. It is imperative that those who value the beauty,
vitality and wonder of the natural world begin organizing now
to ensure that human beings do not become technological artifacts.
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