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Redesigning Humans: Is It Inevitable?
Thursday, July 22, 2010 8:25 AM

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

The People Are Restless

There is a general unease in the wind. People are a little squeamish concerning the coming revolution in biotechnology. There is a sort of stand-offish fascination where we wonder at the possibilities for curing genetic diseases and even for making ourselves smarter, prettier, or stronger. Yet we shrink from the potential horror of the world we might create for ourselves with no hope of turning back.

We have faced such forks in the road before. Every new technology has presented fantastic benefits and uncertain costs. Gunpowder, electricity, the combustion engine, atomic energy, etc., have all offered tantalizing either/or tensions. Some of these tensions we still live with, such as the threat of nuclear weapons and encroaching pollution from combustion engines.

But for the most part we have been able to develop a stable coexistence between the potential for good and the potential for evil. Weapons have become more precise, minimizing unnecessary collateral casualties, the combustion engine has become cleaner and more efficient, and atomic weapons so far have been remarkably harnessed.

But what about genetic technology? Is this just the next step in human discovery about ourselves, or does it mean the end of humanity as we know it? Could we literally redesign humanity out of existence? There are voices in our culture today that will tell us that indeed we can and we will and it is inevitable and "you'd just better get used to it."

On the other hand there are those who maintain that we are headed down a disastrous road, and that we have a small opportunity to harness the benefits of the new technologies while minimizing and corralling the hazards.

I recently spent several days at the United World College in New Mexico developed by the late Armand Hammer, one of several upper high schools around the world for the best and brightest. The occasion was a student-led conference organized for discussing the ethics of human genetic engineering and cloning. Three other invited guest speakers and I spent two days with the 200 students from around the world and the UWC faculty and staff.

About fifty of the students were from a variety of backgrounds from here in the U.S., and the other 150 were from almost ninety countries. Their knowledge and perspectives on human genetic engineering ran from those who saw few problems and were perplexed by those with reservations to those who held all such technologies at arm's length and couldn't understand why anyone would want to do such things.

Who's right? Beyond that, What have we done already? And is there any opportunity for science and society to meet together to figure this out? In this program we will hear from several voices and see if we can navigate the coming genetic mine fields.

Is There a Posthuman Future?

One of participants at the UWC conference designated himself a "transhumanist." Transhumanists are among those who welcome with open arms the possibilities of genetic engineering to alter who and what we are. They scoff at the reluctance of others to step into this coming Brave New World. They relish the possibilities of double and triple average life-expectancy, designer babies, and the elimination of genetic disease. They aren't troubled by the necessity of costly mistakes and failures. That's just the price of research and progress. We accept risk all the time, they say. Why should genetic research be any different? They apply rather consistently a naturalistic worldview which sees human beings as just another species. We certainly aren't made in the image of God, they say, so why is our current genetic structure sacred?

Gregory Stock opened his 2002 book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, this way: "We know that homo sapiens is not the final word in primate evolution, but few have grasped that we are on the cusp of profound biological change, poised to transcend our current form and character to destinations of new imagination."{1}

Stock rightly points out that we have already started down the road of genetic manipulation of our species. Several fertility clinics in the U.S. already offer preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGD. This procedure screens newly created embryos by in vitro fertilization for a few genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia. You can also have the embryos screened for sex selection. Some clinics even offer sex selection as the sole purpose of your visit to the clinic.

One couple from Wyoming had fourteen embryos created by in vitro. Seven were male, seven were female. They chose three females to be implanted to ensure their fourth child was a girl after three boys. The technique is virtually 100% effective. Less efficient sperm selection techniques are only 91% effective for girls and only 76% effective for boys.{2} But should we be selecting the sex of our children?

Over one million IVF babies have been born worldwide, around 28,000 in the U.S.--roughly 1% of newborns. This may soon become the "natural" way once more procedures become available to design our own babies. We may recoil today at the thought of designer babies, but we also recoiled twenty-five years ago against the thought of test-tube babies.

Stock closes his book by saying, "We are beginning an extraordinary adventure that we cannot avoid, because, judging from our past, whether we like it or not this is the human destiny."{3} But is it?

What's So Wrong With Tinkering With Our DNA?

Couples are already being given the power to choose the sex of their child, even at the cost of simply rejecting the embryos that are the wrong sex. But our technology is advancing rapidly to allow a far broader array of genetic choices.

Gene therapy, the ability to transfer a normal human gene into the affected tissues of a person affected by a single gene disease, has been pursued for over ten years. So far results have been disappointing. That is partly the reason why many are looking for improved ways to add genes to the earliest one cell stage embryo so the gene can be spread to all tissues at once. This process is also rather inefficient in animals, successful only about 1% of the time.

But this does not deter some because they already view the embryo, before fourteen days after conception, as little more than reproductive cells and not yet worthy of being declared human. If this definition holds, embryos can be wasted as long as a supply of human eggs is readily available. In addition to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for sex selection and selection of embryos that are free of cystic fibrosis, Tay Sachs, hemophilia, and other genetic diseases, other genetic technologies are on the near horizon.

Researchers have already devised artificial chromosomes. These chromosomes pass on stably over several generations in mice. They have been tested successfully in human tissue culture, and have remained stable over dozens of cell divisions. No one has added foreign genes to these chromosomes, but that is the plan: to provide a safe and effective means of adding genes to embryos and have them distributed to all tissues and to succeeding generations.

Genetic futurist Gregory Stock summed it up when he said, "Breakthroughs in the matrixlike arrays called DNA chips, which may soon read thirty thousand genes at a pop; in artificial chromosomes, which now divide as stably as their naturally occurring cousins; and in bioinformatics, the use of computer- driven methodologies to decipher our genomes--all are paving the way to human genetic engineering and the beginnings of human biological design."{4}

Some may scoff at these projections, but people seem quite willing around the world to consider taking advantage of technologies that can genetically enhance themselves or their offspring. "In a 1993 international poll, Daryl Mercer, director of the Eubois Ethics Institute in Japan, found that a substantial segment of the population of every country polled said they would use genetic engineering both to prevent disease and to improve the physical and mental capacities inherited by their children. The numbers ranged from 22 percent in Israel and 43 percent in the United States to 63 percent in India and 83 percent in Thailand."{5} So what's the problem?

What's Our Next Step?

I believe that being able to genetically redesign human beings is far closer than most people realize. Not only is the technology developing at an ever-increasing rate, but people are also far more willing to consider using such technologies than most would want to think.

I hope my tone in this article has indicated that I have deep reservations about this seemingly inevitable future. But why do I say this is inevitable? And why would I have reservations about taking this next step?

I believe that at least trying to alter ourselves genetically is inevitable because the technology is developing rapidly using animal models. And whatever we have done in animals, we eventually do in humans. The naturalistic worldview says quite strongly that we are just another animal species. If our understanding of our own genetics continues to increase and we gain the technology to correct our defects and faults, the naturalist says, Why not?!

Society and governments have put few barriers in the way of scientists and researchers from simply taking the next logical step. So far, we have been unwilling to say that there are some experiments we will not do. Even though most will say they are against human cloning--even scientists--that figure is changing, and we have few reasons for our objections besides the fact that it is not yet safe. If it does become safer, the public will have little room to say no. We've painted ourselves into a bit of a corner.

In regard to genetic engineering, we are easily swayed by appeals to eliminate genetic diseases without considering how difficult it is to delineate between curing genetic disease and producing genetic enhancements. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Laureate, exposes our difficulty with two penetrating statements. Concerning curing genetic disease he said, "What the public wants is not to be sick and if we help them not to be sick, they'll be on our side."{6}In another context Watson would have left most people dead in their tracks when he said, "No one really has the guts to say it, but if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?"{7}

Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, put it quite succinctly when he said, "The first thing needful is a correction and deepening of our thinking."{8} When I speak to young people in particular, I almost plead with them to pay attention in biology class. These genetic choices will probably begin to be available to today's high school students as they marry and begin their families. They and we need to be better prepared.

How Will the Church Be Challenged?

There are just a few voices warning of the coming challenges and opportunities of the developing crisis over human dignity as the diesel engine of human genetic technology gains momentum and steam. Some fear it may already be beyond the point of no return and believe we'd better figure out how we are going to cope with our inevitable future of redesigned humans.

Leon Kass's book, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, is a good place to start. Though not a Christian, Kass dances around the edges of a Christian or theistic worldview that at least acknowledges that there is a human design in place that we need to be mindful of before we head out at breakneck speed to change who and what we are.

Kass sees that our efforts to redesign humans challenge our very dignity and identity as human beings. If parents have constructed the best child for them using the best available technology they can afford, are they still parents, or creators and owners with additional rights and privileges? A child becomes a commodity to be designed, manufactured, and even sold. Love and nurture will turn to management and stimulation.

Gregory Stock is the director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine. His book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, will sober you up quite quickly. Stock is a naturalist and has little patience with those who would hold back our genetic future. He is knowledgeable and unflinching about the possibilities. One commentator wrote; "This is the most important book ever written about what we could do to make better people. I could not put this book down because it challenged everything I knew about human nature." I would agree.

In my travels I have found the church to be largely unaware of how close we are to Stock's vision of redesigning humans. Within a few short decades our children will be pressured to alter their children genetically to keep up with society. Scientific research may well make use of human embryos as matter of fact research subjects. This may likely extend to developing fetuses, and it will all in the name of furthering health and eliminating disease.

How will we react? The Barna Research Group tells us over and over again that the Christian community does not think or act in an appreciatively different manner than society at large. That means these genetic technologies will find their way into the church. There will be a new source of discrimination to deal with. No longer will churches be segregated by economic status and race but by genetic pedigree as well.

Do we really think we can improve on or maybe at least recover the original design? There may be a new Tower of Babel on our horizon. We must take seriously this threat to our future, both of humanity and the church.

Notes

 

1. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Back
2. Claudia Kalb, "Brave New Babies," Newsweek, 26 January, 2004, 45-53. Back
3. Stock, 197. Back
4. Ibid., 13. Back
5. Ibid., 58. Back
6. Quoted in Leon Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge of Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 7. Back
7. Quoted in Stock, 12. Back
8. Kass, 8. Back

 

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