>From E Magazine,
The Human Genetic Blueprint Has Been Drafted, Offering Both Perils and
Opportunities for the Environment. The Big Question: Are We Changing the
Nature of Nature?
By Sally Deneen
Princeton University microbiologist Lee M. Silver can see a day a few
centuries from now when there are two species of humans--the standard-issue
"Naturals," and the "Gene-enriched," an elite class whose parents
consciously bought for them designer genes, and whose parents before them
did the same, and so on for generations. Want Billy to have superior
athletic ability? Plunk down the cash. Want Suzy to be exceptionally smart?
Just pull out the Visa card at your local fertility clinic, where the elite
likely will go to enhance their babies-to-be.
It will start innocently enough: Birth defects that are caused by a single
gene, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease, will be targeted first,
and probably with little controversy. Then, as societal fears about messing
with Mother Nature subside, Silver and other researchers predict that a
genetic solution to preventing diabetes, heart disease and other big killers
will be found and offered. So will genetic inoculations against HIV.
Eventually, the mind will be targeted for improvement--preventing alcohol
addiction and mental illness, and enhancing visual acuity or intelligence to
try to produce the next Vincent Van Gogh or Albert Einstein. Even traits
from other animals may be added, such as a dog's sense of smell or an
What parents would see as a simple, if pricey, way to improve their kids
would result, after many generations of gene selection, in a profound change
by the year 2400--humans would be two distinct species, related as humans
and chimps are today, and just as unable to interbreed. People now have 46
chromosomes; the gene-enriched would have 48 to accommodate added traits,
Silver predicts in his aptly titled book, Remaking Eden.
We may already be on the path to change the very nature of nature. If you
think it's a far-off prospect best left to future generations, think again.
On June 26, 2000, with much fanfare, scientists with the taxpayer-supported
Human Genome Project (working with the private Celera Genomics of Rockville,
Maryland) announced that they had completed a working draft of a genetic
blueprint for a human being. Many details still need to be filled in before
scientists can build a human from scratch.
Sequencing the human genome requires identifying 3.2 billion chemical
"letters" located on the 46 coiled strands of DNA found in nearly every
human cell. While researchers now know the order in which DNA is arranged on
the chromosomes, they haven't identified all those chemical "letters," which
contain the instructions for making the proteins that comprise the human
body. About half of the genome sequence is in near-finished form or better;
a quarter is finished. The 15-year project is to be completed in 2005 at a
budgeted cost of $3 billion, though some of that tax money is spent on other
While the implications for longevity, health insurance and discrimination of
this milestone achievement have grabbed media attention, the ramifications
for the environment--good and bad--haven't.
An Accelerating Timetable
How soon will all this happen? Silver believes that by around 2010 parents
will be able to genetically ensure their babies won't grow up to be fat or
alcoholic, and by 2050 arrange to insert an extra gene into single-cell
embryos within 24 hours of conception to make babies resistant to AIDS. It
is already possible to insert foreign DNA into mice, pigs and sheep. The
obstacles to inserting them in humans are mainly technical ones. At this
point in human knowledge, it could lead to mutations. Several techniques are
under development to try to avoid that, however.
"For the near and midterm future, we're looking at science fiction. You'd
have to be terminally reckless to do that type of human engineering on
people [with what we know now]," argues law professor Henry T. Greely,
co-director of the Program in Genomics, Ethics and Society at the Stanford
University Center for Biomedical Ethics.
To change a baby's eye color or hair color within a fertilized human egg
"would be a very expensive and dangerous proposition for such trivial
purposes," says Dr. Marvin Frazier, who fields human genome questions as
director of the Life Sciences Division of the U.S. Department of Energy's
Office of Biological and Environmental Research. "It is also my opinion that
this would be wrong," he added, "but that will not stop some people from
wanting to try."
As for manipulating intelligence or athletic ability, Frazier says it will
take scientists many decades to figure out how to do it. These particular
traits don't rely on one gene, but on all genes. They also rely "to a
significant degree" on nurture instead of nature. Even when scientists
figure it out, "It is likely that to achieve the desired goals would require
a lot of experimentation, which translates into many hundred or thousands of
mistakes before you get it right." That means, Frazier says, "a lot of
malformed babies and miscarriages."
A Pivotal Moment
To University of Washington professor Phil Bereano, among others, now is the
time for all of us to talk with friends and colleagues to hash out the
ethical and societal implications of this Brave New World. Do we really want
to commodify people? Could it be a Pandora's box? Unfortunately, the box may
already be open: Many nations have banned genetic engineering on humans, but
the United States has not.
"If scientists don't play God, who will?" said supporter James Watson,
former head of the Human Genome Project, speaking before the British
Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in June.
"The key question is not whether human [genetic] manipulation will occur,
but how and when it will," says a confident Gregory Stock, director of
UCLA's Program on Science, Technology and Society in a report entitled, "The
Prospects for Human Germline Engineering."
Meanwhile, a long-anticipated September report by the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) surprised some observers by failing to
call for a ban on making inheritable genetic changes in humans--that is,
genetic changes that would be carried on by progeny. Indeed, while the
report says that such research "cannot presently be carried out safely and
responsibly on human beings," it also leaves wiggle room. "Human trials of
inheritable genetic changes should not be initiated until reliable
techniques for gene correction or replacement are developed that meet
agreed-upon standards for safety and efficacy," says report co-author Mark
Frankel, director of AAAS' Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law
Noting the public outcry after the cloning of Dolly the sheep--which raised
the possibility of cloned human beings--the report stresses the importance
of public discussion about genetic research before major technical
innovations occur. So instead of a ban, the report suggests "rigorous
analysis and public dialogue."
But there's no shortage of opposition to human engineering. The San
Francisco-based Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
seeks, among other things, to alert a largely unwitting public to what is
going on. "It really is a nightmare vision," says Rich Hayes, who
coordinates the campaign from his Public Media Center office. "Once we start
genetically re-engineering human beings, where would we stop? We should have
the maturity and wisdom to ban the modification of the genes we pass to our
The futuristic notion of choosing a child's genes from a catalog can
certainly capture the imagination. Just as parents today enroll their
children in the best possible schools and pay for orthodontics, the parents
of the future--perhaps in a few decades--would be able to choose from an
ever-increasing suite of traits: hair color, eye color, bigger muscles and
Maybe they'd like to add a few inches to a child's height. Or improve a
kid's chances at longevity by tweaking inherited DNA. Or ensure a resistance
to viruses. Neighborhood clinics could, by appointment, insert a block of
genes into a newly fertilized egg. As one cell broke into two, then four,
and so on, each cell would contain the new traits. And the child would pass
on those traits to all subsequent generations. Who could blame parents for
going for this?
But to Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York
Medical College in Valhalla, New York, the effect on human biology could be
analogous to transforming wild areas into artificial areas, or wild food
into artificial food.
We "might be changing people into products--genetically engineered
products," says Newman, who also is chairman of the Human Genetics Committee
for the Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"That's something that's opened up by the Humane Genome Project."
"We believe that certain activities in the area of genetics and cloning
should be prohibited because they violate basic environmental and ethical
principles," Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder and Physicians
for Social Responsibility Executive Director Robert Musil said in a 1999
joint statement. "The idea of redesigning human beings and animals to suit
the primarily commercial goals of a limited number of individuals is
fundamentally at odds with the principle of respect for nature."
Proponents and critics alike envision a future in which those who can't
afford gene enrichment will be relegated to second-class citizenship. "As
far as I'm concerned, this thrill we have about the future will end up being
one big elitist ripple," says Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds
Institute, a suburban Seattle nonprofit institute that works on issues
related to environment, technology, ethics and law.
The Green Dimension
And what about the environment? Burrows says several important questions
arise about genetic tampering: What are we creating? How will it affect the
natural world? What will be the effect on evolution for each species
involved? How will it change feeding patterns, or food for other animals?
Without understanding interactions, she says, "We may do some extremely
stupid things. If people are concerned that there was such a severe backlash
against genetically modified foods, I think they haven't seen anything
compared to the backlash when we are able to alter the human genome in
significant ways--even insignificant ways," says Burrows.
UCLA's Gregory Stock agrees the impact of human genetic modification is
profound, but he likes it. "This technology will force us to re-examine even
the very notion of what it means to be human," he wrote in a recent report.
"For as we become subject to the same process of conscious design that has
so dramatically altered the world around us, we will be unable to avoid
looking at what distinguishes us from other life, at how our genetics shapes
us, at how much we are willing to intervene in life's flow from parent to
Ignacio Chapela of University of California at Berkeley is troubled by still
other implications the Human Genome Project may bring for the natural
world--including plants engineered specifically to produce human proteins,
and pigs produced to have antigens that are more human-like in a quest to
help humans. To Chapela, a professor in the Department of Environmental
Science, Policy and Management, the concept, say, of using chimpanzees as
surrogate mothers for human embryos is "abhorrent--degrading for
chimpanzees, and for humans, as well. I think what we're talking about is a
very deep understanding of what it means to be part of an intricate web of
life, and why we have boundaries between species." To Chapela, proponents
see the world as a sphere smeared with mix-and-match DNA. "Evolutionarily,
it makes sense to have boundaries," he says, "and we're just willy-nilly
breaking them down."
A Brave New World
None of these developments will occur in a vacuum; great advancements in
robotics are also expected, portending a trend toward the melding of man and
machine in a quest for greater human longevity--to age 110, 130 and beyond.
UCLA's Stock dubs this new human/machine "Metaman," a "global
superorganism." If it seems like mere musings stolen from a science-fiction
film, consider this bit of reality: In March, Berkeley researchers announced
that they had invented the first "bionic chip"--part living tissue, part
machine. Eventually, such chips and circuitry could help in the development
of body implants for treating genetic diseases such as diabetes.
"It's a key discovery because it's the first step to building complex
circuitry that incorporates the living cell," mechanical engineering
professor Boris Rubinsky, who created the device with a graduate student,
said afterward. "The first electronic diode made it possible to have the
computer. Who knows what the first biological diode will make possible?"
UCLA's Stock isn't concerned about the effects of human genetic engineering
on nature. "Even if half the world's species were lost, enormous diversity
would still remain," he argues in his 1993 book, Metaman: The Merging of
Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism. "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…If medical science develops an easy cure for cancer, [nuclear] wastes
may not be viewed as a significant health hazard after all. If robots can be
employed to safely concentrate and reprocess the radioactive materials, they
might even be valuable."
Not so fast, says another architect of the modern world, Bill Joy, the
father of Java software and co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Joy posits with
some feeling of guilt that "our most powerful 21st-century technologies…are
threatening to make humans an endangered species." In a celebrated article
in Wired magazine last year, Joy blamed the possible extinction of humans on
a few key causes, including genetic engineering and robotics. Artificial
intelligence should match that of humans within 20 or 30 years.
To combat the perceived inevitability of this Brave New World, Marcy
Darnovsky, a Sonoma State University instructor who works with the
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, calls for
three things: First, a global ban on inheritable genetic engineering on
humans; second, a global ban on human reproductive cloning; and third, an
effective and accountable regulation of other human genetic technologies.
Burrows says we need to be pondering such weighty questions as: Do we really
want to merge with machines? "There are tremendous--awful--choices to be
made," she says. "It's very risky to have these discussions because they're
about common values. The subject is difficult, painful and easily avoided.
But we have to stop focusing on the science and think of ourselves as part
of an ecosystem."
Chapela is also worried about the lack of civic discourse. But the advocates
are talking, particularly among themselves. At a Berkeley conference, one of
them, Extropy Institute President Max More, stood before the crowd and read
an open letter to Mother Nature:
Sorry to disturb you, but we humans--your offspring--come to you with some
things to say:
You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled
What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed;
We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic
alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary
means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our
Other proponents are more sober, and include Nobel laureate scientists.
"This is no 'marginal' movement or way of thinking," Chapela says. "The
group advocating human re-engineering includes extremely powerful,
influential and wealthy people. So don't expect them to roll over easily or
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