SOC/BIO: George Will joins the bioluddites

Date: Sun Jan 21 2001 - 15:20:54 MST

George Will
January 21, 2001

Cloning could wipe out mankind

WASHINGTON--There are some things humanity cannot get used to without
jeopardizing its humanness--without becoming beastly. Creeping toward us, as
on little cat feet--little monkey feet, actually--is perhaps the gravest
imaginable crisis, one that could result in the end of history as a
distinctively human, and humane, story. Recently a rhesus monkey named ANDi
(``inserted DNA,'' backwards) became the first genetically altered primate
ever created. Created, not begotten; the result of manufacture, not
procreation. There is a world of difference. Humans are primates. We are
next. Or at any rate, we are in line for genetic ``enhancement.''

Not until ANDi reaches sexual maturity will scientists know if the jellyfish
gene inserted into his genetic makeup--a gene which seems to be in all his
tissues--is in his reproductive cells and will be passed along, making
possible a man-made line of primates. But such an outcome is just a matter
of time. So, probably, is the maximum genetic transfer--human cloning.

Let us stipulate that genetic manipulations can yield therapeutic blessings.
Genetically altered animals can illuminate causes and possible cures or
ameliorations of many diseases. Genetic manipulations in humans can be
therapeutic for diseases, even injuries (e.g., to spinal cords), and will
make possible research clarifying the roles of nature and nurture in shaping
human beings.

Enhancement is not therapy, it is eugenics. Genetic selection--the negative
eugenics of preventing certain traits in children--is already common,
through genetic screening and amniocentesis. However, at least negative
eugenics is supposed to serve an existing norm of health. But positive
eugenics, any tailoring of an individual's genetic endowment, even when less
ambitious than cloning, will put us on a slippery slope to the abolition of
man. Leon Kass, a biologist and ethicist with the University of Chicago,
explains why in his essay ``The Wisdom of Repugnance.''

Genetic manipulation extends the belief that all children should be
wanted--a principle justifying abortion--to embrace the belief that
children, to be acceptable, should, in their genetic traits, satisfy our
wants for their identities. Eugenics exemplifies the modern project--to
control the future, including the imposition of our design on our children,
while our autonomy remains uncontrolled. A casualty of this project is, Kass
says, the awe and respect for life arising from ``the unique,
never-to-be-repeated character of each human life.''

When parents stop saying (in Kass' words) ``yes to the emergence of new life
in its novelty,'' when they stop saying yes to whatever the child turns out
to be, then the meaning of having a child, and the parent-child relation,
will be profoundly altered, with consequences that are unforeseeable but
cannot be benign. When parents can preselect their child's genetic
constitution, procreation will become manufacture, children will become
artifacts, identity and individuality will become confused, and parents will
become despots.

Hubris and narcissism will color even the well-intentioned transformation of
a child--for its ``own good''--from an unscripted surprise into someone's
artifice or project. And there is a fundamental threat to humanity in the
reduction of another being to an extension of a person's will. There must be
a despotism of the enhancer over the enhanced, a despotism that would not be
justified even if the enhancement really were an improvement. It would
condemn a child to never achieving true independence from its parents.

It is, Kass says, ``moral myopia'' to think that all values must yield to
the goals of better health and desirable traits. A cost of such yielding can
be the reduction of man to the status of just another man-made thing.

But such warnings may be overwhelmed by what Kass calls ``the technological
imperative''--whatever science can do, will be done. That imperative seems
irresistible because today's moral vocabulary is so impoverished that
society can hardly even formulate good intentions. Part of that vocabulary
is desiccated utilitarianism that weighs only tangible harms and benefits:
If something reduces an individual's suffering or improves an individual's
well-being, it should be done. Another part is simplistic
libertarianism--anything consensual should be permissible and anything that
expands choices is good.

But it is not good, Kass insists, if human nature becomes just the last part
of nature turned into raw material for human willfulness. ANDi is an
intimation that nuclear explosions are not the only way science can end the
human story. Biology might do that more gradually than physics can, but no
less decisively, and even more repugnantly.

2001 Washington Post Writers Group

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:21 MDT