What will research into human genetics uncover next? Curbing the growth of (or even curing) many kinds of cancer; correcting conditions that may contribute to heart or lung disease; regenerating organs, tissues and bones on demand; pre-screening ova and sperm to remove genes causing hereditary diseases; all, and much more, may be achievable over the next few decades. Even an extra fifty or one hundred years of life expectancy may be on our grandchildren’s agenda. These advances promise a wonderfully healthy future.
New possibilities resulting from genetic manipulation unfold every week or two. We routinely manufacture plants, adding disease resistance and increasing vitamin content, changing size, shape, colour, scent, texture, height, growth rate—whatever wished for—to suit any market. We do the same with animals, creating living factories that duplicate top-rate fish, meat, milk, and egg-producers at will. Parents select the sex of their next child. Before long, they will likely be able to pre-determine its size, shape and colour; choose its probable intelligence, artistic aptitude and physical dexterity; and replace genes likely to precipitate diseases or cancers. And, as each gene’s role is deciphered by researchers, humanity treads closer to learning how to control the future of life itself.
New knowledge always brings both opportunities and challenges, and some of our past bio-engineering activities have already caused problems. Plants bred to resist herbicides have crossed with others to produce weeds that cannot be eradicated by conventional methods, and fish engineered to double in size have escaped captivity to breed predators that have decimated wild species, to give only two examples. Once produced, life evolves, and a future spent seeking and eradicating escaped and possibly dangerous genetic misfits can be horrifying to imagine.
There are many questions related to genetic manipulation that should be answered before rushing to apply research’s findings. Perhaps the most important include: What practices should be permitted? How can the applications of each discovery be controlled? and, Who should benefit?
(The question of who should benefit is not a trivial one. Gene treatments that alleviate or cure diseases are turning out to be very expensive, at least currently. If only the wealthy—individuals or nations—are to benefit, then we will have created yet another world-wide inequity that will likely provoke retaliation.)
Part One noted that rational decisions are made by referring to the purpose to be achieved. In making decisions about gene modification, what are we seeking? Do we declare that all knowledge is important, and thereby allow any manner of research, or do we state that some knowledge can be dangerous and try to regulate certain lines of genetic inquiry? Do we decide that only those who can afford it deserve to benefit from research because it is they who have paid, or do we desire the best for all humanity? Is it morally right to allow prospective parents to make any kind of genetic choice they desire concerning their future children, or should there be some universal standards drafted to protect the interests of the unborn?
And, whatever is decided, how will we ever be able to enforce our decisions?
A whole industry is rapidly developing to take advantage of our ability to control life by manipulating genes. Biomedical companies are springing up everywhere, run by entrepreneurs, staffed by well-trained scientists, and funded by venture capitalists, all eager for recognition or gain. Again, this is natural, not wrong; it is an expression of life exploiting a potential opportunity that may bring success to those that exploit. The problem, as usual, is one of control. How does society control an industry whose products need long-term screening, yet whose markets will clamour and pay for immediate gratification? Nations can legislate, but what good might that be when organizations can move offshore anytime they wish? One nation can act responsibly toward its people, however nothing requires all nations to act responsibly toward all people of the world. And the problems that may arise in this arena could be world-threatening.
Developing new life forms, beneficial or otherwise, is becoming a simple task. But it is next to impossible for an outside agency to detect the covert pursuits of another country until too late, as Russia, Afghanistan, North Korea and other nations, have taught us. There may be several ways to counter such activity, but one stands above others in effectiveness—that derived from individuals within an organization whose moral sensitivity is affronted by suspect endeavours. Disaffected individuals are prime sources of intelligence and counter-activity. Unfortunately, individuals have different concepts of moral correctness.
As noted in Revelations And Conversions, most ideas about morality stem from religions, and most religions have as their focus individual benefit, not that of the community. Consequently, how human activity in one location is affecting distant communities and different life forms is seldom considered until the damage has been done if it is considered at all. A global religion would generate a global awareness and conscience. While developing a global religion is a tall order, as a first and more practical step, developing a universal purpose is possibly the best countermeasure we may currently be able to adopt.
- For example: algae, used in the biotechnology industry to produce food and dietary supplements, were formerly grown outdoors (because they needed sunlight to grow), where their ponds were readily contaminated. The harvest then had to be put through an expensive purification process. Today, through the addition of one (ex-human) gene, they can be grown in the dark, in sterile vats. Another example: silk (for textile and industrial use) used to be spun from spiders. Today, goats, cloned from gene-altered cells, produce milk from which large quantities of spider’s silk can be extracted.
- Cloning animals is not yet a simple process and many clones die from developmental and genetic problems before birth. This may result from the fact that clones are usually produced from DNA taken from adult animals (of proven worth), and a number of these genes will have suffered mutations during their life within the donor cell. Mutations have little effect when involved in the reproduction of just one cell, as occurred before the genes were altered, but can affect the formation of whole organs, and produce malformed or non-functioning systems, when made to program an entire animal.
However, the science of cloning is rapidly improving. Ten or so years ago the success rate for cloning apparently healthy cattle was about one percent. At the time of writing, the success rate is about twelve percent. Further, the premature death of clones that survive birth is now less than twenty percent (normal death rate is about fifteen percent).
- For instance, a deaf lesbian couple in America recently chose a deaf male friend to father a child who, they were happy to discover, was born deaf. They explained that they wanted the child to enjoy the same experiences that they enjoyed. From their frame of reference this may have merit, but many think that it was not the correct moral decision to make.
- We see such a global awareness in public reactions to the events of September 11, 2001. People everywhere are thinking more carefully about the consequences of terrorist actions. Terrorist organizations today, and the groups that support them, have less credibility and more to fear, than used to be the case. Much of this counterforce stems from the general public’s new awareness, and the support it generates for the implementation of anti-terrorist actions.