It’s a fact: we’re standing on the threshold of a whole new era in science. The discoveries that lay just around the next corner will probably dwarf all the great developments of the last century. The big technologies of this age could change forever the very makeup of the human being.
This week, President George W. Bush declared that he will use his right of presidential veto to knock down any legislation allowing human stem cell research. Is he overreacting?
In the last 10 years, scientists have been doing a lot of work with germline genetic engineering. Working with animal embryos, researchers add or subtract sections of their DNA to produce particular outcomes.
The goal, of course, is to do the same with people, to shape human characteristics that are affected by our genes, such as intelligence, sporting ability and even emotional stability.
For all the hype surrounding these developments, philosophers and theologians question whether scientific advance always leads to a better society. Are scientific progress and human advancement really one and the same thing? The problem is not with the science itself but with the moral, ethical and practical consequences of using our knowledge.
For quite a long time now, novelists like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and Mary Shelley (Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster) have reminded us that scientists are fallible human beings: they can’t see into the future any more than you are I.
Some scientists like to talk as if they’re making infallible pronouncements that we should take on face value. But they can’t possibly predict the future effects of their technologies, especially where things are moving as quickly as they are with genetics.
Anthropologists want to know what new genetic technologies will do to families and communities. In some nations, female babies are often aborted for cultural reasons, such as the fact that parents must pay a high dowry price to marry off their female children.
As a result, there’s a huge imbalance between the male and female populations in these nations. What will happen if people are able to genetically engineer the sex of their children?
Some authorities warn that genetic selection techniques may lead to a new apartheid. Genetically enhanced people may one day be separated from their natural-born counterparts and given special privileges – as in the movie Gattaca.
Lawmakers will face major challenges, too. Will marriage partners try to stop one another from using embryonic gene treatments? Will children sue their biological parents for not giving them a better gene structure? The mind boggles!
Being a parent is already pretty demanding. But imagine how stressful it will be in a world of ‘designer babies’, where we struggle to keep up with the genetically modified Joneses. Most of us have enough trouble choosing the colour of our next car. How will we cope with choices that will affect our child’s personality or intelligence?
And what happens when child number two or three comes along and new genetic features are available? Do we inject upgrade ‘patches’ into our older kids, or just learn to say, ‘Why can’t you be more like your younger brother?’
What will happen to the way we see human sexuality? Sex has already been stripped of much of its mystical significance. Now we’re stripping sex of its importance in reproduction too, especially as some companies strive to develop artificial human wombs and even artificial sperm and eggs.
As reproduction moves from the bedroom to the laboratory, sex may be seen as nothing more than just another pleasure drug.
Perhaps the greatest reason to be cautious is that genetic technologies will impact on our basic humanity. If some people get their way, we may soon see the McDonaldisation of human reproduction. Genetically modified DNA sequences will be patented and sold to those who can afford them.
Reproductive technologies may show up some of the worst characteristics of our human nature – the desire for control, for one. We’ve had some success in getting control over our physical environment, but we want more.
Reproductive technologies will allow us to control our children -- even before they’ve arrived. Is that healthy? Does young Johnny really want to know that we meddled with his makeup even before he was born?
Gene manipulation can be eugenics by another name. In the last century, ethnic cleansing took place through guns and bombs. This century may produce ethnic cleansing via the test-tube.
You might think I’m just being alarmist. But we honestly have no way of knowing how the genetic changes we make today will play out in the world of our children’s children. We’re making decisions that will affect many generations to come. Can we take that kind of responsibility?
There will always be a compassionate reason to release some new technology quickly. But compassion without moral parameters is only sentimentality – and it’s dangerous. When there are momentous issues at stake we must slow down and consider the big picture.
The novelist and religious apologist C. S. Lewis wrote: ‘Men [first] became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a law-maker.’
Today, though, Western science is largely cut off from the guiding principles of theology. So its technology is at risk of disconnecting knowledge from wisdom.
The kind of pragmatism that seems to rule much of science today says, ‘If a thing can be done, it should be done – even if we haven’t shown how it pan out in the long run.’ But one of the things that makes us human -- different from other creatures -- is that we can ‘decide not to do something we are capable of doing.’
Our morality is part of what defines us, and morality is all about choices we make between what we could do and what we should do.
With the rush to develop genetic techniques, we must become accountable to something higher than human expediency.
Today, the culture of the machine, the genetic machine, is threatening to swallow up respect for our spiritual side. We may be entering, as Omar Bradley put it, ‘a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants … [who] have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.’
Obviously, we can’t stop the forward march of human knowledge. We wouldn’t want to. Curiosity is what leads us to new frontiers.
Yet each of us must take responsibility to think about where new technologies – especially in genetics -- might take us. We must hold science accountable. If we don’t get involved in inventing the future, someone else’s vision of the future will re-invent us.