Human Nature on Collision Course with Genetic Engineering

Human Nature on Collision Course with Genetic Engineering

Human genetic engineering could be the next major battleground for the global conservation movement, according to a series of reports in the latest issue of World Watch magazine, published by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. While previous struggles have involved protecting ecosystems and human societies from the unpredicted consequences of new technologies, this fight over high-risk applications of human genetic engineering is a struggle over who will decide what it means to be human.

“Many countries have already banned reproductive cloning, and the U.N. is working on a global treaty to ban it, but even more powerful and much more dangerous are the related technologies to modify the genes we pass on to our children,” says Ed Ayres, Editor of World Watch magazine. The contributors to this special issue call on the U.N. and national governments to ban the technology known as inheritable genetic modification.

Many uses of human genetic technology could be beneficial to society, but as political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes in the magazine, our understanding of the relationship between our genes and whatever improvements we might seek for our children (and their descendants) is dangerously deficient. Fukuyama warns that “the victim of a failed experiment will not be an ecosystem, but a human child whose parents, seeking to give her greater intelligence, will saddle her with a greater propensity for cancer, or prolonged debility in old age, or some other completely unanticipated side effect that may emerge only after the experimenters have passed from the scene.”

Human genetic engineering has ramifications that reach far beyond the life of a single child. Several contributors highlight the disastrous results of the last serious effort to engineer genetic perfection. In the early part of the 20th century, scientists and politicians in the United States relied on the alleged science of eugenics to justify the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people who were judged to be “feebleminded,” “mentally defective,” or “epileptics.” Hitler passed his own sterilization law soon after taking office in 1933, heading down the path toward the Holocaust.
The U.S. biotechnology industry-which dominates the global industry-has become an increasingly powerful economic and political force, with revenues growing fivefold between 1989 ($5 billion) and 2000 ($25 billion). Aided by the equally rapid revolution in computing, laboratories that once took two months to sequence 150 nucleotides can now process over 30 million in a day, and at a small fraction of the earlier cost. The number of patents pending for human DNA sequences has gone from 4,000 in 1991, to 500,000 in 1998, to several million today.

“We are publishing this special issue because we don’t want to lose the opportunity to decide openly and democratically how this rapidly developing technology is used, ” says Ayres. “This isn’t a fight about saving whales, or the last rain forests, or even the health of people living today. The question is whether we can save ourselves from ourselves, to know and respect what we do not know, and to put the breaks on potentially dangerous forms of human genetic engineering.”

Excerpts from the authors of the “Beyond Cloning” issue of World Watch

  • Invigorating Racism: “There are precedents for breeding that are politically manipulated. You only have to think of the Nazi German ideal, the blond blue-eyed German.” -Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize recipient in literature for 1991.

  • Heightening Discrimination: “What is called a deficiency-mental, physical, or other-is socially defined. For example, the perverse world order of globalization dictated by commerce, greed, and profits regularly treats women, children, and poor people as inferiors. Without strong democracy and true transparency, this kind of discrimination can be used to justify human genetic manipulation, manifested in eugenics programs.” -Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, and author of Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.

  • Oh Brave New World: “Our new understanding of genomics and the neurosciences is almost making possible a generation of HyPE [human performance enhancement drugs] that could be used in more sinister ways, e.g., to control dissent.”-Pat Mooney, author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, and executive director of ETC Group.

  • Turning Babies into Commodities: “The story of an ‘enhanced’ humanity panders to some of the least attractive tendencies of our time: techno-scientific curiosity unbounded by care for social consequence, economic culture in which we cannot draw lines of any kind, hopes for our children wrought into consumerism, and deep denial of our own mortality.”-Tom Anthanasiou, author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor and Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society.

  • Widening Economic and other Inequalities: “Genetic engineering … will artificially confer heritable advantages only on those who can afford to buy them.” -Judith Levine, author of My Enemy, My Love: Women, Men, and the Dilemma of Gender.

  • The Law of Unintended Consequences: “…the attempt to master human nature through biotechnology will be even more dangerous and consequential than the efforts of industrial societies to master non-human nature through earlier generations of technologies.” -Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at The John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, author of The End of History and Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.

  • Destroying the Basis of Democracy: “The new eugenic technologies are being actively promoted by influential scientists, writers, and others who see themselves ushering in a new epoch for human life on earth. They speak with enthusiasm of a ‘post-human’ future in which the health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability, sensory capacity, and lifespan of our children have all been genetically modified. They anticipate, with scant concern, the inevitable segregation of humanity into genetic sub-species, the ‘GenRich’ and the ‘Naturals.’” -Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.

  • Creating a New Terror Weapon: “It is this potential for genocide based on genetic differences, which I have termed ‘genetic genocide,’ that makes species-altering genetic engineering a potential weapon of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.” -George J. Annas, Chair, Department of Health, Law, Bioethics and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

About World Watch magazine: This bimonthly magazine is published by the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization, based in Washington, DC. Launched in 1988, the magazine has won the Alternative Press Award for investigative journalism, the Project Censored Award, and a number of Utne Reader awards. Recent editions have featured articles on the imminent disappearance of more than half of the world’s languages, airport sprawl, and the rapid growth of organic farming. Please visit: www.worldwatch.org/mag/.

About the Worldwatch Institute:

The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. By providing compelling, accessible, and fact-based analysis of critical global issues, Worldwatch informs people around the world about the complex interactions between people, nature, and economies. Worldwatch focuses on the underlying causes of and practical solutions to the world’s problems, in order to inspire people to demand new policies, investment patterns, and lifestyle choices. For more information, visit: www.worldwatch.org.

 

Disclaimer: Please note that the statement by eight leaders of environmental NGOs, which appears on page 25 of the magazine, represents the views of the individuals quoted, not necessarily of the organizations they lead.