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 dont want
to lose the opportunity to decide openly and democratically how this rapidly
developing technology is used, says Ayres. This isnt
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
- 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:
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 worlds languages,
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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
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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.