The 1990s and early 21st century saw significant developments in the research and application of human genetics, provoking calls for biotechnologies to be given more consideration from ethical and political viewpoints. This essay shall analyse some of these developments and the potential repercussions of their appliance.
Key theorists such as Francis Fukuyama urge prudence in the roll-out of these technologies to ensure the ethical dimensions are clearly understood and analysed,
“This protracted discussion of human dignity is intended to answer the following question: What is it that we want to protect from any future advance in biotechnology? The answer is we want to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification.” (Fukuyama 2002, p172)
Others, including Gregory Stock, advocate a more zealous approach, seeing genetic technological advances as an irretraceable progression of human evolution,
“As we follow the path that germ line choice offers, we are likely to find that being human has little to do with the particular physical and mental characteristics we now use to define ourselves, and even less to do with the methods of conception and birth that are now so familiar…. As we move into the centuries ahead, our strongest bond with one another may be that we share a common biological origin and are part of a common process of self-directed emergence into an unknowable future.” (Stock 2002, p196)
Most theorists agree that during the next century, fundamental developments in biotechnologies will take place, which will force us to re-examine what it means to be human,
“We have good reason, on the basis of what is happening in such fields as computer science, biotechnology and psychopharmacology, to suspect that Homo Sapiens are going to exit from the 21st century a considerably different animal from what it was in the 20th.” (Anderson 2003, p536)
These developments have the potential to challenge dearly held notions of human equality and the capacity for moral choice. They will give society new techniques for controlling the behaviour of their citizens and change our understanding of human personality and identity. They could upend existing social hierarchies and affect the rate of social, material and political progress. Hopefully, we can harness the benefits of bioengineering without corrupting human nature, and avoid fighting potential positive progress for fear of the future?
The main drive of genetic research thus far has been to identify therapeutic preventative measures and cures for genetic diseases. It is now possible to preclude certain diseases by testing embryos for genetic maladies and discarding those showing imperfections, using techniques such as Pre Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). This involves eggs being extracted from a woman’s ovaries, fertilised with human sperm in the laboratory and allowed to develop into a cluster of cells. After 48hrs, acid is used to etch a hole in the membrane of each embryo and a single cell is extracted. These cells are then genetically analysed. Theoretically, if the cell is genetically normal, then the embryo from which it came is also normal. These healthy embryos can then be implanted into the mother’s womb. (Pierce, 2002)
PGD is by definition genetic selection, not genetic modification, so parents must already carry the genes they wish their child to acquire, and the desired genetic amalgamation must already exist in an embryo. Furthermore, PGD can currently test for a maximum of 2 specific genes. This is ideal for identifying known inherited genetic disorders caused by single faulty genes, but ineffectual for testing complex genetic combinations. (Pierce, 2002. Strachan, 2003)
Techniques such as gene therapy, where healthy genes are inserted into patients who are lacking such genes, offer a more radical vision of the future. The current drawback is that patients need to continue with the treatment for the rest of their lives. It is thought that if the stem cells of a foetus could be treated, the cells may continue to produce the required genes unabated. There are serious moral and ethical issues concurrent with these genetic engineering procedures, as an individual’s intrinsic germ-line may be altered, which could result in a heredity succession of genetically modified humans, fundamentally changing the biology of our species. While these technologies offer great hope, the potential for erroneous consequences is incalculable. Inserting genes into the astonishingly complex biological process of human embryo development is at best an inexact science, and the certification of human foetal research is extremely unlikely in the near future. (Pierce, 2002. Strachan, 2003)
Cloning is probably the most impassioned, emotive, and perhaps maligned and misunderstood, area of genetic engineering. It involves the creation of a genetically identical organism through nonsexual means. Civilisation has been cloning plants for thousands of years, but recent advances in animal cloning, and especially the potential for human cloning, have proven controversial with claims that biologists are ‘playing God’. The birth of Dolly the sheep in 1997 propelled the technique to fame, and public concerns and have remained high since.
If human cloning proceeds, one method scientists have at their disposal is Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), the same procedure used to create Dolly. SCNT begins when an egg is extracted from a donor and the nucleus is removed, creating an enucleated egg. A cell, which contains DNA, is then taken from the person who is to be cloned. The enucleated egg is then electrically fused with the cloning subject’s cell. This creates an embryo, which is implanted into a surrogate mother through in vitro fertilization. If the procedure is successful, the surrogate will give birth to offspring that is an exact clone of the DNA donor. (Strachan, 2003)
Not all cloning would involve creating an entirely new human being. Potential therapeutic uses of the technology involve using a person’s DNA to grow an embryonic clone. Instead of inserting this embryo into a surrogate mother, its cells can be used to grow stem cells. These stem cells can then act as a ‘human repair kit’, which could grow replacement organs, such as hearts, livers and skin. They could also be used to grow neurons to cure those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Rett Syndrome.
Regenerative medicine organ growth may require an animal host of some sort, raising the prospect of an animal being bred to have certain specific human characteristics. This raises an interesting ethical debate and further undermines the supposition of unique human nature. (Fukuyama, 2002. Strachan, 2003)
Potential uses for full human cloning include aiding infertile or same-sex parents to produce children with the biological attributes of one of the parents. Particularly controversial uses include making clones of the deceased.
More recently, inroads have been made into establishing the relationships between genetics and the delineation of disposition and personality. For example, one gene has been likened to a natural form of Prozac, which raised the question of what type of effect this would have on an individual’s character. The personalities of hundreds of people were analysed and checked to see which form of the gene they had. The results demonstrated that on average, those with the ‘long form’ of the gene were more optimistic and less inclined to suffer from depression than those with the ‘short form’. This research demonstrated that a single gene seemed to have a considerable effect on character traits. (Strachan, 2003)
Other genes have been detected which are said to have links to factors including alcoholism, homosexuality, risk-taking and musical ability. Although individual genes may have a strong influence on individual character traits, it is more likely that these traits are shaped by a combination of multiple genes and environmental factors. Due to the vast number of genes and the exponential number of their possible combinations, it is clear that there is a great deal of research that must yet be undertaken before relationships can be established with any certainty.
Social and political implications
For the 100,000 or so years that the human race has existed, we have been subject to relatively slight evolutionary genetic modification, achieved through generational succession.
That said, as recently as the 1930 & 40s, doctrines of scientific racism purported to show genetic divergence that justified the differentiation of the rights granted to supposed classes of individuals. Perhaps the most disturbing manifestation of such dogma was the Nazi pseudoscience of eugenic rhetoric and genocide. Human characteristics were objectified and judged against a set of perceived ideals, and an industrial scale racial eradication and the selective breeding process were initiated with the goal of producing a ‘master race’. Eugenic philosophy has a long history, with selective breeding being suggested in the works of Plato. Many considered the evolutionary theories of Darwin as a natural justification for the application of such beliefs. (Clifford-Engs, 2005)
However, Jürgen Habermas asserts that,
“Eugenic interventions aiming at enhancement reduce ethical freedom insofar as they tie down the person concerned to rejected, but irreversible intentions of third parties, barring him from the spontaneous self-perception [my emphasis] of being the undivided author of his own life.” (Habermas, 2003 p63)
One of the great achievements of 20th-century liberal democracy was to debunk the empirical basis of most of these eugenic claims and to recognise that humans are a relatively genetically homogeneous species. Racism is still a scourge of modern society, although few erudite individuals claim racial disparity as having any significant genetic basis.
Conversely, developing biotechnologies unfetter the possibility of a class of enhanced human beings being created, a development that could potentially undo many of the 20th century’s attainments in terms of political equality. In a very material, real way, it would no longer be true to say that all people are created equal. Technologies such as PGD were envisaged to allow parents to eradicate genetic diseases from their lineage, but sceptics assert that these technologies will inevitably lead to a situation where only genetically perfect children are allowed to be born. This fosters the possibility of inadvertently creating a ‘master race’ devoid of individuality. (Fukuyama, 1993, 2002)
With advances in genetic engineering technologies, it will become possible to specify in advance certain genetic characteristics of a child. Further down the line, altering entire genetic specifications may well be achievable, which would be passed on down through subsequent generations. We are entering a period in which it may become possible to alter who we are in the most fundamental and profound ways, which could potentially change the very nature of the human species over a relatively brief evolutionary period.
There are several ways in which biotechnology can proceed. Many scenarios could play out in a much less dramatic way, but still hold serious political ramifications, such as life extension or the of various drugs and other technologies that may enable us to control or manipulate human behaviours. This may not alter our fundamental nature and therefore our rights, but they do re-open the possibility of certain kinds of social engineering which by the end of the 20th century we had largely rejected, in favour of the Utopian belief that human nature itself was intractable.
Advances in the identification of genes, which influence mental and physical characteristics, proffer the possibility of so-called ‘designer babies’. It may become possible to select the sex, hair colour, eye colour, height and even intelligence or personality of a child. Gregory Stock notes that science will soon give us the ability to ‘choose our children’s genes’, inaugurating a new era of self-directed ‘conscious human evolution (Stock, 2002 p184)
There are ominous aspects of such “conscious human evolution”. Supposing, in the privacy of a doctor’s office, parents had the means to guarantee that their child would have no genetic predisposition to being gay. Would many parents, even the most liberal-minded and unprejudiced, not opt to have heterosexual offspring? Is it not human nature to covet, in the short term, grandchildren, and in the long term, possibly subliminally, the furtherance of the hereditary line the continuation of the species? Under these conditions, does it mean that the eradication of the gay gene (should it exist) is an improvement for the human race? Such uncertainties unlock many moral debates over what, in essence, constitutes a genetic advance.
This type of categorisation is politically very controversial. When it comes to manipulating the emotional gamut of human beings, disbanding and restructuring them to make us happier, we are unlikely to understand what we’re doing. The likelihood of unintended consequences when this is undertaken, and the opportunities for politically or ideologically motivated attempts to manipulate human personality, is acute. Even if there aren’t unintended consequences, and we are able to use this technology safely and effectively, that in a way causes a bigger problem. It presupposes that we understand what it is that we want to modify about our natures and what it is that we think we are doing to improve a human being. (Fukuyama, 2002)
An example of this type of emotional manipulation can be seen in the oversubscription of Ritalin to American children. This amphetamine-based drug is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and in doing so has proven to be effective. Ritalin may treat problems of “brain chemistry” among some children, but it also obscures social or environmental factors in many others. It is often prescribed to children who display normal characteristics as a means of behaviour control, replacing what would traditionally be the job of the parents. This ‘quick fix’ has serious repercussions for a child’s mental growth in areas such as self-control and emotional development. This is an illustration of the subtle ways in which medical technology undermines traditional understandings of what it means to be human because that is a shortcut around some of the pains and difficulties associated with adolescence. Whilst it may be difficult to argue that unnecessary pain and suffering is a requisite, part of the human condition is being able to deal with those aspects of life. (Diller, 1993)
Another way of potentially altering our primordial nature is through life extension. Advances in traditional medicine such as drugs and surgical procedures have increased life expectancy considerably in recent years, and many molecular biologists ruminate over a common genetic cause of the body’s natural lifespan that could be altered in some, possibly dramatic, way. This poses a very difficult challenge, as our human nature and experience are very much based on generational succession. Institutions and societies, and in many ways progress itself, are dependent on the manifestation of natural generational succession. An older generation naturally makes way for a younger generation. If people live active lives not just into their 70s and 80s like now, but into 90s 100s and so forth, the age-rated hierarchies that dominate our societies will no longer function under those conditions. Amongst other resulting factors, great grandparents would compete for jobs with their great-grandchildren, the average age of the populace would rise dramatically and the global population would soar. (Fukuyama, 2002)
In terms of equality, the first people to make use of these prospectively expensive Byzantine technologies are likely to be the wealthy and the socio-political elite. Historically, the progeny of these classes has had advantages in areas such as access to education and resources. In future, they may have embedded genetic advantages in areas such as intelligence and strength, which could qualitatively widen existing social and political inequalities.
There are many underlying civil rights implications for genetic research. One of the most significant consequences of decoding the human genome is likely to be the capability to predict people’s vulnerability to particular diseases. To the individual, this may provide valuable insight enabling them to make lifestyle changes to lessen their risk of disease. However, should an employer be able to discriminate against an applicant because they showed a predisposition to alcoholism, even if they were not an alcoholic? And should a life insurance company charge higher premiums to those with a susceptibility to certain genetic ailments?
Trepidation towards unintended ideological consequences is a standard conservative position in many areas of innovation. But should such posited dangers prevent us from attaining the possible benefits and positive futures intimated by the development of bioengineering techniques? Surely we should not deny sufferers of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s the latent relief from their fetter because in the future this could lead to unspecified tyranny and unintended consequences? Exploiting science “for the relief of man’s estate”, as Francis Bacon claimed in the 17th century, is the very definition of modern medicine. If the vista of alleviating the scourges that have plagued mankind immemorial is over the horizon, should we not keep looking forward?
There are clearly therapeutic uses of genetic engineering technologies that are extremely promising. Stem cell research will lead the way to regenerative medicine and many genetically linked diseases may ultimately be cured or stopped before the. However, it becomes problematic when we transgress from the traditional therapeutic uses of medicine, to what may be called ‘enhancement uses’, in which we are not seeking to correct a genetic defect, but seek to improve other qualities of human beings. This is where we are faced with some portentous issues of human equality, the issues that are the very basis of our political rights. (Stock, 2000)
Gregory Stock maintains that such technologies are inevitable:
“The fundamental discoveries that spawn the coming capabilities will flow from research deeply embedded in the mainstream, research that is highly beneficial, enjoys widespread support, and certainly is not directed toward a goal like germ line engineering. The possibilities of human redesign will arrive whether or not we actively pursue them.’ (Stock 2002, p40)
However, Fukuyama counters this claim:
“Pessimism about the inevitability of technological advance is wrong, and it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if believed by too many people…. There are many dangerous or ethically controversial technologies that have been subject to effective political control, including nuclear weapons and nuclear power, ballistic missiles, biological and chemical warfare agents, replacement human body parts, neuropharmacological drugs, and the like, which cannot be freely developed or traded internationally.” (Fukuyama, 2002 p188)
The dichotomy with biotechnology in general, unlike nuclear weapons for instance, which are clearly perilous, is that there are some fairly subtle dangers wrapped up in something potentially very advantageous. A further parallel can be drawn with nuclear power generation, which promised much but proved to be hazardous and has many unforeseen negative outcomes. A system of regulation is needed that allows us to keep the use of biotechnology focused on clear therapeutic ends. It should be possible to design political and regulatory institutions that allow us to discriminate between uses of the technology that would be beneficial and those which are not. However, the definition of the discriminatory factors themselves is subject to much political, moral and ideological deliberation. (Shannon, 2005)
According to Francis Fukuyama, we should at least attempt to stem the tide of human biotechnology by ratifying national and then international agreements and statutory bodies to enforce them:
“No regulatory regime is ever fully leak proof, and if one selects a sufficiently long time frame, most technologies end up being developed eventually. But this misses the point of social regulation: no law is ever fully enforced. Every country makes murder a crime and attaches severe penalties to homicide, and yet murders nonetheless occur. The fact that they do has never been a reason for giving up on the law or on attempts to enforce it. (Fukuyama, 2002 p189)
Gregory Stock has a pessimistic attitude regarding such regulation and claims that we should embrace genetic engineering within ‘a free-market environment with real individual choice, modest oversight, and robust mechanisms to learn quickly from mistakes’ (Stock, 2002 p201)
However, it may be that by the time the negative consequences of biotechnology are realised, we will be to far down the slippery slope to turn back.
 In January 2001, the British government passed rules to allow the cloning of human embryos to combat diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
 The word eugenic is derived from the Greek “well-born” or “good breeding”
Anderson, W. (2003). Augmentation, symbiosis, transcendence: Technology and the Future(s) of Human Identity. Futures 35(5): 535-546.
Clifford-Engs, R. (2005) The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press
Diller, L. (1999). Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill. Bantam
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Fukuyama, F. (1993). The End of History and the Last Man. London: Harper Perennial
Habermas, J. (2003). The Future of Human Nature. London: Polity Press
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Stock, G. (2002). Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future. London: Houghton Mifflin Books
Strachan, T. (2003). Human Molecular Genetics, Third Edition. Oxford: Wiley & Sons