Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not living in a world of science fiction. That’s because science fiction, as we have known it, seems to have become science fact—at least in the field of genetics. This burgeoning area of science is in the process of delivering what amounts to the greatest revolution in the history of the world.
Hardly a week goes by without some new announcement in the media concerning remarkable advances in genetics. For example, at the time of writing, six calves have been cloned with cells that appear to have reversed the aging process. With this amazing discovery comes the alluring promise of successfully treating human degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes, as well as heart, liver and kidney conditions. Such discoveries also hold out the tantalizing prospect of greatly enhanced human longevity, or even genetic science's Holy Grail itself—immortality.
But there is so much more to this revolution. Over the past half century, the availability of ever more powerful computers means we have arrived at a time when scientists are on the threshold of cracking the basic code of life itself. And with that knowledge comes the ability to manipulate all life—whether microbial, plant, animal or human. It is no exaggeration to say that these forces are on the brink of reshaping our entire way of life. In the process they are challenging ethical and moral values and turning them upside down. This all amounts to a revolution without precedent.
Most people today are familiar with in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood. In this procedure, scientists fuse a human sperm and egg in the laboratory and then implant the resulting embryo in the womb of another woman to carry to birth. This is just one example of what the new science of genetics is now able to do routinely. Other exotic-sounding procedures, such as nuclear transplantation and embryonic stem cell therapy, are also becoming possible and can be grouped together under the title of genetic engineering or biotechnology.
And then there is the Human Genome Project—the 15-year mission to map the location and function of all 80,000 human genes. Will it lead to a new eugenics movement, in which human life will be “improved” by genetic manipulation? Many fear we are approaching a future akin to Aldous Huxley’s nightmarish Brave New World.
To help make sense of it all, we will look at three distinctive books that survey the genetic scene from various perspectives. Each is remarkable for its breadth, scope and erudition, effectively communicating details of what is, for many, a daunting subject. Each is a classic in its area and can be viewed as an essential primer to the subject. In the rapidly developing world of genetics, the message of these books remains profound and not a little disturbing. As such, they are worthy of our close examination.
The Future Is Now
In Remaking Eden, Princeton University biology professor Lee Silver introduces us to the mind-boggling new world of molecular genetics. His goal is to present both the scientific and the political realities of what he calls reprogenetics—the fusion of genetics with reproductive biology—along with the ethical dilemmas its use will raise. In his view, reprogenetics will turn science fiction into reality, from cloning to embryo selection to genetic engineering and beyond. His book is a stimulating and thought-provoking analysis of the many possibilities presented by the emerging technologies.
Time and time again the disturbing message comes down to this: the future is already with us. “Athough all science-based future stories are, by definition, science fiction,” Silver writes, “none of my imagined futures has been pulled out of thin air. In each case I have simply assumed that we will continue to make incremental scientific and technological advances beyond what can already be accomplished today” (Remaking Eden, p. 295).
To Silver’s way of thinking, it will not be governments that control this reprogenetic technology. It will be the power of the marketplace—where individuals and couples, acting on behalf of themselves and their children, will set the agenda. How significant are these developments? Silver has no doubt that the growing use of reprogenetics is inevitable and constitutes the dawn of a new age.
Despite his professed scientific detachment, and while decrying the naïveté of those who would predict some imagined utopian future, Silver insists we should not rule this out. “No matter how unlikely it seems today, it is possible that a true worldwide utopian society could emerge someday to provide reprogenetic benefits to all children. It would be difficult to accomplish. . . . But as the miraculous political and scientific events of the last twenty years tell us, one should never say never in either domain” (p. 295).
Silver is a strong advocate of the emerging genetic technologies, and he himself is, at least to some extent, utopian in outlook. He is largely uncritical of, and in fact appears enthusiastically in favor of, all these developments, seemingly able to resolve (at least to his own satisfaction) the ethical concerns involved.
“We will come face to face with the ultimate frontier in medicine and philosophy—the power to change the nature of humankind.”
Where does Silver see it all ending up? “No matter what technique, or techniques, are ultimately used,” he says, “genetic engineering of human embryos is sure to become feasible, safe, and efficient by the middle of the twenty-first century. When that happens, we will come face to face with the ultimate frontier in medicine and philosophy—the power to change the nature of humankind” (p. 273, emphasis added).
Can We Talk?
If Silver strives for a detached scientific view of the reprogenetic revolution, Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, adopts a more skeptical, even disapproving tone. Rifkin is the author of numerous books on economic trends and matters relating to science, technology and culture. He is the founder and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., and is an outspoken and effective activist campaigning on many of these issues.
More than 20 years ago, Rifkin coauthored a book entitled Who Should Play God? In it he discussed the many benefits and dangers of the then fledgling technology of genetic engineering. In the intervening period, every scientific and technological breakthrough he predicted has occurred.
While sharing the widespread wonderment at so many of the new discoveries, and approving of their potential impact and value, Rifkin nevertheless is concerned about the downside of the genetics revolution. He notes that two earlier revolutions—in physics and chemistry in the 19th and 20th centuries—brought great benefits but equally significant problems. He finds it hard to believe that the even greater biotech revolution will not also bring serious consequences.
Rifkin’s prescient analysis of the emerging world of biotechnology amounts to an impassioned plea to widely debate these new technologies before their adoption becomes inevitable. “The biotech revolution will affect every aspect of our lives,” he states. “The way we eat; the way we date and marry; the way we have our babies; the way our children are raised and educated; the way we work; the way we engage in politics; the way we express our faith; the way we perceive the world around us and our place in it—all of our individual and shared realities will be deeply touched by the new technologies of the Biotech Century. Surely, these very personal technologies deserve to be widely discussed and debated by the public at large before they become a part of our daily lives” (Biotech Century, p. 237).
Rifkin’s analysis of the emerging world of biotechnology amounts to an impassioned plea to widely debate these new technologies before their adoption becomes inevitable.
The Biotech Century is a must-read tour de force of the numerous ways biotechnology will affect all these areas of our lives. Rifkin’s vision and scope are far broader than Silver's, reflecting the very different backgrounds and priorities of the two men.
Rifkin’s thesis is that the genetic revolution amounts to a new technological and economic force that will completely reshape our world. He believes we don't have to be against all science and technology, but rather that we should consider what kind of science and technology we wish to see develop. He would prefer to see the emphasis placed on better ecological and preventative health practices rather than on raw, commercially driven biotechnology.
“The biotechnology revolution,” he asserts, “will affect each of us more directly, forcefully, and intimately than any other technology revolution in history. For that reason alone every human being has a direct and immediate stake in the direction biotechnology will take in the coming century. . . . With the new technologies flooding into the marketplace and into our lives, the moment has arrived for a much broader debate over the benefits and risks of the new science, one that extends beyond professional authorities and ‘experts’ on both sides of the issue and includes the whole of society. . . . The biotech revolution raises fundamental questions about the nature of science, the kinds of new technologies we introduce into the marketplace, and the role of commerce in the intimate affairs of biology” (pp. 235–236).
All in the Genes?
The third book we will review stands in marked contrast to the others. In recent years, the genetics revolution has been fueled by and focused on one particular area more than on any other: the Human Genome Project. Initiated back in 1988, the purpose of the project is to identify and characterize all the 80,000 or so human genes that define our existence. Matt Ridley’s Genome does not tell us about the Genome Project directly but focuses our attention on what the project has found. Ridley holds a doctorate in zoology from Oxford and is a well-regarded science journalist with The Economist and the London Daily Telegraph.
The idea of Ridley’s book is to “tell the unfolding story of the human genome . . . chromosome by chromosome, by picking a gene from each chromosome to fit the story as it is told” (Genome, pp. 3–4). He chose a particular theme of human nature for each chromosome (and chapter) to roughly match the gene he intended to discuss. Such themes as life, environment, intelligence, instinct, memory, eugenics and free will are covered, allowing Ridley to discuss the role our genes play in these and other areas of life. The result is a fascinating, lucid, literate survey of the significance of our genes; or, in Ridley’s words, “a whistle-stop tour of some of the more interesting sites in the genome and what they tell us about ourselves.”
Once scientists have identified what each of the genes is responsible for and how each functions, then manipulation of those genes to eradicate disease and select desirable characteristics in our offspring becomes quite plausible.
The scope and the implications of the Human Genome Project are truly immense. The human genome can be viewed as a huge book—the autobiography of our species—consisting of a billion three-letter words written with the four-letter alphabet of DNA. Ninety percent of the words appear to have no meaning, so finding where the meaningful words are and deciphering them is a task of mind-numbing complexity. Once scientists have identified what each of the genes is responsible for and how each functions, then manipulation of those genes to eradicate disease and select desirable characteristics in our offspring becomes quite plausible. A first draft of the human genome study is due to be published as this issue of Vision goes to press, with completion of the current stage of the project scheduled for 2003.
The book begins with a primer to help the reader make sense of the formidable vocabulary and concepts of genetics. Ridley does a commendable job here, and throughout the book, of making a complicated subject clear and understandable. Perhaps the single most important fact to emerge is just how much about human beings is determined by genes. The “nature versus nurture” debate has swung back and forth during much of the last century—the relative effect of our genes versus that of our environment. It will come as no surprise that, with all the research into the human genome, scientists are recognizing more than ever before just how big a role our genes actually play in determining our makeup.
Yet, while presenting dazzling evidence for the influence of various genes in such areas as disease, intelligence, learning, differences in male and female behavior, grammar, personality, longevity, cell differentiation and general behavior, Ridley also shows that things are not that simple: “The brain, the body and the genome are locked, all three, in a dance. The genome is as much under the control of the other two as they are controlled by it. That is partly why genetic determinism is such a myth. The switching on and off of human genes can be influenced by conscious or unconscious external action” (p. 148).
Genes interact with environmental factors to create the uniqueness of each individual. “This,” says Ridley, “is the reality of genes and environments: a maze of complicated interactions between them, not a one-directional determinism. Social behavior is not some external series of events that takes our minds and bodies by surprise. It is an intimate part of our make-up, and our genes are programmed not only to produce social behavior, but to respond to it as well” (p. 172).
The remarkable discovery about genes is that they comprise the common language of all life, whether animal, plant, insect or human. They are like chunks of computer software that can run on different systems. This amazing fact is what allows scientists to “cut and paste” particular genes from one form of life to another with increasing ease.
How significant is all this genetic research? Ridley asserts that being able to read the human genome will tell us more about ourselves than all the efforts of science to date. “It will revolutionise anthropology, psychology, medicine, palaeontology and virtually every other science,” he says. “In just a few short years we will have moved from knowing almost nothing about our genes to knowing everything. I genuinely believe that we are living through the greatest intellectual moment in history. Bar none” (p. 5).
Fearing the Unknown
But as this cornucopia of genetic gifts opens up to us, a host of disturbing questions and fears emerges.
Some say—with good justification—that scientists are now playing God—manipulating the genes of various species in ways the Creator never intended. We are playing in the dark with no idea of the potential consequences of our actions: catastrophe could be just around the corner. Some ask how it is possible that biotech companies can patent aspects of life itself, especially when they weren’t responsible for creating it in the first place. Some fear the rise of a new eugenics movement, this time mediated not by the coercion of governments but by individuals freely drinking from the enticing chalice of genetic possibilities.
Others fear that “genetic pollution” will be unleashed, with unforeseeable but potentially lethal consequences. Still others are concerned that genetically engineered agents of biological warfare may become as potent in the 21st century as nuclear weapons were in the 20th—and far cheaper to produce and deploy.
But to many, these developments promise advancement unprecedented in all human existence. What could possibly be wrong with providing cures for previously incurable diseases? And giving people the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives? Who could object to better crop yields to feed burgeoning populations and to relieve the ever present threat of famine? Many of the earlier fears associated with genetic developments seem to be receding as scientists become increasingly knowledgeable on the subject.
One might ask, however, Where is God in all this discussion? Silver asserts that contemporary reprogenetics is in the process of “remaking Eden,” yet he provides no real analysis of the new Eden’s impact on God’s intended purpose for humanity as revealed in the original Eden—the one God looked over before commenting, “It is very good.” But Silver is a scientist, so perhaps he should not be expected to do so.
On the other hand, at the beginning of each section of his book he quotes a passage of Scripture, though without explanation. Interestingly, one of the scriptures he quotes undermines the entire evolutionary basis of modern science and genetics: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26–27).
A reading of these three books leaves the reader in awe of the incredibly organized design that characterizes life. Either the complexities of life demonstrate the existence of a supreme Creator, or all life forms are descended from a single cell. Silver and Ridley choose to believe the latter, although Silver admits that the probability of this happening again by chance is nil. Yet no one can explain what produced that first cell at some point in the dim past, or how it came to develop into the myriad life forms we see today. Neither can anyone adequately explain how the awesome preeminence of man can possibly have developed from some single cell purely by accident. In fact, many will find such a vacuous proposition to be an insult to their intelligence.
The Ultimate Clone
The reality is that God claims for Himself the authorship of all life. He created the different species that humankind is even now experimenting with. In particular, God claims to have made man in His own image. There is something unique and different about humans that sets them apart—genetic similarities to other life forms notwithstanding. There is a spiritual component to a human being that transforms the way the mind works (see 1 Corinthians 2:11).
As Silver points out, “the specialness of humanity is found only between our ears.” He remarks, “The essence of human life lies within the human mind, not within inert molecules of DNA. Whether the human mind should be viewed as part of God’s domain is, for the time being, a question of faith, not science” (Remaking Eden, pp. 204, 276). Science cannot explain the uniqueness of the human mind through evolutionary theory, yet faith based on the Bible can—in a clear and unambiguous way.
In many ways God’s revealed purpose for man is undermined and ignored in the developments of science. The institutions of marriage and the nuclear family, and the intended sacredness of the sexual relationship—important aspects of God’s will—are thought by many to be no longer relevant. Even the ultimate biblical promise of immortality may soon be taken for granted by a humanity that puts greater faith in the seemingly inexorable march of scientific progress.
Perhaps we should remember that, though we may be able one day to manipulate our human genes to improve human behavior, health, happiness and longevity, this is a long way short of what God offers. For in a certain sense, it is God’s mind-boggling purpose to “clone” Himself by transforming human beings with His spiritual nature and character. This purpose is outlined not in the pages of the Human Genome, but in the pages of the Holy Bible.
If scientific advances could be dealt with in a wider context that included attention to God’s will, then ethical and humane issues would not be neglected—and controversial matters could be monitored in a fashion responsible to mankind's social and spiritual needs. The alternative, especially in the realm of genetics, may be to court eventual disaster. God, through the prophet Hosea, said of those who rejected Him, “They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.” To paraphrase that scripture in terms of biotechnology, “If we sow the clone, we may yet reap the cyclone”!
If you want to find out more concerning this burgeoning field of human endeavor, what some of the moral issues and concerns are, and how it will affect humanity in the years to come, these three books are a good place to begin and well worth perusing.
In the next issue, Vision will examine in greater detail some of the questions raised by this “revolution without precedent” in an eye-opening interview with Jeremy Rifkin.