Indulging Our "God Complex":
The Perils and the Promises of Genetic Engineering
  Chris Psaros
Anthro 194A


Ever since modern humans emerged tens of thousands of years ago, the species has used perhaps its greatest adaptation - intelligence - for manipulating and controlling the environment in which it exists. The human brain is capable of incredible marvels, to adapt through culture, technology and accumulated knowledge in ways that are totally unapproachable by any other species that has ever existed on Earth. Now humankind is on the brink of a new era. The species is coming to an understanding of the very material that governs the characteristics of all living things, and harnessing it to change other organisms at will. The time is approaching when human beings will be capable of creating even their own offspring in whatever image they choose, free from the blind natural processes that allowed them to evolve to that point in the first place. This ability has been reasonably likened to divine power, which, by nature, necessitates divine responsibility. But unlike gods, immortal and omnipotent, human beings are vulnerable and possess imperfect knowledge. Whether they will ultimately reap heretofore unimaginable rewards, or face catastrophic consequences, as a result of their manipulation of the genetic code is a question that will be asked a great deal in the coming years, and answered only through the passage of time.

Genetic engineering is a topic that could be approached from any number of angles or levels of specificity. I am organizing this paper in a linear fashion, to reflect what I see as the progression of the science through time. I have divided this progression into three principal stages. First, genetic engineering in agricultural applications, the area where most of the research, development, and execution have been carried out so far. The second phase is the use of genetic engineering techniques on human beings, focused on "gene therapy" - the amelioration of genetically-based diseases. Work in this area is underway, although not as much has been put into practice as of yet. The third stage is only on the horizon, but is the natural (and I would argue historically inevitable), extension of the second: The expansion of the use of genetic engineering outside of the medical field, with the purpose of changing and "enhancing" the physical and mental characteristics of human beings. The unifying thread among all three phases is my single, underlying argument: Genetic engineering has shown itself to be problematic, unpredictable and imperfect to say the least, and it is rife with potentially disastrous and undesirable biological and social repercussions. Because of this, the questions and doubts raised by opponents of the science cannot and should not be ignored. If research and development is to continue, it must be done with extreme caution. The future of the human species, and many others, may very well be at stake.

A little background, and clarification of my terminology, should be provided from the outset. The phrase "genetic engineering" was first coined in 1965, and loosely defined, it refers to the techniques scientists use to add, remove, or alter characteristics of the genetic material in an organism. "Recombinant DNA," or "gene splicing" as it is more popularly known, is the process by which specific DNA sequences from one species are isolated, and then attached to the genetic material of another. Often, techniques such as in vitro fertilization ("test-tube babies") and cloning are included under the umbrella term "genetic engineering." But while these techniques are closely related and certainly worth consideration, they are somewhat tangental, and do not involve genetic manipulation, which, for the sake of brevity, I will limit my focus to. (The Commision, 1982)

Genetic engineering is a broad subject with equally broad applications and implications for every level of human existence, and in some sense, all life on Earth. The issue always has, now more than ever, aroused great interest and involvement from both the scientific community and the general public. Whether one is discussing the debate over genetically modified foods or the incredible prospect of eliminating certain disorders from entire human populations, the subject never ceases to be relevant, timely and even urgent. Developments in the field occur at a dizzying pace, and years of research can be made obsolete or validated, theories confirmed or refuted, within years, or even months of their first publication.

Agriculture was the first area where genetic engineering was put to use, and most of the real-world experience of the science lies there. While there have been a great number of successful applications, there have also been some problems, along with many proposed hypothetical dangers.

  PART I: Genetic Engineering in Agriculture

For nearly two decades, scientists have been genetically engineering plants and animals in order to give them more desirable characteristics. Development of these enhanced organisms has been on a steady increase, with genetically modified foods now making up a significant percentage of the consumer market. A large and profitable industry has grown up around creating and selling these organisms, with new innovations appearing constantly. Recent efforts have included the grafting of genetic codes from the South American jack bean onto a potato to give it insect resistance, and those from a mackerel onto a tomato to give them increased frost resistance. Technicians from the biotech firm Calgene have also successfully taken the tomato gene responsible for softening, reversed its sequence, and inserted it back into the DNA to produce a tomato in which they claim the softening process has been turned off. (Lowenstein, 2001, Anderson, 1999)

The technique has been expanding to encompass more complex goals and more complex organisms. In September 2000, Jim Murray, an animal scientist at UC Davis implanted goat embryos with a gene that would increase the protein content of their milk, the goal being to boost the cheese output at California dairies. They are already planning to take more ambitious steps, in order to design animals that can "better fill the meat and dairy appetites of a growing world population." No transgenic animal has yet entered the food chain of the United States, but the day is quickly approaching. (Abate, 2001)

If there is a single argument that is most commonly debated, that stands above and beyond all the others, it is what I like to call the "nothing new" argument. The idea being that humanity has technically been genetically engineering organisms since the origins of plant and animal domestication. What's the difference between selectively breeding larger, less perishable tomatoes, for example, and artificially implanting a gene to make them so? Charles Darwin devoted a great deal to his discussion of animal husbandry, where new breeds have the capability of arising in a matter of decades. How is changing the shape of a dog's head through selective breeding fundamentally different from modifying its genes directly? The latter process, in fact, may be less destructive to the breed through time since it does not encourage the degenerative conditions that often result from inbreeding. There is no difference in the results, only the process and the tools are different.

But if the matter is really that simple, why is there so much opposition? What is the reason for the huge transnational revolt against genetic engineering? Supporters might argue that it is merely the same Luddite hysteria among the uninformed that accompanies the emergence of any new technology. Opponents say that science is being boundlessly and blindly optimistic without considering the dangers, akin to the naïve embrace of nuclear power when it became technologically feasible. Nobel-Prize winner George Wald is in the latter category, and for almost thirty years has been one of the most well-known and outspoken critics of genetic engineering. A highly-acclaimed biologist with a PhD certainly can't be counted among the uninformed, and his thoughts on the matter are quite explicit. His position is that placing in human hands the capacity to redesign organisms, the results of three billion years of evolution, is a sobering responsibility with unprecedented problems. Genetic manipulation is fundamentally different than previous methods of intrusion on the natural state of living organisms. Animal and plant breeding, for example, or purposeful mutation through the use of X-rays, merely increase the speed of natural processes. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, moves genes back and forth across species lines and other possibly unknown boundaries that divide organisms. The new organisms created will be self-perpetuating, and therefore permanent. Unless they are kept under controlled conditions, they may be impossible to exterminate when and if a problem arises that makes such a thing necessary. (Wade 1977)

In 1997, a team of five biologists wrote to the UN's food regulatory body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and echoed the concerns that Wald outlined more than twenty years before. Their assertion was that the pervasive analogy between husbandry and genetic engineering is misleading. Crossbreeding involves natural mating, which can only occur between organisms with almost the same genes. Recombinant DNA, however, involves randomly inserting a sequence of genetic codes, which may disrupt the natural codes of the host and disturb the function of nearby genes. This could potentially give rise to allergenic or toxic molecules, or at the very least alter the nutritional value of the engineered crop. The problem is that there is no completely reliable method for detecting dangerous substances of this type. And the existing methods for safety testing are very costly and time consuming. (Anderson, 1999)

In addition to potential problems at the molecular level, the insertion methods are also very undependable. There is no way to control where the foreign gene will attach. The process is totally random, and the inserted DNA can hook on to the recipient DNA anywhere. If it happens to stick to the tiny portion that is active, it is merely a matter of luck. Even at that, the risk exists that insertion will have occurred with the result being a disfigured, weak or disease-prone organism. (Anderson, 1999; Spallone, 1992)

Such "botched organisms" are no longer merely a hypothetical fear. Several cases have been observed, one that is particularly well documented. Biotech firm A/F Protein recently managed to alter the genetics of 15 million salmon eggs on a fish farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada. A/F created a new, human-engineered species called "AquAdvantage," a fish which grows four to six times faster than the wild variety. In April of 2000, reports surfaced (which were eventually verified by the company), that a number of fish had been spawned with deformed heads and other abnormalities. Fear that these mutant fish would escape and breed with wild fish prompted the New Zealand government to set restrictions on genetic research. Soon the AquAdvantage project was dropped, all the fish were killed, and all the remaining genetically altered sperm were frozen. (Shapiro, 2000) In another instance of the unpredictability of genetic engineering techniques, we can see the potential for entire ecosystems to be thrown out of balance due to the "innocent" alteration of a single trait. One of the most popular genetically modified products is the line of crops including genes from a pesticidal bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. This pesticide, produced by bacteria in a form that is only activated when ingested, has been activated by genetic modification so that is doesn't need to be eaten to be deadly. Initial research has shown that these new Bt crops harm insects indiscriminately in their local areas, killing beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, right along with the pests that lower crop yields. The Food and Drug Administration is nonetheless approving these entirely new crops at an alarming rate. When one observes the fact that genetically engineered varieties now account for the vast majority of seeds grown for many crops, concerns about the effect this might have on the ecosystem become amplified. Not only that, but the increasing prevalence of genetically engineered crops means a startling decrease in genetic diversity. And one of the basic truths of biology, of course, is that decreasing genetic diversity exponentially increases the possibility of widespread damage from diseases and pests. (Roberts, 2000)

The biotechnology industry feels that incidents of the type already mentioned are isolated and relatively uncommon. In general, proponents say that genetic engineering has come under unfair attack, and has yet to cause any major problems. The crops being produced, in fact, are proving to be beneficial and for more efficient than their natural counterparts. Opposition to these products is seen mainly as anti-science blindness. However, I would argue that this "blindness" is at least as much of a problem on the side of those on the pro-genetic engineering side as it is on the con. It is a costly and painstaking procedure, and, as we have seen above, it doesn't always work out as planned. Concerns about both short-term and long-term consequences of genetic tampering, while to a great extent a matter of speculation, would seem to be well-founded based on the problems that have already been observed. There are adequate grounds for fear of a sort of genetic Chernobyl, whose implications and scope no one can guess. Again, genetically engineered organisms are self-perpetuating, so even if mistakes are few and far between, they can have catastrophic consequences.

These issues have prompted scientists, scholars and advocates to call for at least a drastic slowing down of research and development in genetic engineering. Wald again makes an excellent point: "Up to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell, either for the host organism or for their neighbors." His concern, and that of so many others, is that it is all too big and happening too fast. The problem is one of the biggest that science has ever faced. Wald's belief is that scientific morality up to this point has been to go to any means to learn everything possible about nature, but that "restructuring nature was not part of the bargain. For going ahead in this direction may not only be unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics." (Anderson, 1999) And so, with these concerns in mind, I will now narrow the focus to genetic engineering with human beings. Not only are all of the problems outlined so far still applicable, but an entirely new set of arguments enters the picture.

  PART II: "Fixing" the Human Species

The pursuit of medicine has always been rooted in a desire to rescue human beings (and to a lesser extent animals, even plants) from their maladies. Genetic engineering presents an unprecedented and exciting new avenue for doing so. While many disorders, diseases and syndromes are wholly based in an organism's interaction with the environment (long-term injuries like burns, viral and bacterial infections like HIV, age-related defects like arthritis, etc.), a great deal of them are encoded into the genetic material itself. The principal goal of genetic engineering with human beings, then, is the elimination of these negative inherited characteristics by altering the genes that cause them.

Nowadays people with genetic disorders, who might have died as a result of these disorders in a less scientifically advanced era, are saved by techniques of modern medicine. The effect on the population as a whole is an increased frequency of certain genes that are considered to have deleterious effects. So one might argue, since it was science that enabled the continued existence of these individuals in the first place, shouldn't it now exercise its capability to reduce the frequency of "bad" genes? Some might even take it further to say that science has a responsibility to do just that.

But the matter isn't that simple. If gene tampering is unexpectedly producing deformed fish and indiscriminately insecticidal crops, shouldn't we be greatly concerned about how the same techniques might affect human beings? Add to that the fact that a member of the species Homo sapiens is a far more genetically complex organism than, say, a tomato, which presents even more opportunities for something to go wrong. The caution advocated by the dissenters of genetic engineering becomes (understandably) heightened to a much greater extent when human beings become the subject of manipulation. Obviously, there is a great deal more at stake.

To get an idea of these complexities and potential problems, it helps to understand a little about the mechanics of genetic disorders themselves. Certain disorders (lactose intolerance or dyslexia, for example) are caused by a single gene. While environment plays a role in determining when and how these disorders manifest, they are part of the carrier's DNA and can be easily tracked and tested. Many such genes have been isolated, with more being found every day. One of the problems with eliminating these genes relates to how they may be significant in an evolutionary sense. Shutting off or altering disease-related genes may not be the obvious, foregone conclusion that it appears to be. Variation, even if it comes in the form of "negative" characteristics, is crucial to the successful adaptation of separate populations of a species. Different environments call for different traits, so there may be unforeseeable disadvantages in eliminating anything from the gene pool. An ancestor's curse might very well prove to be their descendant's salvation. An often-cited example of this principle at work is the gene for sickle-cell anemia, which arose in Africa sometime in the evolutionary past and was selected for since it provided protection against malaria. (Shreeve, 1999)

A gene that does one "bad" thing may also do other "good" things. This is known as pleiotropy - the control by a single gene of several distinct and seemingly unrelated phenotypic effects. Scientists have only begun to understand these linkages, and in many cases there will simply be no way of determining how altering gene A will affect gene B (and C?) until after the individual has been born. By then, of course, it may already be too late to remedy anything - be it a minor problem or a major catastrophe. Simply "playing the odds," it could be argued, is inhumane and unnecessarily dangerous.

Those disorders that involve more than one gene are problematic to an even greater degree. The more genes involved, the more difficult it becomes to track them down. Out of the three billion chemical bases and 30,000 genes in the human genome, sometimes as many as 20 are involved in a single disorder. Even if all of those genes could be isolated, they would be far more difficult to deal with than single gene disorders. If several genes were located and linked to some form of cancer, it would not be simple, straightforward information. It would only tell us that the individual is susceptible to this cancer, not that she or he will certainty contract it. (Appleyard, 1998, Lowenstein, 2001)

Environment is a crucial, and often underestimated, consideration. Many genetic disorders necessitate, or are at least affected by, some interaction with the environment. I am using "environment" in not only the traditional sense of the word (the conditions in which an organism exists - climate, resources, etc.), I am also referring to lifestyle. Diet, fitness, and behavioral habits will also be important factors in deciding whether or not a disorder that is predisposed in an individual's genetic makeup will present itself. A person with a collection of genes making she or he susceptible to skin cancer, for example, may not develop the disease unless the individual aggravates the situation by getting too much sunlight. The "unjustifiable risk" mentioned above is even more at issue in these cases. Should the potential for a disorder be genetically removed when it could be far more simply avoided through lifestyle?

It is questions like these, that revolve around the often much more reasonable alternatives to gene therapy, that critics such as Halsted Holman of Stanford University often ask. His opinion, shared by Erwin Chargaff of Columbia, Robert Shinseimer of Caltech and many other biologists is that there is no clear indication that the proposed medical benefits of genetic engineering can be implemented successfully. At this point, the proposed treatments are for the most part only untested possibilities. Those supporting the medical applications of genetic engineering, on the other hand, argue that the goal should be the conquering of all human diseases, and any problems should be faced as they materialize. Holding back for fear of hypothetical dangers, they maintain, is counterproductive. However, many of the examples given by genetic engineers for ameliorating disease can be accomplished successfully through other means, means that don't present the same risks. Some of these methods have already been developed, and many others are in the research and development stages. There is an analogy frequently proposed between genetic engineering and nuclear energy. Over time, the latter has been shown to be more problematic and dangerous than it is worth, while other alternative energy sources have proven to be safer, cleaner, cheaper and more efficient. (Wade, 1977)

If the first experiments in gene therapy are any indication, there is indeed much reason for skepticism among Holman, Chargaff, Shinseimer and the rest. One early attempt (1980) was a controversial experiment on patients suffering from a bone marrow disorder. A UCLA physicist removed marrow cells from a patient in Israel and another in Italy, mixed the cells with DNA coding for hemoglobin in an attempt to stably incorporate a normal hemoglobin gene into the bone marrow cells, and then returned the cells to the patients. The attempt didn't harm either patient, but it didn't help. There was, in fact, no discernible effect whatsoever. In 1986, scientists in eight laboratories made several attempts to get gene therapy to work on Lesch Nyhan syndrome and ADA (the illness that the "boy in the bubble" suffered from). Neither of these, which are, incidentally "simple" single gene disorders, could be successfully affected by gene therapy. (The Commission, 1982; Spallone, 1992) The problems with insertion methods, mentioned earlier, are the same in human beings as they are in any other organism. Again, the genetic material attaches in random places on the DNA and can potentially cause problems, which have, in fact, occurred in animal experiments. When the gene for human growth hormone was inserted into a pig, the animal suffered premature arthritis, heart disease and negative metabolic effects. Insertion of new DNA is also a potential carcinogen. (Spallone, 1992)

Aside from the difficulties that have been proposed and encountered on a biological level, more fundamental questions are raised. What exactly should be considered a "disorder" anyway? The answer to this question may not be as simple as it seems on first glance. The murkiness of the issue can become troublesome, particularly when dealing with psychological/mental traits. Is homosexuality, for example, an illness in need of treatment? Let us assume for the sake of argument that homosexuality will someday be found to have a genetic basis. What choice would most parents make if they knew that their child was carrying the "gay gene?" Whatever their stance on homosexuality, they would likely avoid having a homosexual child due to the fact that such individuals tend to live a harder life (and will not produce grandchildren.) Even if we are discussing characteristics that can more easily be defined as disorders, consciously selecting against these traits might have a negative impact on society. There have been hundreds of important individuals throughout history whose role and contribution to the world have been intimately connected to their sexual orientation, their handicaps, or any number of other traits that might have been eliminated had their parents been given the opportunity to do so. The birth of many such people would be prevented, and both societal and genetic diversity would be compromised.

The line between detrimental and neutral genes is a tenuous one, and the boundaries would begin to blur over time. As people become more accustomed to genetic engineering, they will also become more liberal with their willingness to make use of it. If a parent decides, for example, to remove a tendency for diabetes from their child's genetic code, they might take it a little further and ask "what would the harm be in deciding his eye color while I'm at it?" In other words, as society becomes more comfortable with the technique, the accepted range of applications will gradually broaden. Eventually, people will have full control and choice over the characteristics of their offspring. And, inevitability, those "choices" will be exercised.

  PART III: Building a Better Human

The desire to promote "better" traits in order to heighten the quality of the overall human stock is nothing new. Throughout history thinkers in many societies, including Charles Darwin, have proposed such notions. Sir Francis Galton first introduced the term "eugenics" in 1883 - the goal of improving the race through controlled selective breeding. The idea was especially popular in the early twentieth century, and often framed in hierarchical, and implicitly (sometimes explicitly) racist terms. University of Chicago biologist Horation Hackett Newman, wrote in 1932 that there were "limits to development of certain races … inalterability through education and environment of the fundamental characteristics of certain stocks" and that we should work toward "increasing the rate of multiplication of stocks above the average in heritable qualities, and decreasing the rate in the case of stocks below that average." (Hackett, 1932: 442)

The politics and philosophies of Adolf Hitler, and the resulting events of the 1930's and 40's, gave eugenics an odious reputation, and severely hampered eugenics movements around the world. Since then, ways of thinking involving racial hierarchies, superior and inferior traits, and so on have fallen even further into ill repute. But the principle, the basic idea behind eugenics has survived, only now it is being framed a bit differently. Rather than employing selective breeding as a means to an improved human gene pool, genetic engineering allows a faster, more direct method for doing so. The science presents not only the possibility of curing human ailments, but of changing other genetically-based characteristics, enhancing the existing ones, and even bringing entirely new ones into existence.

What are the limits and possibilities of such tampering? At this point, it's really anybody's guess. Features such as hair and eye color, height, and even gender are all potential grist for the genetic mill. But it certainly needn't stop there. Why not create a human with greater strength? A more attractive face? And who among us wouldn't want to improve what is perhaps the most important trait of all, intelligence? This may all seem like science fiction, but an April, 2000 article in Scientific American detailed one experiment which demonstrates just how much of the potential of genetic engineering has already been exercised. In 1999, a group of scientists at Princeton led by Dr. Joe Tsien genetically engineered mice to have increased functionality in their NMDA receptors, which, to make a long story short, govern memory and learning. Their experiment was successful. The mice they created, nicknamed "Doogies," had markedly better cognitive abilities than normal mice.

Tsien notes that upon the publication of his team's results, "everyone… has wanted to know whether the findings mean we will soon be able to genetically engineer smarter children or devise pills that will make everyone a genius." The frightening thing about the article (or the exciting thing depending on the perspective one takes) is that the answer is essentially yes, save perhaps for the "soon." It will take some time before science can apply the same technique to humans. Still, according to the article, "theoretically, the possibility exists" to enhance people's ability to learn and remember through genetic manipulation, but "besides the scientific and technical barriers, the safety and ethical issues surrounding human genetic engineering would also need to be addressed." Of course, such "barriers" and "issues" will be eroded as time goes on. And the fact that a mere twenty years after the first invasive genetic alteration we have already reached a point where an "enhancement" has been conclusively proven to work in an organism outside of the plant kingdom, a mammal no less, leads us to wonder how close the day really is when human beings can be similarly enhanced. The article ends by asserting that "genetically modifying mental and cognitive attributes such as learning and memory can open an entirely new way for the targeted genetic evolution of biology, and perhaps civilization, with unprecedented speed." (Tsien 2000: 62-68)

"Speed" becomes a very interesting place for speculation when evolution is removed from the blind forces of genetic drift and natural selection, and placed into human hands to be self-directed. Evolution takes eons, and it occurs at random. However, genetically engineered crops have already demonstrated just how quickly enhancements can be made to succeeding generations of organisms - instantly as it turns out. Some have argued that genetic engineering is, in fact, the only way that human beings will evolve at this point. The famous French biologist Jean Rostand wrote in 1959 that "contrary to popular belief, man has long since ceased to evolve." (75) He believed that humans are essentially the same creatures that existed in the Quarternary Age tens of thousands of years ago, and all the progress they have made is merely a carrying out of the same potential that existed within them back then. While I personally find the assertion that man is no longer evolving highly suspect, no one would argue against the statement that evolution, at least, occurs at a very slow rate. Particularly slow in the case of human beings, since, as was mentioned earlier, modern technology and culture have removed the species from many of the selective pressures that determine and punctuate the evolutionary trajectory of other species.

Put humans into control of their own evolution, however, and the process will be faster than we can possibly imagine. And the ultimate result? Genetic engineering historian and commentator Nicholas Wade believes that "a substantial improvement on the human gene set, once we know how to effect it, will produce a creature as different from man as man is from the apes - in other words, a new species." (Wade 152) The prospect is intriguing, to say the least.

The fact that Tsien's experiment garnered so much interest from the general public, who wanted to know when his technique could be used on human beings, suggests that many people are not averse to the idea. Again, the social consequences of consciously selecting for certain traits must be considered. Just as people choose their clothing to be fashionable, so they might. in a future era, have the ability to choose "designer genes" for their children.. This might push society toward preconceived ideals of normalcy, as well as reduce human variation. Not only that, but the genetic realm could become yet another site of social stratification. Those without the resources to design "better" offspring will have children who might be unable to compete with the genetically enhanced variety. Depending on what the ultimate potential of these enhancements turns out to be, the rift between the genetic haves and have-nots could be immense.

Futurist writer Bill Joy has a similar concern "If, for example, we were to reengineer ourselves into several separate and unequal species using the power of genetic engineering, then we would threaten the notion of equality that is the very cornerstone of our democracy" (Joy, 2000). Here he echoes the same sort of thinking which prompted Aldous Huxley to write Brave New World. Huxley didn't even have a modern conception of genetics at the time he wrote the novel (which predates Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA in 1953), but the idea of a caste-based society created through technology is even more relevant (and theoretically possible) today than it was at the time it was published. James Watson himself, while directing the Human Genome Project in 1990, voiced his own misgivings about how the power of the information to be gained from mapping and sequencing projects raises concerns about how it will be used. Arguments drawn at least in part from genetics have been politically abused in the past. Coercive government eugenics programs persist even today in statutes still on the books in several nations. Watson asserts that the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself is for the scientific and medical communities to remain constantly vigilant for abuses of genetics (Dyck, 1997) Whether from an ethical/religious standpoint, or one that is purely scientific, the questions and potential social hazards of placing the human genome into the hands of the humans themselves are limitless. Where science, society and Homo sapiens will go from there is anyone's guess.


At this point, there is no putting the genetic engineering genie back in its bottle. Not only have these techniques proven to be highly successful (at least in the agricultural sphere), they have also proven to be highly profitable, with a lot of room for growth and further development. Unlike many sciences, the commercial potential of genetic engineering is readily apparent in each of the three stages I have outlined. As a result, that potential will continue to be exploited. The fledgling biotechnology industry is developing and expanding at a rapid pace, with the full support and blessing of governmental bodies around the world. Capitalism is an incredibly powerful and motivating institution, as is the progress of science. The insatiability of both will, combined, result in a force that is more or less unstoppable. As I have shown, genetic engineering has been profoundly controversial among the public and the scientific community for as long as it has existed. Anyone who does even the most cursory bit of research in the field will find it nearly impossible to locate a book, journal article, lecture, or even a casual discussion that does not in some way address the dangers, and/or the ethical and moral debates raging over the science. The terms "genetic engineering" and "controversy" are practically inseparable, in fact. The arguments are passionate and heated, whether they are based in purely scientific concerns, or the additional moral/ethical component in the case of human beings. But whether or not genetic engineering will become socially accepted is, in some ways, irrelevant to its continued existence and prosperity. The governments and corporations with a vested interest will utilize it for as long as they see profit and benefit, and if need be, will come up with methods of making it socially accepted. And as genetic engineering techniques become more and more prevalent, society will relax some of the tensions and anxieties it has about the science. If things reach the point where genetically-based human diseases and disorders are being successfully treated through genetic engineering, a significantly higher plateau of acceptance will have been reached. From there, it is only a matter of time before modification of the human genome becomes a casual matter, and society and the species go careening off into uncharted territory.

I believe that it will take some sort of disaster (the genetic Chernobyl mentioned earlier), or a long and expensive string of failures, for research and development to be slowed or halted. Many of the dangers and concerns proposed by opponents of genetic engineering have simply failed to manifest in any significant way. So far, these techniques have proven to be almost entirely benign, if problematic in a few cases. As a result, those in positions of power have thrown caution to the wind. The harsh criticism leveled on the Food and Drug Administration for its willingness to rapidly approve genetically modified foods without even testing them is one example of this. Such criticism will surely become more intense when medical applications begin to surface, but whether or not this will affect anything remains to be seen.

I should make it clear that I am not opposed to genetic engineering. I believe, in fact, that it will prove to be beneficial to society, and that the problems observed so far are completely understandable given the fact that the science is so new. My position is simply that as a society we need to be very conservative about what we do with it, and the speed with which we move ahead, especially during these early years. Motives must be continually brought into question; personal and financial gains should not be placed before safety. Just because there haven't been any major catastrophes as of yet doesn't mean that they aren't lurking around every corner. And the field needs to subject itself to regular and continuous reappraisal when major problems do arise. History shows that science and technology can never be too careful, never too self-regulating, and the doubts about genetic engineering that have been raised by biologists, theorists and the general public need to be constantly kept in mind. As the geneticist Bryan Appleyard noted in his book Brave New Worlds:

"I have met and read a few fools and many wise people… the fools are all the same, the wise all different. But the wise have something in common… they are the ones with the most doubts, who resist bland optimism of the propagandists of scientism, and who admit to at least one small, nagging suspicion that all will not be well in the technocratic future." (Appleyard 1998: 171)