“And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly. You don’t even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it, patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity. The buyer doesn’t even conceive that any discipline might be necessary.”
- Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
The ethical question posed by the manipulation and commercialisation of genetic engineering is summed up in these words, spoken by the critical mathematician Ian Malcolm in Michael Crichton’s book ‘Jurassic Park’. In the book, genetic engineering is portrayed as having major flaws which relate almost exactly to some of the ethical issues which concern the public in that scientists are ‘meddling with nature’ or ‘playing god’. Questions of safety are frequently compounded with these ethical and moral questions.
The Genome Project
The aim of this massive and controversial research effort is to sequence the four-chemical alphabet (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) which are used in DNA to ‘code’ the human being. The chemicals, represented 3,000,000,000 times in the human being, and making up the complement of human genes, would fill the equivalent of 134 sets of the complete volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and should cost about $2-3,000,000,000. The main aim of this gigantic undertaking is to record the complete catalogue of human genes, in order to provide a reference for doctors and scientists who wish to study the genetic basis of inherited and acquired diseases, human development and evolution.
The Human Genome Initiative is a world-wide research effort that has the goal of analysing the structure of human DNA and determining the location of the estimated 100,000 human genes. In addition to this, the DNA of a set of model organisms will be studied to provide the comparative information necessary for understanding the functioning of the human genome.
The information generated by the Human Genome Initiative is expected to be the source book for biomedical science in the 21st century, and will be of immense benefit to the field of medicine. It will help us to understand and eventually treat many of more than 4000 genetic diseases.
The main goals of the genome project over the next five years are outlined below:
However, this assumes that funding will be increased to $200 million per year. At the current funding level, these goals will only be achieved over the next fifteen years.
When we are able to look at the individual genes of people, we are going to discover many imperfect ones. How can we block the release of facts about our individual imperfections to insurance companies, rival political parties, and so on? Even at the level of the US Congress, many are worried about whether the Human Genome Programme will make us able to identify the genetic undesirables and make their lives even worse. So which is worse: not finding the gene, or worrying about whether the knowledge will be misused? Most regard the former as being worse, preferring to deal with the public implications after finding the relevant genes.
More advanced research will bring about more advanced ethical dilemmas. What if the exact date of death for an individual could be determined? What implications would this have on society. Indeed, in today’s modern world, a social disaster would be unavoidable.
Also, the Genome project is getting dangerously close to proving that the human being is no more than the sum of its parts - i.e. it has no soul, and is rather ‘bio-artificial intelligence’. Religious uproar would result if this was the case.
The Project could be furthered to identify, and effectively predict, human behaviour due to their genes. This, although seemingly unbelievable, has already been achieved with smaller organisms (including the snail). If this could be done with humans, the consequences would be unimaginable.
Recently the genetic blueprint of a bacterium linked with the development of stomach ulcers and gastric cancer (Helicobacter pylori) has been kept secret by private drugs companies who do not wish their rivals to cash in on the valuable information. Also the Onco-mouse - a mouse which has been genetically engineered to develop cancer has been the subject of much debate over who will be able to patent it. Can we really not be worried about the fact that companies and private organisations are commercialising the very secrets and essence of life in this way?
So the big question is whether to continue the project or not? Whether the cure for thousands of diseases, and eventually the ultimate understanding of the human condition, should be forsaken for the good of humanity as we know it?
Genetics, ethics and children
Should a couple be allowed the option of selecting the sex of their child by the selective termination of a pregnancy of the ‘wrong sex’. It is a simple matter to determine the sex of a foetus. Legislation in the US now prohibits the practice of sex selection.
For instance, a couple are at risk of transmitting Lowe syndrome, which has an X-linked recessive inheritance; this means that a son would have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease, whereas a daughter would be unaffected (although having a 50% chance of being a carrier). The only means of avoiding transmission of the disease would be to terminate any male pregnancy. Should this be allowed?
This problem could be further compounded in the future with the development of projects such as the Human Genome Project (see above). It is generally agreed that in the near future a child’s exact genetic makeup can be decided by the parents even while it is at the foetal stage. The relevant genes would then be spliced into the growing foetus, and the required characteristics would be seen in the child. It is right that parents should be deciding things such as their child’s hair and eye colour, their height and build, and even their temperament? Will humanity ever be able to take on such a responsibility, or should such projects be halted altogether?
The arrival of pre-implantation diagnosis (testing the unborn embryo for genetic defects) has brought new problems to the modern world. What conditions should be diagnosed? With severe, crippling or life-threatening diseases there is little question, but what about less major genetic defects? Where would one draw the line? What about polygenic conditions - for instance an increased tendency to develop heart disease or cancer? If the number of handicapped babies born is reduced, will that increase prejudice against those that are born?
New Plants for Agriculture
Molecular genetics research has tended to be concentrated on bacteria and the animal kingdom. There are many who feel that some of its most important applications will be in the plant world, and effects on agriculture and plant genetics might be as important as its effects on animals and humans.
Man has used plants and selected variants of plants for many thousands of years, but it is only since the discovery of the structure of DNA that people have started to understand the basis of genetic variation. Now a new phase has been entered, one in which the plant can be genetically engineered to our liking. Much of this progress in plant genetic engineering has grown from the discovery that a soil bacterium naturally transfers specific genes from one of its chromosomes to that of the plant cell which it infects. This effect has been used to insert the genes of one's choice into some plant species.
Now it is possible to redesign genes to make plants resistant to viruses and insect pests. Flower colours and their patterns have been changed. Indeed, vaccines for many human viruses can now be engineered into plants. The plant in both horticulture and agriculture can now be modified to suit the needs of humanity.
Although there is not much ethical argument against the genetic engineering of plants in these ways, there is still the problem posed which is whether or not to alter something which we do not yet fully understand.
Out of Control
Genetic engineering may indeed have catastrophic consequences, as in Jurassic Park. Recently, a deadly rabbit virus was allowed to run rampant on Australia’s mainland having escaped from a quarantined experiment on Wardang Island, off the coast of South Australia. It was probably carried by insects or birds, and was reported to have killed hundreds of rabbits on the mainland. This would have severe effects on the environment - the foxes and feral cats which feed on them would starve, and these deaths would affect other wildlife and so on.
Because the experiment was not carried out safely, an environmental disaster was caused. Although not too catastrophic, it shows how Mother Nature is not to be trifled with, and that we as humans have absolutely no comprehension, and no control whatsoever, of the massive forces which rule over the Earth’s biosphere.
The Problems of Knowledge
In concluding, we can see that there are three main questions which need to be addressed with regard to genetics and knowledge:
- Should we pursue the knowledge of the human genome?
- To what medical or social uses should new knowledge of genetics be put?
- To whom should knowledge of our individual genetic make-up be given?
With regard to the first question, we know that there is a growing consensus that we must pursue further knowledge. It would be both immoral and impossible not to do this. But will we be able to handle such knowledge? Many fear that it will cause grave problems, and indeed there already are some.
Almost our entire culture, globally, has evolved to believe that what we do is entirely voluntary. Now more and more of our non-freedoms and being revealed to us. Surely all responsibility and morality will disappear with the outlook that we have no real choice in what we do? However, we cannot pretend that this is a new problem - many people and respected philosophers have wondered for centuries about our free will.
The second question - granted that we will and must pursue the knowledge of genetics, how should such knowledge be used in medical or social senses? This is a far more difficult question than the first, and shall ultimately be decided by those who posses the knowledge mentioned in the first question. An obvious limitation to the uses would be in the form of the new laws and legislation which would inevitably accompany the birth of the new knowledge, but where should the limitations start and end? It poses many ethical and moral considerations, and also brings up the topic of the third question.
This last question is also difficult. Again, the need for laws and legislation can be seen immediately. One must remember that the information will not be made available suddenly, at the same time, but over a much longer period - maybe a decade. Society has got plenty of time to adjust to the new lifestyle which would have to be fashioned with this new information.
In summary, the ethical questions posed by genetic engineering and manipulation will have to be tackled as they arise. None can be answered before the knowledge is available. The number of problems faced are many, and the solutions will have to be effective and swift if they are to keep society functioning much as we know it today. If these questions are not dealt with quickly enough, humanity may have to contend with the consequences of Ian Malcolm’s arguments.