Professor Lee Silver:
Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

"There is no gene for the human spirit."


In a discussion last year Ms. Kandice Beard spoke powerfully about how she wished she never had to cope with epilepsy in her life. She claimed it had had a huge effect on who she was. It caused her enormous suffering. It was an unwanted burden that diminished her quality of life.

We also discussed the future possibilities in genetic engineering and stem cells. We examined how genomics appears to offer the opportunity to eventually eradicate from our collective gene pool such horrors as childhood leukemia, Down’s syndrome, congenital heart defects, Alzheimer’s disease, and a whole host of other maladies that have plagued mankind for millennium. Transgenic foods could help to cut down on pesticides, save plants threatened by disease, increase crop yields, and help feed the hungry in Africa. With stem cells we might soon repair damaged heart, brain, or nerve cells. Therapeutic cloning is the key to stem cell therapies, and right now embryonic stem cells are our best bet for therapeutic cloning. Is all this ethically sound? Is this just more of mankind using reason to understand the physical world around us through science to relieve “unnecessary suffering” and extend life and the quality of life? Is this not just the next stage of evolution -- evolutionary change which is "directed" rather than "random"? As philosopher Frederick Nietzsche claimed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

"All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape."

Professor of molecular biology and geneticist Lee Silver from Princeton University put it less colorfully but more concretely:

"Why not seize the power? Why not control what has been left to chance in the past? Indeed, we control all other aspects of our children's lives and identities through powerful social and environmental influences and, in some cases, with the use of powerful drugs like Ritalin and Prozac. On what basis can we reject genetic influences on a person's essence when we accept the rights of parents to benefit their children in every other way?"

Or are we humans “playing God” in "seizing this power" of genetic engineering, cloning, and stem cells and doing what we should not do? Might we create more problems than we will solve? What do you think about the prospect of genetic engineering? Cloning? Transgenic foods? What might we gain? What might we lose? What about human dignity? Human nature? Stem cells to repair spinal chord injuries? What about right and wrong? The nature of suffering in our human lives? Would it be better if science had relieved Kandice of her epilepsy burden? Or, as Karen O’Neil mentioned in Cohort 3, might this just be the first step on the “slippery slope”? A world like that of Gattaca? Why? Why not? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!


"We now have the possibility of achieving all we ever hoped for from medecine."
UK Science Minister Lord Sainbury
June 26, 2000, on announcement of mapping human genome,
a date which will go down as one of the great moments in human history

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