Genetic Modification

Frederick Nietzche said that “all beings so far have created something beyond themselves…what is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman.” For the first time in human history, we are on the brink of unlocking the secrets of our DNA; our code to life. We are on the brink of eradicating painful embedded genetic anomalies; of curing ourselves of those external maladies of virus and bacteria that affect us throughout our lifetimes; of regenerating the spine of a cripple; of pushing man to his highest potential. Already do we tinker in the genetics, mostly, of plants and produce a high-yielding, nourishing food source—one that has the potential to feed the present billions and the expected future billions more. Yes, we truly are at a sort of peak in our knowledge. And the decisions that we make today will affect whether we descend this peak into the valley of promising science and miracle breakthroughs cautiously, deliberately, and responsibly or rapt in a whirlwind of over-ambition, of self-love, and of petty hubris.

That is not to say that we should irrevocably hate the science of genetic engineering, nor scorn the fruits of its study. As with all other scientific discoveries up to now, there will be pioneers. There will be countless millions that will attempt to further their passionate study in DNA manipulation. And there will be countless billions that will recognize their valuable successes and wish to utilize the knowledge their scientists have gained. What is required of humanity, however, in its endeavor to further improve its condition, is a uniform recognition of the possible consequences of tampering with genetic material. As Nietzsche warned, we humans may, though intending to create a utopia, in fact give rise to a dystopia in which humans are outdated and our natural beauty—the same natural beauty that took billions of years to produce through natural selection—will be lost. As a result of genetic engineering, we may lose diversity of talents and suffer a species-wide identity crisis at the deepest possible level. But with proper consideration of our actions we may, very well, improve our collective human conditions and give birth to a stronger, better-equipped, and more intelligent future generation.

With respect to food, genetic modification has already proven impressive merit. In the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s Norman Borlaug (who was later given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work) utilized a kind of pre-genetic engineering technique that involved the cross breeding of different strains of wheat, and other staple crops, from around the world to produce wheat strains that would make countries like Mexico, India, China, and Pakistan self-sufficient and cure an outbreak of stem rust that hit the American Midwest in 1954 (Norman Borlaug Obituary). In recent years, Bt corn (corn infused with a gene to produce a toxin to pests) developed by the Monsanto Corporation increased yield and decreased the amount of pesticide spraying necessary to maintain a non-transgenic corn field. In Hawaii, papayas (the staple crop of Hawaii) were infused with a gene to make them immune to the devastating ring-spot virus that had all but destroyed the papaya crop in Hawaii. And, around the world, genetic modification of food products has the potential to feed the hungry masses in developing nations. In Kenya, Dr. Florence Wambugu introduced a sweet potato strain that she had created in a Monsanto laboratory, which was resistant to a troublesome virus. While field studies are currently underway, there is an expected minimum of a 15% increase in crop yield for coming years (Mackey, Maureen). Of course, there remains the issue of the environmental implications of introducing genetically modified organisms that may destroy delicate ecosystems or produce toxins and by-products that are especially harmful to the environment. There remains the issue that constant genetic improvement may serve to create ever-more-resistant bacteria and pests that will, one day, destroy crops beyond repair as has happened with Bt176 corn that has been found ineffective against next-generation pests (Transgenic Maize). Finally, and most importantly perhaps, there remains the issue of the unknown future impacts of genetically modified foods on our bodies—one day, may a spliced gene produce a harmful side-affect when eaten? The answer is possibly. Genetically modified foods offer countless benefits, but a constant vigilance over the companies and research organizations involved in modification of plant and crop DNA is imperative.

And, even more imperative than the monitoring of our food sources, is the monitoring of the alteration that occurs with respect to our own bodies. This alteration comes, primarily, in two forms. The first is stem cell research in the form of therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. The second is the attempted “improvement” of the human genome through gene therapy, transgenic studies, and specialized genetic medicine.

The latter (stem cell research) presents promising possibilities. The therapeutic cloning that harvests the 150, or so, “poly-potent” cells that are produced within 3 to 5 days of an egg’s fertilization offers the possibilities of curing cancer, growing new organs to replace organs in need of repair, regenerating spinal and brain tissue, and, altogether, improving the lives of billions. By inserting a different nucleus containing DNA into a poly-potent cell, a new cell, containing the inserted DNA, can divide and grow. With hormone treatment that instructs cells in how to specialize to become one of the 210 different types of cells in the human body, organs and tissue with identical DNA to that of the owner of the inserted nucleus may be created. While this sounds like valuable research, there exists a fundamental problem: morality. In America, a predominantly Christian nation, the fertilized egg is said to have been endowed with a soul and to be an autonomous human being. Thus the harvesting of cells in the name of therapeutic cloning is considered murder through the eyes of the church. And so is born the center controversy of stem cell research. Proponents of stem cell research make the distinction that a fertilized egg is not a human being because it has no potential to survive outside of a woman’s uterus and is a collection of only about 150 cells compared to the 100 trillion that make up the human body. Proponents also like to point out that unused fertilized eggs (that are currently abundant following the trend of in-vitro fertilization) are incinerated if left un-inserted into a woman’s uterus. Murder cannot be tolerated. But, then again, neither can the chronic, allowed suffering of the diseased and disabled population. And, if the harvested cells would be otherwise incinerated, where lays the moral conflict of utilizing those cells to better the lives of people everywhere? It seems that if one was not to be born, one would, at least, wish that their initial cells would be used to better the life of someone else. But, then, who can decide the wishes of an unborn human? Regardless of the opinions we hold on autonomy, we must remember that stem cell research must be monitored as responsibly thought over as it implies the use of genetic material to alter the human body, improve it, or repair it. And, in that respect, therapeutic cloning is immeasurably valuable; and immeasurably dangerous.

Furthermore, reproductive cloning offers the improvement of the species through the eradication of genetic deformities. Reproductive cloning, therefore, offers the potential to cure any genetic disease. That includes but is not limited to type-1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, mental retardation, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, chronic asthma, and food allergies. However, to tamper with the genetic code that makes a person who they are is highly controversial as it pertains to the following questions: Would the altering DNA change something fundamental to a person’s personality? Would the uniform elevation of the human species result in some sort of “brave new world”, as was predicted by Aldous Huxley? And, would the altering, and subsequent recording of a man’s genetic code result in a sort of Gattaca-esque world where all men are judged not by their expressed merits but by their genetic potential? Is this tampering with genetic diversity “playing God?” Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is inarguable that deserves the attention, study, and deliberation of all people if, ever, a productive and moral decision is to be reached.

The earlier-discussed former (gene therapy, mapping, and specialized medicine) gives a much less threatening air of concern, but should be considered with due gravity. Gene therapy and specialized medicine can provide more apt solutions to the problems of an individual by examination of the individual’s genetic code. However, the mapping of each person’s DNA breaches a level of privacy that should be considered to be greater than physical nakedness as it allows a person to be summed up in their entirety, even in areas that are not visible to the eye. Is security worth the necessary sacrifice of privacy?

Perhaps the most disturbing and central question involved in genetic research is “are we ready to place our complete trust in our fellow man?” Are we so ready, in fact, that we will hand over our genetic material to be scrutinized, improved upon, or even controlled by the knowledgeable populous? Because all people cannot be geneticists—and because the utilities involved in this field of research and the application of the future technologies will require the education of multiple and varied specialized workers—the move from natural selection, independent of a fellow man, to a world driven by genetic manipulation implies a need for trust and goodness that is found throughout all parts of the population. Before we can responsibly move down the path toward controlling our own being, mankind as a whole must, inevitably, do some long and hard soul searching. Genetic technologies that are now thought to be possible are a long way off and will require much more extensive research than is presently held. But there will come a day when humanity will have to answer all of the before-proposed questions and choose to travel, or not travel, down the path to improvement and to dependence; to unprecedented power and to unprecedented consequences.

Works Cited
Norman Borlaug Obituary. Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2009. Print.
Mackey, Maureen. The Application of Biotechnology to Nutrition: An Overview. Volume 21. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 5 February 2002. Web. 31 March 2010.
Transgenic Maize. Wikipedia, 25 March 2010. Web. 31 March 2010.