Biotechnology and “The Human Spirit”
Gavin H.

With the advent of genetic engineering and stem cell research, humankind is closer than ever to being able to shape our own biological destiny, as well as the evolutionary destinies of plants and animals. Can we, as a species and as a society, be trusted with such potent technology? The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” comes to mind; as with any new technological innovation, the effects of stem cell research and genetic engineering depend on how we choose to wield the power symbolized by biotechnology. The advancements promised by modern biotechnology have sparked a heated debate, with many questioning the capability of scientists to make the moral and ethical choices that arise when the very fabric of life, the genetic code of organisms, is tinkered with. Scientists such as Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, argue that genetic engineering is simply the logical culmination of centuries of human attempts to control nature for our own benefit. Silver argues that we, as a society, should “seize the power” of biotechnology and explore all the possibilities it presents to humans and to the natural world. What Silver neglects to mention, however, is that biotechnology is not a cut-and dried science, accompanied by effects that are completely known and understood, but a fundamentally new realm that is largely uncharted and unexplored. Never before have humans possessed such incredible power over the natural world, over the formerly immutable process of evolution, and over our own lives and biological destinies.

At its core, biotechnology involves the scientific manipulation of living organisms in order to bring about a certain result, whether that result is a species of genetically modified corn that automatically produces the Bt insecticide, a cloned animal, or a human organ grown with pluripotent stem cells. Biotechnology promises the eventual eradication of genetic diseases such as Down’s Syndrome, the ability to heal previously irremediable spinal cord injuries, medications custom-tailored to patients’ genomes, and a possible cure for third-world hunger and malnutrition. If the technology runs amok, however, it has the potential to further widen the gap between the rich and poor by translating monetary superiority into physical superiority, creating a new breed of superhumans similar to the characters labeled “Valid” in the futuristic movie Gattaca. Gattaca is a dystopian portrayal of exactly what could happen to our society if the power of biotechnology is abused, and conclusive proof that a society which defines individuals solely by their genetics is blatantly ignoring the importance of “the human spirit.” With quick and convenient genetic testing comes the possibility of genetic discrimination like that seen in Gattaca; with the eradication of undesirable genetic traits from our children comes the potential destruction of diversity. Genetically engineered crops allow farmers to reduce their reliance on toxic and destructive pesticides, while at the same time creating the potential for entirely new breeds of resistant “superbugs” that destroy their habitats and defy eradication.

When discussing biotechnology, there is not one question that must be asked, as Lee Silver would have many individuals believe, but two. The first is, Can we? and the second, necessary question is, Should we? The answer to the first question is made clearer with the results of each successive new experiment involving cloning and genetic engineering. The second is not as easy to answer because biotechnology is unique in that those who work with it are not constrained by what they do not know, as is the case with other fields of science, but by what they do. In the past, scientists and mathematicians have not hesitated to “seize the power” presented by each new discovery because of their eagerness to expand human knowledge and their ignorance of the potential consequences of their actions. Today, scientists who are working with biotechnology are painfully aware of the full ramifications of their actions and the potential consequences of them; movies such as Gattaca prove that society is capable of pondering the potential consequences of technologies that yet have to be fully invented. In some cases, especially involving human cloning and “designer babies,” it is clear that the risks greatly outweigh any potential benefits, and that those areas of biotechnology should best be left alone, leaving scientists to focus on more promising research that does not threaten the core of what makes us human. Almost all other areas of biotechnology, including stem cell research and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are relatively benign and offer solutions to dilemmas that have plagued humankind for centuries.

When the entire human genome was successfully sequenced with the conclusion of the human genome project in 2003, scientists were quick to predict the arrival of personalized medicine: medications and prescriptions that are custom-tailored to a patient’s genetic code to prevent the possibility of any extreme side effects and to ensure that each treatment cures symptoms in the most efficient method possible. Personalized medicine promises an end to standard dosages and adverse reactions; it will allow doctors and other medical professionals to scan the genomes of their patients and prescribe certain drugs and treatments that are known to be effective for each patient’s particular combination of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Personalized medicine is a useful application of biotechnology, but is only a short term solution to a centuries-old problem; scanning and modifying the genetic codes of humans at conception is a permanent solution to eradicating the genetic diseases that have plagued humans for millennia.

When scientists and medical professionals discuss modifying the genomes of unborn children, many parents immediately fear the creation of a “super race” potentially without the vulnerabilities and variations that make us human. To the deaf population, a genetic cure for deafness would result in the destruction of an entire segment of society; to hearing parents with a history of deafness in the family, it would be a welcome treatment. The chief concern of many of those who are wary of scanning individual human genomes and prescribing genetic cures is that if parents choose to only give their children “favorable” traits, entire segments of the population (the deaf, homosexuals, and others) would most likely be wiped out, sacrificing diversity and creating a world similar to Gattaca, where human potential is judged solely by genetics. To prevent this dystopia from becoming a reality, caution must be exercised when tinkering with human genomes; a child’s DNA must only be altered in order to remove any possible diseases and disabilities, with a disability being defined as a condition that lowers the physical, biological quality of life. To reach beyond this point and, in Lee Silver’s words, “control what has been left to chance in the past,” would be an abuse of the power of biotechnology and the beginning of an erosion of human equality and diversity.

Stem cell research, which often involves conducting experiments with the contents of human embryos, is also controversial. Many fundamentalist Christians believe that using an embryo to produce stem cells which are then used to treat debilitating diseases in living humans amounts to the theft of one life merely to improve the quality of another life. When examining embryonic stem cell research, however, it is important to make a distinction between the potential for life and life itself. Many embryos, if not used for research, are condemned to the incinerator, and when they are used, they are not developing fetuses but days-old clumps of cells known as blastocysts. Blastocysts in a petri dish are not sentient and do not have the ability to grow into human beings. If taken advantage of, they can serve as sources of stem cells that, through therapeutic cloning, could then be grown into replacement organs or used to treat brain and spinal cord injuries. Stem cell research offers the potential for new cures that, if attitudes in the United States do not change, could require Americans to travel to nations such as Singapore for treatment, which does not discourage embryonic stem cell research. Reproductive cloning, which also involves somatic nuclear transfer, does not offer the same medical benefits as therapeutic cloning and, for obvious moral and ethical reasons, should not be attempted on humans.

Pioneered by corporations such as Monsanto, genetically modified foods allow farmers to reduce their usage of pesticides and produce higher crop yields more efficiently, but can also alter natural ecosystems in unpredictable ways and give only a few corporations a virtual monopoly on American, and possibly worldwide, food production. GM crops, despite controversy in Europe and the United States, are subjected to a comprehensive testing process by the FDA to ensure that they are “substantial equivalents” of natural food products. Even though environmentalists claim that they are no better than pesticides, it is clear that much of the fear surrounding genetically modified foods results from a lack of understanding about the process that produces them. GM crops should not be regarded as dangerous “frankenfoods,” and their ability to trigger severe allergic reactions is often exaggerated. Crops such as Golden Rice, which is genetically engineered to produce Vitamin A, promise to reduce blindness and other maladies caused by Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. Despite any economic or scientific objections we may have to genetically modified foods, it isn’t our responsibility, or wise decision-making, to deny the developing world a technology that has the potential to alleviate chronic malnutrition and abject poverty.

The power given to us by biotechnology is not as much the result of a logical progression of human interactions with nature, as Lee Silver asserts, but a quantum leap forward, discovered almost by accident, that far surpasses selective breeding and other previously used techniques to manipulate nature. With control of DNA comes control of the blueprint of life and by extension control over the process of evolution itself. As a result, and due to the fact that scientists themselves do not fully understand some of the mechanisms involved in working with stem cells and genetic engineering, it is fair and logical to have a national debate about the merits and potential consequences of manipulating with life before unhesitatingly “seizing the power” biotechnology presents. What is not fair and logical is allowing controversy and ideology to get in the way of the facts, which largely show that, if used properly and carefully, biotechnology offers many significant benefits for both nature and human society.