When the Native American tribe, the Cherokee, was once composed of hunters, there existed ceremonies that had to be observed before the body of a hunted animal, such as a bear, could be used. It was a matter of honoring the bear by respecting its desire to live and thanking it for the sacrifice it had made for others. The entire bear carcass was used so that none of the flesh that held the important role of sustaining life in the bear would be without new purpose, giving prosperity to others where it was in need. In this way the bear’s unfortunate destruction could be justified and given an even greater purpose in death than it had in life. In the eyes of many, today, the idea of holding this ceremony could be viewed as foolish for many reasons. For one, what justifies legitimate “respect” for something that you intend to deliver death to? Acting respectfully does not justify the action. Secondly, why not instead honor the creature by observing its will to live instead of thanking it for feeling misery? In order to understand this, it is important to understand that the spirituality of the Cherokee revolves around a belief in the continual reincarnation of life and a connection between all things drawn from this: that, in death, one’s life returns to the great mass of energy that expands throughout the universe. New life is created from that body for the purpose of bettering the world and obtaining positive experiences from it, and when that life dies it returns to the body with this new knowledge. In this sense, the Cherokee believe that all life is sacred in the sense that every creature fulfills a specific role in the balance of nature. As bees pollinate flowers, as a rabbit dies for a wolf to eat, even natural disasters can be a means for developing toward a more positive continuation: as many trees have evolved bark that must be removed by means of wildfires in order to be healthy and grow properly. This spirituality develops values that focus on sustaining the health of our world through balance, something that we must all be aware of because it will continue to exist past our individual lives, a focus on the future and the impact we make, a respect for the roles humans play and the increased responsibility we have (being the only creature that can alter its own surroundings to fit itself, and thus upset nature’s balance), and the importance of finding purpose.
As a belief system, these ideas of mysticism do not weigh on my rationale. The way I see it, the reason this spirituality has real-world application is that life is not sacred for “the sake of being life”. Otherwise, we would obsess over exaggerating the lives of skin cells and bacteria, not to even go as far as a strictly non-living diet fueled off only non-pre-living energy sources (which none exist that we can metabolize). This is not natural or realistic. Instead, I believe that it is the potential good that life can bring that gives it value.
Scientific and technological progress hugely affect this “good” because they expand the realm in which the permanent world can be explored and give new variety to the ways that it can be experienced. A life dedicated to permanent expansion of the possibilities within a world is infinitely more important and influential than it would otherwise be because it expands the possibilities of all future life.
It is more difficult to communicate the big picture, as I’d like to see it, to American society because we have such a strong cultural emphasis on individual rights. In more collectivist societies, like that of the Cherokee, stem cell research and genetic engineering are much more easily excepted because they are fundamentally a greater good. In my opinion it is selfish and ignorant to invest so much in the individual when so much can be gained for the whole.
Stem Cells
With this in mind, it confuses me that the value and “potential” of a human embryo begins at conception. It seems to me that both separately and together, germ cells have equal potential to create a human being (and this is the basic unalterable basis of my opinion: there is no difference). I would never order the destruction of a woman’s child, or the precursor to a women’s beloved child. But there is a distinct difference between potential life and actual life. Even the smallest baby is loved by another living person who would feel pain at the loss of that being. But there are thousands of potential peers who I could love today who don’t exist because a family did not want a child and no one knows the difference. If I were never born, no one would know the difference. What gives life value is their connection to the real world.
I only want two kids. By the potential life argument, it isn’t reasonable for me to waste the billions of sperm cells I will produce –all that potential life—and only produce two meager offspring. It seems that even in conception I waste countless germ cells that could have been people. Furthermore, by that logic it is also murder for a woman to have her period every month because it is one more child that will never get the opportunity to be alive. Even more terrible is the fact that a human female only ovulates 5% of her entire stock of eggs in her lifetime. It is obvious to me that this position is foolish because that small death is unavoidable, our planet could not support that much life; it is unnatural. The way I see it, to stop embryonic stem cell research is to waste life. The potential that does exist in that life to positively affect the universe cannot be unleashed in any way, naturally. I only want two children. I beg you, please let me give the rest of my germ cells away to cure even one living person who is loved by a family. The turkey sandwich you ate for lunch felt itself die, even plants have a basic nervous system, but blastocysts have no such biological mechanisms. They cannot think or feel and they have no impact on the world in any way but to become a child or to contribute their stem cells to someone’s loved one. My argument is that if I want two children, and my wife wants two children, let me save lives with the rest of this amazing medicinal resource that is within my own body that I would otherwise naturally destroy.
At the heart of the Cherokee rationality is a deep-seated reverence of nature. But, nature is not necessarily something to be worshipped. Nature is crucial simply because biodiversity equates to stability in the environment, a larger gene pool, and less net death.
Nature is self-preserving. The evolutionary process allows for life to survive calamity by the means of diversity, through which it modifies life forms to fit an environment. Humans, on the other hand, have the power of intervention: to modify their surroundings in order to allow themselves to thrive without changing, which is fueled by our empowering will to defy nature and not die. We have been domesticating our environment for 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution. It is quite possible that humans have become so domesticated, themselves, that we could not survive without our altered environment. The genetic modification of crops is merely the next step in a denaturalization that humans have been participating in for as nearly as long as we’ve been a species. Unfortunately, unrestrained human domestication has the potential to destroy the careful balances in food webs and inadvertently give one species the advantage, which often end in the extinction of others. Diversity stabilizes environments; without it, ecosystems have a tendency to backlash violently in order to restabilize.
Great examples of this are the introduction and misuse of antibiotics in the 1950s which created super-bugs like MRSA which have become totally resistant to drugs and have caused an irreversible loss of stability in our hospitals that has yet to be alleviated. So we have the two sides of the issue: while there is great potential in genetic modification, we now have the ability to upset the balance more than we ever could before. A particular test on genetically modified salmon that are engineered to grow twice as fast but cannot sustain their growth in the wild has predicted that if these fish escaped into the wild, their favorable mating qualities would wipe out the entire species. This is the most obvious reason for humans to proceed with cautious in reworking nature which has very careful stabilized itself through much more trial and error than we could ever replicate. Carefully limiting GMO interaction with the natural environment would be enough to solve this problem.
Human Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering is a means to an end. After our progression as a species toward supremacy by altering our environment to fit our needs (all the while damaging the planet’s stability and wasting the planet’s limited resources), human genetic engineering, alone, gives us the potential to reroute our development into an independent self-sufficient system without having to deal with natural selection or eugenics.
But this is a farsighted idealism and before I address it in any detail let me create a basis for discussion in the short-term. Human nature, just like our planet’s nature, is nothing to be revered. It is imperfect in many ways; it is well known that human beings are not designed to inhabit cosmopolitan cities or form governments, by nature. Our brains are not even designed to read. War, personal want, short-sighted greed, and a certain extent of xenophobia are considered basic human qualities that can’t or shouldn’t be overcome because they are “part of being human”. Revising our DNA could finally end this, and create a better creature across the board. Take Stephen Frambach’s example, for instance: Imagine that scientists have located the gene that controls dopamine release associated with consuming fats. Humans are built for an environment devoid of that resource, so we are rewarded for finding it. But, now that we have so much control over our diets, we kill ourselves with the nutrients that we are not supposed to be able to find, like fat and salt. If we were to take that gene which we are abusing and halve its affect we could legitimately alter human nature to be more appropriate for the society that we have built around ourselves. A steak could be no more satisfactory than broccoli and obesity rates would plummet.
On the other hand, there are serious negatives that need to be considered when we, as an advanced species that has been developing for millennia, decide to experiment with the essence of our being. While human genetic engineering has huge implications for society, it is important to remember that it begins with individuals, and every positive aspect of our genetics is at risk when we attempt alteration, regardless of our intent.
The potential loss of creativity frightens me. In my opinion, there has always been a distinctive link, geared by physiological compensation in mental illness, which allows an unusual area of the brain to thrive and physically expand. There have been famous cases of genius out of autism: children who can play complex musical pieces by ear after listening to them only once, some who can look at a building and redraw its every vivid feature, hours later. It seems unacceptable that a community might view complex neurological dispositions in black-and-white, and might accidentally remove essential human qualities when tampering with defects.
But cosmetic inequalities change nothing. Inequalities exist and have always existed. It seems to me that the dangers of class divisions determined by genetics will always be trumped by the incredible power of free will, determination, and the fact that DNA does not code for fate.
Physically we are unequal. But I don’t believe that carries over in terms of potential in an individual. I have Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP), a heart condition that was caused in my body by a different disorder: a birth defect which has shaped my ribcage in a way so that it presses on my heart and lungs, squishing my heart and allowing blood to backflow through one of my heart valves, which causes drastically lower performance. On top of that, I have decreased lung capacity from the same defect. My doctor told me, outright, “You will never be able to be a star swimmer, so I hope you can find a different way of proving yourself.” Despite his diagnosis, I have trained myself to run faster and longer than most of my peers. My secret is merely overcoming pain. There is no gene for being a winner. There are no great achievers whose successes do not root in working really hard. Much of human failure results from those who don’t care, and there is no genetic remedy that will deliver them success along with that apathy. Still, there may be a trait connected with the ability to work harder, and the expression of that trait would do nothing but bless our race with excellence.
If we can combine genes from all creatures to create a bacteria that can break-down oil spills, a frost-resistant strawberry, and bananas that manufacture vaccines, I see a horizon of huge opportunity ahead of us. Think, if genetic engineering could allow humans to sleep less, process food more efficiently, or photosynthesize even the smallest amount of energy we could save enormous amounts of resources. Maybe someday we could become completely self-sufficient by producing energy from the sun and creating medicine, like stem cells, from our own bodies.
Even if 99% of these theories are impossible, for any of these technologies, the remaining one percent is just too great an opportunity not to take.

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