Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering

Until the demise of the Soviet Union, we lived under the daily threat of nuclear holocaust extinguishing human life and the entire biosphere. Now it looks more likely that total destruction will be averted, and that widespread, but not universally fatal, damage will continue to occur from radiation accidents from power plants, aging nuclear submarines, and perhaps the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons by governments or terrorists.
What has gone largely unnoticed is the unprecedented lethal threat of genetic engineering to life on the planet. It now seems likely, unless a major shift in international policy occurs quickly, that the major ecosystems that support the biosphere are going to be irreversibly disrupted, and that genetically engineered viruses may very well lead to the eventual demise of almost all human life. In the course of the major transformations that are on the way, human beings will be transformed, both intentionally and unintentionally, in ways that will make us something different than what we now consider human.

Heedless of the dangers, we are rushing full speed ahead on almost all fronts. Some of the most powerful multinational chemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations have staked their financial futures on genetic engineering. Enormous amounts of money are already involved, and the United States government is currently bullying the rest of the world into rapid acceptance of corporate demands concerning genetic engineering research and marketing.
What are genes?
Genes are often described as ‘blueprints’ or ‘computer programs’ for our bodies and all living organisms. Although it is true that genes are specific sequences of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that are central to the production of proteins, contrary to popular belief and the now outmoded standard genetic model, genes do not directly determine the ‘traits’ of an organism.1a They are a single factor among many. They provide the ‘list of ingredients’ which is then organized by the ‘dynamical system’ of the organism. That ‘dynamical system’ determines how the organism is going to develop. In other words, a single gene does not, in most cases, exclusively determine either a single feature of our bodies or a single aspect of our behavior. A recipe of ingredients alone does not create a dish of food. A chef must take those ingredients and subject them to complex processes which will determine whether the outcome is mediocre or of gourmet quality. So too the genes are processed through the self-organizing (‘dynamical’) system of the organism, so that the combination of a complex combination of genes is subjected to a variety of environmental factors which lead to the final results, whether somatic or behavioral.2
…a gene is not an easily identifiable and tangible object. It is not only the DNA sequence which determines its functions in the organisms, but also its location in a specific chromosomal, cellular, physiological and evolutionary context. It is therefore difficult to predict the impact of genetic material transfer on the functioning of the extremely tightly controlled, integrated and balanced functioning of all the tens of thousands of structures and processes that make up the body of any complex organism.3
Genetic engineering refers to the artificial modification of the genetic code of a living organism. Genetic engineering changes the fundamental physical nature of the organism, sometimes in ways that would never occur in nature. Genes from one organism are inserted in another organism, most often across natural species boundaries. Some of the effects become known, but most do not. The effects of genetic engineering which we know are ususally short-term, specific and physical. The effects we do not know are often long-term, general, and also mental. Long-term effects may be either specific4 or general.
Differences between Bioengineering and Breeding
The breeding of animals and plants speeds up the natural processes of gene selection and mutation that occur in nature to select new species that have specific use to humans. Although the  selecting of those species interferes with the natural selection process that would otherwise occur, the processes utilized are found in nature. For example, horses are bred to run fast without regard for how those thoroughbreds would be able to survive in the wild. There are problems with stocking streams with farmed fish because they tend to crowd out natural species, be less resistant to disease, and spread disease to wild fish.5
The breeding work of people like Luther Burbank led to the introduction of a whole range of tasty new fruits. At the University of California at Davis square tomatoes with tough skins were developed for better packing and shipping. Sometimes breeding goes awry. Killer bees are an example. Another example is the 1973 corn blight that killed a third of the crop that year. It was caused by a newly bred corn cultivar that was highly susceptible to a rare variant of a common leaf fungus.6
Bioengineers often claim that they are just speeding up the processes of natural selection and making the age-old practices of breeding more efficient. In some cases that may be true, but in most instances the gene changes that are engineered would never occur in nature, because they cross natural species barriers.
Here is a brief summary of some of the more important, recent developments in genetic engineering.7
1) Most of the genetic engineering now being used commercially is in the agricultural sector. Plants are genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides, to have built in pesticide resistance, and to convert nitrogen directly from the soil. Insects are being genetically engineered to attack crop predators. Research is ongoing in growing agricultural products directly in the laboratory using genetically engineered bacteria. Also envisioned is a major commercial role for genetically engineered plants as chemical factories. For example, organic plastics are already being produced in this manner.8
2) Genetically engineered animals are being developed as living factories for the production of pharmaceuticals and as sources of organs for transplantation into humans. (New animals created through the process of cross-species gene transfer are called xenographs. The transplanting of organs across species is called xenotransplantation.) A combination of genetic engineering and cloning is leading to the development of animals for meat with less fat, etc. Fish are being genetically engineered to grow larger and more rapidly.
3) Many pharmaceutical drugs, including insulin, are already genetically engineered in the laboratory. Many enzymes used in the food industry, including rennet used in cheese production, are also available in genetically engineered form and are in widespread use.
4) Medical researchers are genetically engineering disease carrying insects so that their disease potency is destroyed. They are genetically engineering human skin9 and soon hope to do the same with entire organs and other body parts.

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