Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering

5) Genetic screening is already used to screen for some hereditary conditions. Research is ongoing in the use of gene therapy in the attempt to correct some of these conditions. Other research is focusing on techniques to make genetic changes directly in human embryos. Most recently  research has also been focused on combining cloning with genetic enginering. In so-called germline therapy, the genetic changes are passed on from generation to generation and are permanent.
6) In mining, genetically engineered organisms are being developed to extract gold, copper, etc. from the substances in which it is embedded. Other organisms may someday live on the methane gas that is a lethal danger to miners. Still others have been genetically engineered to clean up oil spills, to neutralize dangerous pollutants, and to absorb radioactivity. Genetically engineered bacteria are being developed to transform waste products into ethanol for fuel.
In the 1950’s, the media was full of information about the great new scientific miracle that was going to make it possible to kill all of the noxious insects in the world, to wipe out insect-born diseases and feed the world’s starving masses. That was DDT. In the 1990’s, the media is full of information about the coming wonders of genetic engineering. Everywhere are claims that genetic engineering will feed the starving, help eliminate disease, and so forth. The question is the price tag. The ideas and evidence presented below are intended to help evaluate that central question.
Many prominent scientists have warned against the dangers of genetic engineering. George Wald, Nobel Prize-winning biologist and Harvard professor, wrote:
Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution.
Such intervention must not be confused with previous intrusions upon the natural order of living organisms; animal and plant breeding, for example; or the artificial induction of mutations, as with X-rays. All such earlier procedures worked within single or closely related species. The nub of the new technology is to move genes back and forth, not only across species lines, but across any boundaries that now divide living organisms… The results will be essentially new organisms. Self-perpetuating and hence permanent. Once created, they cannot be recalled…
Up to now living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in…. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell, either for the host organism or their neighbors.
It is all too big and is happening too fast. So this, the central problem, remains almost unconsidered. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain… For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.10
Erwin Chargoff, an eminent geneticist who is sometimes called the father of modern microbiology, commented:
…The principle question to be answered is whether we have the right to put an additional fearful load on generations not yet born. I use the adjective ‘additional’ in view of the unresolved and equally fearful problem of the disposal of nuclear waste. Our time is cursed with the necessity for feeble men, masquerading as experts, to make enormously far-reaching decisions. Is there anything more far-reaching than the creation of forms of life?… You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosals; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. Once you have constructed a viable E. coli cell carry a plasmid DNA into which a piece of eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, it will survive you and your children and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.11
It appears that the recombination experiments in which a piece of animal DNA is incorporated into the DNA of a microbial plasmid are being performed without a full appreciation of what is going on. Is the position of one gene with respect to its neighbors on the DNA chain accidental or do they control and regulate each other? … Are we wise in getting ready to mix up what nature has kept apart, namely the genomes of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.
The worst is that we shall never know. Bacteria and viruses have always formed a most effective biological underground. The guerrilla warfare through which they act on higher forms of life is only imperfectly understood. By adding to this arsenal freakish forms of life-prokyarotes propagating eukaryotic genes-we shall be throwing a veil of uncertainties over the life of coming generations. Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?
This world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.12
In contrast, here are two examples of prominent scientists who support genetic engineering. Co-discoverer of the DNA code and Nobel Laureate Dr. James D. Watson takes this approach:
On the possible diseases created by recombinant DNA, Watson wrote in March 1979: ‘I would not spend a penny trying to see if they exist’ (Watson 1979:113). Watson’s position is that we must go ahead until we experience serious disadvantages. We must take the risk of even a catastrophe that might be hidden in recombinant DNA technology. According to him that is how learning works: until a tiger devours you, you don’t know that the jungle is dangerous.13
What is wrong with Watson’s analogy? If Watson wants to go off into the jungle and put himself at risk of being eaten by a tiger, that is his business. What gives him the right to drag us all with him and put us at risk of being eaten? When genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment, they put us all at risk, not just their creators.
The above statement by a great scientist clearly shows that we cannot depend on the high priests of science to make our ethical decisions for us. Too much is at stake. Not all geneticists are so cavalier or unclear about the risks. Unfortunately the ones who see or care about the potential problems are in the minority. That is not really surprising, because many who did see some of the basic problems would either switch fields or not enter it in the first place. Many of those who are in it have found a fascinating playground, not only in which to earn a livelihood, but also one with high-stake prizes of fame and fortune.
Watson himself saw some of the problems clearly when he stated:
This [genetic engineering] is a matter far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities. The belief that…science always moves forward represents a form of laissez-faire nonsense dismally reminiscent of the credo that American business if left to itself will solve everybody’s problems. Just as the success of a corporate body in making money need not set the human condition ahead, neither does every scientific advance automatically make our lives more ‘meaningful’.14

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