Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering

Although not a geneticist, Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist and cosmologist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England (a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton), has commented often and publicly on the future role of genetic engineering. For example:
Hawking, known mostly for his theories about the Big Bang and black holes, is focusing a lot these days on how humanity fits into the future of the universe–if indeed it fits at all. One possibility he suggests is that once an intelligent life form reaches the stage we’re at now, it proceeds to destroy itself. He’s an optimist, however, preferring the notion that people will alter DNA, redesigning the race to minimize our aggressive nature and give us a better chance at long-term survival. “Humans will change their genetic makeup to give them more intelligence and better memory,” he said.15
Hawking assumes that, even though humans are about to destroy themselves, they have the wisdom to know how to redesign themselves. If that were the case, why would we be about to destroy ourselves in the first place? Is Hawking assuming that genes control IQ and memory, and that they are equivalent to wisdom, or is Hawking claiming there is a wisdom gene? All these assumptions are extremely dubious. The whole notion that we can completely understand what it means to be human with a small part of our intellect, which is in turn a small part of who we are is, in its very nature, extremely suspect. If we attempt to transform ourselves in the image of a small part of ourselves, what we transform ourselves into will certainly be something smaller or at least a serious distortion of our human nature.
Those questions aside, Hawking does make explicit that, for the first time in history, natural evolution has come to an end and has been replaced by humans meddling with their own genetic makeup. With genetic engineering science has moved from exploring the natural world and its mechanisms to redesigning them. This is a radical departure in the notion of what we mean by science. As Nobel Prize winning biologist Professor George Wald was quoted above as saying: “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.”16
Hawking’s views illustrate that even brilliant scientists, whose understanding of science should be impeccable, can get caught in the web of scientism. “Scientism”17 refers to the extending of science beyond the use of the scientific method and wrongly attempting to use it as the foundation for belief systems. Scientism promotes the myth that science is the sole source of truth about ourselves and the world we live in.
Most scientific research is dependent on artificial closed system models, yet the cosmos is an open system. Therefore, there are a priori limitations to the relevance of scientific data to the open system of the natural world. What seems to be the case in the laboratory may or may not be valid in the natural world.17a Therefore, we cannot know through scientific methodology the full extent of the possible effects of genetic alterations in living creatures.18
If science is understood in terms of hypotheses from data collected according to scientific method, then the claims of Hawking in the name of science extend far beyond what science actually is. He is caught in an unconscious web of presuppositions and values that deeply affect both his hypotheses and his interpretation of data. It is not only Hawking who is caught in this web but all of us, regardless of our philosophical positions, because scientism is part of our cultural background that is very hard to shake. We all have to keep in mind that there is more to the world than what our current crop of scientific instruments can detect.
Hawking’s notions are at least altruistic. Perhaps more dangerous in the short run are projected commercial applications of so-called ‘designer genes’: gene alterations to change the physical appearance of our offspring to more closely match cultural values and styles. When we change the eye-color, height, weight, and other bodily characteristics of our offspring, how do we know what else is also being changed? Genes are not isolated units that have simple one-to-one correspondences.19
Here are a few examples of current efforts in genetic engineering that may cause us to think twice about its rosy benefits.
The Potential of Genetic Engineering for Disrupting the Natural Ecosystems of the Biosphere
At a time when an estimated 50,000 species are already expected to become extinct every year, any further interference with the natural balance of ecosystems could cause havoc. Genetically engineered organisms, with their completely new and unnatural combinations of genes, have a unique power to disrupt our environment. Since they are living, they are capable of reproducing, mutating and moving within the environment. As these new life forms move into existing habitats they could destroy nature as we know it, causing long term and irreversible changes to our natural world.20
Any child who has had an aquarium knows that the fish, plants, snails, and food have to be kept in balance to keep the water clear and the fish healthy. Natural ecosystems are more complex but operate in a similar manner. Nature, whether we consider it to be conscious or without consciousness, is a self-organizing system with its own mechanisms.21 In order to guarantee the long-term viability of the system, those mechanisms insure that important equilibria are maintained. Lately the extremes of human environmental pollution and other human activities have been putting deep strains on those mechanisms. Nonetheless, just as we can clearly see when the aquarium is out of kilter, we can learn to sensitize ourselves to Nature’s warnings and know when we are endangering Nature’s mechanisms for maintaining equilibria. We can see an aquarium clearly. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of our senses in detecting unnatural and often invisible change, we may not become aware of serious dangers to the environment until widespread damage has already been done.
Deep ecology22 and Gaia theory have brought to general awareness the interactive and interdependent quality of environmental systems.22a No longer do we believe that isolated events occur in nature. Each event is part of a vast web of inter-causality, and as such has widespread consequences within that ecosystem.
If we accept the notion that the biosphere has its own corrective mechanisms, then we have to look at how they work and the limitations of their design. The more extreme the disruption to the self-organizing systems of the biosphere, the stronger the corrective measures are necessary. The notion that the systems can ultimately deal with any threat, however extreme, is without scientific basis. No evidence exists that the life and welfare of human beings have priority in those self-organizing systems. Nor does any evidence exist that anything in those systems is equipped to deal with all the threats that genetically engineered organisms may pose. Why? The organisms are not in the experience of the systems, because they could never occur naturally as a threat. The basic problem is a denial on the part of many geneticists that genetically engineered organisms are radical, new, and unnatural forms of life, which, as such, have no place in the evolutionarily balanced biosphere.

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