Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Science, Ethics, and the Coming Genetic Debate

Maxwell J. Mehlman, Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering

Continuing advances in genetic sciences have produced two entirely predictable responses from the public: giddy proponents who prophesy an age of refined humanity, and doomsayers who equate genetic engineering with eugenics. Bioethicist Maxwell Mehlman tries to find the middle ground between these two extremes. He crafts an interesting, readable prolegomenon to genetic studies, though I wish he went further.

Prominent futurists and public intellectuals spin yarns of how genetic engineering will advance human evolution, better suiting us for the actual world around us. Not only have gene therapies made it possible to treat, and potentially eradicate, genetic diseases, but they may soon make material improvements in human physiology. Ray Kurzweil is probably the most prominent such voice, but others, like Gregory Stock and Simon Young, are making names, too.

In the other corner, science fiction authors have, for the last generation, predicted catastrophic consequences as we manipulate human flesh. From strange chimeras and rapid devolution to the creation of genetic castes and tyrannical supermen, genetics has been seen as the key to untold failure of our shared humanity. These narratives have struck much more of a chord with the general public than the futurists’ technical discursions.

Both these views have their limitations. Despite its reputation for technophilia, science fiction has more often feared than embraced development. This goes double for Michael Crichton, whom Mehlman cites copiously, and whose basic authorial stance was to just hate everything. But the futurists tend to gloss over known setbacks, seeing science as an unbroken trajectory of progress. Their optimism renders opinions as lopsided as the authors’ pessimism.

Mehlman, by contrast, weighs both trends, seeking the truth in the broad, uncharted territory between them. At times, Mehlman maybe drifts too much into merely cataloging others’ opinions; his endnotes run thirty-five pages. But in surveying the broad terrain of genetic futurism, he gives us plenty of angles to view an important problem. And he resists facile arguments, rejecting pollyannaism as much as needless paranoia.

What does it mean when we go beyond fixing illnesses in the present, or giving individuals enhancements that will end with themselves? Why shouldn’t we use germ line genetic engineering to create inheritable improvements? What objections exist, and which objections should we treat seriously? How should we calibrate potential risks versus likely benefits, particularly for future generations that cannot speak for themselves?

This may sound like tedious reading, but Mehlman translates difficult and contentious positions into plain English. His prose reads as easily as most novelists, letting us grasp issues usually cast in language too specialized for us amateurs. He also, as he spells out the parameters of the controversy, avoids hemming us in. He seldom openly intrudes his own opinion into the discussion, much less telling us what he thinks we should believe.

That said, his work is not objective. No work by a human ever is. He does mock objections he considers beneath him, especially religious ones. Though he does not dismiss religion, and seems warm to scientific-minded Christians like Francis Collins and Teilhard de Chardin, he has no patience for creationism, or its gussied-up cousin, Intelligent Design. Anyone who dismisses literal (read: blind) evolution merits Mehlman’s naked disdain.

Likewise, he refuses to place his trust in science alone. Some non-religious people have raised objections that we should not interfere, say, with natural evolution. But natural evolution has been slow, haphazard, and unresponsive to rapid environmental change. Mehlman is unabashed in thinking that evolution sets a poor standard, and that it could benefit from some guidance by informed, presumably beneficent human wisdom.

I had two specific objections which Mehlman never answered. First, as anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn knows, science lacks the precision implied by calling it genetic “engineering.” Indeed, Rampton and Stauber describe how engineered plant genes are vulnerable to chromosomes landing on the wrong allele, degradation in transit, or unanticipated interactions. How do we prevent that in human subjects?

Second, and more important, we don’t need to speculate on the future to see serious risks. Look at the present. Look at global warming, antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and nuclear waste disposal. Mehlman never gives me any reason to think we will handle live human genetics any more responsibly than technology we already have.

Mehlman’s guided debate will not resolve the concerns he raises. I doubt he means it to. But it does spell out at least one set of terms we can use as we proceed, to determine what we consider acceptable risk, and what we will reasonably refuse.

1 comment:

  1. I would also have a concern about unintended consequences. Some genetic diseases and autoimmune conditions actually have a purpose that is protective (think sickle cell anemia which protects against, I think it is, malaria, and is not harmful as long as it isn't dominant).

    How many of them actually have some protective or beneficial capacities that we have not figured out yet?

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