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.
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.
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’
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.