loka@loka.org on Tue, 9 May 2000 17:28:12 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]


By Richard Hayes <rhayes@publicmediacenter.org>
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
                   San Francisco, CA
     We are fast approaching what is arguably the most consequential
technological threshold in all of human history: the ability to directly
manipulate the genes we pass on to our children. 
     Development and use of these technologies would irrevocably change
the nature of human life and human society.  It would destabilize human
biological identity and function.  It would put into play a wholly
unprecedented set of social, psychological and political forces that would
feed back upon themselves with impacts quite beyond our ability to
imagine, much less control. 
     These technologies are being developed and actively campaigned for by
an influential network of scientists and others who see themselves
ushering in a new epoch for human life on earth.  They look forward to the
day when parents quite literally assemble their children from genes listed
in a catalogue.  They celebrate a future in which our common humanity is
lost as a genetically-enhanced elite increasingly acquires the attributes
of a separate species.

     There is little public awareness of the full implications of the new
human genetic technologies or of the campaign underway to promote them. 
There are few popular institutions, and there is no social or political
movement, critically addressing the immense challenges these technologies
     If we are to have any hope of bringing human genetic engineering
within the ambit of accountable societal governance, we need to move very
quickly.  We need national and community leaders, activists, journalists,
scientists, scholars, and other citizens to inform themselves in short
order about critical aspects of the new human genetic technologies, and to
join together to begin building nothing less than a new social movement. 
     The notes that follow address the science, history, accompanying
ideology, and other aspects of the most critical applications of the new
human genetic technologies.  Resources for those who want to learn more or
find out how they can join with others seeking to engage these issues are
listed at the end. 

     Some applications of human genetic engineering are benign and hold
great potential for preventing disease and alleviating suffering.  Other
applications open the door to a human future more horrific than our worst
nightmares.  We need to be able to distinguish between these, and to
support the former and oppose the latter. 
     Genetic engineering means changing the genes in a living cell.  If
you have a lung disease caused by defective genes in your lung cells, for
example, perhaps those genes can be changed and the disease cured. 
Researchers try to do this by putting healthy human genes into virus-like
organisms that are injected into a patient's blood stream and travel to
the lungs.  The virus-like organisms insert the healthy genes into the
lung cells containing the defective genes.  That's genetic engineering. 
     There are two very different applications of genetic engineering. 
One application changes the genes in cells in your body other than your
egg and sperm cells.  Such changes -- like those in the lung cells of our
example -- are not passed to any children you may have.  Applications of
this sort are currently in clinical trials, and are generally considered
to be socially acceptable. 
     The other application of genetic engineering changes the genes in
eggs, sperm, or very early embryos.  These affect not only any children
you may have, but all succeeding generations.  This application is by far
the more consequential, because it opens the door to the reconfiguration
of the human species.
     The technical terms for these two applications are, respectively,
"somatic" genetic engineering (after the Greek "soma" for "body"), and
"germline" genetic engineering (because eggs and sperm are the "germinal"
or "germline"  cells). 
     Many advocates of germline engineering say it is needed to allow
couples to avoid passing on genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis or
sickle cell anemia.  This is simply not true, and scientists and medical
researchers who use this argument are betraying the trust that society
grants them.  More acceptable means already exist to accomplish this same
goal.  In the technique know as pre-implantation screening, for example,
couples at risk of passing on a gene-related disease use _in-vitro_
fertilization to conceive several zygotes, and only those found to be free
of the harmful gene are implanted and brought to term.  No manipulation of
genes is required.  Germline manipulation is necessary only if you wish to
"enhance" your children with genes they wouldn't be able to get from you
or your partner.

     The ability to directly manipulate the genes of plants and animals
was developed during the late 1970's.  Proposals to begin human gene
manipulation were put forth in the early 1980's and aroused much
controversy.  A small number of researchers argued in favor of germline
manipulation, but the majority of scientists and others opposed it.  In
1983 an important letter signed by 58 religious leaders said,
     "Genetic engineering of the human germline represents a
     fundamental threat to the preservation of the human
     species as we know it, and should be opposed with the
     same courage and conviction as we now oppose the threat
     of nuclear extinction." [1]
     In 1985 the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)  approved
somatic gene therapy trials, but said that it would not accept proposals
for germline manipulation "at present." That ambiguous decision did little
to discourage advocates of germline engineering, who knew that somatic
experiments were the appropriate first step in any event.  In the period
following 1985, and especially following the first approved clinical
attempts at somatic gene therapy in 1990, advocates of germline
engineering began writing in the medical, ethical, and other journals to
build broader support.
     In the mid- and late 1990's these efforts received several major
shots in the arm.  The ongoing success of the federally funded Human
Genome Project in describing and locating all 80,000+ human genes fueled
growing speculation about eventual applications, including germline
engineering. The successful development in 1996 of the ability to create a
genetic duplicate of an adult mammal ("cloning"), and in 1999 of
techniques for disassembling human embryos and keeping embryonic cells
alive in culture, were critically important.  They made it possible, for
the first time, to imagine a procedure whereby the human germline could be
engineered in a commercially practicable manner.
     Advocates of germline engineering were further encouraged by the
social, cultural and political conditions of the late 1990's, a period
characterized by technological enthusiasm, distrust of government
regulation, the spread of consumerist/competitive/libertarian values, and
the perceived weakening ability of national governments to enforce laws
and treaties, as a result of globalization. 
     Advocacy of germline engineering moved to the status of an openly
acknowledged political cause in March of 1998, when Gregory Stock,
Director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at UCLA (the
University of California at Los Angeles), organized the symposium
"Engineering the Human Germline."  All the speakers were avid proponents
of germline engineering.  Stock declared that the important question was
"not if, but when" germline engineering would be used.  The symposium was
attended by nearly 1,000 people and received front-page coverage in _The
New York Times_, _The Washington Post_ and elsewhere.
     Four months after the UCLA conference one of the key participants,
somatic gene transfer pioneer W. French Anderson, submitted a draft
proposal to the NIH to begin somatic gene transfer experiments on human
fetuses.  He acknowledged that this procedure would have a "relatively
high" potential for "inadvertent gene transfer to the germline." 
Anderson's proposal is widely acknowledged to be strategically crafted so
that approval could be construed as acceptance of germline modification,
at least in some circumstances.  Anderson hopes to receive permission to
begin clinical trials by 2003.
     Advocacy of germline engineering and the new "techno- eugenics"
(i.e., technologically enabled human genetic manipulation and selection)
is an integral element of a newly emerging socio-political ideology.  This
ideology differs from conservative ideologies in its antipathy towards
religion and traditional social values, from left- progressive ideologies
in its rejection of egalitarian values and social welfare as a public
purpose, and from Green ideologies in its enthusiastic advocacy of a
technologically reconfigured and transformed natural world, human beings
included.  It embraces philosophical, normative and political commitments
to materialism, reductionism and determinism; to science and technology as
autonomous endeavors properly exempt from social control; to the presumed
priority of market outcomes; and to a political philosophy grounded in
evolutionary psychology and social darwinist views of human nature and
     This ideology is gaining acceptance among scientific, high-tech,
media and policy elites.  A key foundational text is the book _Remaking
Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family_, by molecular
biologist Lee Silver of Princeton University.  Silver looks forward to a
future in which the health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability,
sensory capacity and life-span of our children all become artifacts of
genetic manipulation.  Silver acknowledges that the costs of these
technologies will limit their widespread adoption, so that over time
society will segregate into the "GenRich" and the "Naturals"  In Silver's
vision of the future:
     "The GenRich -- who account for 10 percent of the
     American population -- all carry synthetic genes.  All
     aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment
     industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by
     members of the GenRich class . . . Naturals work as
     low-paid service providers or as laborers . . . 
     [eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class
     will become entirely separate species with no ability
     to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in
     each other as a current human would have for a
     Silver continues: 

     "Many think that it is inherently unfair for some
     people to have access to technologies that can provide
     advantages while others, less well-off, are forced to
     depend on chance alone . . . [But] American society
     adheres to the principle that personal liberty and
     personal fortune are the primary determinants of what
     individuals are allowed and able to do.  Indeed, in a
     society that values individual freedom above all else,
     it is hard to find any legitimate basis for restricting
     the use of repro-genetics . . . . I will argue [that]
     the use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable . .
     . . [W]hether we like it or not, the global marketplace
     will reign supreme."[2] 
     Silver is hardly alone.  Here's James Watson, co- discoverer of the
structure of DNA, Nobel laureate and founding director of the Human Genome
     "And the other thing, because no one has the guts to
     say it, if we could make better human beings by knowing
     how to add genes, why shouldn't we?  What's wrong with
     it? . . . Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say
     that we've got a perfect genome and there's some
     sanctity to it?  I'd just like to know where that idea
     comes from. It's utter silliness."[3]
     And here's Dr. Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy
in the Schools of Medicine and Arts/Humanities at the
University of Alabama:

     "[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny
     dispositions around children and adults.  Could people
     be chosen in the same way?  Would it be so terrible to
     allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in
     the same way that great breeders . . . try to match a
     breed of dog to the needs of a family?"[4]
     Or consider this excerpt from an interview with
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan: 
     "'[M]aking babies sexually will be(come) rare,' Caplan
     speculates.  [M]any parents will leap at the chance to
     make their children smarter, fitter and prettier.
     Ethical concerns will be overtaken, says Caplan, by the
     realization that technology simply makes for better
     children.  'In a competitive market society, people are
     going to want to give their kids an edge,' says the
     bioethicist.  'They'll slowly get used to the idea that
     a genetic edge is not greatly different from an
     environmental edge.'"[5]
     Here's noted economist Lester Thurow of MIT: 
     "Some will hate it, some will love it, but
     biotechnology is inevitably leading to a world in which
     plants, animals and human beings are going to be partly
     man-made . . . . Suppose parents could add 30 points to
     their children's IQ. Wouldn't you want to do it? And if
     you don't, your child will be the stupidest child in
     the neighborhood." [6]
     And here's Francis Fukuyama of the Institute for Public Policy at
George Mason University and author of _The End of History_: 

     "[B]iotechnology will be able to accomplish what the
     radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably
     crude techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring
     about a new type of human being . . . . [W]ithin the
     next couple of generations . . . we will have
     definitively finished human History because we will
     have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new
     posthuman history will begin."[7]
     Can it get worse than this?  Yes. In Germany last year an uproar
ensued following statements by noted philosopher Peter Sloterdijk that the
failure of "Habermasean social democracy" now leaves human genetic
engineering (which he referred to as "Selektion," a word associated with
Nazi genocide) as the only means for humanity to improve its lot.
     Supporters of human germline engineering and the new techno-eugenics
have established a number of institutes that encourage public acceptance
of their program.  At UCLA the Program in Medicine, Technology and Society
(MTS), noted above, is currently promoting the notion of aging as a
disease that can be cured through germline engineering.  The Extropy
Institute, also in Los Angeles, supports "evolutionary advance by using
technology."  At their annual conference last year in Berkeley, the
Extropy Institute held strategy sessions on how to organize politically to
advance the post-human agenda, and on how to talk to the press and public
about human genetic modification in ways that build support and diffuse
opposition.  In Maryland the Human Biodiversity Institute recently
presented a seminar on the prospects for genetically modified humans at a
Hudson Institute retreat attended by former British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher.  These institutes are small but growing.  No comparable
efforts are underway to counter their influence. 
     The biotech industry is actively developing the technologies that
would make it possible to offer human germline engineering on a commercial
basis.  This work is almost completely unregulated.  Geron Corporation of
Menlo Park, California, holds patents on applicable human embryo
manipulation and cloning techniques.  Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) of
Worcester, Massachusetts, announced last year that it had created a viable
human/bovine embryo by implanting the nucleus of a human cell into the egg
of a cow.  No laws exist that would have prevented this trans- species
embryo from being implanted in a woman's uterus in an attempt to bring a
baby to term.  The baby would contain a small but significant proportion
of cow genes. 
     Chromos Molecular Systems, Inc., in British Columbia, is developing
artificial human chromosomes that would enable the engineering of multiple
complex traits.  People whose germlines were engineered with artificial
chromosomes, and who wanted to pass complete sets of these to their
children intact, would only be able to mate with others carrying the same
artificial chromosomes.  This condition, called "reproductive isolation",
is the primary criteria that biologists use to classify a population as a
separate species.
     Given the enormity of what is at stake, and the fact that the
advocates of the new techno-eugenics are hardly coy about their
intentions, it is remarkable that organized opposition has been all but
absent.  Why is this? 
     In part it's simply that the most critical technologies have been
developed only within the last three years or so, and there hasn't been
time for people to fully understand their implications and respond.
     Also, the prospect of genetically engineering the human species is
categorically beyond anything that humanity has ever before had to
confront.  People have trouble taking these issues seriously -- they seem
fantastical, or beyond the pale of anything that anyone would actually do
or that society would allow.  As a consequence there exist no self-
identified constituencies of concern, and no institutions in place to
effectively focus that concern. 
     Further, attitudes concerning human genetic modification don't fit
neatly within the familiar political categories of right/left or
conservative/liberal.  The more useful set of categories is
libertarian/communitarian.  The libertarian right and libertarian left are
typically less concerned about human genetic modification, which they can
accept as a property right or as a personal right, respectively.  By
contrast, the communitarian right and communitarian left tend to be
strongly opposed, the former typically for reasons grounded in religious
beliefs and the latter out of concern for human dignity, social equity and
solidarity.  This unfamiliar alignment impedes quick and confident
responses by opponents. 
     Finally, although people intuit that the new genetic technologies are
likely to introduce profound social and political challenges, they also
associate these technologies with the possibility of miracle cures,
notably for the many tragically fatal inheritable conditions.  Before any
sentiment in favor of banning certain uses of genetic technology can take
root, people will have to come to understand that doing so would not
foreclose means of preventing or curing genetic diseases.
     At the policy level we will need global bans on altering the genes we
pass on to our children, and on reproductive human cloning.  We'll also
need effective, accountable systems for regulating human genetic
technologies that may have some beneficent uses but could be dangerously
     These policies and systems are already in effect in a number of major
countries.  France and Germany have banned both germline engineering and
cloning, the Council of Europe is working to have these banned in all 41
of its member countries, and Canada is expected to ban germline
engineering and cloning within a year.  The United Nations, UNESCO, and
the Group of Seven industrialized nations have called for a global ban on
human cloning.  Great Britain has a Human Fertilization and Embryology
Authority (HFEA) which licenses all research and commercial enterprises
whose activities involve use of human eggs, sperm or embryos.  The HFEA is
frequently cited as a model for other countries.
     If we are to realize such policies in the United States and
worldwide, is imperative that strong, coordinated civil society efforts
toward these ends be initiated, and soon. As noted, little infrastructure
to support such efforts currently exists.  We will need to establish
national and global-scale education and advocacy organizations, research
and media centers, and more.  Success in adopting the policies described
above will enable us to avoid the worst threats posed by the new human
genetic technologies, and will allow us to better use our tremendous
scientific and technological gifts in support of a healthy, sustainable
and equitable human future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Richard Hayes -- E-mail 
<rhayes@publicmediacenter.org> -- is coordinator of the
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
(see below).  He formerly served as assistant political
director and national director of volunteer development for
the Sierra Club.

     The Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies is
helping alert and inform the leadership of civil society organizations
about the new human genetic technologies, and about steps we need to take
to prevent their misuse.  If you or your organization would like to
schedule a meeting, presentation or workshop; subscribe to the Exploratory
Initiative's free email newsletter; receive its list of publications; or
for other inquiries about becoming involved, please E-mail Marcy Darnovsky
at <teel@adax.com>. 
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
466 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
E-mail: <teel@adax.com>
Phone: +1-415-434-1403
Fax:   +1-415-986-6779
Books Opposing the new techno-eugenics: 
o  Andrews, Lori.  _The Clone Age: Adventures in the New
     World of Reproductive Technology_.  New York: Henry
     Holt, 1999.
o  Appleyard, Bryan.  _Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in
     the Genetic Future_.  New York: Viking, 1998.
o  Hubbard, Ruth and Elijah Wald. _Exploding the Gene Myth_.
     Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
o  Kimbrell, Andrew.  _The Human Body Shop: The Engineering
     and Marketing of Life_.  New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Books Supporting the new techno-eugenics: 
o  Pence, Gregory E.  _Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?_
     Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

o  Silver, Lee.  _Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will
     Change the Human Family_.  New York: Avon, 1997.

Web Sites Opposing the new techno-eugenics: 

o  Council for Responsible Genetics, http://www.gene-

o  Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering,

O  Genetic Engineering and its Dangers: 

Web Sites Supporting the new techno-eugenics: 

o  UCLA Program on Medicine, Technology and Society (Gregory
Stock, director), http://research.mednet.ucla.edu/pmts/germline
o  Extropy Institute: http://www.extropy.org
[1] "Theological Letter Concerning the Moral Arguments,"
June 8, 1983, presented to the U.S. Congress.  Foundation on
Economic Trends, Washington, DC.

[2] Silver: L. Silver.  1997.  _Remaking Eden: How Cloning
and Beyond Will Change the Human Family_ (New York: Avon
Books), pp. 4-7, 11.

[3] Watson: Gregory Stock and John Campbell, eds., 2000. 
_Engineering the Human Germline_ (New York: Oxford
University Press), pp. 79, 85.

[4] Pence: G. Pence, 1998.  _Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?_
(New York: Roman & Littlefield), p. 168.

[5] ABCNEWS.com:

[6] Thurow: L. Thurow, 1999.  _Creating Wealth: The New
Rules for Individuals, Companies and Nations in a Knowledge-
Based Economy_ (New York: Harper Collins), p. 33.

[7] Fukuyama: F. Fukuyama, "Second Thoughts: The Last Man in
a Bottle," _The National Interest_, Summer 1999, pp. 28, 33.



    The Loka Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making
research, science and technology responsive to democratically decided
social and environmental concerns. Current Loka projects include:

   o  The Community Research Network

   o  Deliberative Citizens' Panels on Science & Technology

   o  Identifying Democratic Technologies

   o  Building a Constituency for Democratizing Research, 
          Science & Technology

    TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE, to participate in our
on-line discussion groups, to download or order publications, or to help
please visit our Web page:  <http://www.Loka.org>.  Or contact us via
E-mail at <Loka@Loka.org>. 


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net