By Barr, Stephen M.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
On June 26, two teams of scientists announced jointly that they had virtually completed the task of mapping the human genome. The announcement was made at a White House ceremony featuring the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of England, and the heads of the two teams. The following day, the banner headline in the New York Times read, "Genetic Code of Human Life is Cracked by Scientists." The Times devoted ten full pages to the subject. Time magazine made it the cover story. The Wall Street Journal opined, "This is truly big stuff."
Though big stuff, it was really not a big discovery or even big news. That there is such a thing as a human genome and what it does have been known for several decades; and the project to map it, which is now all but complete, was initiated ten years ago. The mapping of the human genome is a milestone, not a breakthrough.
In spite of the hoopla and hype attending the announcement, much of the media commentary and analysis was reasonably sober and matter of fact. It focused chiefly on the anticipated benefits to biology and medicine, which are indeed potentially immense. These include a much greater understanding of the processes of life, and the prediction, treatment, and cure of many diseases. Amidst all the justified celebration, however, some darker notes were sounded. President Clinton warned that in using future discoveries "we must ... not retreat from our oldest and most cherished human values." Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal, expected that "we probably won't like the answers" that genome research will give to age-old questions. The editors of that paper agreed and suggested that future findings may "stand many of our beliefs on their heads." Articles in the New York Times, while mostly optimistic, also warned of the "risks" and "temptations" that would come with progress.
What are those risks, temptations, and frightening answers? The perceived dangers of genetic research fall into several categories, ranging from the practical to the apocalyptic. At the practical end are issues relating to medical privacy, the insurability of people with genetically identifiable risks for disease, and the use of genetic information "to stigmatize or discriminate against individuals or groups," as President Clinton put it.
Still at the practical level, but reaching much deeper, are a host of fears surrounding the "genetic engineering" of human beings. Here there are at least three dangers. First, there is the possibility that social imbalances may arise as the result of parents "improving," "enhancing," or even designing their own offspring. Lee Silver, professor of biology at Princeton University and author of Remaking Eden, has warned that the technology of inserting genes into fertilized eggs--which he calls "reprogenetics"--will lead to a two-tier society: the "GenRich," who can afford to genetically enrich their children, and the "Naturals," who can't and will be left behind. Aside from such egalitarian concerns, there is the possibility that human genetic engineering will simply skew the human gene pool. As some traits are selected for, other traits that are less obviously desirable, or less understood, or more subtle, but nevertheless needed by society, may inadvertently be selected against.
A second danger of the engineering of humans is that it will profoundly change the relationship between parent and child. The child who is designed by his parents is in some measure made, not begotten, and becomes no longer a given to be accepted, but an invention, a technical artifact.
The third and most fearsome danger is that this kind of genetic control will eventually lead to the radical transformation of the human species itself. In the words of Fukuyama, "The way is then open to superseding the human race with something different." Indeed, the prophecy of Prof. Silver is that the GenRich and the Naturals will form not two social classes, but two distinct human species. …