By Halweil, Brian; Bell, Dick
World Watch , Vol. 15, No. 4
Advances in human engineering are moving ahead largely without public debate. Industry proponents have hyped the benefits, but a growing number of experts are now warning that the risks may be substantial.
How do you feel about altering human nature... forever?
There's probably not a parent in the world who hasn't wished for a magic wand that would make a sad child happy, or transform an unruly child into a civil one. And history is littered with the myriad methods cultures have applied to bend their members toward a particular definition of human nature.
But for the first time in human history, we are confronted with an entirely new approach to altering human nature, one that could have great benefits but could also carry great risks. Geneticists are closing in on a mythic power that humans once only dreamed of, the power to alter the genetic materials we pass on to future generations by engaging in "inheritable genetic modification" (IGM) or "germline engineering." (In contrast, "somatic engineering" affects only the person being treated, without producing changes in patients' germ cells--their eggs or sperm--that can be passed on to future generations.)
The personal, social, and political dangers inherent in asserting control over the human germline were well apparent when Aldous Huxley published his prophetic novel Brave New World in 1932. At that time, well-intentioned, highly educated scientists and politicians were wielding the surgeon's scalpel to realize a vision of genetically "improving" human nature by eliminating "bad genes" from the human gene pool.
Starting in 1907, several dozen U.S. states adopted laws allowing involuntary surgical sterilization for people deemed to be "feebleminded," "mentally defective," or "epileptics." In an infamous 8-1 ruling in 1927 upholding a Virginia forced sterilization law (Buck v. Bell), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes wrote, "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
When Brave New World appeared, Adolf Hitler was only one year away from seizing power and passing his own "Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases," a 1933 statute that closely followed sterilization statutes in the United States. The Nazis began by sterilizing the blind, the deaf, chronic alcoholics, and the physically and mentally handicapped, before moving on to the extermination of Jews, gays, and gypsies.
The sobering history of the role of eugenics in the darkest moments of modern history looms in the background of any discussion about heredity and human nature. As environmentalists, we have always been interested in how different cultures defined human nature, since these definitions bear heavily on how those cultures interact with their physical environments and the rest of life on the planet. And we would be the last to claim that we know what human nature "is."
But our study of the history of science and technology has led us to be deeply skeptical about faith in the unexamined, unregulated power of science and technology to solve all our problems. This faith has been sorely tested time and again, as the large-scale rollout of one new technology after another has confronted us with unpredicted consequences. In contemplating the internal combustion engine, no one foresaw traffic jams, urban sprawl, smog, and global warming. DDT was hailed as a miracle pesticide, until whole populations of birds began to crash. Dams and levees built to control floods have resulted in even more destructive floods.
These repeated encounters with the unanticipated have led environmentalists to fight for a new approach to regulating the introduction of new technologies, the "precautionary principle. …