Genetic Engineering and Our Brave New World

Article excerpt

Advances in the fields of genetics and molecular biology seem to occur on a daily basis, with particular attention to the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, which is involved in the mapping of the approximately 80,000 human genes. The possibilities and implications are breath-taking. For the first time in our existence there is the potential, in the near future, of genetically changing the human "germ line." By altering the composition of sperm and eggs before conception, we may be able to redirect the course of evolution.

There have already been significant breakthroughs in the area of hereditary hearing loss. In 1994, Couke and colleagues reported that, by studying a large Indonesian family with many deaf and hearing members, they were able to localize the gene for a specific type of deafness. They then performed chromosomal analysis with two other families and in one family established linkage in the same chromosomal area. Although, to the best of my knowledge, the specific gene has not been isolated, gene mapping studies will ultimately lead to the identification of the gene and determination of its structure and function (Arnos, 1994). Since 1994 advances have been made in several countries, including the United States, Great Britain, Israel, and Italy. Most recently, Steele (1998) reported on research in Great Britain on detection of a gene related to progressive hearing loss, declaring that detection of such a gene could lead to procedures that could repress properties that cause a progressive hearing loss. She concluded that time is running out on progressive hearing loss and that a molecular understanding and intervention strategy may be closer than we think.

Steele's projections may or may not be overly optimistic, since there are at least 200 types of hereditary hearing loss. Success is being reported on the more easily identifiable cases. However, there is little doubt that the major portion of the Human Genome Project will be completed within the life-times of most readers.

The most obvious application of genetic engineering is in the eradication of human disorders such as diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, and certain types of cancer. Few people would argue with such efforts to reduce human suffering. Within the framework of traditional eugenics this would fall within the domain of "Negative Eugenics," the systematic elimination of undesirable traits. The second application would entail the concept of "Positive Eugenics" to improve the characteristics of the human race. We are all aware of the selective breeding of plants and animals designed to improve or emphasize the characteristics of various species. In the case of human beings, for centuries there have been concerns expressed that the "better" classes in a particular society were being outbred by the "lower" classes. We are also aware of the horrific effects of both kinds of eugenics in Nazi Germany, which combined efforts to breed "pure Aryans" with efforts to destroy entire groups of "untermenschen"; from Jews and Gypsies to deaf, gay, and retarded individuals.

Recent developments are raising serious practical, moral, and ethical issues that will have to be dealt with for generations to come (Moores, 1996). In terms of "negative" genetics - the elimination of undesirable traits - most people would probably agree that elimination of cancer and sickle-cell anemia is desirable. …