The Science and Politics of Genetically Modified Humans: Will New Genetic Technologies Be Carefully Controlled for Their Benefits-Or Will They Inadvertently Destroy Civil Society? Say Hello to the Post-Human Ideology

By Hayes, Richard | World Watch, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

The Science and Politics of Genetically Modified Humans: Will New Genetic Technologies Be Carefully Controlled for Their Benefits-Or Will They Inadvertently Destroy Civil Society? Say Hello to the Post-Human Ideology


Hayes, Richard, World Watch


The new human genetic technologies are arguably the most consequential technologies ever developed. Many applications have great potential to prevent disease and alleviate suffering, but others would open the door to a new, high-tech eugenics that could destabilize human biology and undermine the foundations of civil society.

Humanity needs a crash course in the science and politics of the new human genetic technologies. We need to distinguish benign applications from pernicious ones, and we need to adopt policies affirming the former and proscribing the latter. We need to repudiate eugenic political ideologies and deepen our commitment to the integrity of the human species and the dignity of all people. We need to do this on a global scale and within less than a decade.

Two new technologies are of critical concern: reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification.

Reproductive cloning is the creation of a genetic near-duplicate of an existing person. If I cloned myself, would the child be my son or my twin brother? In truth, he would be neither. He would be a new category of biological relationship-my clone. Opposition to reproductive cloning is nearly universal, and the United Nations has begun negotiations on an international treaty to ban it.

Inheritable genetic modification (IGM) means modifying the genes we pass to our children. Most people intuitively understand that if IGM were allowed it would change forever the nature of human life. People would quite literally have become artifacts. If cloning is the atomic bomb of the new human genetic technologies, IGM is the multi-megaton hydrogen bomb. Only the most egotistical or deluded would want to clone themselves, but if IGM were allowed even many who are appalled at the prospect of using it would feel compelled to do so, lest their children be left behind in the new techno-eugenic rat-race.

Once we begin genetically modifying our children, where would we stop? If it were acceptable to engineer one gene, why not two? If two, why not twenty, or two hundred? 1GM would put into play wholly unprecedented biological, social, and political forces that would feed back upon themselves with impacts quite beyond our ability to foresee, much less control.

People often assume that IGM is needed to enable couples to avoid passing inheritable genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs and cystic fibrosis to their children. This is not so, and those who say it is are either misinformed or seeking to mislead. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and other options available today allow such couples to have children completely free of the harmful genes, in all but a very small number of situations. IGM would be necessary only if a couple wished to "enhance" a child with genes that neither of them carry.

The new eugenic technologies are being actively promoted by influential scientists, writers, and others who see themselves ushering in a new epoch for human life on earth. They speak with enthusiasm of a "post-human" future in which the health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability, sensory capacity, and life-span of our children have all been genetically modified. They anticipate, with scant concern, the inevitable segregation of humanity into genetic sub-species, the "GenRich" and the "Naturals.

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