The Genome as a Commons: Through All the Trials and Tribulations of Human History, What Binds Us in the End Is Our Common Humanity. (the Risks of the Rush)

By Athanasiou, Tom; Darnovsky, Marcy | World Watch, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

The Genome as a Commons: Through All the Trials and Tribulations of Human History, What Binds Us in the End Is Our Common Humanity. (the Risks of the Rush)


Athanasiou, Tom, Darnovsky, Marcy, World Watch


The atmosphere. The oceans and fresh waters. The land itself, and the fruits and grains our forebears bred and cultivated upon it. The broadcast spectrum. The attention spans of our children.

Does such a list adequately evoke "the commons," and the stakes we face in trying to save it--both for itself and as the foundation of our common future?

Or must we add yet another, more shocking example? Perhaps we must put the human genome itself on this endangered commons list, and note that if this genetic commons too is lost to partition and privatization, if it too becomes the privilege of the affluent, then none of us on either side of the divide can be sure of retaining the "humanity" we like to think we've achieved.

The biotech boosters, of course, don't see things this way. Many of them insist that any conceivable application of human genetic engineering is essential to medical progress, and that the possibilities, no matter how speculative, trump all other considerations. Thus they shrug off the likely outcome of embryo cloning--that it will sooner or later lead to reproductive cloning, and then jump-start both the technologies and justifications of inheritable genetic modification.

Some of them are even enthusiastically promoting "designer babies" and "post-humans" as the next new things. (l) Indeed, the techno-eugenic hard school is now promising that, within a generation, "enhanced" babies will be born with increased resistance to diseases, optimized height and weight, and increased intelligence. Farther off, but within the lifetimes of today's children, they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new body forms, extend life expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some actually predict splicing traits from other species into human children: in late 1999, for example, a Ted Koppel/ABC Nightline special on cloning speculated that genetic engineers will eventually design children with "night vision from an owl" and "supersensitive hearing cloned from a dog."

There are dark portents here in profusion, and many of them will seem familiar to environmentalists. But consider first the fundamental point: our patently inadequate ability to protect the resources of the global commons, to do them justice, to make them (in reality as well as in United Nations rhetoric) "the common heritage of humankind." Consider, through this lens, the likely fate of the human genome--the script which unites us as a biological species--as it too goes on the auction block.

And attend to this chilling bit of futurology from Lee Silver, a Princeton professor and self-appointed champion of the new techno-eugenics:

"[In a few hundred years] the GenRich--who account for 10 percent of the American population--[will] all carry synthetic genes.... All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry [will be] controlled by members of the GenRich class.... Naturals [will] 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 crossbreed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee." (2)

Silver's predictions, in case this isn't clear, are not voiced in opposition to a eugenically engineered future. Here and elsewhere, his tone alternates between frank advocacy of a new market-based eugenics and disengaged acceptance of its inevitability.

Is such a future likely? We hope not, and we take some comfort in the possibility that scenarios like these may long remain beyond technical reach. Notwithstanding the flesh-and-blood accomplishments of genetic scientists--glow-in-the-dark rabbits and goats that lactate spider silk--artificial genes and chromosomes may never work as reliably as advertised. Transgenic designer babies may be too riddled with unpredictability or malfunction to ever become a popular option.

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