Crossing the Species Boundary: Genetic Engineering as Conscious Evolution

Article excerpt

Gene mutation is far more common and more natural than some people may think. Although we tend to think of ourselves as genetically stable entities, the truth is that every one of us mutates multiple times every day. Every time one of our cells duplicates itself, a couple of hundred DNA mutations occur. Since the human body has more than 10 trillion cells, that adds up to trillions of mutations, per person, over the course of a human life.

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Viruses and bacteria routinely shuttle DNA between organisms in nature, so much of our DNA is nonhuman in origin. Biologists refer to this as "lateral gene transfer." Throughout evolutionary history vi ruses and bacteria have been shuttling DNA between organisms of every sort. Most commonly, they deposit their own DNA (which they are also passing readily among themselves). For example, one finding of the Human Genome Project was that humans have a substantial amount of bacterial DNA that was passed into humans through lateral gene transfer. Lateral gene transfer is a pretty common occurrence in nature, leading to rapid spread of disease resistance genes among microorganisms and other evolutionary events.

Once you realize that DNA is not fixed, and is in fact constantly changing, the notion of genetic engineering seems quite innocent. Changing DNA within an organism and transferring DNA from one species to another is not unprecedented, or even unusual Microbes in nature are carrying it out every second.

The only thing truly new about genetic engineering is that it transfers control from microorganisms to humans, from randomness to consciousness. It is pretty difficult to argue that we should give random chance trillions of opportunities to change our DNA, but we shouldn't trust ourselves to do it even once. Humans have many faults, but we are not dumber or less trustworthy than random chance.

Backlashes against Genetic Engineering

The subject of genetic engineering often sparks an emotional reaction in many people. There is widespread support in some countries for banning genetic engineering, or at least imposing severe restrictions on it. Some activist groups have launched media campaigns and led mass protests against it. They express shock and outrage and denounce it as a "contaminant" and a "dangerous technology." A few groups of more militant demonstrators have gone so far as to vandalize research labs and sabotage experimental field trials.

Scientists attempt to view the issues surrounding genetic engineering more objectively. They foresee the technologies greatly benefiting humanity and the environment--as long as we proceed with caution. The Ecological Society of America has stated:

  Genetically engineered organisms have the potential to play
  a positive role in sustainable agriculture, aquaculture,
  bioremediation, and environmental management, both in
  developed and developing countries. However, deliberate or
  inadvertent releases of genetically engineered organisms into
  the environment could have negative ecological impacts under
  some circumstances.

The American Society of Plant Biologists firmly supports "responsible development and science-based oversight" of genetic engineering, and states further that, "with continued responsible regulation and oversight, genetic engineering will bring many significant health and environmental benefits to the world."

The National Academies of Science (NAS), which advises the U.S. government under congressional charter, reviewed the body of existing literature on crop production throughout the United States. In its 2010 report, NAS concluded that genetic engineering might not enhance agriculture everywhere, but it does significantly improve agriculture in many places and sectors.

The simplistic debate about whether or not genetic engineering is "right" or "wrong" is very unfortunate because it has distracted the public from the truly important questions about the future: How can we use genetic engineering to improve the world? …