Magazine article The Christian Century

Enhancing Humanity?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Enhancing Humanity?

Article excerpt

WHEN TWO GROUPS of scientists announced in mid-February that they had finished mapping the human genome, scientists, politicians and journalists paid rapt attention. The human genetic code has been deciphered! We are on our way at last to obeying scientifically the old Delphic oracle: Know thyself!

Debate over the significance of the discovery and how it will be used in therapeutic or reproductive medicine is well under way. What does it mean that we now know the genetic building blocks of human life? Two leaders of the genome project, J. Craig Venter and Francis Collins, both warned against the notion that human choices are "hard wired into DNA and [that] free will goes out of the window." Among the human choices, of course, has been the decision of scientists, politicians and corporations to invest in the genome project. Nothing "hardwired" there.

Theologians have always believed that, whatever its scope, human freedom is bounded. (The most interesting theological question has always been whether the freedom of our Creator is bounded or boundless.) And I have to confess that geneticists' views of freedom have worried me less than the fate of another human capacity that is sometimes present, and sometimes lacking, in scientific pronouncements: wonder.

I am most likely to trust scientists who retain their capacity for wonder, especially in the realm of current genetic research. One such scientist is Herbert Boyer, founder of Genentech, Inc., a company that specializes in the micro-universe of DNA. In a commencement address at the University of Pittsburgh, Boyer told graduates that "wonder is what sets us apart from all other life forms.... No other species wonders about the meaning of existence or the complexity of the universe or themselves.... It is difficult to imagine a world in which there is nothing left to wonder about."

In genetic research the facts themselves are wonderful--even incredible. The human individual, we are told, consists of some 100 trillion cells. The 46 chromosomes in those cells, placed end to end, would stretch six feet. The chromosomes of 100 trillion cells would stretch 113 billion miles, or 610 round trips between earth and sun. If reduced to print, our personal genetic code would run the length of 800 Bibles.

Last year, 40 Chinese scientists, philosophers and theologians met with a half dozen Americans to ponder this new, portentous science. Ironically, we gathered in Zhoukoudian, the village near Beijing where the remains of 500,000-year-old "Peking Man" were uncovered in 1927. As Peking Man's descendants, we debated whether we should invade and manipulate the genetic code that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

The meeting resonated with hopes and cautions. How can we not hope for a genetic cure of such dread diseases as cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's and Huntington's? And if we can engineer those cures, why not seek other enhancements in our species--intelligence, longevity, special skills, more beautiful bodies? The technology for achieving these feats may not exist yet, but excitement over genetic "improvements" among biological and medical researchers is not just speculative. We could be on the edge of deciding to speed up our own species' evolution. If so, in what direction should we want to evolve?

This meeting was sponsored by the Global Academy Forum and the Link Foundation at the initiative of John Naisbitt (Megatrends, 1982, and High Tech/High Touch, 1999). It was premised on the assumption that genetic science concerns the relations of a remote human past to a remote human future, and thus requires a long public dialogue. Chinese scholars agreed on three points. First, no one country, institution or ideology can be trusted to guide the use of genetic knowledge for "enhancing" the human future. Second, compassion for gross suffering compels us to continue investigating genetic therapy for dread diseases. …

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