From Regenerative Medicine to Human Design: What Are We Really Afraid Of?
Stock, Gregory, Free Inquiry
Many of the public figures who are trying to shape policy in the life sciences these days--from Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass to the perennial Jeremy Rifkin--are troubled by recent advances in biotechnology They are not alone; their angst is shared even by some of the scientists at the vanguard of this research. As we push further into uncharted territory by deciphering and laying bare the workings of life, it is worth asking just what it is that so worries us.
The enormity of coming developments in molecular biology seems obvious, but their magnitude doesn't require that we respond with fear. We are hardly the first to appreciate the prospects for impending revolutionary developments in science. In 1780, Benjamin Franklin showed a very different attitude when he wrote to the great English chemist Joseph Priestley, "The rapid progress true science makes occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the heights to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter."
Franklin was less bothered by impending changes from the next millennium of scientific discovery than by not being around to witness these amazing possibilities. Today, at the comparatively short remove of 225 years from that letter, the thousand-year span of his forecast seems conservative. But if Franklin could come back and see the extraordinary technologies that have arisen since his death, I suspect that it would please him no end.
When we look at the possibilities embodied in the Human Genome Project, emblematic of those in proteomics, systems biology' and molecular biology in general, we see that this research is poised to carry humanity to destinations of new imagination. Genetics and biology are at our core. As we learn to adjust and modify these realms, we are learning to change ourselves. We have already used technology to transform the world around us. The canyons of glass, concrete, and stainless steel in any major city are not the stomping ground of our Pleistocene ancestors. Now our technology is becoming so potent and so precise that we are turning it back on ourselves. Before we're done, we will likely transform our own biology as much as we have already changed the world around us.
The sense that humanity is at the threshold of reworking its own biology is what troubles so many people. Clearly, medicine and health care will be transformed in the process. But the new technologies will do much more than that. They will change the way we have children, alter how we manage our emotions, and even modify the human life span. Far sooner than people imagine, these core technologies will take us to the very question of what it means to be human.
Research in genomics, proteomics, genetic engineering, and regenerative medicine will be at the heart of these developments, and they will be subject not only to fickle public enthusiasm and angst, but to a tide of regulation, litigation, and political conflict.
THE BIG PICTURE
Two unprecedented revolutions are underway today. The first is the silicon revolution: the telecommunications, computers, artificial intelligence, expert systems, and the related technology that is ever more shaping our lives. We have begun to breathe into inert sand--the silicon--at our feet a level of complexity rivaling life itself. And our world will never be the same.
The second revolution, a child of the first, is the one in molecular biology. As we plumb the workings of life and unravel our biology we are seizing control of our evolutionary future. Our science has slammed evolution into "fast forward," and no one can say where the process will ultimately carry us. The only reason the world has not yet shifted beneath our feet is that we have barely begun. Even with all the world's seeming changes, today is but the calm before the storm.
The human genome project is a good example. We have a list of the human genes. …