Crime and the Biotech Revolution

By Stephens, Genes | The Futurist, November-December 1992 | Go to article overview

Crime and the Biotech Revolution

Stephens, Genes, The Futurist


An android with a human brain goes berserk. Should it be sent to a mental institution for treatment--or back to the factory for disassembly?

A clone is convicted as a psychopathic killer. Should it be sentenced as an individual, or should all of its fellow clones be sentenced as well?

A human being who has been altered with horse genes commits a crime. Would the criminal courts handle the case, or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? If that horse-human has committed murder, would we put it on trial, with full due process? Or would we simply have it "put to sleep"?

These and scores of other ethical and procedural questions could plague societies in the future, as the biotech revolution--the age of "participatory evolution"--hurtles forward at breakneck speed.

Because it will mean a reexamination of what is "human," the new era is more revolutionary than evolutionary. New biotechnology will force a reexamination of all aspects of human society, from family and lifestyles to law and justice. Indeed, even relationships among plants and animals will be altered.

Human genes may soon be mixed with plant genes, so that people might be capable of photosynthesis--converting light into chemical energy usable by the human body. Would these "little green men" still be classed as human, or would they be placed in some new category of creature? Add a few fish genes to the equation, and the creature is suddenly green and gilled. Suppose the creature decides to violate a human law: Now you have on your hands a little green criminal with gills.

And what if a human genetically altered with bird genes swoops down and swallows a little green man with gills? Is it murder--or just lunch?

Potential Outcomes of Research

What started with the decoding of DNA in the late 1950s snowballed as geneticists made one amazing discovery after another over the next three decades. But the current Human Genome Project, which will map every gene in the human genome, will escalate the pace at which biotechnology advances. The project has already deciphered several thousand genetic codes, and it may complete its mission by the end of this decade.

New technologies are frequently adopted by creative criminals, as well as by the criminal-justice system. The new biotechnologies are no exception. Consider these possibilities:

* Impacts of immortality. Biotechnology researchers are almost certain to unlock the genetic passage to immortality. Current efforts to extend life 20 or 30 years pale in comparison to the probability that a genetic clock will be discovered in each of us and that ways will be found to slow down, speed up, or stop that clock. Old age might never take another life, though people (or semi-people!) could still die from disease, accident, or murder.

Among the issues that the prospect of immortality raises is how to punish someone who murders or negligently kills an "immortal." And if an immortal commits a murder, could society afford to sentence him to life imprisonment?

Age-control drugs present interesting dilemmas. For instance, a black market may form for anti-aging and aging drugs. Such products could also be used by the criminal-justice system. One form of punishment might be to speed up a person's aging process. A hot-headed 25-year-old could be "sentenced" to being turned into a more sedate 50-year-old. Older criminals might be punished by being deprived of anti-aging drugs.

* Parts to spare? Today, there are about three dozen body parts that can be replaced bionically, and certainly there will be more in the future. If the demand for body parts exceeds supply, laws may be enacted to deal with rich people who want to barter with poor people for their "spare parts. …

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