The New Eugenics: Genetic Engineering

The key difference between natural selection and selective breeding is that selective breeding is always based on value judgments. Natural selection in is an automatic process that is wholly indifferent to concepts such as good and bad, beautiful and ugly, strong and weak, noble or loathsome. Natural selection revolves wholly around reproductive viability. Although reproductive viability is necessary in selective breeding, the selection is oriented toward increasing some characteristic or set of characteristics that have been judged to be of value. Eugenics, in its original sense, like other forms of selective breeding was conceptualized as a means of "improving "the stock, in this case the human race. Eugenics is a very old idea, dating back to Plato and even earlier. It has been embraced by a gamut a different individuals throughout history. These individuals range from sensitive artists like George Bernard Shaw to the man whose name has become synonymous with evil, Adolf Hitler. Similarly, a number of different eugenics movements have risen throughout the course of history, also spanning the gamut in terms of general merit. However, none of these eugenics programs persisted for the time it would take to significantly alter the gene pool of the target population. Whether such a selective breeding program could ever be sustained for the requisite time is rapidly becoming a moot point. Soon we will have the technological know-how to transform the human genome in a single generation. 

The science of genetic engineering originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the discovery of restriction enzymes (Avise, 1998). While investigating how viruses and rings of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) called plasmids infect bacterial cells, recombine, and reproduce themselves, scientists discovered that bacteria make enzymes, called restriction enzymes, that cut DNA chains at specific sites. Restriction enzymes recognize particular stretches of nucleotides arranged in a specific order and cut the DNA in those regions only. Each restriction enzyme recognizes a different nucleotide sequence. Thus, restriction enzymes form a molecular tool kit that allows the chromosome to be cut into various desired lengths, depending on how many different restriction enzymes are used. Each time a particular restriction enzyme or set of restriction enzymes is used, the DNA is cut into identical pieces of the same number allowing for precise replication. The 1978 Nobel prize for physiology went to the discoverer of restriction enzymes, Hamilton O. Smith, and the first people to use these tools to analyze the genetics of a virus, Daniel Nathans and Werner Arber.

Restriction enzymes make it possible to remove a bit of DNA from one organism's chromosome and to insert it into another organism's chromosome (Avise, 1998). This allows for the production of new combinations of genes that may not exist in nature. For example, a human gene can be inserted into a bacterium or a bacterial gene into a plant. So far, however, there are limits to this ability. Jurassic Park fantasies notwithstanding, scientists are currently unable to create a whole new organism starting solely with a test tube full of nucleotides. They must start with the complete genetic material of an already existing organism. Thus, genetic engineering allows the addition of only one or a small number of new characteristics to an organism that remains essentially the same. In addition, only characteristics that are determined by one or a few genes can be transferred. The current knowledge of behavioral genetics is not sufficiently advanced to enable scientists to transfer behavioral traits, such as intelligence, that are a complex mixture of many genes and ontogenetic factors.

Several biologically useful peptides (chains of amino acids that act as neurotransmitters and hormones) were made and tested in clinical trials during the late 1970s and early 1980s (Bodmer & Mckie, 1995). The first genetically engineered product to be approved for human use was human insulin made in bacteria. Insertion of the human insulin gene into bacteria was accomplished by the pioneer genetic engineering company Genentech. Testing, approval for medical use, and large-scale production of genetically engineered human insulin were carried out, and the first diabetic patient in the world was injected with human insulin made in bacteria in December 1980, making this the first genetically engineered product to enter medical practice. Genetically engineered products are often identified by the prefix r, for "recombinant." Thus, genetically engineered insulin is sometimes written, r-insulin.

The interferons are another medically important group of peptides that became available in abundance only after the development of genetic engineering techniques (Bodmer & Mckie, 1995). Interferon was useful for treating viral infections, and there were strong indications that it might be effective against some cancers. Before the advent of genetic engineering techniques, it took laborious processing of thousands of units of human blood to obtain enough interferon to treat a few patients. Other medically useful human peptides that have been made widely available because of genetic engineering are human growth hormone, which is used to treat persons with congenital dwarfism and tissue-type plasminogen activator (t-PA), which is a promising new treatment for persons who suffer a heart attack. With the development of retroviral vectors in the early 1980s, the possibility of efficient gene transfer into mammalian cells for the purpose of gene therapy became widely accepted.

On Sept. 14, 1990 deemed America to became the first country to allow new genes be introduced into human beings (Bodmer & Mckie, 1995). A gene drug was used to treat a 4 year-old girl with severe combined immune deficiency (SCID). Victims of SCID the lack of gene that controls the production commands vital to immune functioning. SCID patients prior to gene treatment had to live inside sanitized plastic bubbles. In early 1991, a 9 year-old girl with SCID deficiency was also treated with the same gene therapy. In 2000 it was announced that three French infants born with SCID had been cured using a more refined version of this technique (D’Agnese, 2001).

Retroviruses are currently used as vehicles to carry gene drugs to cells within the patient's body. Such somatic forms of gene therapy do not affect germ cells and consequently the introduced genes are not passed on to the patient’s offspring. Currently, more than a dozen different types of somatic gene drugs are being used in approved clinical trials throughout the world (Wekesser, 1996). Most of the treatments are for cancer and the remaining ones for single gene diseases such as hemophilia. The next major step in human genetic engineering will be will be germ-line gene therapy correcting genetic deficits present in the reproductive cells of prospective parents or in the embryos themselves (Taylor, 1998).

The line between germ-line correction of potential health problems and germ-line enhancement is a very blurred and indistinct one. For example, it has been shown that people with two copies (alleles) of the long version of a gene for angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) have greater muscle efficiency and more stamina than people with a long ACE gene and a short ACE gene, who in turn have more physical endurance than people with two short ACE genes (Montgomery, 2000). If there are no negative pleiotropic effects associated with having two of the long genes and the germ-line procedure is largely risk free, many prospective parents, given the opportunity, will opt for their child to have greater stamina. Similarly, as more generally beneficial single gene effects are discovered the age of the “designer baby” will inevitable descend upon us.

These “designer humans” will also have access to vastly improved somatic techniques and pharmacological technologies allowing for very precise adjustments in hormones and neurotransmitters. Self-made man and woman will become a reality in a very concrete sense. Whether these beings will be more like demi-gods, monsters or something as yet unimagined, no one can predict. That such experiments are part of human destiny seems very probable, assuming that our current civilization persists sufficiently long into the future.

Of course none of us can know the future with any certainty but if human history is any indicator of what to expect we should be quite concerned. The current state of the world is a direct result of countless actions driven by ancient animal motives. This is not to say that animal motives are necessarily bad or destructive. Our capacity for compassion and empathy is a product of our biology. Various science fiction writers and futurists have suggested that if an artificial intelligence (AI) reached a sufficient level of complexity to achieve self-awareness that such a being would also automatically be incapable of harming other conscious beings. Their reasoning in this is an implicit assumption that a self-aware intelligence would have empathy for other conscious entities. This seems highly improbable. In all likelihood, a self-aware AI could know only cold detachment. If the AI valued its own existence, it would probably protect itself with absolute ruthlessness regardless of the effect on any sentient innocents that happened to get in the way.

It is only our eons old history as creatures developing under parental nurturance, living in social groups with close kin, and nurturing our young that gives us the capacity for anything other than cold indifference, or ruthless selfishness. That we are already fully capable of the latter behaviors is all too evident in our history. Our primate tendencies toward xenophobia, territorial defense and unrelenting hostility amplified by giant brains and cultural legacy have wrecked great havoc. As for the future, the real threat is that we completely abandon our animal selves (i.e., our evolved psychological natures). Our capacity for courage, passion, self-sacrifice, kindness and love is also firmly rooted in our biology. It is our biology, coupled with our higher-order consciousness that gives us our humanity and our hope for something better.