Governing the Genome
But when it comes to the ability to control that inheritance, there is little historical or ethical precedent to serve as a guide--just science-fiction stories. Will human beings become simply another GMO (genetically modified organism), like Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean? Or will the genetic revolution realize the dream of addressing enormous swaths of human suffering? Will it even be able, as some hope and others dread, to extend its reach into the suffering that some believe lies embedded in that vague tissue called human nature? Will we treat modifying genes that contribute to disease differently from those that contribute to cognitive features that we label intelligence? Will we monitor athletes for genetic additions that improve performance? (The International Olympic Committee has already called a meeting to address this issue.) How will government intervene between prospective parents and their decisions about the genetic makeup of their children? Will access to genetic enhancements create entirely new and wider social divisions, including, as some have suggested, "the creation of a master race"?
These questions are the central concerns of a growing number of geneticists, sociologists, bioethicists and legal scholars. In September a group of progressive scholars and activists, led by health law experts George Annas and Lori Andrews, gathered to draft an international treaty to ban species-altering experiments. While they might be able to agree on a broad accord banning human cloning, as well as germline genetic modification (genetic alterations inheritable by future generations), they also have serious differences. Some want to emphasize protection of individual autonomy in decision-making, while others want to more aggressively assert a societal prerogative. These types of differences flared up in the Congressional debate over the ban on human cloning. While some of these scholars, and most Congressional Democrats, wanted to protect the ability of scientists to clone embryos for research purposes, some reproductive rights advocates, environmentalists and socialists forged a coalition with religious conservatives, ranging from Pat Robertson to the Pope, to ban all cloning.
The division among progressive allies is a signal of the genomic politics to come. While progressives have traditionally sided with scientific advance, an emerging group wants to shut down certain lines of research until protections against a genetically modified human future are in place. They share Kass's concern about the possibility of a regime of reproductive eugenics that would allow parents or society to select genetic traits of children, and the subsequent creation of a genetically superior ruling caste. On the other side are both those who view genetics simply as an extension of existing biomedical practice and eugenics enthusiasts who embrace the possibilities for genetic enhancement and alteration. But all agree with philosopher of science Philip Kitcher's conclusion that since we have "left the garden of genetic innocence, some form of eugenics is inescapable."
Right now we still don't even know how many genes there are, what their functions are or how they are regulated across a human life span. Furthermore, the most pronounced result of the human genome project so far is the lack of any major genetic discoveries related to common diseases. Not since the identification of genetic variants related to breast cancer in 1994 has there been an announcement of such a discovery. Some scientists suggest that this indicates that when it comes to complex diseases, and even more so to complex human traits, it will be a matter of many, many genes each contributing a little. While some think this complexity undercuts any simplistic notions of genetic determinism or genetic alteration, others take a more measured view. Explains University of California geneticist Charles Langley, who once served on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) genome project's planning committee, "The complexity doesn't mean that we won't understand it. It just means that we won't understand it as planned."
But the billions of public and private dollars now invested globally in understanding how the genome works and what will be necessary to manipulate it leave few in doubt that we will come to understand it and devise the tools to manipulate it. For the reality is that once we discover the means to manipulate DNA for therapeutic purposes in our drive to cure disease, we will have discovered the means for manipulating DNA for any other purpose, such as genetic enhancement or even, as some have suggested, incorporating genes from other species into the human genome.
No matter what roadblocks might be placed in the way, the human genome is now and forever in our midst, and its manipulation will be difficult to simply prohibit. Neither the relatively small-scale technology required nor the individual or societal belief in biological benefits will be easily reined in by a regulatory body. As with the cult that is now trying to clone humans, those who want to engage in the practice will almost always be able to find scientists for sale and an accommodating locale. So what, then, should be done to manage this new knowledge? Learning how to govern the genome will be among humanity's crucial tasks for the foreseeable future.
While most scientists foresee the first wave of genomic knowledge and power as at least a decade away, all use the same phrase when it comes to the prospect of genetically enhancing and altering the human species: It's not too early to begin the discussion.