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Governing the Genome | The Nation

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Governing the Genome

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If there has been a focal point of bioengineering concern for scientists, it has been the genetic engineering of the human germline--alteration of the reproductive cells or the tissues that produce them such that any genetic changes will be passed on to all future generations, a prospect that Britain's leading science journal, Nature, recently called "biology's last taboo." Germline engineering has already been done with mice and other mammals, with whom we share a considerable part of our genetic heritage. While the efficiency is still far too low to even consider using similar techniques on humans, scientists express no doubt that it is simply a matter of time and effort before we get there.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Ralph Brave
Ralph Brave, a science writer based in Davis, California, is currently on a fellowship at the Center for Genetics and...

Also by the Author

A most remarkable event occurred in the weeks preceding the June 2000
announcement of the completion of the first draft of the human genome
DNA code: One of the leaders of the genome project pu

There are those opposed to the use of cloning technology to create human embryos for stem-cell research whose concerns emanate from commitments to social justice. One of their arguments runs as follows: The idea driving this medical research is that by creating an embryo through cloning, we can produce embryonic stem cells that are a perfect genetic match for a patient. All that is required to conduct the cloning is a skin cell from which to extract the patient's DNA and...a human egg.

Where, cry out the social justice advocates, are we going to get all these eggs for all these patients? Do the math, they suggest: 17 million American diabetics, needing anywhere from 10 to 100 eggs each, since the cloning technology is far from efficient...and even if you can pull that off, Christopher Reeve is still not walking, Michael J. Fox and Janet Reno still tremble and Ronald Reagan still doesn't remember who Ronald Reagan was. The social justice folk maintain that the billions of eggs required for embryonic stem cell therapies for the millions of Americans suffering from chronic and degenerative diseases will be obtained through exploitation of poor women in this country and the world over. Surplus value will take on an even more nefarious meaning.

Still, the early results from embryonic stem-cell therapy in mice are so dramatic that not to pursue this medical research is recognized as morally obscene and just plain stupid. At the University of California, Dr. Hans Keirstead was able to implant neurological tissue derived from embryonic stem cells in a mouse with partial spinal cord injury so that after eight weeks, the mouse had regained most of its ability to walk and, of major significance to the quarter-million Americans suffering from this tragic condition, had also regained bladder and bowel control. Yet, the question remains, where are we going to get all those eggs?

A call to Stanford University's Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate who has been testifying to Congress on behalf of embryonic stem-cell research, helps elucidate the answer: When it comes to the research, he says, the quantity required may not be a problem. But if the desired therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells is fully realized, the need for eggs will be great and could short-circuit the availability of these therapies. But a solution to that may be possible, Berg insists. If research is carried out that identifies the biochemicals in the egg directing the genetic material to develop into an embryo, then we could extract and fractionate those biochemicals and insert them into any skin cell, for example, for use in the cloning process. Voilà! A skin cell becomes an egg, and skin cells are plentiful.

The immediate enthusiasm for this breakthrough scientific idea, which could help Reeve walk again while simultaneously obviating the motive for an exploitative human egg market, is quickly tempered by the full realization of what Berg has explained: When we acquire the ability to use any cell as an egg, we will have removed another obstacle to achieving complete control over human reproduction. Admittedly, complete control over the production of reproduction will require a womb for gestation--but that ultimately should prove to be just another biochemical matter for extraction and fractionation.

This, then, is how it goes in biotechnology, the essential dynamic that simultaneously gives rise to medical hope and moral vertigo. Each step forward produces a new problem, the solution to which demands further control over the biological mechanism known as a human being. But this somehow impinges on human beings or some portion of ourselves that we value. To deal with the attendant moral quandaries, a method is found to isolate and duplicate the underlying molecular process. The moral quandary has thus been replaced by an extracorporeal biochemical process, no longer strictly identified as human, and therefore a process that no one can reasonably value apart from its use. The problem, as bioethicist Eric Juengst puts it, is that we could thereby successfully cope with every moral dilemma posed by biotechnology and still end up with a society none of us would wish to live in. For Francis Fukuyama, this is Our Posthuman Future, as he has titled his new book on the subject.

Fukuyama's most famous previous theoretical foray was to declare, in 1989, an end to history, whereby a capitalist liberal democratic structure represented the final and most satisfying endpoint for the human species, permitting the widest expression of its creative energies while best controlling its destructive tendencies. He imagined that ultimately, with the universal acceptance of this regime, the relativist impasse of modern thought would in a sense resolve itself.

But thirteen years after the end of history, Fukuyama has second thoughts. He's discovered that there is no end of history as long as there is no end of science and technology. With the rapidly developing ability of the biological sciences to identify and then alter the genetic structure of organisms, including humans, he fears the essence of the species is up for grabs. Since capitalist liberal democratic structures serve the needs of human nature as it has evolved, interference by the bio-engineers with this human nature threatens to bring the end of history to an end.

The aim of Our Posthuman Future is "to argue that [Aldous] Huxley was right," Fukuyama announces early on, referring to Huxley's 1932 vision of a Brave New World. Multiple meanings are intended by Fukuyama: The industrialization of all phases of reproduction. The genetic engineering of the individuals produced by that process, thereby predetermining their lives. The tyrannical control of this population through neurochemical intervention, making subservience experientially pleasurable. Fukuyama cites specific contemporary or projected parallels to Huxley's Hatchery and Conditioning Center, Social Predestination Room and soma. In Fukuyama's terms, the stakes in these developments are nothing less than human nature itself.

The first of the book's three parts lays out the case that the biotechnologically driven shift to a posthuman era is already discernible and describes some of the potential consequences. Prozac and Ritalin are precursors to the genomically smart psychotropic weapons of the near future. Through these drugs, which energize depressed girls and calm hyperactive boys, we are being "gently nudged toward that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in American society." Standardization of the personality is under way. This is the area to watch, Fukuyama asserts, because virtually everything that the popular imagination envisions genetic engineering accomplishing is much more likely to be accomplished sooner through neuropharmacology.

Increased life spans and genetic engineering also offer mostly dystopic horizons, whereby gerontocracies take power over societies whose main purpose has become the precision breeding of their progeny. The ancient instincts for hierarchical status and dominance are still the most powerful forces shaping this new world born from biotechnology. Since, as Fukuyama sees it, science does not necessarily lead to the equality of respect for all human beings demanded by liberal egalitarianism, the newest discoveries will serve the oldest drives. We are launched on a genetic arms race.

But be warned: We may not arrive in that new world through some dramatic struggle in which we put up a fight. Rather, the losses to our humanity may occur so subtly that we might "emerge on the other side of a great divide between human and posthuman history and not even see that the watershed had been breached because we lost sight of what that [human] essence was."

If this terrible event is to be prevented, then the human essence, which Fukuyama correlates with human nature itself, must be identified and kept inviolable. But what is that line to be drawn around "human nature" and to which we can all adhere so that we might reap the benefits of biotechnology while preventing the nightmare scenarios from ever coming to pass?

The entire world today wants the answer to this. Fukuyama promises to deliver it. But despite the clarity with which he announces his mission, the author advises his readers, "Those not inclined to more theoretical discussions of politics may choose to skip over some of the chapters here." Yet these are the very chapters containing the answer we all seek in order to tame the biotechnology beast! This, then, signals that we are entering dangerous ground, and we will need to bear with the author's own means of revealing his great discovery, which may be skipped over at our own peril.

In this heart of the book, titled "Being Human," Fukuyama first seeks to restore human nature as the source of our rights, our morality and our dignity. In particular, he wishes to rescue all these dimensions from the positivist and utilitarian liberal philosophers who, closely allied with the scientific community, have dominated the debate over biotechnology. According to the author, these philosophers assign rights everywhere and emphasize the individual as the source of moral concern. In doing so, they put humankind and its collective life at risk before the juggernaut of biotechnology. John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, among others, have elevated individual autonomy over inherently meaningful life plans, claims Fukuyama, who then questions whether moral freedom as it is currently understood is such a good thing for most people, let alone the single most important human good.

Rather than our individual autonomy or moral freedom, Fukuyama wishes that we would attend to the logic of human history, which is ultimately driven by the priorities that exist among natural human desires, propensities and behaviors. Since he wishes us to shift ground to the logic of the inherent and the natural, he must finally define that core composing human nature:

The definition of the term human nature I will use here is the following: human nature is the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors.

Later he will refine this further to the innate species-typical forms of cognition, and species-typical emotional responses to cognition. What he is really after is not just that which is typical of our species but that which is unique to human beings. Only then will we know what needs the greatest safeguarding. After hanging fire while reviewing the candidates for this irreducible, unique core to be defended, including consciousness and the most important quality of a human being, feelings, Fukuyama finally spills the beans:

What is it that we want to protect from any future advances in biotechnology? The answer is, we want to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification. We do not want to disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it.

So, where are we? It would seem we have gone full circle. Human nature is defined by...human nature! To the extent that it is capable of being located in our material bodies, it is all that arises from our genetics. Any attempt at greater precision is a violation of our unity or continuity--and threatens to expose the author's empty hand. Through such sophistry, Fukuyama wishes to assert mastery over any biotechnological innovation that he considers threatening, since he can now arbitrarily choose when it is disruptive of the unity or continuity of the human nature arising from our genetics. Even a heritable cancer could qualify for protection under Fukuyama's rubric for that which is to be defended from biotechnological intervention.

Indeed, there are those agreeing with Fukuyama's view of the biological bases of human social life who draw opposite conclusions about human bioengineering, viewing it as humanity's last best hope.

The remainder of the book is a potpourri of tactical suggestions (embedded in rhetoric cloned from Fukuyama's mentor in these matters, bioethicist Leon Kass) of which biotechnologies should be controlled, and of the need for both national and international bodies and systems to do so, if such control is to be effective. That, in the end, may be the most surprising aspect of the book. All this fervid philosophizing in reaction to fears about a Brave New World, fervently working toward the radical conclusion that what is needed is...regulation. Although obviously recognition of the need for regulation might well be experienced as a radical trauma by someone who has previously placed an overabundance of faith in the market.

But one would be foolish to believe that Fukuyama has gone all this distance simply to argue for what he refers to at one point as a more nuanced regulatory approach. In his most public engagement with biotechnology thus far, he has endorsed, written and testified to Congress on behalf of a bill that will not only ban human reproductive cloning but also ban nonreproductive cloning for stem-cell research. The legislation he supports would also make any doctor who utilizes or prescribes a treatment developed with cloning technology subject to ten years in prison and a $1 million fine. Under this legislation, then, if a cure or treatment for diabetes or heart failure is created in England that used embryo cloning to harvest stem cells for therapy, US physicians would not be allowed to have access to such treatments for their patients. This is his lesson in how moral freedom is not such a good thing compared with an inherently meaningful life plan. Let the fragile diabetic or spinal cord-injury victim learn the true value of our human nature from their catheterized bladders!

Fukuyama's entire brief depends upon avoiding the consequences of his own logic. Having identified the human essence with our biological human nature, he must evade any further specification or else the particular tissues, cells or molecules would be subject to further discussion and analysis as to whether or not they represent the human essence. Rather than discussion, we should trade in our autonomy and moral freedom for his protections. By the close of the book, any moral qualms on his part fall entirely by the wayside. Fukuyama is perhaps aware that he has failed to make his case except to those ready to believe. The book culminates in a final paragraph that is nothing less than a temper tantrum:

We do not have to accept any of these future worlds under a false banner of liberty, be it that of unlimited reproductive rights or of unfettered scientific inquiry. We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends. True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear...

Nice rhetoric until we recall the values of the types of political regimes to which moral freedom and science must be sacrificed. While Fukuyama rails against the Brave New World, he takes the side of Huxley's World Controller, who explains, "Truth's a menace, science is a public danger...That's why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches."

There is an alternative to the fear that human nature must be inviolable because human nature cannot be trusted. We have seen imperious dictates against science and moral freedom delivered by philosophers before. In the recent past, we have evidence of very similar ideas in very similar language issuing from the philosopher whom Fukuyama draws upon for the epigraph beginning the first chapter of his book, Martin Heidegger. In the 1930s Professor Heidegger wanted science to serve the German essence, and it did. Now Professor Fukuyama wants science, and all of us, to serve the human essence, which he equates with his version of sociobiology infused with German romantic holism. Once more, we witness someone who would stop tyranny by imposing a tyranny of his own. Since Francis Fukuyama now sits on the President's Council on Bioethics, we should be grateful for the warning.

Certainly Eric Lander, the director of the genome center at MIT's Whitehead Center, believes so. Just weeks before the June 26, 2000, White House announcement of the finished draft genome sequence, Lander called for a ban on human germline engineering. "Already there are well-meaning discussions about improving the human DNA," he warned his audience. "I find this somewhat hubristic myself. It's been 3.5 billion years in the making. We've been able to read it for the last, oh, I don't know, year or so. And we suddenly think we could write the story better? It's very amusing." Added Lander, "I would have a ban in place, an absolute ban in place on human germline gene therapy. Not because I think for sure we should never cross that threshold, but because I think that is such a fateful threshold to cross that I'd like society to have to rebut that presumption someday, to have to repeal a ban when it thought it was time to ever try something like that."

In part, Lander was responding to the enthusiastic support for germline engineering expressed by a group of his fellow biologists at a UCLA conference two years before. "Evolution can just be damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity? I'd like to know where that idea comes from, because it's utter silliness," declared the cold-eyed, ever-provocative Nobelist James Watson at the time. Watson had no doubt where the real ethical dilemma lies. "Some people are going to have to have some guts and try germline therapy without completely knowing that it's going to work.... The biggest ethical problem we have is not using our knowledge...people not having the guts to go ahead and try and help someone." At the June 2000 press conference, I asked Watson what he thought of his friend Lander's proposal for a statutory ban on germline engineering. "Disaster," he spat back without hesitation. "It's germline, if anything, that one day will save us." Save us from what? "Oh, something like AIDS," he suggested.

Last fall a working group convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) weighed in, agreeing with Watson on his antimystical view of the genome but aligning itself with Lander's perspective on the need to impose an obstacle to proceeding until we as a society have made a conscious choice to do so. What institutional body should make the decision to go ahead or not was left open by the AAAS working group. They could not reach agreement among themselves. Currently, the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) has authority over publicly funded gene experiments, and has so far refused granting permission for anything involving germline engineering.

But scientists or clinicians operating outside of public funding or publicly funded institutions are under no obligation to bring their procedures before the RAC for approval. So it came as no surprise when a New Jersey fertility clinic this past May announced that it had developed and performed an in vitro fertilization procedure that inadvertently resulted in the newborns having genes from three adults--and that this new genetic hybrid was evidenced in all the cells of the babies, including their germline cells. For now, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped in to declare the clinic's fertilization procedure as coming under its authority and only to be used with FDA approval.

That in no way, however, addresses the more encompassing scenario of parents beginning to select genetic traits at the embryonic stage. Already, negative selection is performed at fertility clinics where embryos undergo pre-implantation screening for disease genes. Eventually, most believe, this will be expanded to include positive selection of genes for specific traits, and finally enhancement or alteration of genes. When this occurs, as in the New Jersey case, changes made to the embryo show up in all the developing organism's cells, including its germline cells. Whether it is Lander's call for an absolute ban, the AAAS recommendation of a moratorium or the demand by some for a permanent prohibition against germline engineering, an act by Congress will ultimately be required so that the private sector is covered as well.

The quandaries posed by genetic engineering stir the greatest concern when it comes to neurogenetics--alteration of those genes that are found to contribute to the complex traits we call intelligence or personality. At the July 1999 annual summer symposium on genetics held at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, LeRoy Walters, the director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, urged the gathered geneticists to consider the possibility of establishing a base line for that portion of intelligence that is genetically determined. For anyone falling below the base line, he argued, government should guarantee access to neurogenetic enhancement to achieve the minimum. Otherwise, Walters warned, we stand in danger of identifying and dooming a new genetic underclass.

There are those who, while agreeing with Walters's assessment of the problem, vociferously argue against his proposed solution of a government genetic welfare program. Biomedical legal scholar Max Mehlman, director of the Case Western Reserve Law & Medicine Center, is one of them. "I hate to be hyperbolic," Mehlman says, "but I see this as the most fundamental challenge to our notions of humanity and society in our existence as a species. The possibilities range from creation of what I call a gene-nobility all the way to what some people predict are divergent intelligent species. That's not going to happen in twenty years. But, again, there's no technological impediment...to that happening in a few generations." Mehlman, who opposes any state control of genetics but also worries about an unregulated genetic market, proposes the opposite of a government genomic guarantee. Instead, in a paper written under a grant from the NIH human genome center and published last year in the Iowa Law Review, Mehlman has proposed an extensive system of universal genomic profiling under which genetic enhancements would be controlled throughout an individual's life. A genome profile taken at birth would be regularly checked to see whether enhancements had been performed. Genetic enhancements would be controlled just as narcotics are today. While acknowledging that such a future looks like a genetic police state, for Mehlman this remains a superior alternative to state-sponsored genetics or a society with a genetic underclass locked into eternal subservience by a ruling, self-perpetuating genetic aristocracy.

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