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Governing the Genome | The Nation

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Governing the Genome

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Whether it's the White House's widely publicized concern for the Catholic vote in key electoral states in making its stem-cell decision, or NIH scientists providing the White House with a politically acceptable but false count of viable stem-cell lines, or Bristol-Myers Squibb's saturation advertising campaign with Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong touting the day when we will all be carrying our complete genetic information on a card, what's depressingly clear is that the political, market and media forces so familiar to us are now shaping the future of the human genome.

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.

But other forces are beginning to come into play. The cloning controversy in particular has been serving as a surrogate battle for those who oppose human genetic engineering, led by Leon Kass, the President's bioethics adviser. Kass argued in print just this past May that although the public demand for cloning is extremely low, and most people are decidedly against it, the battle over cloning is a "unique practical opportunity" to combat "the impending prospects of germline genetic manipulation or other eugenic practices." Kass invoked the brave new world image to recommend a ban on embryo cloning, even cloning for research purposes.

This is the mindset that has impelled some progressives to make common cause with House majority whip Tom DeLay and the pro-life forces who want to ban embryo research cloning. Their political calculation, explicitly expounded by Kass and others, is that by focusing on as unpopular a prospect as human cloning, they can seize control of critical portions of the biomedical agenda, constrict its inquiries, alter the pace of biotech developments and provide a precautionary pause during which more extensive, global prohibitions can be put into place. In doing so, they aim to prevent a future of reproductive eugenics, in which selection of genetic traits occurs in conjunction with technically assisted reproduction procedures.

In particular, they view the refining of embryo cloning techniques as a crucial technological bridge to human genetic engineering that should be blocked. Cloned embryos are viewed as the basic material that would permit the necessary genetic manipulations prior to reproductive use. As "end of history" social theorist Francis Fukuyama recently expressed it, "The real problem is that human cloning constitutes the opening wedge for human genetic engineering."

Whether or not these advocates of a roadblock are correct in their tactics is questionable. Certainly there is validity to the view that the line between basic and applied research in the life sciences is porous: Identify a gene, and you've identified a test for that gene. But any effort that requires a government-mandated dissolution of basic scientific inquiry poses serious moral questions and its own set of social hazards.

Formulating a progressive position on governing the genome--one that defends basic scientific research, prevents the misuse of genetic technology and upholds the right of individuals to genetic justice and genetic privacy--will be difficult. The single reform that would be most meaningful in removing the incentives for genetic discrimination is hardly ever mentioned anymore: a system of universal healthcare. With so much of insurance responsibility placed on employers, we now guarantee that insurers and business management will engage in genetic discrimination as a matter of fiduciary responsibility.

Another reform demanding immediate attention is regulation of the fertility industry, now regarded as the Wild West of medicine. Some contend that the current state of genomic science does not yet allow anyone to know precisely what limits should be appropriately placed on those who utilize reproductive technologies for genetic alterations or enhancements. But surely the first step is to create oversight and collect the data that would allow us to begin such considerations.

If we wish to stand by our democratic belief in the right of people to participate in choosing their destiny, the most pressing task is to educate the public and its elected representatives. Perhaps this could be conscientiously approached with the help of a body composed of genuinely independent experts and public representatives, funded by major foundations. Such a body would not be an ultimate solution but rather would provide a focal point and a voice that could counterbalance the commercial forces that increasingly dominate the biomedical establishment and our legislative bodies. Undertaking a grassroots campaign in every Congressional district in support of Eric Lander's proposed ban on germline manipulation could be one powerful educational force.

America's last dalliance with eugenics, including a leadership role played by many progressives, resulted in the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people, restrictive immigration laws and promotion of a racist mythology. These measures found an admiring, envious group of scientists in 1930s Germany. But back then there was an ill-founded notion that some sort of immutable "germ plasm" determined heredity. With the actual molecular basis of heredity coming into our hands, how shall we govern the genome? Will we once again fall prey to some ideological fad that becomes translated into a thinly justified biomedical intervention? Or, as founding genome project bioethicist Eric Juengst worries, could we get everything "right," and still end up with a society that none of us would wish to live in? Or will it be, as geneticist J.B.S. Haldane foresaw seventy-five years ago, that "the tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the average man, whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at last and extinguishes the evil at its source"? Whether the source of "evil" is identified as existing in the technology or the social conditions under which it is applied is the question that progressives, and all humanity, will need to address.

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