Does biotechnology threaten our humanity? Will cloned humans live as members of an inferior caste, serving as slaves, organ factories, or receptacles for the narcissism of their so-called parents? Might genetically-modified crops allow the spread of new plagues or cause as-yet-unimagined illnesses in those who eat them? Soon, we might be able to live past 150–but will we, like Swift’s Struldbrugs, live a cursed existence thanks to stretching our life spans past their proper limits?
Technological advances certainly raise scientific and ethical questions, but most of the opposition to biotechnology seems to stem from a gut feeling that scientists are transgressing boundaries, coming dangerously close to what might be described as the essence of humanity. After all, what makes us us if we can alter our genes and the natural progression of our lives at will?
Such concerns have captured the public imagination, but as Ron Bailey argues in his new book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, today’s controversial technologies are not all that different from technologies we already understand and accept. Humans have always tinkered with our biology, from using fire to cook our food to taking aspirin for pain to transplanting organs when ours fail. Once we become familiar with new technologies and understand the science behind them, it’s likely that public opposition will melt away.
It has certainly happened before. Edward Jenner’s discovery that he could inoculate people with cowpox to prevent smallpox met with considerable resistance. Clergymen pronounced that vaccination was a violation of what heaven had ordained. Mozart’s father agreed and decided not to vaccinate his son, writing “It depends on His grace whether He wishes to keep this prodigy of nature in the world . . . or to take it to Himself.” Some others took the Malthusian view that diseases were a natural control for population growth, and tinkering with the natural order was unwise. Many argued that it was unnatural to give humans a disease from cows. Dr. William Rowley, a prominent physician of the time, claimed vaccinated people developed ox-like facial features. Others feared they would moo like cows. Luckily, Jenner’s ideas won the debate, and today smallpox has been all but eliminated–with no bovine side effects.
Bailey calls the modern-day counterparts to Rowley and Mozart Sr., “bioconservatives.” One of them, Leon Kass, is the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In the 1970s, he was a outspoken opponent of in vitro fertilization (IVF). It’s easy to see the objection; allowing human life to begin in a Petri dish rather than a woman’s womb certainly seems like a violation of the natural order. Perhaps natural conception is part of the essence of being human; after all, the only person ever said to have been conceived otherwise was decidedly not a simple human! Many thought that IVF was presumptuous. They preferred that infertile couples accept their inability to have children and choose adoption or childlessness instead. Thousands of infertile couples disagreed. Their children, loved and wanted “test-tube babies,” have proved to be completely normal in every way. Today, hardly anyone objects to the use of IVF. Clearly, it doesn’t matter where fertilization takes place–whether it’s done “naturally” or with the help of a lab technician. People who start life in a test tube have just as much dignity and humanity as anyone else.
A similar change is in progress in the cloning debate. Bailey describes how the cloning of Dolly the sheep sparked horrifying fears around the globe. People wondered whether clones would be carbon copies of their sources, whether they would have souls, whether they would be harvested for organs–in short, whether they would be fully human. George Will asked, “Can individuality, identity, and dignity be severed from genetic distinctiveness, and from belief in a person’s open future?” Once we understand more about the process of cloning, those fears sound silly. Clones are essentially identical twins, albeit not the same age. Surely Will doesn’t believe that Mary-Kate and Ashley’s lack of “genetic distinctiveness” robs them of human dignity. Clones are no different. There’s no reason to think that sharing their genes with another person entitles them to anything less than the full respect due any human being.
Now, nearly a decade after the first mammal was cloned, familiarity with the technology has changed the tenor of the objections. The Family Research Council’s pamphlet on the issue, which takes a strong stance against cloning, recognizes that it is “simply another approach to mimicking the biology that generates identical twins.” There are no horror stories. The FRC takes issue instead with the idea of replacing “the marital act” as the means of reproduction and allowing parents to pre-determine the genetic makeup of their children.
It’s unlikely that the general public–who overwhelming accept the morality of IVF–will find these objections persuasive. As more people come to understand that cloning has nothing to do with soul-stealing or clone armies, opposition is likely to dissipate. As Bailey puts it, “once the public understands more completely the limitations of cloning–for example, that it really isn’t a way to bring back the dead–human cloning will likely used mostly by infertile couples who have no other choice for bearing biologically related children.”
Nearly every biotechnological advance is met by skepticism at first. The naysayers always make the same claims: we’re meddling in things we ought not to and failing to accept our human limitations. But, Bailey asks, when has our species ever simply accepted our limitations? When we have cancer, we undergo chemotherapy and surgery. When we lose limbs, we get prosthetics. When we get infections, we take antibiotics. Hundreds of years ago, when these interventions were impossible, cancer and appendicitis were part of the natural progression of life. But now, to a large extent, they are under our control, and everyone agrees that we ought to exercise the technology we have.
The stakes are high. As Bailey documents, biotechnology offers incredible possibilities for alleviating human suffering. Soon, we may be able to cure devastating genetic diseases, treat degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s, help the world’s poor to grow enough food to feed themselves, perform organ and tissue transplants without the risk of rejection, and prevent the spread of epidemics. Failing to pursue those treatments would be just as immoral as allowing children to die from smallpox. Bailey shows that, far from undermining human dignity, biotechnology will expand the options available to individuals and “enable people who would otherwise be ‘dehumanized’ by disease, disability, or death to survive and flourish.”
If anything can be said to be the essence of humanity, it is that we work to liberate ourselves from biological constraints. From fire to agriculture to antibiotics, the history of our species has been a story of technology. Refusing to push forward with biotechnology wouldn’t protect human nature–it would defy it.
Amanda Rohn is studying medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. Her weblog is Without Bound.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire