Human Genetics Research – Cautious Approach Needed
(Mediation between Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock)
(Mediation between Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock)
… After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.…I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man.… No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success.
- M. Shelly, “Frankenstein”
I can imagine a scientist today feeling the same way at his discovery…an enthusiasm at being the first to accomplish a task or discovering a truth about the environment that surrounds us. Add to this possible event that the discovery is within the field of genetics however, and the picture becomes a bit more sinister. It is inevitable that gene therapy, altered genes in foods, human cloning and a myriad of other research areas that fall under genetics conjure up images of Frankenstein’s monster and mad scientists. This is a future that Francis Fukuyama, a professor at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, portrays in his essay, “In Defense of Nature, Human and Non-Human”
His argument is compelling and deals with a common sense approach that calls for the strictest of regulation overseeing genetic research. His premise is that the human genome (and the genetic make-up of higher animals) is too complex for effective gene therapies to ever be developed and that altering these genetic structures that are not fully understood could have dire consequences. He continues to argue that when it comes to complex systems, human beings have a long history of suffering negative consequences when we attempt to alter an ecosystem in which our understanding is lacking. He argues,
If there is one thing that the environmental movement has taught us in the past couple of generations, it is that nature is a complex whole. The different parts of an ecosystem are mutually interdependent in ways that we often fail to understand; human efforts to manipulate certain parts of it will produce a host of unintended consequences that will come back to haunt us. (2)
He continues his argument by sharing statistics that there are fewer genes than originally thought and because of this fact, many human capabilities or behaviors must be attributed to gene interactions, not specific genes. (4) It is because of this fact, that we cannot understand the effects of altering a gene. Yes, we may obtain the positive result that we expected by changing a single gene, but it is likely that we will also suffer the unintended and unknown effects of changing that gene, as well. He states, “the victim of a failed experiment…a human child whose parents, seeking to give her greater intelligence, will saddle her with a greater propensity for cancer, of prolonged debility in old age, or some other completely unexpected side effect that may emerge only after the experimenters have passed from the scene.” (5)
Fukuyama then proceeds to argue that it is our very human nature that is at stake. It is our genes that have given us unique abilities and that we cannot begin to understand the make-up of this genetic ecosystem. Furthermore, he argues that because it is our human genetic make-up that makes us uniquely “human” and that this needs to be protected – to protect our very essence. He proposes, “A biotechnology that seeks to manipulate human nature not only risks unforeseen consequences, but can undermine the very basis of equal democratic rights as well.” (7)
Fukuyama finishes his essay by calling on the strictest of governmental oversight over biotechnology. He uses European countries as examples of the types of agencies and regulation that the United States to create. He goes so far as to advocate the creation of international legislation by the United Nations. (9)
On the extreme opposite side of this argument is Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the University of California at Los Angeles. He argues that biotechnologies will advance regardless of the legislation in place to control and that legislation will likely hinder our progress in “improving the future health and well-being of our descendents.” (1) He continues to argue that genetic manipulation is already occurring in animals and that improved approaches will be safe and have the potential for enormous gains in medicine and ultimately in the human condition. He envisions improvements in avoiding cancer, in anti-aging therapies, and in any improvements that are “best for our children”. (12)
Stock continues, stating that current limits on research and cloning are “premature, futile, extremely misguided, and just plain wrong” (19) in that “[a ban] would not significantly delay the arrival of reproductive cloning, which in my view is almost certain to occur within this decade somewhere in the world.” (19) Furthermore, illogical bans have eroded the leadership position of the United States in biotechnology and has delayed the discoveries of therapies that could have improved the human condition. Stock proposes that the fears of Frankenstein’s monster are caused by the “strangeness” (21) of the possibilities and that this fear is a poor reason for restrictive legislation.
Finally, in direct opposition to Fukuyama, Stock proposes that advances in genetic research will be “democratizing” (24) because we will be able to use these advancements to the benefit of the masses – namely, they will level the playing field. He argues that it will be much easier to raise the IQ of a person with a 70 to a 100, than it will be to raise the IQ of someone from 150 to 160. (24) He continues to rebut against Fukuyama in arguing that we would not lose our humanity, rather we would maintain it, even if what that meant changes. He uses the example of life spans doubling…this wouldn’t make us less human, rather it would change what it meant to be human, something that occurs with regularity today. (27)
Although both Stock and Fukuyama put forth compelling arguments, they both seem to miss the point. In their extreme positions, they have argued themselves into a corner which forces us to reject their hypotheses. I cannot back Fukuyama as he seems to deny the amazing advances that biotechnology could provide. Stock, on the other hand, must also be rejected, as he fails to acknowledge to awesome potential for mistakes, or worse, misuse from which biotechnology could suffer.
I completely agree that we could never fully understand the human genome and how multiple genes interact to create our personalities, abilities, etc. This, however, is not a good enough reason not to try. Yes, humanity has a long history of making a mess of those things we do not completely understand (look at the environment for a readymade example). However, Fukuyama seems to deny that there could be enormous benefits to biotechnology and that dire consequences of research in this area is not a given. Would Fukuyama deny that practical applications of gene altering in agriculture have not produced crops that are better capable of feeding the masses? His argument would say that even this technology is so potentially damaging that we should abandon it. Although the possibility of damaging the food chain seems remote, Fukuyama would seem to imply that because the possibility exists, we should abandon the research. What about genes that cause cancer? Should be not try to alter them and make them benign? This seems to be of too great a potential benefit to humanity to abandon. Even with my objections to his argument, I do agree that we should carefully legislate controls into what we can do. In contrast to Stocks argument, it is obvious given the enormous propensity to cause suffering; the government must create the appropriate controls.
Stock’s argument fares no better. Does he truly believe that we should try to control something that we cannot succeed in controlling? This argument would be similar to the argument that speed limits should be abolished because no one heeds them anyway. His argument is that if the United States restricts biotechnology, then other countries will allow it and take leadership positions. Again, he misses the point. Would he argue that we shouldn’t restrict something we know is wrong because it is allowed somewhere else? I would postulate that the United States should take a leadership position in the forming of international rules that clearly define the parameters in which research and application can be done. Lastly, his argument that current restrictions may have delayed the discovery of treatments for some of humanities worst maladies. Again, however, I question his logic. Should we proceed with medical tests on convicts or invalids? According to an extension of Stock’s argument, it would be acceptable to do so if the benefits to doing so are reached. Again, a preposterous statement, and one that I believe Stock would be forced to deny.
Clearly, Fukuyama and Stock paint themselves into a corner in which their arguments have no defensible position. It is because of this, that I believe it is fairly obvious that a middle of the road position in required. The benefits of gene therapies and treatment advancement are just too great…even though the possible abuses and consequences are great, as well. But this fact makes some intuitive sense – the greater the risks, the greater the rewards. It is for this very reason that very close monitoring through peer-review, governmental oversight, and international standards are required. The United States could, in fact should, take a leadership position in helping form international standards that closely governs biotechnology research. Additionally, ethics panels should be created that help frame ongoing oversight requirements and sanctions. These panels should include leading scientists, philosophers, legislators and futurists. By engaging the international community, we can hope to gain consensus as to what the parameters are, as well as develop strong international condemnation for those that do not participate within these parameters. The essence of the human race is at stake and clearly calls for all of humanity’s involvement.
Fukuyama, Francis. “In Defense of Nature, Human and Non-Human.” World Watch July-August 2002. Rpt. in The Aims of Argument. Timothy W. Crusius and Carolyn E. Channell. McGraw Hill, 2006. 668-670.
Stock, Gregory. “Choosing Our Genes.” The Futurist. July-August 2002. Rpt. in The Aims of Argument. Timothy W. Crusius and Carolyn E. Channell. McGraw Hill, 2006. 672-677.