Cloning, Genetic Engineering, and Population Control

or"Playing God in the Third Millennium?"

Issue #8 of

DIALOGOS: An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, & Theology

First Appearance of this Issue: February, 1998; most recent update 4/8/14

Richard W. Kropf, editor

The recent announcement by the Chicago physicist, Dr. Richard Seed, that he would seek to clone a human being as quickly as possible in light of what he sees to be a divinely willed destiny for the human race, can only raise profound misgivings. We can see this only as one facet of a much more complex set of questions facing the future of the human species.

Some fifty years ago, the Jesuit paleontologist and evolutionary philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, surveying the rapid increase in the world's population, wrote:

This demographic explosion, so closely connected with the development of a relatively unified and industrialized Earth, clearly gives rise to entirely new necessities and problems, both quantitative and qualitative. From the palaeolithic age onwards, and still more after the neolithic age, Man has always lived in a state of expansion: to him progress and increase have been one and the same thing. But now we see the saturation point ahead of us, and approaching at a dizzy speed. How are we to prevent this compression of Mankind on the closed surface of the planet (a thing that is good in itself, as we have seen, since it promotes social unification) from passing that critical point beyond which any increase in numbers will mean famine and suffocation? Above all, how are we to ensure that the maximum population, when it is reached, shall be composed only of elements harmonious in themselves and blended as harmoniously as possible together? Individual eugenics (breeding and education designed to produce only the best individual types) and racial eugenics (the grouping or intermixing of different racial types being not left to chance but effected as a controlled process in the proportions most beneficial to humanity as a whole), both, as I well know, present apparently insuperable difficulties, administrative and psychological. But this does not alter the fact that the problem of building a healthy Mankind already stares us in the face and is growing more acute every day. With the help of science, and sustained by a renewed sense of our species, shall we be able to round this dangerous corner? ("The Directions and Conditions of the Future", June 30, 1948, as translated and published in THE FUTURE OF MAN, New York, Harper & Row, 1959.)

In view of these recent developments, and with Teilhard's reflections in mind, I have asked a number of DIALOGOS consultants, especially those most apt to be familiar with the latest developments in medicine, to share their own reflections on the subject. I suggested that they particularly address three questions:

·         1st. What technological developments along these lines to you see as inevitable, especially within the next century or even within the next decade?

·         2nd. What do you see to be the moral or ethical consequences of such technological developments and how would you suggest they be dealt with?

·         3rd. Do you have any particular philosophical or theological beliefs that particularly inform or motivate the above responses?

The answers given (so far) were as follows:

Jacques Severin Abbatucci, M.D. (Oncologist, Caen, France)

First, as to what technological developments along these lines I see as inevitable, genetic control is evidently going to progress in the next decades. That means that we will be probably able to treat or even to prevent many diseases where gene dysfunctions play a specific role. Will it be possible to act upon psychological troubles and induce a more sociable behavior in some individuals, that is still very conjectural.

But as regards to Teilhard's statements, I think that the best "eugenism" is to be expected through widely extended education programs. Educated people will find more easily the way of population self-control.

Human cloning is a different thing. In the hypothesis of a complete technical mastery of the procedure, I don't see what positive contribution it will bring to the future of humanity. To use organs of the clone to make transplantations? We will probably find other ways to face the problem without such ethical provocation. To duplicate only "good" individuals? This is a highly disputable outlook.

Second, as to the moral or ethical consequences of such technological developments and how I would suggest they be dealt with, genetic prevention and treatment can be dealt with respect for the human being. They can even be considered as able to allow significant moral progress in medical behavior. For example, it seems definitely better to prevent, through a gene manipulation, the occurrence of grave fetus abnormalities rather than to make an abortion i.e. to kill the offspring .

The very difficult problem is that of cloning. To create a fake copy of the human without all its attributes seems to be out of moral limits. The problem is actually to fix the limits. To replace an organ can be done without attempting [to duplicate] the human person. To cut off a limb do not decrease the value of the individual submitted to such a diminution. The touchstone is the spirit. If a man is "duplicated", what about his spirit? Is the clone to be considered as a true human person or as an object? What about human rights as far as the clone is considered? Our civilization would be shattered and probably disappear if humankind was wandering that way.

Third, as to my own philosophical or theological beliefs, in my mind, evolution of universe has a meaning. As Teilhard often stressed, it follows a way toward complexity, bringing the matter to life and finally to thought. The whole process leads to the spiritualization of the matter. We are only a link in that process and we must behave in avoiding the worst fault : to act only by pride, seeking a "divine" power. To create a new type of man without a soul (that is to say, a transcendent spirit) appears to me as the absolute sin. Jacques S. Abbatucci <abbat@baclesse.fr>

George Gericke, M.D. (Neurologist and genetic researcher, Pretoria, S. Africa)

I tend to be attracted to longer term scenarios. This may be less accurate, but I think sometimes puts current issues in a different light. Further developments that I see as inevitable are:

1) Eventual full knowledge of the interactive functioning of genes, not only in terms of the Human Genome Programme, but of all the genes in the single informational system, the same basic genetic code as distributed amongst many plant and animal species, and the ability to manipulate system architectural changes in these informational networks and, if necessary, to integrate useful sequences. (Useful in terms of the improved survival value it affords the new host). An Earth Genome Project is required to ascertain and rescue the most valuable genetic sequences (vide infra).

2) Expansion of man-machine integration, with artificial intelligence assisting us with management of the information as contained in the biological programme. As to what I see to be the moral or ethical consequences of such technological developments and how we would dealt with them: Various experts have been warning that earth has a finite lifespan much shorter than the universe in which it exists. The "saturation point" that Teilhard de Chardin refers to, may necessitate a "Noah Project" whereby representative DNA samples may require the contained Life information to be sent to various places in outer space. The quest for Eternal Life may be considered not only in relation to the individual, but perhaps rather to "Life as a phenomenon", and I guess we have a responsibility and will have to do everything in our power to protect that in the very long term. Perhaps cloned individuals could assist with enough reserve material for successful establishment of human life at various space habitats? Perhaps human DNA sequences adequate for the "resurrection" of complex humans/humanoids will have to be carried to faraway destinations by more hardy transgenic organisms, currently regarded as "lower" life forms. Some think that this could even be how we got "here". I am however uncomfortable with the notion of our claimed ability to be able to "improve the genome with cloning. While diversification allows better responses to survival threats, we do not know, and may never know what a "good" genome is. In a limited sense we will be able to define this in the short term, in relation to the absence of disfigurement or disease, but in view of the immense repertoire of the information responsible for "normal variation" contained within the genome, we are totally ignorant.

Also, the context within which a genome functions, is important - "one person's noise is another person's information". A DNA - informational based global ethics will protect all life, may be taken up by Greenpeace, and may form the basis for a future total lack of discrimination concerning race, colour or creed eg the bio-information in a prostitute's DNA is of no less value than that of a sports star or a politician. As for my particular philosophical outlook on these matters, I would say that since the genetic code can be seen as a unity dispersed through many species, in a sense we have begun something which has already implicated ourselves, even though we may superficially consider ourselves as being on a different end of the spectrum as the famous Dolly.

Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as the "hand of God drawing us nearer to Himself" - in any informational system there is an "apobetics" or desired outcome. We thus have to consider not only the fate of the next few generations, but the ultimate fate of the DNA informational system itself. The required time range is beyond the scope of current human capability, but virtual evolutionary outcomes may perhaps be modelled with future artificial intelligence means.I suggest we cautiously proceed to treat Life with the utmost caution lest we move away from where we should be going - "missing the mark" or "hamartia" could be the ultimate sin. This means a careful consideration of the religious issues at stake, especially in terms of such potentially very long term outcomes of what we are playing with now. George Gericke <GGERICKE@hoopoo.mrc.ac.za>

Charles Radey, M.D. (General Practitioner, medical ethicist, and author, Sequim, Washington)

The next five to ten years will witness the full expression of the techno-medical culture along with the increasing realization that art, philosophy, religion, and prudence are mere blips in front of a juggernaut fueled by hubris. Cloning of human beings will occur, not because this is a wise or necessary thing to do, but simply because it can be done. It will represent the full flowering of the infertility business which preys on the extraordinary vulnerabilities of childless couples and leads to riches for the purveyors and manipulators of our genetic heritage.

The driving force behind all this is money and power, and, in our media drenched culture, fame. All are familiar nemeses of the human condition. The medical scientists who regard their work as something outside of any moral context will be given opportunities to go on live with Tom Brokaw or talk things over with Oprah and surely will have their own web page. People like Dr. Richard (could this be a hoax?) Seed will generate praise, derision, and foreboding as well as cell cultures. The novelist John Updike described celebrity as "a mask that eats into the face." The face of medical science will in the end be damaged by the process of overreaching its right ends and overestimating itself. "One can either see or be seen," Updike concludes.

Governments, universities, and medical research organizations must give more than lip service to the insights and cautions of bioethics. Citizens of the modern world must come to some realizations of their own that recognize limits in the human adventure and tolerance for our own very real imperfections that no science will ever "cure" or abolish. Only nourishing some sense of the inner life will check the brutal gods of science. Charles Radey <chasmarad@pol.net>

Eric Sotnak: Professor of Philosophy, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio:

Having little expertise in biotechnology, I venture these remarks with little authority. However, it seems likely that the ability to manipulate human and animal genes will improve. As this happens, there will come demands from some quarters that these technologies be applied, and there will come demands from other quarters that they not be applied. For example, suppose genetic engineering procedures become available for curing male pattern baldness, or graying hair. There will surely be high consumer demand for such procedures, and thus substantial money to be made through providing them. At the same time, however, there will certainly be those who will oppose such tinkering with human genes on the grounds that doing so would constitute an unacceptable form of "playing God.". However, it is likely that many genetic engineering procedures will have more clearly therapeutic applications - such as curing hemophilia. To deny hemophiliacs access to potentially life-saving genetic engineering technologies will seem grossly unethical to many.

As for the moral or ethical consequences, there are sure to be many people who will be very uncomfortable with these developing technologies. One source of such discomfort is the religiously-grounded conviction that God made things as they are for a purpose. To take control of our own genetic destiny is, from this perspective, to commit a sin of disobedience. To obey God is to allow nature to take its course as God has intended. This sort of viewpoint is already being expressed in popular discussions of the ethics of cloning. Many people have little problem with the notion of cloning or genetically engineering animals, since animals were created by God (on this view) simply as a resource for promoting human good. Non-human animals have only instrumental value to begin with. But human beings are another story.

One option, of course, is to abandon altogether the notion of a supernatural teleology. One who rejects both creationism and theistically-guided evolution in favor of a thoroughly naturalistic evolutionary history of life will have no worries that tampering with human genes constitutes a frustration of divine plans. Another option is to attempt to carve out a set of criteria for biological normalcy in such a way that genetic engineering techniques would be considered justifiable only if used to correct biological abnormalities. There is potential, I think, for much ink to be spilt by ethicists regarding this last option.

Another source of discomfort is concern over the long-term consequences of genetic manipulation technologies. Some people are worried that there may be unforseen consequences of tampering with human genes. Various worst-case scenarios (or at least, very-bad-case scenarios) can be conceived which spell out doom for the human species in one horrible way or another. Then, too, there are concerns that genetically enhancing human beings in one way or another will create yet another ground for social inequalities (this specter is raised, for example, in the recent movie Gattaca).

Returning to the impact of these technologies on non-human animals, many proponents of improving our treatment of animals will worry that genetic enhancement technologies will serve only to increase the exploitation of these animals. If a procedure can be devised for increasing the milk production of a dairy cow, then that procedure will most likely be implemented even if the consequences for the cow are extremely unpleasant, or even horrific. While it is true that many people worry about the impact onhumansresulting from applying genetically enhancement technologies to animals, many people think the impact on the animals, themselves, also requires ethical assessment.

As for how these problems should be dealt with, the answer, I think, must be "Lots of hard thought and careful discussion." Although this answer may seem like a "cop-out", it is, I think, the only reasonable answer. The task of making ethical decisions is never completed.

"Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom." - C. Darrow

Eric Sotnak, Ph.D.

I want to thank the above contributors for their thoughtful input and would invite others to join this conversation. E-mail your comments to Dialogos

To read readers comments submitted so far, go to comments on issue #8

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