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The Genetic Revolution – Where Will It Lead?

Human knowledge is expanding across almost all fields of knowledge, but the revolution in genetic science represents one of the most incredible expansions of knowledge in human history. The last three decades have witnessed some of the most astounding discoveries in the history of science, as the human genome has been fully identified and as scientists unlock the mysteries of individual genes and their function. At the same time, a sense of foreboding accompanies this expansion of knowledge. Where will all this lead?

This is the question considered by Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, in his article “The Real Meaning of Genetics.” This article, published in the Summer 2005 edition of The New Atlantis, offers considerable wisdom–and serves as a short course in the current status of genetic knowledge.

Cohen acknowledges that the genetic revolution can be considered from several different perspectives. Our new genetic knowledge can be considered as a matter of science, social science, and even public safety. Each of these perspectives demands attention, but Cohen looks at an even deeper level–the meaning of genetics and genetic knowledge.

“The reason we care so much about the new genetics is that we sense that this area of science will touch on the deepest matters of human life–such as how we have children, how we experience freedom, and how we face sickness and death,” Cohen observes. “Like no other area of modern science and technology, genetics inspires both dreams and nightmares about the human future with equal passion: the dream of perfect babies, the nightmare of genetic tyranny.”

Our society is increasingly divided between those who are cheerleaders for the new genetic technologies and those who function as voices crying in the wilderness, warning of tragedies to come.

Eric Cohen is a careful thinker, and his approach to bioethics and the meaning of genetics is reasonable, careful, and honest. As he admits, he does not want to be seen as the “bioethics boy who cried wolf.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of reason for worry. As Cohen sees it, most of us worry too much too early and then worry too little too late. In other words, the earliest stage in the development of new genetic knowledge and applications is often met with a resounding wave of worry. On the other hand, once applications of genetic knowledge become widespread in the culture, it is too often met with an apathetic shrug.

As Cohen observes, the line between science and science-fiction has become quite blurred. The worlds of science and science-fiction include both those who champion virtually unrestricted genetic knowledge and those who fear that such knowledge will lead to disaster and dystopia. Behind all this is the fact that human beings have a nearly insatiable appetite for “perfect control and perfect happiness,” Cohen argues.

Over the last several decades, our genetic knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds. At the same time, many developments that framed nightmares just a few years ago have now become realities–or are on the verge of doing so.

In an interesting historical narrative, Cohen takes us back to the 1970s, when James Watson testified before the United States Congress and contended that the government must quickly pass laws about cloning before it was too late. Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for identifying the structure of DNA, feared the advent of what he called “clonal man.” Congress failed to act on Watson’s advice, since few legislators believed that human cloning would ever be possible. Now, Cohen argues that human cloning “is coming and probably coming soon.” Indeed, Cohen seems to believe that human cloning may be inevitable.

As he observes, the debate over human cloning allowed the issue of test-tube babies “to seem prosaic very quickly, in part because they were not clones and in part because the babies themselves were such a blessing.” Thus, a radically innovative technology–indeed a technology that redefines human reproduction–was seen as non-threatening and acceptable. “We barely paused to consider the strangeness of originating human life in the laboratory; of beholding, with human eyes, our own human origins; of suspending nascent human life in the freezer; of further separating procreation from sex.”

Cohen acknowledges that IVF has been a blessing for many infertile couples. Without minimizing the joy brought to these parents, he also observes that the development and application of IVF technologies “created strange new prospects, including the novel possibility of giving birth to another couple’s child–flesh not of my flesh, you might say–and the possibility of picking-and-choosing human embryos for life or death based on their genetic characteristics. It has also left us the tragic question of deciding what we owe the thousands of embryos now left over in freezers–a dilemma with no satisfying moral answer.”

Cohen explains that our quest for genetic knowledge is based in several ambitions. The first is a desire for genetic self-understanding. Human beings are unique in having the capacity for self-awareness and self-knowledge. Accordingly, we are not satisfied merely to experience the world–we want to understand it. The genetic revolution has allowed us to gain an extraordinary knowledge about ourselves. We hunger for genetic explanations for diseases, death, and human capacities. “We still hope that genetics is the secret of disease,” Cohen observes, “if not the secret of life.”

Humans also seek genetic knowledge in order to develop genetic therapies. “We seek to conquer human disease, and perhaps even to make death itself a series of conquerable diseases,” Cohen notes. “It is apparently part of our genetic code to revolt against our genetic fate.”

The application of genetic therapies–and the advent of new germ-line therapies–has come only in recent years. Nevertheless, this generation is driven by an intense demand for therapies that promise to reverse disease, illness, and even death.

Cohen understands that genetic therapies are likely to face significant limitations. After all, “it turns out that most diseases are more complicated that genetics alone, and that markers for identifying and predicting a given disease do not always or easily translate into usable knowledge about the disease’s causation.” Even as Cohen acknowledges that the new genetic therapies are likely to bring some promise of enhanced or elongated life, he is confident that the new genetics “will probably not be the therapeutic panacea that many once hoped.”

The desire to design our descendants also marks many proponents of genetic engineering. Cohen asserts that many in this camp are driven by a desire to design human beings with “genotypes entirely of our own creation.” He warns of the emergence of postmodern biologists who see themselves as the artists seeking to achieve artistic “trangression,” even as they attempt terrible experiments. He identifies this spectre as “the biological equivalent of postmodern art.”

Most importantly, Cohen knows that these forms of genetic knowledge are likely to lead to “the worst abuses of biotechnology.” We face the very real prospect that would-be parents would attempt to screen and then abort embryos or fetuses found to have handicaps or deformities. Cohen argues that some of the most important dimensions of human existence, such as character, are not likely to be improved by genetic technologies.

A further problem is raised by the existence of “genetic foreknowledge.” What are we to do with the knowledge that we carry a genetic predisposition for an untreatable, incurable, and fatal illness? Cohen fears that such knowledge would “make the fact of death a dominant reality in our everyday lives.”

Beyond all this, Cohen knows that many parents now demand a right ‘to decide between life worth living and life unworthy of life.” The widespread genetic testing of embryos and fetuses is likely to become standard medical practice. Cohen argues that this new development will “transform the welcoming attitude of unconditional love into a eugenic attitude of conditional acceptance.”

In the end, Cohen understands that knowledge is never neutral. This is especially true with genetic knowledge, since these new forms of knowledge–and the technologies based on this knowledge–threaten to redefine humanity itself.

Committed to a biblical worldview, Christians must understand what is at stake in the genetic revolution. We must understand that human beings are not given the authority to redefine ourselves. We also understand that death and disease will remain enemies until the very end of time. While thankful for new treatments, drugs, and technologies that can improve and enhance life, we must understand that some technologies and some forms of knowledge are simply incompatible with our knowledge of true humanity as defined by the Creator. We must be unafraid to cry wolf when there really is a wolf.