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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Ethical Dangers of Genetic Engineering

by Ron Epstein, Institute for World Religions
& San Francisco State University

What will it be like in a future world where your life started with your parents designing your genes? In addition to screening for unwanted genetic diseases, they select for sex, height, eye-, hair-, and skin-color. Pressured by the current social fads, they may also choose genes whose overall functions are not clearly understood but are rumored to be connected with temperament, intelligence, mindfulness, and perhaps sexual orientation. You may be genetically engineered to be an enhanced clone of one of your parents, or of a celebrity whose genetic heritage your parents have purchased at great price. If your parents are poor, they may be paid to design you with genes tailored for a particular occupation, together with a pre-birth contract for future employment. As in the film "Gattaca," you probably belong to a clearly defined social class according to the degree of your genetic enhancement. Of course there may still be a few weird, unenhanced naturals-by-choice living in the mountains.

From the very first milk you suckle, your food is genetically engineered. The natural world is completely made over, invaded and distorted beyond recognition by genetically engineered trees, plants, animals, insects, bacteria, and viruses, both planned and run amok. Illnesses are very different too. Most of the old ones are gone or mutated into new forms, yet most people are suffering from genetically engineered pathogens, either used in biowarfare, or mistakenly released into the environment, or recombined in toxic form from originally harmless but rapidly mutating engineered organisms. Genetic engineering is so commonplace, you start your own simple experiments with it in elementary school.

Present Causes Lead to Future Effects

That future is a lot more plausible than you might think. How can it come about? Probably from a combination of misplaced, na´ve altruism, the short-sighted quest for short-term corporate profit, power-domination, and just plain emotionally fueled vengeance. In the 1950s, the media were full of information about the great new scientific miracle that was going to make it possible to kill to all of the noxious insects in the world, wipe out insect-borne diseases and feed the world's starving masses. That was DDT. In the 1990s, the media are full of information about the coming wonders of genetic engineering. Everywhere are claims that genetic engineering will feed the starving, help eliminate disease, and so forth. The question is the price tag. As has been our experience with most technologies, such as DDT and nuclear energy, the promise of benefit in the short- term is overwhelmed by long-term disasters.

Results of flaws in this technology cannot be recalled and fixed, but become the negative heritage to countless future generations.

Unlike most other technologies, genetic engineering does not leave room for mistakes. Results of flaws in this technology cannot be recalled and fixed, but become the negative heritage to countless future generations.

An Early Warning

In 1976 George Wald, Nobel Prize winning biologist and Harvard professor, wrote:

Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution.... It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain.... For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.

Ethical Clarity and Scientific Genius Don't Always go Together

On the other hand co-discoverer of the DNA code and Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson has consistently disregarded the risks of genetic engineering. In 1979 he wrote this about possible diseases that might be inadvertently created through genetic engineering: "I would not spend a penny trying to see if they exist." Claiming that "until a tiger devours you, you don't know that the jungle is dangerous," he wants to plunge forward regardless of the consequences. If Watson wants to go off into the jungle and put himself at risk of being eaten by a tiger, that is his business. When genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment, they put us all at risk, not just their creators. These statements by a great scientist clearly show that we cannot necessarily depend on the high priests of science to make our ethical decisions for us. Too much is at stake.

Yet Watson himself saw some of the problems very clearly when he stated:

This [genetic engineering] is a matter far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities. The belief that...science always moves forward represents a form of laissez-faire nonsense dismally reminiscent of the credo that American business if left to itself will solve everybody's problems. Just as the success of a corporate body in making money need not set the human condition ahead, neither does every scientific advance automatically make our lives more 'meaningful.'

"Just as the success of a corporate body in making money need not set the human condition ahead, neither does every scientific advance automatically make our lives more 'meaningful.'"

Although not a geneticist, Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and cosmologist, has commented often and publicly on the future role of genetic engineering. One possibility he suggests is that once an intelligent life form reaches the stage we're at now, it proceeds to destroy itself. He's an optimist, however, preferring the notion that people will alter DNA, redesigning the race to minimize our aggressive nature and give us a better chance at long-term survival. "Humans will change their genetic makeup to give them more intelligence and better memory," he said.

If that were the case, why would we be about to destroy ourselves in the first place? Is Hawking assuming that genes control IQ and memory, and that they are equivalent to wisdom, or is Hawking claiming there is a wisdom gene? All these assumptions are extremely dubious. The whole notion that we can completely understand what it means to be human with a small part of our intellect, which is in turn a small part of who we are is, in its very nature, extremely suspect. If we attempt to transform ourselves in the image of a small part of ourselves, what we transform ourselves into will certainly be something smaller or at least a serious distortion of our human nature.

Those questions aside, Hawking does make explicit that for the first time in history, natural evolution has come to an end and has been replaced by human meddling with their own genetic makeup. With genetic engineering science has moved from exploring the natural world and its mechanisms to redesigning them.

Here are some specific examples of ethical problems with the use of genetic engineering.


It is generally acknowledged that secret work is going forward in many countries to develop genetically engineered bacteria and viruses for biological warfare. International terrorists have already begun seriously considering their use. It is almost impossible to regulate because the same equipment and technology that are used commercially can easily and quickly be transferred to military application.

After reading about the dangers of genetic engineering in biowarfare, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, became extremely concerned, and, in the spring of 1998, made civil defense countermeasures a priority. Yet his administration has systematically opposed all but the most rudimentary safety regulations and restrictions for the biotech industry. By doing so, Clinton has unwittingly created a climate in which the production of the weapons he is trying to defend against has become very easy for both governments and terrorists.

What percent of human genes does an organism have to contain before it is considered human?

The former Soviet Union had 32,000 scientists working on biowarfare, including military applications of genetic engineering. No one knows where most of them have gone, or what they have taken with them. Among the more interesting probable developments of their research were smallpox viruses engineered either with equine encephalitis or ebola virus.

Human Genes

As more and more human genes are being inserted into non-human organisms to create new forms of life that are genetically partly human, new ethical questions arise. What percent of human genes does an organism have to contain before it is considered human? For instance, how many human genes would a green pepper have to contain before you would have qualms about eating it? This is not merely a hypothetical query. The Chinese are now putting human genes into tomatoes and peppers to make them grow faster. You can now be a vegetarian and a cannibal at the same time! For meat-eaters, the same question could be posed about eating pork with human genes. What about the mice that have been genetically engineered to produce human sperm? How would you feel if your father was a genetically engineered mouse?

Plastic Plants

So that we would not have to be dependent on petroleum-based plastics, some scientists have genetically engineered plants that produce plastic within their stem structures. They claim that it biodegrades in about six months. If the genes escape into the wild, through cross-pollination with wild relatives or by other means, then we face the prospect of natural areas littered with the plastic spines of decayed leaves. However aesthetically repugnant that may seem, the plastic also poses a real danger. It has the potential for disrupting entire food-chains. It can be eaten by invertebrates, which are in turn eaten, and so forth. If primary foods are inedible or poisonous, then whole food-chains can die off.

Assessing the Price

For all the advantages claimed for genetic engineering, in the overwhelming number of cases the price seems too high to pay. In order to ensure megaprofits for multinational corporations well into the next century, we will have to mortgage the biosphere, seriously compromise life on the planet, and even risk losing what it means to be a human being. Genetic engineering poses serious risks to human health and to the environment. It raises serious ethical questions about the right of human beings to alter life on the planet for the benefit and curiosity of a few.

Ron Epstein is Research Professor at the Institute for World Religions in Berkeley, and Lecturer in Philosophy and Religion at San Francisco State University. His website "Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers" http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/gedanger.htm provides further information.

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