Brave New World War
Genetic engineering will soon turn science fiction to fact. Why we need a new global treaty to control it.
In the fall of 2006, a BBC wire report speculated that global economic inequality and rapid advances in genetic engineering would some day combine to split mankind into two subspecies. “The descendants of the genetic upper classes would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the ‘underclass’ humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.” The BBC was careful to put its sci-fi scenario far into the future–100,000 years down the road. But whether or not such Wellsian predictions are realized, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The day will come, perhaps even within a decade, when at least a subset of the human race will have the ability to control key aspects of its own evolution.
Although individuals with superhuman capacities have long been the domain of religious texts and science fiction, in the not-so-distant future, in the immortal words of the 1970s series The Six Million Dollar Man, we very well could make people “better, stronger, faster” than their unenhanced counterparts. But while the fictional Steve Austin was modified with high-tech electronics, tomorrow’s alterations will be biological–embryos modified with genes to lengthen life spans, enhance brain capacity and sense perception, increase endurance, and protect from deadly diseases.
The early stages of this technology already have been contentious; think of the fierce fight over stem cell use here in the United States. But these debates pale in comparison to the conflicts that will emerge as our capacity to alter our offspring’s genetic makeup grows exponentially. As different national approaches develop worldwide, they will become a source of instability, conflict, and even potentially armed intervention. Consider how a set of relatively small genetic changes to crops has created a flurry of trade tensions over genetically modified food. Being unable to sell American soybeans to Europe is one thing; the conflict over different approaches to changes to the human genome will be of an entirely different magnitude.
But despite this looming threat, the world remains dangerously unprepared for the international genetic “arms race” that could one day emerge, in which countries or even corporations compete to generate the most competitive offspring, even as they may recognize the dangers of following this path. I’m not talking about China or Russia genetically engineering a battalion of men capable of running 100 miles per hour and leaping tall buildings in a single bound. But what about a nation that has soldiers who need only an hour of sleep a night, have the eyesight of the best sharpshooter, or possess the endurance of Lance Armstrong? Would other countries be willing to wait 30 years to see what the repercussions are before starting down the same path themselves? Or would they feel forced to start immediately, setting off a genetic arms race? As soon as one country heads down this path, others will immediately set out to keep pace. Sound improbable? The nuclear arms race resulted in the irrational production of more than 30,000 nuclear warheads, and the world came dangerously close to nuclear war more than once. The genetic arms race could well turn out the same way, and this time, we might not be so lucky.
To maximize the benefits of advances in genetic technologies while minimizing their potential harms, the world community must develop global standards and a multilateral structure capable of both promoting advances in human genetic manipulation and preventing abuses. Call it a Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty. The science is moving extremely fast. The policy framework must now catch up.
Just as advances in agriculture, sanitation, and health care have dramatically enhanced the length and quality of our lives, so too will advances in bioengineering help secure and enhance our future. Converging advances across fields as diverse as nanoscience, biotechnology, information technology, human fertility, gene therapy, molecular biology, and cognitive science ensure the arrival of revolutionary capabilities in human reproductive engineering. As this occurs, our species will develop the Promethean ability to manage its own evolutionary process to an extent that Charles Darwin never could have imagined. It will extend our lives, make us immune to diseases, and massively expand our memory capabilities and our sense perceptions–to name only a few possibilities. But as these capabilities spread quickly around the world, we could also see the loss of genetic diversity, the creation of “Frankenpeople,” and even unknown outcomes of meddling with a system as infinitely complex as the human being.
To a very limited extent, some genetic manipulation is already happening. In today’s IVF clinics, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) enables parents to choose the healthiest of their fertilized eggs, or select a gender, prior to re-implantation in the womb. In the near future, a relatively simple, additional step will allow doctors to insert an artificial chromosome with a targeted genetic manipulation–perhaps to eliminate the threat of Down Syndrome or even cancer–into such a fertilized egg.
As opposed to the somatic gene therapies in use today which target non-reproductive cells, so-called “germline” technology alters reproductive cells at the outset of the fertilization process, allowing genetic changes to be replicated in every ensuing cell and, potentially, permanently altering the gene pool of a given species. Germline engineering is not currently used on humans, but the process is being utilized widely in experiments with laboratory animals. Scientists disagree over the timeframe, but most generally agree that this technology will soon reach a stage where it could be used on humans. As UCLA Professor Gregory Stock has asserted, “The question is no longer whether we will manipulate embryos, but when, where, and how.”
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