Issue #8, Spring 2008

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.

Beyond Darwin

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.”

These capabilities hold the key to potentially massive enhancements to the human experience. In addition to enhancing cognitive abilities, endurance, and other traits, Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver has suggested in his book Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family that humans might be able to expand our sensory perception by replicating genetic adaptation of animals. Imagine humans with the high- and low-frequency hearing of a bat or the acute smell of a dog.

Although spectacular debates will rage over the human genetic manipulation process, and although some states (and groups of states) will certainly continue to mandate tough restrictions on these capabilities, it will be extremely difficult to stop motivated groups from engaging in human genetic manipulations. On the contrary, competition will drive many to move forward aggressively, creating new fissures both within societies and between them.

Social Darwinists have long claimed that elites were smarter and had a greater natural capacity than the masses, a concept proven wrong as opportunity has democratized and societies have become more internally mobile. Taken to its extreme, this has led to the eugenics movement of the early part of the last century and, of course, the murderous ideology of Nazi Germany. But what if, in addition to having better nutrition, more exposure to ideas, and better schooling, the rich and privileged within a society also had genetic manipulations that actually made their brains function better? Princeton‘s Silver takes this argument a frightening step further, arguing, as the BBC report does, that societies will eventually bifurcate into genetically enhanced people and lower-capacity “naturals,” two groups that will become “entirely separate species with no ability to cross breed.”

In this context, would it begin to make sense for the enhanced people to assume leading roles in running institutions and governments, or making decisions on behalf of the less-enhanced populace? Uneven genetic enhancement would challenge our basic concepts of equality and place enormous or even existential strains on the democratic process. What is the life expectancy of a democracy where people are literally not born equal?

Among nations, two types of strains might emerge, and sooner than some think. First, enormous conflict could erupt between the states that ban or restrict new forms of human genetic manipulation and those that do not. If the current debate over genetically modified crops is anything to go by–where many Europeans see an existential threat, while Americans and Asians are generally far less concerned–the stress on international systems over genetically modified people would be monumental.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which China developed genetically modified people with better brain capacities for innovation, who can work longer hours and increase productivity, and have stronger sensory perceptions. Competitive pressures would force the United States, Europe, and other countries to choose between 1) doing nothing and potentially seeing their relative global position decline; 2) beginning such genetic enhancement activities themselves to keep up–in international terms–with the Joneses; or 3) working to halt the activities going on in the more scientifically adventurous country. Whenever this genetic Sputnik moment comes, it is easy to believe that states would resort to armed intervention to prevent what they see as inalterable manipulations of the human genetic code and intolerable changes in the balance of power. What begins as a scientific and moral issue would fast become a significant cause of global instability.

Second, the existing divide between rich and poor countries would become even greater. If unequal access to adequate food, health care, governance, and education make it seem like developed and underdeveloped countries are different worlds, uneven access to human genetic manipulation will make them seem like different universes. At the same time, to keep themselves from falling even further behind the more developed countries, it is possible that less-developed countries would see a relative advantage in loosening regulations on genetics and biotechnology applications, engaging in a regulatory “race to the bottom.”

These enormous competitive pressures within and between societies will propel the human species into the unknown territory of human genetic manipulation at warp speed. The ease of transferring scientific knowledge, and its implications for all humans, will require a far more concerted approach on a global level. The challenge for the United States and the world, therefore, will be to maximize the enormous benefits of the inevitable scientific progress while developing globally accepted norms and standards for human genetic research and its applications.

Hello, Dolly

Since even before Dolly the cloned sheep was introduced to the world by scientists in Scotland, international organizations and governments have struggled to establish standards for genetic manipulation techniques. In 1997, UNESCO adopted the Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, a non-binding document that prohibits “practices which are contrary to human dignity, such as reproductive cloning of human beings.” The following year, the Council of Europe adopted its Convention on Human Rights and Dignity with Regard to Biomedicine, which asserts that modifying the human genome can only be undertaken “for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendents” (this protocol has been ratified by only 21 of the Council’s 41 member states).

Then, in February 2002, the U.N. Ad Hoc Committee for an International Convention Banning Human Reproductive Cloning convened high-level exchanges by experts on genetics and bioethics and drafted text that was eventually brought to the General Assembly for a vote. The non-binding General Assembly resolution, the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, was adopted in March 2005 by a vote of 84 in favor, 34 against, and 37 abstentions. It called on member states to “prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” In the Declaration, “[m]ember States were also called on to protect adequately human life in the application of life sciences; to prohibit the application of genetic engineering techniques that may be contrary to human dignity; to prevent the exploitation of women in the application of life sciences; and to adopt and implement national legislation in that connection.” Unsurprisingly, many states which see themselves at the forefront of the life sciences revolution, including Belgium, Canada, China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, opposed the treaty. In what was widely seen as a political gesture toward America’s religious right, the United States voted for the resolution. But as a non-binding, unenforceable resolution, its meaning is limited regardless.

A total ban on reproductive cloning is appealing on its face, and it is strongly supported by leading experts associated with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and others. These experts argue that the failure and complication rate in other mammals makes this process too dangerous for human application. So far, this argument generally holds sway internationally. But it is one likely to be overcome by scientific process in the not-so-distant future. As knowledge and technological skill advance, the leading arguments against reproductive cloning will fade and the global convention will have to focus ever-more on philosophical and ethical codes that will vary among populations and nations.

The weakness of all current international conventions, and of the standards they seek to set, is their lack of consensus and enforcement power. As in the UN resolution, the countries with the most to gain from such scientific advancement are, and will remain, extremely reluctant to have their activities limited in any way by others, especially those less scientifically advanced. And even if a consensus did emerge, enforcement power is, with the partial exception of Europe, focused on the national level, while the knowledge is increasingly mobile and able to find a home wherever standards are more lax.

These documents also say very little about setting standards for research that fit in principle with accepted norms. In addition, technology could also render some genetic manipulation acceptable, such as chromosomes inscribed with genetic instructions to prevent mutations from being transferred to future generations, or artificial chromosomes that contain chemical “switches” to activate or deactivate specific genes. Nevertheless, issues concerning genetic manipulation may not be about whether a certain mutation is introduced, but how it is introduced.

Any international regime to prevent abuses and ensure that those engaged in legitimate activity do so according to internationally accepted standards would therefore have to play a dual role: as an enabler of responsible research and an enforcer of limitations as to how far these activities can go. Of course, determining what constitutes an abuse will be enormously difficult and complicated, and it is entirely unclear whether enhancing human capacities such as cognition, memory, sense perception, and strength would be considered by all to be, in fact, abuses.

Issue #8, Spring 2008
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A stimulating and thought provoking article. The problems referred to might all be eased if at some stage it became possible to share conciousness between individuals. Then your joy and enhancement would become my joy and enhancement also. The late physicist Eugene Wigner conjoured up a most enduring image, for me, when he referred to 'A solid sphere of Human Knowlege expanding radially at the speed of light'.

Mar 22, 2008, 5:47 AM
darin london:

Very interesting article. One thing that should also be emphasized more is that most researchers studying GM technology are coming to the conclusion that universal improvement in any meaningful way is actually not possible. Every so called 'enhancement' will carry a trade-off elsewhere, and these trade-offs are not easy to predict. This will set up new risk-reward systems in our society, and further mechanisms to increase the divisions in our hierarchical society as collections of individuals aggregate towards one or more classes of genetic modification, each with their own risk-reward profile, and each with their own inherent societal value. Think about the way that our sports stars are being driven to use steroids which will give them a short term gain now, but long term suffering or reduced life-spans later, and you get a good idea of what could come about. Calls for universal bans of these practices are not working, but some regulation needs to be enacted.

Apr 5, 2008, 10:44 AM

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