SC210--Week 6--Lecture notes

Volti, Ch. 8, Genetic Technologies

This week's theme is those medical and biological technologies that involve basic revisions of the nature of the organism.  We touched on these last week when we discussed genetically modified foods.  But they go much further.  One version of the basic question is whether we should try to improve the human design by tinkering with genes, either to remove vulnerabilities to disease or to improve various features (or to add new features). This, say critics, is meddling with nature, playing god, pushing beyond "natural" limits, altering "human nature" itself, and it should not be allowed. Others, however, are quite excited at the prospect; extreme proponents include the transhumanists(see below). Less extreme proponents note that some people have clearly advantageous genes, such as the one found in one family of Limone, Italy, that in effect makes them immune to high cholesterol. In time, perhaps, we could give everyone this gene. Should we?  The ethics of im-proving the human species is a very touchy subject.  Eugenics dates back to the early 20th century, when in many countries (including the US) it led to such things as programs of sterilization of the "unfit" (the retarded, mentally ill, and even minorities).  Improving genes seems much more benign, but so far very few people proposing doing this in any permanent fashion--that is the new changes are not done in such a way that they can be passed to future generations.  This may change in the future, once we have more confidence in methods and results; remember the idea of "halfway technologies" from last week.

Volti refers to replacing defective (meaning responsible for diseases such as cystic fibrosis) or undesirable (meaning normal versions of the Limone gene) genes as the "genetic fix." The effort to apply such a fix to genetic diseases has a long history, with many ups and downs, in part because the delivery mechanisms for new genes have proved to have problems.  However, the effort does go on with a trial of gene therapy for cystic fibrosis starting in March 2012.

Volti mentions that one of the issues that has arisen with the discovery of disease genes and the construction of modified versions involves patents.  These are often criticized on the grounds that they make tests and treatments more expensive.  This spring the Supreme Court ruled against patenting human genes, sending the issue back to lower courts.

The transhumanists (see Issue 19 in Taking Sides) are very optimistic about the potential for improving the human body and even mind, not just with genetic engineering but also with implants and add-ons. Observers such as Maxwell Mehlman see the technology as developing in this direction and say there will be a need to keep it from creating new class divisions. There may therefore be a need for government actually to subsidize the technology for everyone. Others, such as McNamee and Edwards, are very worried by the prospect. Should work toward "transhumanist" technology be forbidden? Or just put on hold while we think out the implications? Scott discusses the 2002 four-year moratorium on embryonic stem cell research. The aim was "to force scientists and supporters to write guidelines and rules to regulate hESC research." There is a risk in such a move that it may be repeated, amounting to the same thing as a ban. Another risk is that it may delay genuine benefits. On the other hand, as things worked out, it forced researchers to look for alternative ways to produce stem cells. A major step occurred in 2007, when researchers announced that they had been able to convert mouse skin cells into stem cells with all the potential to become other kinds of cells seen in embryonic stem cells.

Some of the objections to genetic technologies, especially as applied to humans, seem to center on the idea that the more we know, the less room is left for fate or free will. We seem locked into a particular destiny. But genes rarely force a particular outcome; identical twins do not always develop the same diseases or display the same tendencies to crime or nobility.

Questions for Discussion

1.  In time, genetic engineering seems bound to mature as a medical technology.  One result may be that many current medical technologies will no longer be needed, for they will be revealed as halfway technologies (in the sense of time-buying technologies). What current medical technologies are we talking about here? What problems do you see in shifting to the new "genetic fix" technologies?

2. Does it seem likely that allowing transhuman enhancements would create a world of two classes, normal humans and enhanced posthumans?  Would such a change be consistent with egalitarian ideals?

3.    What bodily or mental enhancements would you find desirable?  Why?