7.5 Human Genetic Engineering

The methods of gene splicing to re-engineer the human race fall into three broad categories--those intended to make repairs, those intended for selection, and those intended to make improvements.

Genetic Repairs

Repairs of cellular-level damage fall into two categories. The first, the least controversial and probably the easiest to effect, would be those done after birth, or at least after conception. The development of DNA-driven machines to produce specific proteins could lead to the ability to repair damage from mutations, remove dangerous or hostile proteins from the body, or even to correct some chromosomal or genetic defects after the fact. That this is of somewhat limited benefit can easily be seen by considering Down's syndrome. Even if all the associated genetic damage were somehow to be repaired, say by a nanomachine, there would still remain the physical and mental deformities programmed in before birth.

The second category is the elimination of genetic disorders before they happen, or at least before they have any opportunity to do any lasting harm. There is a long list of candidates for such work. Sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, and the predilection to organic problems such as cancer and heart disease are some that come immediately to mind. Some disorders can already be identified with specific gene locations in human DNA. Diagnosis from material in the fluid surrounding the child in the womb is also possible in many cases. It may not be many years before the genetic causes of most major inherited disorders are well understood, though there is little indication at this time that cures for any of them are feasible once they have been inherited.

In the time between the discovery of the genetic cause for an ailment and that of a cure, a new issue arises, however. Is a person known to have a genetic predisposition to heart failure, diabetes, or drug addiction insurable? Is such a person employable?

At present, prenatal examinations for such disorders are usually done to determine whether or not to abort the child rather than with any healing process in view. Where governments permit such abortions, it is not hard to imagine them also mandating that genetically defective children be aborted in order to protect the economy by avoiding costly treatment and care after birth. After all, a state that has the power to allow abortion clearly has the power to require it. Indeed, in view of growing population pressures and strains on the medical system, such a possibility must be regarded as quite likely in some countries--a final solution to the cost of birthing, raising, and caring for those deemed genetically defective. The chief question would then be how to determine which genetic characteristics constitute the "pure" human race and which others ought to be exterminated. As the Nazis showed in the 1930s, the decision can be made on a political level and then technology used to enforce it afterwards. Since such a policy would be effective only if it were enforced on the already-born as well as on those not yet born, it would be as easy to establish in the former case as in the latter. It might be a short step to a new program of genocide directed against those deemed sub-human for national, religious, or racial reasons. Because this would be a politically motivated policy, it would also be easy to label dissidents as defective, much as they were in the old Soviet Union, except that a mental hospital expense would not be incurred.

Can such frightening outcomes be avoided? The assumption here is that they must. One possibility is by focusing research on conception itself, rather than on some later point in human development. Assuming that gene splicing methods have also advanced in step with diagnostic techniques, the same methods applied to plants and animals will be available to alter human DNA. The egg and sperm of would-be parents could be examined, and the coding at the target gene sites changed before inducing conception in vitro. The "corrected" fertilized egg could then be implanted in the mother's womb for carrying to full term. The child would still be biologically the offspring of its parents but would lack the damaged genes that they would have passed on in the normal mode of conception. Moreover, those damaged genes would then be eliminated from future generations as well.

There are also objections to this kind of research on the grounds that the result is unnatural, and therefore ought to be forbidden. For their part, advocates respond that, in the case of hemophilia, for instance, blood that clots is more natural than blood that does not. Surely, goes the argument, it would be of great benefit to the whole human race to find ways of correcting and eliminating haemophilia (and similar problems). Heading off genetically-induced disorders before they happen also avoids the more unpleasant aspects of attempting control after the fact. It would also solve some problems that now exist for infertile couples who use sperm banks in order to conceive a child. As things now stand, two children independently conceived through these services could well be half-siblings with no means of knowing this. If they met and married, the probability of genetic defects in their offspring would be much higher than normal. The ability to eliminate genetic defects would make the operation of anonymous banks for human eggs and sperm much safer. Whether, in the light of population pressures, the cost of continuing to use these techniques is justified is quite another matter. So is the potential right of the child to know who the biological parents are.

On the face of it, choosing to seek the ability to make genetic repairs seems an easy decision to make. Indeed, the numerous research efforts already underway along these line testify to the fact that the decision has already been made. As long as fertilized eggs are not discarded during the process, even the most conservative observer might not object too strenuously to such an apparently beneficial program. However, there are clearly implications of this technology that would be much more controversial. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the best of such techniques, chosen with "good" motives, would not still result in the worst of abuses as well.


The ability to repair genetic material implies that traits other than those involving defects could also be selected. The most obvious application is choosing the sex of the child. On a personal level, this might be regarded by many as ethically neutral. However if sex selection were easy enough to implement on a large scale, it might not be neutral, for in some cultures there is a powerful bias against female children. In such situations, the ability to select sex would quickly throw the male/female ratio far off the rough balance it now enjoys. Indeed, in some parts of the world, amniocentesis is already performed solely for this purpose. It is hard to imagine the consequences for the particular generation so selected, but the practice of selecting only males would certainly have to die out quickly, with or without the culture that once used it.

Eventually, various selections would be just as feasible--for beauty, strength, longevity, intelligence, height, colouring, and other characteristics. Since some of these characteristics might be perceived to give the next generation a decided advantage, there would at the very least be strong social pressure on parents to adopt whatever technology was available to ensure that their children had the best possible genetic heritage. Indeed, if they chose not to do so, they would surely find themselves on the losing end of a parental malpractice suit brought by their offspring or even the target of criminal negligence charges brought by the state. What is more, if current population pressures are heightened by a dramatic increase in life spans, the birth rate will have to decline in equal measure. If society is able to tolerate only a few children, the pressure to use whatever techniques are available to select the "best" parental genetic material would undoubtedly become extreme.

In the same way that abortion of "defective" children might come to be required, the availability of genetic selection methods could lead to their enforced use, because there would be compelling arguments that selection is in the best interests of society (another example of efficient technique being irresistible). There would always be the problem of who defines the best interests, of course. Some future government might want to breed docility into the general population to enhance its power or to eliminate certain racial characteristics in the interests of what it regarded as purity. This could not be done easily unless authorities also limited longevity treatments to an elite, for otherwise the population would change too slowly to achieve this goal. While a government with enough power to do the one could clearly do both, it would still be faced with population pressure and might opt instead for mass sterilization or some equally draconian means of compulsory birth control. The more neutral path of requiring reproduction licenses--and only issuing them to those deemed genetically fit, or those able to afford gene editing--might be impossible to enforce under any but a totalitarian regime.

The major assumptions that lead to the most severe of these difficulties are three: that such selection will become possible; that life spans will increase; and that living space will be limited. There may therefore, be a troubled future for human genetic research--and now that it has begun, it cannot be stopped, for it will go on in some part of the world even if banned in another. There may be ways around these problems, if room can be found for a much larger population, and that aspect of the human biospace will be discussed later in the chapter. There are even more troubling aspects of human genetic research, however.

Making Genetic Changes

There is a process of genetic selection acting upon the pool of genes--in every generation of living things most genetic traits are inherited and remain possibilities for transmission to the next, but some do not and thus die out. Of course, genetic selection does not on its own result in the production of anything fundamentally new in succeeding generations, just in variations on the central theme for that life form. Information is selectively lost, not gained, even when speciation results. Even done intelligently (as in plant breeding), selection only allows designers to take advantage of characteristics already inherent in the normal range of genetic variation. Careful selection allows the distribution of traits already present in the population of a life form to be moved toward one end of the existing range. If then left alone, they would tend to regress back to the natural mean. Genetic modifications have the potential to force this selection to become permanent, because undesirable genes would be eliminated altogether.

This is already done with plants and animals, even to the point of generating new species. Is there therefore any reason to suppose that human genetic research would stop with repair and selection? Various "improvements" or "modifications" would certainly be suggested, and no amount of government control could halt such experiments indefinitely. Thus, as with any fundamentally new technology, this one has the potential to be used for what seem to be attractive ends, for what may be frivolous ends, and for ends that seem very threatening.

Possible attractions include further enhancements to intelligence and more extensions of the life span, for instance. A strain of human beings with very large lungs and an altered circulatory system could live in high mountains where the air is thin. Some do this now, so such an ability might fit in the selection category. Perhaps someone would try to develop a human with gills and fins to colonize the oceans, or one with hollow bones and wings to take to the air, or a human with a modified chemistry to live on some hostile planet. Are such things feasible? Not yet, but no one knows at this point they are impossible. In the quest for knowledge, some such things may well be attempted, assuming there are no enforceable limitations placed on genetic research.

What of still stranger alterations in the name of making improvements, such as extra limbs or eyes? Experimenters could try everything from dual sets of sexual organs to new skin colours. Perhaps a docile subspecies with limited intelligence and great strength would eliminate the need for robots or enhanced animals to fill menial positions. Such possibilities may seem shocking, but the point is that at present no one has any idea where genetic research may lead. It may not be either wise or practical to prohibit all such research, but society does have a vested interest in ensuring this work is regulated with codes that have moral/ethical strength beyond the simply legal. Otherwise, human beings may eventually find themselves asking whether a creature derived from their own genetic stock is in fact human--or, worse still, having the question asked of them. At the very least, the question of who owns the rights to new forms of life would have to be reopened. If changes to "lower" forms of life such as plant or animal modifications are patentable, then a degree of ownership is implied. If the same is true of modifications to the human stock, it could lead to the enslavement of the modified humans. It could equally lead to the enslavement of the original human variety by enhanced versions. As for all technologies with potential for enormous benefit, there is equal potential for enormous mischief and harm. Genetic research is a Pandora's box with the lid already off and it may already be too late to effectively regulate it; certainly it is not possible to prohibit it.

The "playing God" objection that was discussed in connection with AI research is also used by critics of human genetic work. As there, it seems to carry little weight any longer. People in the field are usually not conscious of "playing God" in any way, and they are therefore inclined to ignore the argument as false, irrelevant, or meaningless. Perhaps what the objectors really mean is that they believe a Creator intended the creation to be left as humankind found it. But, people who believe they are created in the image of God, yet make a blasphemous thing of specific knowledge and creativity, may not yet have come to terms with the meaning of the creative part of that image in humanity; the accusation has therefore at least some appearance of inconsistency. What is more, making at least selections at the genetic level is not different from the selective breeding that has been the stock-in-trade of plant and animal husbandry for millennia, and that has few objectors today.

Still, the objection has merit, particularly if the genetic technology falls under the total control of the state. In a totalitarian system the idea of designing good docile citizens could be very attractive, for in these systems the state is the deity. Thus "playing God" is a real problem, for such research is not play but deadly serious. For now, these issues must be left open for discussion, but there is a time limit. Choices will have to be faced in the next few years, and it is better to come to grips with the issues before they are presented as fact than after. If a consensus as to what constitutes "good" and "bad" outcomes of genetic research cannot be reached early on, an unregulated chaos could ensue, with consequences that could face humanity with threats every bit as grave as those from nuclear explosives.

What is more, as the level of technology increases, so does its potential to affect all life. Eventually, many people will have the means to single-handedly destroy all of civilization. What can prevent some mad (wo)man from doing so? If there is no return to a pervasive moral code, such destruction seems likely. Even if there is, how can the consequences of a single rejection of moral codes be policed against, and who would control the police? Some of these issues are examined in fictional form by this author in his Timestream novels. See the web site at http://www.arjay.bc.ca.

What makes regulation difficult is the traditional autonomy of the largely university-based researchers, as well as the large amounts of money involved in commercial aspects of genetic research. Potential economic return for certain animal vaccines, specialized viruses, and modified plant stock is large enough, but opportunities to make money on human genetic manipulations are far more substantial. One means of control that may work is to regulate the sale of products and techniques of such research, much as is now done with chemicals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. As experience with illicit drugs has shown, however, if the amount of money to be made in trafficking is large enough, no degree of regulation suffices to stop it altogether.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises