Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,58467,00.html
AM Apr. 16, 2003 PT
Bioethicists and scientists contemplating the future fear that genetic
engineering and other technologies are going to divide human beings into
classes that may one day try to destroy one another.
people will use technology to make their kids smarter, they say. The poor and
the disenfranchised, meanwhile, will become a kind of subhuman servant class,
like the Yahoos in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
create an offshoot of their own species, said evolutionary biologist Lynn
Margulis, that act would represent a dramatic turning point in the evolution of
split would necessarily mark the end of our species," said Margulis, who teaches at
the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
speaking at The
Future of Human Nature symposium, which was sponsored by the Center for the
Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston
bioethicists envision a scenario in which humans with so-called germ-line
enhancements, who have had traits such as higher IQ and superior strength
spliced into their DNA, retain just enough of their ancestral human nature to
become belligerent toward those they perceive as being inferior.
create a group of people much smarter than us, that might want to kill
us," said bioethicist George
Annas, chair of the Health Law Department of Boston University School of
Public Health. "Or we might want to kill them."
humanity's dismal record of racism and genocide in the 20th century and
suggested the story could get much worse with the help of new technologies like
can't go 100 years without a genocide, then we have no business altering the
species," he said.
Annas cited the
Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as an
example of how genetically enhanced humans might one day be seen as too
dangerous to keep around. He proposed a worldwide treaty organization that
would ban germ-line genetic engineering and force scientists to prove the
safety and efficacy of their discoveries.
which includes putting rogue scientists into prison, rankled those who heard
him speak at the event, attended by a small group of well-known thinkers,
including Dorian Sagan, son of Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan, and the chaos
question the idea of increasing government power with appeals to science
fiction," said Steven Pinker, a
professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You're proposing committees that
could easily stifle scientific research."
Pinker said a
worldwide government body may be unnecessary. One major reason: Futurists, who
are rewarded by the media for making alarming predictions, are failing to grasp
the major scientific roadblocks that will make life in the next 10 to 20 years
very much like it is today.
against the inevitability of germ-line genetic engineering and the creation of
hold your breath for a musical talent gene," he said. "The brain is
not a bag of traits. It's startlingly complex. There are few or no single genes
with a consistent effect on the mind."
Pinker said the
dangers of genetic engineering alone should be enough to prevent most parents
from contemplating such an agenda. If the addition of a few IQ points comes
with an increased risk of paralysis, will it be a risk worth taking?
desire to not harm their children is probably going to outweigh their desire to
enhance them," he said.
If we do manage
to create a new species, it may be difficult to determine which are human, and
which are not.
Gottlieb, author of The Dream of Reason,
a history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, said humans change
their view of humanity with every major technological development.
the history of human nature from the divine craftsman in Plato's Timaeus,
which was influenced by the potter's craft, to Descartes' notion that animal
and human bodies are machines, an idea that Gottlieb connected to Descartes'
fascination with clockworks.
think of our minds, and even our genes, as if they were computers," said
Gottlieb. "But is this the end of the road? Maybe other technologies,
quantum computers or string theory, perhaps, will have us thinking of ourselves
in another way."
we will have to make some choices based on what we know about human nature
today, said Lee Silver, a
Princeton University professor of molecular biology and author of Remaking Eden.
entered a new age with the ability to control both genes and our environment,
said Silver. "And the fittest species will be the one that presides over
its own selection."