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Will Genetic Engineering Kill Us? 

By Mark Baard

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,58467,00.html

02:00 AM Apr. 16, 2003 PT

BOSTON -- 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.

Rich, powerful 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.

If humans create an offshoot of their own species, said evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, that act would represent a dramatic turning point in the evolution of homo sapiens.

"Such a split would necessarily mark the end of our species," said Margulis, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Margulis was speaking at The Future of Human Nature symposium, which was sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University.

Some 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.

"We might 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."

Annas recalled 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 genetic engineering.

"If we 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.

Annas' plan, 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 theorist Mitchell Feigenbaum.

"I 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.

He argued against the inevitability of germ-line genetic engineering and the creation of designer babies.

"Don't 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?

"Parents' 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.

Anthony 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.

Gottlieb traced 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.

"Now we 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."

Unfortunately, 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.

"We've 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."

End of story

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