World of genetic engineered people not so brave as one might expect?

Heidelberg 20 June 2002Jens Reich, biologist at the Max-Delbrück Center of Molecular Medicine in Berlin, probably held the most philosophical and ethical related talk among the presentations at the International Supercomputer Conference 2002. Sketching the roots, history, and political implications of man's ultimate dream to create the perfect human race, Dr. Reich acknowledged possible useful developments in future genetic engineering but doubted the need to generate a perfect human being in what might turn out to be an individual existence in a not all that perfect society.

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In our days, researchers and scientists have become somewhat suspicious about human and medical genetics considering the audacious experiments of the Nazi regime in the midst of the 20th century causing death and suffering to millions of people. Yet, as Dr. Reich outlined, the selection of a strong and superior human breed already constitutes a vision of wishful thinking for eras, starting with Platon's Philosophers State and finding new fuel in the seventeenth century ideas of Tommaso Campanella whose State of the Sun is supported by modern technology to give birth to an ideal society of perfectly adapted citizens.

The nineteenth century sociologist Francis Galton, influenced by Charles Darwin, propagated the concept of eugenics, involving the careful breeding of rightly talented and mentally fit people. Those who did not meet the standards in this theory were excluded from procreation opening the gates to what Dr. Reich called "negative eugenics". Unfortunately for Galton, human beings fail to respond to the ideals of an egalitarian society in which only fit elements have a chance to deploy their potential. Human life in practice escapes the scrutinously written laws in an artificial think tank laboratory.

Galton clearly believed in the paradigm of breeding through selection instead of education, in which the environment forms the decisive factor to raise a psychologically stable and intelligent character. After the failures of state-dominated "eugenics" carried out not only in Nazi Germany but also in California and the Kingdom of Sweden, the concept of nature versus nurture was largely abandoned in Western intellectual circles, according to Dr. Reich.

Today, however, we witness a countermovement, again favouring the essence of inborn gifts. Paradoxically, Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories are at the basis of this new belief in eugenics, as stated by Dr. Reich. Chomsky proved that the human brain is able to understand and reproduce a universal grammar. Following the traces discovered by Chomsky of this complex cervical wiring, modern molecular geneticians have taken up the Galton theory again to try and change the genetic consitution in animals and plants in hopes to create better species.

In spite of the DNA, protein sequences, and Human Genome Project revelations during the past century, the adoption of genetic engineering on human beings is still precarious. In genetic diagnosis, it is already possible to predict genetic defects in the semen and egg cells of potential parents or in the embryos generated through artificial insemination. But, as Dr. Reich explained, the discarding of a potential human being, which is the application of negative eugenics, is controversial in today's society and only tolerable should the alternative be a life of pain and suffering due to the genetic defect.

In turn, it takes positive eugenics to improve the human genetic constitution. Despite the turmoil in the media, Dr. Reich believes that the creation of "designer babies" is technically impossible to date because "the problem of safe gene carriers into the cellular DNA has not been solved in a manner satisfactory for human application. Neither the stability of the transplant nor its proper functioning, without adverse side effects on the genome, has been solved". Still, Dr. Reich is aware of the fact that things can change rapidly in science.

This leaves the question whether all challenges which may become technically possible in the future are equally desirable? Suppose it would be possible to create human beings with superbodies and superintellects, then the high cost of the technology would be an impediment to the less fortunate people and would endanger the assets of democracy, according to the speaker. And what about the consequences of prolonging life, reviving it with eternal youth through genetic reprogramming of ageing and thus adding technical enhancement to the mere natural prevention of toxic factors that also can shorten our lives?

Dr. Reich remained sceptic when he imagined a society in which the majority of people would be old although young in appearance. What he dreads most is the stagnation of unlimited creativity, a creativity which can only be provided by fresh blood. In addition, human beings are very complex systems to enhance when talking in supercomputer terms. Too many changes in the criteria might "spoil" the outcome. Nature, through billions of years in evolution, has found a reasonable compromise in our present state of being. Dr. Reich thought it too delicate to put at risk the equilibrium.


Leslie Versweyveld

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