Birth of the biotech religion

Special Issue | Scientists and ethicists explore the brave new frontier of cyborg citizens, transhuman democracies, altered embryos, and tropical hair

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

For some, genetic engineering is a new religion that promises a new Eden. Every human (or at least those with money) will have the brain of an Einstein and the body of one of People magazine's beautiful people. We'll live for many centuries and through most of them be able to hit massive home runs without primitive pharmaceuticals like steroids-and if we can't do that for ourselves, we can do it for our children.

Denominations within the new religion include cyborgians, who see a merger of man and computer, and chimerists, who see human-animal combinations down the road. There are a lot more, too-but let's jump into our look at two books that sell the new gospel, two others that raise questions about its rationality and honesty, and two more that oppose it ethically.

More Than Human

Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Broadway, 2005)

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Software engineer Ramez Naam argues that the engineering of humans is inevitable: "Scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing, for they're integrally related." Research on Alzheimer's and other diseases "is the very same research that could lead to keeping us young, improving our memories, wiring our minds together, or enhancing ourselves in other ways."

More Than Human takes us from drug therapy (common now) to gene therapy (just beginning): "Drugs sent into the body have an effect for a while, but eventually are broken up or passed out. Gene therapy, on the other hand, gives the body the ability to manufacture the needed protein or enzyme or other chemical itself. . . . Insertional gene vectors penetrate all the way into the nucleus of the cell and splice the genes they carry into the chromosomes. From that point on, the new genes get all the benefits your other genes enjoy. . . . If the cell divides, the new genes get copies to the daughter cells, just like the rest of your DNA."

Here's an example of how biotech companies could make big bucks from gene therapy: "Leptin regulates body weight by controlling metabolism. Mice given a single gene therapy injection lost weight while eating just as much as undosed mice. . . . As Sergei Zolotukhin, a professor at the University of Florida, noted, 'This would be the couch potato's dream: You can eat what you want but stay lean.'"

Other research offers "eccentric cosmetic possibilities. There's no reason, for example, that gene therapy couldn't be used to deliver green fluorescence genes to human skin or hair. Such gene therapy would produce humans who glowed under black light."

People could even have brightly colored skin or hair and look like tropical birds or fish. In a step up from such play, gene therapy could be a longer-lasting or permanent alternative to powerful anti-depressant and ADHD drugs like Prozac and Ritalin: "If and when gene therapy in the brain is ever feasible, it will be possible to opt for permanent or semipermanent alterations of personality."

The biggest market for genetic engineering, though, may be among parents of early embryos. Mr. Naam notes that "altering the genes of a person before he or she is born is in some ways actually easier than doing so after birth. It's easier to get a gene into every one of a small number of cells than into a large number." As genome mapping becomes faster, we may learn which genes dispose a person to certain personality traits. (The word dispose is important: Environment also plays a major role, and Christians understand that God's grace is decisive over both nature and nurture.) Genetic engineering will then "give parents a tool that can increase their odds of having a certain kind of child."

Will parents do better than God? Mr. Naam doesn't pose the question that way, but he does acknowledge some drawbacks: "Genetic alterations of personality come with [the] risk of overshooting the target. If you genetically engineer an embryo to select genes associated with, say, agreeableness, you increase the odds of getting not only a pleasant, agreeable child but one who is agreeable to a fault. If you genetically engineer your child to increase the odds that he'll be an aggressive go-getter, you also increase the odds that he'll become an overbearing boor."

Citizen Cyborg

James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Westview, 2004)

Mr. Hughes alternates sarcastic attacks on "bio-Luddites" (those opposed to genetic engineering) with proclamations of a glorious future: Now-emerging "transhuman technologies will not only let us live longer, be smarter and have more control over our emotions and our bodies. They will also permit us to clone, to mix human and animal DNA and genetically modify our bodies for aesthetic reasons. We will incorporate computers into our bodies and brains, and simulate human brains in computers."


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