Human Genome ProjectThe Task at Hand
Science is defined as knowledge based on observed facts and tested truths arranged in an orderly system. It has had an extreme effect on technology, which covers production, transportation, and even entertainment. In the past, though, science has always remained distant. However, with the birth of genetic engineering, science has become something that will deeply affect lives. Advancements are being made daily with genetic engineering: the Human Genome Project is nearly done, gene replacement therapy lies within reach, and cloning is on the horizon. Genetically altered foods have already become an important aspect of life with “new and better varieties” (Bier, 2001, p.65) and even the possibilities of solving world hunger. There is no doubt of the benefits that genetic engineering can offer society, but can scientists look that far ahead and truly say what is for the good of society?
Does the world understand genetics enough to welcome the possibilities with open arms? Society often runs away or hides from problems, but with genetic engineering it cannot ignore the possible outcomes whether good or bad. Genetic engineering is clearly beneficial to all kinds of people, but it is possible that negative issues exist which could counteract any good results. “In the near term, there are some very interesting and important issues that we all should consider as a society because they raise potentially profound moral and ethical questions” (Bier, 2001, p. 70). Such issues are that of discrimination and the dangers and difficulty in making ethical decisions. It is society’s duty to step back and view these issues before pursuing genetic research and heading down a destructive path.
Since the origin of man, discrimination has found its way into every type of society through forms of sexism, racism, and religious and cultural prejudice. Throughout the years, though, society has worked to reduce such intolerances and give everyone equal rights. However, if genetic engineering is added to the scene, equal rights could possibly plummet into oblivion. Andrew Niccol accentuates such inequality in his movie Gattaca. In Gattaca, Vincent Freeman is a man who is born naturally instead of in a lab. Because of this he is labeled by the world as an invalid, and no employment, social position, or even love is possible for him except for those assigned specially to invalids. In order to obtain his dream job, Vincent must use another’s identity to pass as a valid. The fact that he must be a “valid” to acquire a decent job points out the possible outcome of discrimination in the employment world if genetic engineering would become a reality. Employers could obtain a sample of a person’s DNA and not give him/her the job solely based on genes. Like in Gattaca, there would become jobs for those genetically engineered: lawyers, doctors, and businessmen; and jobs for those naturally born: janitors, bus drivers, and garbage men. In short, equality of rights and opportunity would cease to exist.
Discrimination, however, would not stop with employment. Prejudice would become an everyday event even in social life. If genetic engineering leads to pre-picking genes to prevent birth defects, “how will we react to children we meet who have that disorder?” (Baker, 2001). People will see the child and wonder why it was born. Parents will have the chance to choose whatever genes they see fit for their child, offering it the best of everything. Society, however, will then look down upon those children “naturally” born. If this type of genetic engineering becomes a common occurrence, society is bound to discriminate against those people with defects or even differences.
Yet differences are not bad and can be seen as unique and characteristic of the person they belong to. Some people even say that genetic engineering would “undermine the right of every person to be valued for his or her uniqueness” (Baker, 2001). The argument is that upon entering this life, a person is given certain qualities and inequalities that make him/her unique to each other. These qualities shape experiences, which in turn shape lives. Even the obstacles a person faces are meant to mold him/her and add character. Genetic engineering, however, removes some of these obstacles. Like in Gattaca, people would conceivably become an unthinking mass following the world’s plan of their lives, not their own.
Today, however, people are not an unthinking mass, and we live in a society where everyone can become involved in social and political issues. With genetic engineering on the horizon, society needs to take a firm grasp on this ethics and ask what it truly wants. Ethical questions are constantly being asked, yet no one wants to face the issues at hand. People are so concerned with pleasing the majority that no one wants to take responsibility. If no one speaks up, though, scientists will continue blindly down an uncertain path. The problem here is that technology is so preoccupied with whether it can, that it never even considers whether it should.
Take, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Greg Egan’s The Extra. In Frankenstein, the narrator, Robert Walton, believes that “one man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which [he] sought” (Shelley, 1991, 13). Victor Frankenstein reminds Walton that he was once na?ve in this statement and proceeds to tell him how his own actions had led to a “hell within [him] which nothing could extinguish” (Shelley, 1991, p. 72). Genetic engineering has acquired this same na?vet? and society could be blinded to the possible consequences if something is not done. The risks alone are too overpowering to ignore. As in the case of cloning Dolly, it took 277 tries to produce her, and scientists produced many lambs with abnormalities. The techniques are extremely risky and “more often than not unsuccessful” (Baker, 2001).
Risks, however, are not the only concern. Societal abuse of genetic engineering also needs to be a great consideration. With all of the possibilities genetic engineering provides, exploitation of its purposes is bound to occur. The Extras, by Greg Egan, examines such abuse. The main character, Daniel Gray, has created a produce line of genetically engineered humans that lack any form of intelligence. Their only purpose on is to serve as organ donors for their owner. In essence, genetic engineering has become a fixation of indulgence: “The prospect of living for centuries seemed to have made the rich greedier than ever; a fortune that sufficed for seven or eight decades was no longer enough” (Egan, 2001, p. 47). With this kind of thinking, society would become what Thomas Hobbes describes as “a condition of war of every one against every one” (Hobbes, 2001, p. 21). Abuse of genetic engineering could lead people to forget any sort of compassion and humanity because they are living only for themselves. Charles Darwin even states, “Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends” (Darwin, 2001, p. 3). It is human tendency to try to obtain the best of everything. However, as society takes on nature’s responsibility of natural selection, Darwin points out that man does not discern between desire and necessity. Genetic engineering would become that of selfishness and personal gain. In The Extras, Gray even admits, “In the end it came down to longevity, and the hope of immorality” (Egan, 2001, p. 54). Nothing is more self-seeking than the aspiration for eternal life, and with genetic engineering, it could certainly become a possibility.
Genetic engineering is indeed a large step into the future of mankind, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Lives will be saved, diseases will be cured, and new information will be available for all who need it. It is society’s choice, however, whether to embrace it and continue, or look deeper into the future consequences before rushing headlong into the unknown. We hold the future in our hands and do not want to look back upon our creations as Victor Frankenstein did: “I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed” (Shelley, 1991, p. 76). The future is now, and it is society’s task to view the prejudicial and ethical issues concerning genetic engineering carefully. “We have landed on the naked shores of the brave new world, and we need to plan for the future we wish to create” (Bier, 2001, p. 78).