Biotech revolution promises to alter human nature


Biotech revolution promises to alter human natureThere is no doubt that recent major breakthroughs in biotechnology have made a huge contribution to human life. We don’t have to look far to think of examples: how the human tissue grown into new skin was used by Dr Fiona Wood and her team, for example, to save the life of the victims of the Bali bombings. How wonderful to know that Herceptin, the first drug approved for use with a matching diagnostic test, is now available to treat breast cancer in women whose cancer cells express the protein HER2.

So it may seem churlish to introduce a note of caution in a discussion about the role of biotech discoveries in our future directions as human beings—but it is an important part of the bioethical debate being played out across the world.

Part of being human is the desire, even the urge, to become better—to strive for perfection. And who could begrudge such an urge? But equally, part of what makes us human is our differences, our very imperfections.

It is important, therefore, that we think clearly about the path we are taking towards the solution of all our human imperfections. How do we continue to cherish our diversity and individual uniqueness even while we try to use our human talents to improve our lot?

A good starting point in this discussion is Francis Fukuyama’s book, Our Post Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Fukuyama's provocative book argues that the biotechnology revolution will ultimately have profound consequences for our society—and some of these may be quite damaging.

For example, he sees the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology as the possibility that it will alter human nature, and thereby move us into what he calls a "post human" stage of history.
We are generally an egalitarian species, and use our intellect and our resources as well as our good fortune to ensure the survival of our species. This applies whether we live in the developed world of the "haves", or the developing world of the "have nots".

Biotech revolution promises to alter human natureSo the notion of biotechnology as a way of "improving" us or our children goes right to the heart of the idea of altering human nature. We could consider this to be at one end of the interventionist spectrum that Fukuyama seeks to address.

At the core of his argument is the fact that biotechnology is allowing us to modify human behaviour, and that we need to be aware of the costs as well as of the benefits. As he so cogently puts it, "biotechnology in contrast to many other scientific advances mixes obvious benefits with subtle harms, in one seamless package".

Right now we are facing ethical choices about genetic privacy, proper use of drugs, research involving embryos, and human cloning. The Lockhart Report and the Patterson Bill, which are before the parliament, take us further, into the realms of embryo selection and the degree to which medical technologies can be used for enhancement rather than therapeutic purposes.

Biotech revolution promises to alter human natureThe ultimate destination, or "prize" of the biotech revolution will be intervention in the "germ line" to manipulate the DNA of all of one person's descendants This may happen for a variety of reasons—to eliminate Huntington's disease, for instance, or for more questionable purposes. But biotechnology is much broader than genetic engineering.

As biotechnology increasingly confers the power to manipulate our biological make-up, there is a distinct possibility, and danger, that ordinary (or at least wealthy) parents will seek to use this technology to "improve" their children. This is not in the realm of fantasy, but is the concern of many thinkers who are following the biotech revolution closely. Gregory Stock, in his book Redesigning Humans, suggests that musical people may want to enhance their children's musical abilities, athletes their children's athletic abilities, and so on.

Just think: we may also want to enhance for more ideological or political reasons as well. And if this trend goes far enough it may lead us to shift the way we think about genetically different classes of human beings, which will then inevitably affect our view of human rights.

So-called "improving" human beings can be an extremely ambiguous enterprise, particularly when it comes to modifying elements of our emotional system and personality.

Biotech revolution promises to alter human natureThe fact is that some individual genes have multiple effects, and sometimes it takes the interaction of many genes working together at different points to produce other effects. This complexity is what makes germ-line engineering different from conventional medicine: the bottom line is that if you make a mistake when you genetically engineer a child, you can't correct it.

Hence the urge to proceed with caution, particularly in terms of decision-making—which leads me back to the role and responsibilities of parliamentarians as elected representatives of all Australians. We are all aware of the democratic tendency to delegate decision-making to expert communities in certain areas that require great technical expertise. This has always been true of biomedicine, where drug regulation, rules concerning human experimentation and the like have always been within the purview of a limited expert community with occasional interventions by government.

Our tendency to frame behavioural differences (such as ADHD, for example) as medical conditions, coupled with society’s respect for medical solutions, make it all the more essential that we think carefully about this issue of regulation. The medical profession is pressured to provide quick fixes, and in public policy terms we complicitly support this approach in our search for affordable outcomes and so-called “solutions”.

Biotech revolution promises to alter human natureIt is therefore very important that any decisions relating to biotechnologies are truly democratic ones. And for that democratisation to happen, we need to inform ourselves about the nature of scientific advances and the larger, human questions they raise.

When we consider the Lockhart recommendations, these are the kinds of conversations we all need to be having.

Too often our discussion descends to a mutually disrespectful debate in which opponents are simply pigeonholed into crude categories—such as irresponsible futurists or repressive conservatives, secular re-designers or religious closed minds. It is not only valid, it is imperative for us to ask probing questions—all the more so if they are uncomfortable, unfamiliar questions that yield no simple, forthright answer.



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Hi Ursula,

Human nature needs change. Our evolutionary based biochemistry leads us to do some pretty horrible things to ourselves and each other. Our inability to overcome fear allows us to follow bad leaders, our chemical imbalances lead us to aggression and depression which stifles our potential creativity and motivation which ultimately leads to a collective harm to society.

While I agree that we need to be careful in how we study and pursue science and technology we should not fear the results of human betterment but embrace it.

Eliminating aging, death and diseases and the suffering that accompany them should be our primary commitment to humanity as none of these are necessary. We now have the ability through science to eliminate all pain and suffering. We should not move to inhibit such progress. Future generations will surely have the technology to master every biological parameter for optimum health and longevity. Why deny this to yours and my generation? Out of fear?

I respect your opinion but wholeheartedly disagree with eachoing the fearmongering of Francis Fukuyama. Fear only inhibits progress.

Jim Craig
Jim Craig | 14 November 2006

Dr. Ursula Stephens,

I have Huntington's Disease. My Father was diagnosed with this horrible, debilitating disease when I was twelve. He died at the age of 44. He could not, talk, eat, or do anything for himself and spent many years in a nursing home. After watching my Father deal with this horrible disease for many years I was diagnosed with this disorder too. Stem Cell research is the only hope me and my family have to end this horrible disease. For many years I have heard people make the same argument you are about stem cell research and it makes me very angry. I do not want to pick the color of my kid's hair, but I don't want to pass on this horrible disease to them too. What parent does not want what is best for their child.

If they could keep their children for getting Huntington's Disease, Parkinson's, Downs Syndrome, Diabtetes, Cancer, and many other diseases, they would do that. It is very frustrating for those of us with degenerative disorders who are fighting each and every day to live a healthy life to see our children grow up when people like you are worried about rich people making pretty babies.

So what, if they do. What does that really matter if we are able to save peoples lives.

Christi Hill
Christi Hill | 14 November 2006

A very helpful and at the same time disturbing article. The thought of using new biotechnology to create a master race is quite awful. On the other hand, the thought of saving the dignity of and restoring a reasonable quality to sufferers of Parkinson's Disease is so very worthwhile. A way must be found to confine new medical technology to therapeutic purposes.
David Dyer | 20 November 2006

I really love this subject. Thanks for bringing it to reality.
Sarah Hart | 07 November 2008

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