Sometimes fairy tales are better than non-fiction at communicating essential truths. Anyone who has read Shakespeare or been transfixed by the tales of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis understands this well.
In Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie interpreting Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, viewers experienced firsthand the terrifying consequences that result when man, the creature, tries to assume the role of God, the creator. Early in the movie one of the characters, Dr. Ian Malcolm, warns of the dangers inherent in venture capitalist John Hammond’s unprecedented experiment:
Malcolm: "The lack of humility before nature that’s been displayed here staggers me…. Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force ever seen on this planet. But you wield it like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun…. Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should!"
Hammond: "I don’t understand this Luddite attitude, especially from a scientist. How could we stand in the light of discovery and not act?"
Recent reports of an unprecedented development in gene therapy indicate that humility before the mysterious and awesome power of nature is a lesson mankind has yet to learn. Like Crichton’s Hammond, the scientific community seems unable to resist the Siren song of "discovery," even when the future of humanity may well be at stake.
The field of genetics has been viewed as the last frontier of biological science, and with good reason. Unlike other forms of medicine that are applied at the individual level―e.g., mending an artery, fashioning a skin graft, or removing a tumor―genetics involves manipulation of the very building blocks of life. Manipulation of genetic material can affect not only individuals, but generations yet to come. That’s why some scientists are celebrating after successfully replacing "faulty" genetic material of one female monkey with genetic material from another female monkey to produce several apparently healthy offspring from the genetically altered eggs. Many in the field are excited at the prospect of using this technology to help women with genetic maladies produce healthy children―despite "a host of safety, legal, ethical and social questions" that should give them pause.
Unlike other forms of gene therapy, this new technology is unique in that it involves irrevocable changes in the genetic "germ line;" i.e. permanent changes in the genetic makeup that will be passed down the line of offspring and eventually spread through the wider gene pool. Proponents of implementing this technology with human beings admit they have no way of predicting how future generations may be impacted by this kind of genetic manipulation but insist that we must take the chance because of the possibility of eliminating inherited defects and diseases.
It is easy to understand the altruistic impulse that drives many scientists to push the limits in pursuit of eradicating diseases and disabilities; but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Scientists and society must weigh the potential benefits of any given scientific "advance" against the costs of any unintended consequences. If we allow ourselves to be guided solely by our passion to break barriers and our irrepressible desire to play God, we could end up the authors of immeasurable damage to the whole human race.
Thousands of years of knowledge and discovery have illuminated much, but when push comes to shove doctors and scientists still wonder at the miraculous poetry and precision on display in the workings of life on earth. Of course, things sometimes go wrong. Nature does not always work the way we would like; but considering the vast complexity of the natural world, it is amazing that nature malfunctions as infrequently as it does.
True to our nature, however, mostly good is not good enough. Human beings desire perfection on this earth. We reject the Christian understanding of sin and fallenness as inescapable features of the human condition (manifested in part by our physical imperfection and frailty) and resort to the use of science as our instrument of omnipotence. Following Margaret Sanger in the early 20th century, for a time we believed that we could breed imperfection out of the human race by controlling who could and could not procreate. Adolf Hitler extended the theory of eugenics to its atrocious conclusion with his holocaust of 11 million Jews, Poles, Catholics, Christians, gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, Communists, and others. In the early to mid-20th century, patients with psychological and mental disorders became experimental fodder for doctors convinced that lobotomy was the solution for ailments now treatable through therapy and medication.
Today our methods of playing God are more subtle, but no less inhumane. With our righteous defense of a woman’s "right to choose" and an individual’s "right to die," we assume the divine mantle of Creation and Destruction. With our embrace of bioethicists like Peter Singer―who defines personhood according to a utilitarian "quality-of-life" criteria that does not recognize the humanity of the unborn, the disabled, the diseased, or the infirm―we endeavor to remake nature in our own vain image.
So it is with genetic technology. When wielded proudly, unconstrained by humility and a sense of our place in the natural order, it represents a grave danger. Whether you call it the Law of Unintended Consequences or Murphy’s Law, experience demonstrates that if something can go wrong it usually will―despite the best laid plans and the best of intentions. This may be of little consequence when applied to the mundane decisions of daily life, but when we are talking about the use of a technology that could irrevocably alter the human species, shouldn’t we ask whether some risks are worth taking?
We can only hope that the decision makers―the scientists and financiers of this research and the lawmakers that allow it―take their responsibilities to the rest of us seriously.
The future of humankind depends on it.