TCS Daily

Genetic Paradoxes

By Kenneth Silber - June 4, 2003 12:00 AM

Biologist Charles Murtaugh pointed out in a recent TCS article that both sides in the debate over human genetic engineering have tended to assume that science is on the verge of remaking humanity. The debate thus has focused on whether such remaking is good or bad, not whether it's really possible or imminent.

However, as Murtaugh noted, there is ample reason to question the more expansive assumptions about genetic technology's future pace and capacity. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker more recently has argued to similar effect in an article for the Boston Globe. A welcome trend may have begun whereby scientists inject some sobriety and realism into the hyped-up genetic debate.

Still, an anything-is-possible mode of thought continues to overshadow much discussion of genetic technology. For an egregious example of that mindset run amok, see novelist Margaret Atwood's favorable review of Bill McKibben's book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age in the June 12, 2003 New York Review of Books. Atwood actually raises the specter of genetically engineered people who have eyes located in the backs of their heads.

Such fantasies run counter to much scientific understanding about how genes operate. Human physical and psychological traits typically are not simple expressions of one or a few genes. Rather, they involve numerous genes interacting in complex ways with each other and with the environment. But what is remarkable about the anything-is-possible outlook is not just that it is unsupported by science. It is that it flies in the face of what many of its own adherents supposedly believe. In particular, it contradicts the professed worldviews of critics of genetic technology on both left and right.

Conservative critics of genetic technology, such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, tend to emphasize a concern with human dignity. Genetic engineering, they assert, could strip away the important qualities that make us human. This argument sometimes comes with a religious emphasis, and sometimes with a secular one (which is Fukuyama's emphasis). But the underlying assumption either way is that humans are more than just simple automatons driven by genes. If we were such automatons, after all, how could we have much dignity to begin with?

And yet, it is precisely such automatons that would be most readily manipulated by genetic engineering. Genetic engineering's conservative critics seem to believe both that humans are beings of depth and complexity, and that humans can be transformed by science with relative ease. These positions are in considerable tension with each other. Could it be that conservatives who worry about genetic engineering actually regard dignity as an illusion that must be protected from scientific probing?

A similar tension is found on the left. Skepticism toward genetic determinism has been a staple of liberal and leftist thinking for decades. Any notion that human behavior is largely determined by genes has long been denounced as reactionary by left-leaning publications such as the New York Review of Books. An emphasis on genetics has been seen in such circles as a spurious rationale for blocking social reforms or even as evidence of racism.

Margaret Atwood and Bill McKibben probably would not wish to be considered genetic determinists. But it is only if genetic determinism is true - if humans are strongly and predictably controlled by their genes - that the nightmare scenarios of genetic manipulation (and eyes in the back of the head) become plausible. By contrast, if non-genetic factors play a major role in human development and behavior, then genetic engineering is likely not to have such a powerful, transforming role.

The contradictions between assumptions about human nature and about the potential of genetic engineering are most pronounced among opponents of genetic technology. However, technology enthusiasts are in some danger of falling into the same trap. Libertarian dynamists such as Virginia Postrel rightly extol biotech's potential to help individuals improve their lives. But an anything-is-possible view of genetic engineering (which Postrel has avoided) would imply a genetic determinism that jibes poorly with a conception of humans as flexible and dynamic.

In a more far-out reach of the technophile spectrum, proponents of philosophies such as transhumanism celebrate genetic engineering for its potential to transform human nature. But if we humans are genetic automatons whose flawed natures need fixing, then how can we trust ourselves to use such powerful technologies? To answer that question, you may really need a genetically enhanced brain.

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