TCS Daily

Fear Not Biotech

By Kenneth Silber - August 1, 2005 12:00 AM

How nervous should we be about biotechnology and its potential for changing humanity? Critics of biotech, such as Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben, coming from different points on the political spectrum, think we should be plenty worried. They argue that the emerging biotech revolution will lead to dehumanization, inequality and authoritarianism.

Ronald Bailey disagrees, and elaborates his contrasting view in Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books). Bailey, a science journalist and correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, offers a wide-ranging celebration of biotechnology and a rebuttal to the varied "bioconservatives" (as he terms them) who view the field's advances with hostility and alarm.

The book's topics include extended longevity, gene therapy, embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic engineering in agriculture, creating "designer babies," and "changing your own mind" through neuroscience and pharmacology. Bailey makes a generally strong case for biotech's actual and prospective benefits, and adeptly punctures various contentions and claims deployed by biotech's opponents. The argument would have been bolstered, however, by greater acknowledgment that the powerful technologies involved may have some downsides.

On longevity, Bailey discusses how techniques such as manipulation of telomeres (the tips of chromosomes, which seem to play an important role in aging) may add decades to human life spans. Wouldn't that be a good thing? Not according to bioethicist Daniel Callahan, who contends that longer lives, besides bankrupting Social Security and Medicare, would be squandered on golf games (a prospect that may not disturb some people). Bailey points out that longer-lived people would have not only higher retirement ages but vast new opportunities, including for longer-term projects such as ecological restoration and space exploration.

Bailey takes up the cause of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, arguing that early-stage embryos are not even remotely equivalent to people. As for reproductive cloning, Bailey believes it would be unethical but only for the reason that it cannot be done safely at present. As he points out, a clone would share someone else's genes (as do identical twins) but still have a unique brain and experiences. He regards it as implausible that clones would be farmed for their organs or forced into basketball teams of Michael Jordan look-alikes (and they wouldn't necessarily be good players).

In a chapter titled "Hooray for Designer Babies!" Bailey looks forward to future advances allowing not only prevention of genetic diseases but enhancement of children's physical and intellectual abilities. He notes that criticism of that prospect relies on contradictory claims -- that enhancement would create a domineering elite, or that it would make everybody the same. Bailey dismisses concerns that the enhanced children would not have chosen the genes they are given; neither do ordinary children, he notes.

A note of caution is in order, however. Complicated biotech techniques are likely to involve tradeoffs and unintended consequences. For instance, designer babies might be given greater intelligence as defined by IQ tests, but at the expense of some other mental capability that is less easily measured. And while, as Bailey emphasizes, enhanced children may have greater freedom and choices because of their enhancements, these children's lives will also feature a new dimension of parental intervention.

Bailey argues, rightly, that it is crucial to keep government out of decisions as to who gets enhanced and how. But individual decisions empowered by technology can also have troublesome wider consequences, as evidenced by some current-day biomedical methods. In China and India, ultrasound and other techniques have facilitated selecting infants on the basis of sex, such that far more boys are born than girls. Bailey notes that this particular problem has not arisen in the United States. But it is the principle of such unintended effects, rather than the specifics in this case, that should concern us.

Altogether, though, Liberation Biology makes a strong case for the likelihood of better living through biotechnology in the coming decades. The book adds some balance to a debate that has been dominated in recent times by exaggerated risks and overblown fears.



TCS Daily Archives