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Evolution and Transcendence – Gambling our Path to Deity

autor:   24 August 2018   

As you walk into your local supermarket, you see a line of angry people rioting in the parking lot. They are carrying signs that read “I am not a science experiment” or “say no to frankenfoods,” and they ask you to sign a petition against GMOs. As you recall, the fight against GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, has been ongoing for decades now. Yet you wonder how these ethical avangards are still protesting after the FDA has already integrated genetically modified foods into mainstream society. Shouldn’t this debate be settled by now?

In fact, we as a society have not been able to reach a definitive conclusion on the ethics of this subject, and unfortunately there is no time left to do so. In today’s world, our technological and scientific advancements exponentially surpass our ability to linger on the ethics of such old technology like genetically modified foods. While a group of activists argue against animal cruelty, a puppy is born in a lab. This is no ordinary puppy, since his embryo was genetically modified to make him the most muscular puppy in the history of the world. While a group of lobbyists attempts to impede the progression of GMO research, a biohacker injects himself with a syringe in his bicep, genetically modifying his own strength. Yet he does not do this in a lab; he does it in his own home. These are no longer just fairytales, but real events. As technological advancements quickly approach the speed of light, the masses remain completely unaware of what is real and what is science fiction. Our philosophers and ethical pilgrims, who are guided by their moral compass, have been lost in the relentless storm of biomedical advancements, where each new discovery hits them like a menacing wave from above.

Therefore, I will attempt to steer away from the storm and focus on one very specific issue. An ethical dilemma so great, that its impact can either wash us ashore or sink us into the depths: genetically modifying humans. As much as we believe ourselves to be compassionate beings, the issues of genetically modifying foods and animals do not really impact our daily lives (although some would argue otherwise, overwhelming evidence shows that genetically modified foods are not an imminent threat (Smith) ). Therefore, the answers to these issues don’t directly concern us. Human genetic engineering, on the other hand, can truly lead to an apocalyptic scenario for our species, which is why we must determine the biological and socio economic factors that impact the ethics of this issue. What do we have to gain and what do we have to lose by using this technology? Most importantly, where do we try to find a silver lining and where do we draw the line? In order to sort through all the questions that arise and their complexities, we must address the benefits of human genetic engineering and then our current concerns. Although
we have a tendency to turn such issues into dichotomies and take a firm stance on one side or the other, we must realize that no amount of national or international regulation can completely halt the progress which is fed by human curiosity. Therefore, this essay will not focus on whether human genetic engineering should be legal or not, but it will focus on what regulations we should impose on it in order to maximize its benefits while simultaneously preventing our species from going extinct.

One of the biggest benefits of genetic engineering is its gigantic impact on treating and curing fatal diseases. Since the FDA endorsed a genetically engineered insulin product for human consumption in 1982 (Shubrook), vastly more research has been approved in this area, and the positive results we have been receiving are astonishing. In 2015, a group of Japanese scientists genetically engineered five human genes that did not have a clear association with
colorectal cancer, and proved that genetic irregularities in those genes certainly cause the formation of tumors. The scientists reported that “Organoids engineered to express all five mutations grew independently of niche factors in vitro, and they formed tumors after implantation under the kidney subcapsule in mice” (Matano). This experiment helped us definitively link these genes to colorectal cancer, and in the future we will be able to genetically screen for any abnormalities in embryos or even fix such abnormalities in fully grown humans. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With one of our current genetic engineering technologies called CRISPR, we will soon be able to cure some of the deadliest viral infections known to man. In order for a virus to thrive in its host for longer periods of the host’s lifetime or even for generations, it only weakens its host but does not kill it. The virus embeds itself in the host’s DNA sequence and remains dormant. This threat created a great paradox in our minds for a long time, since we cannot remove the virus without destroying our own cells. Thankfully, we have recently discovered a bacterial defense mechanism against viruses called the CRISPR/Cas9 complex that can. This complex is able to identify certain DNA sequences and cut or add them at a certain location. This is the most precise tool we have, and it can be used to accurately cut out the viral DNA from your cells without hurting the rest of the cell. Recent testing has been able to accomplish just that with HIV.

At the Florida International University, a group of researchers used this new technology to further investigate possible cures for the virus in 2017. They focused on a “key component” of the CRISPR technology called “guide RNAs (gRNAs) which determine specific sequence targeting of DNAs. This study established a novel, simple and quick screening method to identify gRNA candidates for targeting HIV provirus in astrocytes . . . Various gRNAs were
screened for their efficiencies against HIV provirus in these cells . . . HIV provirus gene-editing were confirmed by cell genomic DNA PCR and fluorescent marker expression analysis” (Huang). These scientists were able to confirm that the signal sequence they chose could identify the HIV viral DNA embedded in our genome, which means that it can be removed through the CRISPR gene editing method. This research’s significance is absolutely astounding, since our past HIV research has been completely futile in our fight against the virus. Now we have found a molecular complex that can potentially be a complete cure. Ethically speaking, we have a duty to prevent millions of people from dying of an incurable disease if we know how to treat it. From a medical standpoint, human genetic engineering is not only something we should accept, but it is something that we should strongly embrace and use in our fight for survival, since HIV is only one of many examples of deadly diseases that can be cured through genetic engineering. Once we can eradicate HIV, the same principles can be applied to cure influenza, rabies, HSV (commonly known as herpes), and any other incurable infection caused by viruses.

Although our ability to control the biological code of life can be a blessing, its misuse can destroy our species. As we start to asses the dangers of genetic engineering on humans, we must first establish whether playing god will affect the survival of our species from a biological perspective. A large current concern is creating a very narrow gene pool through genetic engineering, which could lead to natural disadvantages due to low variability in the opulation. Such a disadvantage is increasing our susceptibility to epidemies. If our resistance genes are not varied, then one super virus could wipe out all of humanity. Russell Powell, a philosopher from the Boston University, addresses this popular concern in his article “Evolutionary Biological Implications of Human Genetic Engineering.” He summarizes an argument provided by opponents of genetic engineering, in which they recall past natural catastrophes that took place due to narrow gene pools in populations. One such example is the Irish potato famine, which was caused by low genetic variability in the crops. This narrow gene pool affected the species’ immunity, and lead to a single disease eradicating the entire harvest nationwide. Critics of our current gene editing technology would reason that “if the widespread cloning of potato varieties . . . could result in ecological catastrophe, why should the same lessons not apply equally to human beings” (Powell)? Essentially, they worry that if we can pick and choose what traits we find beneficial, then we will share the same fate as the potatoes.

This argument is frightening even in its simplicity, yet Powell finds it to be a banal and exposes its fallacies. He argues that human genetic engineering in general would not have any impact on our immunity, since the resistance genes we have make up a very small portion of our genome. Therefore, we can easily regulate their variability in society. He proposes a societal roadmap for our future use of human genetic engineering, where “a carefully monitored [genetic engineering] regime can substantially reduce the risks of human biological monoculture. By combining [genetic engineering] with established methods of disease control, we can overcome many of the physiological and moral obstacles that confront the natural origination, spread, and fixation of disease-resistant variation” (Powell). Powell agrees that altering the small sequence of our genome that codes for the human immune system could potentially lead to a catastrophe, which is why we should make sure to regulate it.

When it comes to the rest of our genome though, he argues that maintaining our genetic variability through strict regulation would not be necessary due to the mating benefits that variability provides. “Although there is some evidence that people are attracted to traits whose values fall close to the arithmetic mean,” he states, “conformity to the morphological or behavioral status quo can also have negative reproductive consequences. A wide range of
animals show an affinity for rare phenotypes in their mating decisions” (Powell). If we narrow our genetic variability too much and appropriate the same facial or body traits, the genetic scales would naturally tip because uniqueness is something we value in our partners. This means we would have no reason to excessively narrow our gene pool, especially since most traits which we want to change have to do with appearance or personality. Even if we did attempt to do so, the genetic pool would still increase organically due to our natural attraction to those who do not
conform. In conclusion, low genetic variability is not an issue that can endanger our species since it would not be likely to occur in the first place, but also because we could regulate the variability of certain genes in our population if necessary. Therefore, human genetic engineering poses no threat to our species’ evolution if we make sure to maintain the variability of our genes that code for the human immune system. Over time, more such regulations on variability of different genes can be instituted to prevent unwanted “mainstream” societal assimilation, but those are not crucial to our species’ survival.

Even though human genetic engineering might be safe from a purely biological standpoint, a more prominent fear of extinction stems from how our society will react to these technological changes. A widespread concern on how to handle “designer babies” has inspired many authors, philosophers, and scientists to describe the inevitable dystopia which it would lead to, and some even predict that it could cause outright violent conflict between social classes. In order to fully comprehend these fears, we have to first understand what “designer babies” are. Currently, embryos and fetuses can be genetically engineered to have various traits that their parents desire them to have, or that are considered desirable in our society. This means that parents can now “design” their babies, and as we learn more about our genome and advance our technology, the potential to how much we can change our children’s genetic makeup is limitless. Although this is similar to our last concern, it is not a subject that is approached from an evolutionary standpoint; it is an argument based on the prediction that this technology will widen the gap between our socio economic classes, which would lead to an extremely elitist society and even segregation. As we examine the history of modern humans, it becomes blatantly obvious that “ many people have sought out the ideal of perfecting their population: infanticide in Sparta during the Hellenistic era; compulsory sterilization in the 1920s in the United States; and the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust in the 1940s in Europe. The goal of alleged perfection leaves many hesitant to repeat the mistakes of our past” (Melillo). Even though human genetic engineering does not attempt to improve people’s quality of life through horrendous actions such as genocides or sterilization, the idea that it might lead to the creation of a superior class of humans is enough to cause global panic.

Yet the possibility of designer babies has changed the lives of many parents, bringing new found hope to their families. Due to genetic predispositions, some couples would rather not have children than to gamble their babies’ quality of life. Other parents have to stand by idly as they watch their child suffer from a fatal disease, which can now be easily prevented through the use of embryonic genetic engineering. Therefore, we cannot completely give up on designer babies, but we also cannot allow this technology to be integrated into mainstream society without imposing certain limitations on it.

When faced with this moral dilemma, Tara Melillo published an essay in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. She presented ways in which we may be able to institute a functioning system that can satisfy our desire for the implementation of designer babies and the research that comes with it, while also preventing a sociological disaster. As she clearly points out in her essay, international regulation and even national regulation in the United States is very ambiguous. Furthermore, the major countries which possess advanced genetic engineering technology such as the USA, UK, and China have instituted very different laws on the subject. Therefore, the use of genetic engineering and designer babies cannot be deemed safe until we can agree on international regulation that is considered ethical by all. Fortunately, we have been making progress towards such a global understanding. After the atrocities caused during the Holocaust, “ Thirty-seven countries, including China, the United Kingdom, and the United States, consequently established the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) . . . Nearly fifty years later, with the publicized emergence of genetic research, UNESCO adopted The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights on November 11, 1997” (Melillo). This was our first attempt to keep our genetic engineering technology in check, yet it was not able to do much more than establish a precedent. Since we had no idea how powerful this technology could become in 1997, the agreement contained very loose definitions and regulations.

In this Universal Declaration, the only clause which could apply to genetic engineering is Article 11, which states that “Practices which are contrary to human dignity, such as Reproductive cloning of human beings, shall not be permitted” (Melillo). Melillo criticizes this article’s attempt to ban “undefined ‘practices’ if they ‘are contrary to human dignity’ “ (Melillo), because human dignity is an extremely subjective principle in the eyes of the law. Although she
is unhappy with our current policy, she also claims that the only solution to the designer baby problem is to heavily improve the wording of this Declaration. Melillo believes that “the non-binding nature of declarations, and the ease in their adoption and revision . . . provides flexibility to modify the declaration. This solution ensures that ethical obligations will not unnecessarily hinder science, but also that the international research community will not take them lightly. Relying on soft law ensures that the international consensus on gene editing can adapt as researchers better understand the technology” (Melillo). It is crucial that the United Nations adapts this treaty to match our current scientific progress. As I have stated before, our ethical concerns are miles behind our technological advancements, and this treaty is a very clear exemplar. Melillo views this international law as the only long-lasting solution to our designer baby problem, yet her essay lacks specific guidelines as to how to improve it.

Therefore, I will suggest an immediate course of action that is without a doubt sociologically moral and theoretically should satisfy everyone. First of all, I will consider the legality of designer baby research, not its implementation. As Confucius once stated, “success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.” If we do not begin to conduct research on this topic right now, then we will surely misuse this technology. Therefore, I strongly vouch for the legalization of genetic engineering on human embryos. This might sound like an outrageous statement, but it is one that is in agreement with the world’s scientific community. In 2015, the most acknowledged scientists met at an International Summit on Gene Editing. Their views differed greatly, but they were able to reach an agreement which they deemed completely ethical. They “endorsed the use of CRISPR-Cas9 to alter ‘DNA sequences of human eggs, sperm, or embryos’ but did not recommend the implantation of embryos through in vitro fertilization ‘because of ongoing safety concerns and a lack of societal consensus’ (Melillo). Simply put, they acknowledged that research on human cells is absolutely necessary, but that we should not allow these genetically engineered cells to be artificially inseminated or implanted. This way, we can prepare for when designer babies will be an unavoidable reality.

Unlike the committee, I believe that we are ready to take things one step further. As previously mentioned, countless families must live with the pain of watching their children die of a genetic disorder. Therefore, I find it to be our ethical duty to do something about it. Genetic diseases can vary in severity, and many are not lethal, but I see no possible argument against saving the lives of children who would otherwise suffer from terminal illnesses. It is my belief that we are ready to start implementing the idea of “designer babies,” but not in its traditional sense. Let us imagine a couple with the misfortune of carrying the HIV virus. This couple would never be able to have a traditional family, since the virus would surely be transmitted to their child. Yet through genetic engineering, removing the viral DNA from the baby’s embryo would be a simple task. I am not advocating for any genetic enhancements, but for a treatment that could only improve the children’s unnecessarily short lifespan and their quality of life. This leads us to a very simple ideology, that can be transcribed into law by those who have more experience than myself: We need to legalize human genetic engineering of embryos as long as it cures terminal disease only. As further research occurs, we can edit this clause to include non terminal illnesses, and maybe even more complex mutations once they are proven to be ethically and experimentally safe in the future. For now, the bottom line is that the Universal Declaration should allow genetic engineering of fatal traits, and it should encourage further cellular research which should not translate into practice until it is definitively proven to be safe.

Although these pros and cons seem to be independent of each other, they each represent a brick in the great wall of our ethical dilemma. By studying how they build onto each other, we can better understand how to incorporate gene editing into our society. We now know that human genetic engineering is necessary in the medical field, since it allows us to treat/cure dangerous diseases such as cancer and HIV that have killed millions of people. We also know that it is crucial to create regulations that preserve our genetic variability for some select genes such as those that code for immunity. Such regulations are not necessary for most synthetic mutations in the rest of the genome though, since most mutations will not impact our evolutionary development due to the formation of a natural genomic balance. Finally, it becomes clear that we would not benefit from harvesting the full potential of this technology just yet. We need to begin integrating it into our society slowly and strictly regulate its progression on a
global level. A beneficial and ethical first step would be using it to cure fatal diseases and continuing our research on it to further understand its potential. Just like Einstein’s nuclear power, this technology has the capacity to end all our problems or end us all. The great German scientist later contemplated on the uses of his technology, and said that “the release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.” Like any revolutionary scientific advancement, genetic engineering is a tool wielded by none other than us, so it is our responsibility to thread carefully. One day, our species may transcend its biological limitations and rise as gods in the eyes of other beings, but that is only possible if we prove ourselves in the fight against the titans—ignorance, selfishness, and greed.

Citations

Huang, Zaohua, and Madahavan Nair. “A CRISPR/Cas9 Guidance RNA Screen Platform for HIV Provirus Disruption and HIV/AIDS Gene Therapy in Astrocytes.” Nature New, Nature Publishing Group, 20 July 2017, www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-06269-x

Matano, Mami, et al. “Modeling Colorectal Cancer using CRISPR-Cas9-Mediated Engineering of Human Intestinal Organoids.” Nature medicine 21.3 (2015): 256-62. ProQuest. Web. 7 June 2018.

Melillo, Tara R. “Gene editing and the rise of designer babies.” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law , May 2017, p. 757+. Expanded Academic ASAP, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/apps/doc/A498943381/EAIM?u=lom_umichanna&sid=EAIM&xid=58fd50e1. Accessed 21 June 2018.

Powell, Russell. “Evolutionary Biological Implications of Human Genetic Engineering | The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic , Oxford University Press, 25 Feb. 2010, academic.oup.com/jmp/article/37/3/204/919850.

Shubrook, Jay, et al. “Insulin: A Primer.” AHC Media – Continuing Medical Education Publishing, www.ahcmedia.com/articles/134476-insulin-a-primer.

Smith, Nicole. “The Medical, Social and Economic Benefits of Genetic Engineering – Page 2.” Article Myriad, www.articlemyriad.com/medical-social-economic-benefits-genetic-engineering/2/.



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