The study of genetics has always been a contentious issue. In 1978 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harvard Professor Emeritus E. O. Wilson was interrupted in a speech on sociobiology by a protester who poured a bucket of ice water over his head.
Though this was a unique method of criticizing his work, the assault on genetic research has sometimes been like this: passionate, premeditated, but maybe driven by anxiety more than anything else. As a society, we tend to be nervous about knowledge, especially that which concerns the very building blocks of existence. Genetic engineering is exactly the kind of vague, little understood subject that can scare people with its Orwellian implication.
But the latest attempt to prevent 1984 comes from within the scientific field's own ranks. Stuart Newman, a cellular biologist at the New York Medical Center in Valhalla and a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, is afraid that the current technology has advanced far enough to make possible the creation of new species from human and animal DNA. He fears that such creatures would be nearly human but created for and sold into scientific slavery.
To prevent this, Newman has applied for a patent on a process to create human/animal genetically mixed creatures (chimeras) in order to prevent anyone else from pursuing such research. He also hopes to provoke a debate on the sanctity of life and where society should draw the line on genetic research.
And so he has. Several nights ago on ABC Evening News, an in-depth "Closer Look" segment was devoted to Newman's patent. The report was largely one-sided (more 1984 than 1998), featuring the fears and rants of ethicist and frequent scientific critic Jeremy Rifkin, who charged that society threatens to "play God" by creating human chimerical animals.
The ABC news story also featured intentionally startling and disturbing "artist's renderings" of what human animal combinations might look like, including an image of one creature with a human face and ape-like body that looks out at us with a pained expression from behind the bars of a cage.
This is gross science fiction sensationalism, but Newman has framed the debate as one of ideological extremes and in doing so has done a great disservice to a fair discussion and an important scientific inquiry. For one thing, Newman and other critics do not weigh heavily enough the possible benefits that could result from inter-species genetic manipulation.
In fact, important patents already exist on some forms of human/animal genetic combinations. According to CNN, mice, rabbits, sheep and cows have all been the recipients of human genes, which have been used for important medical products including alpha anti-trypsion (to treat cystic fibrosis) and lactoferrin (which can bolster the immune system). The potential benefits from further genetic engineering in this area are significant but still remain to be explored.
And this is the fundamental problem of Newman's position. He confuses an important distinction between regulating the result of a scientific inquiry and containing the inquiry itself. When society is concerned about a particular scientific outcome, it has a choice between preventing any research on the subject or only trying to control undesirable outcomes. Newman's position reflects the former approach. By seeking a patent that he will never use or license, New-man threatens to discourage any scientific investigation involving human/animal chimerical organisms.
As a result, any potential medical breakthroughs that could result from an animal which has some human genetic characteristics may be lost. For Newman however, the lost medical advances are balanced by the ethical horror of the alternative as presented by ABC News.
But here is where the focus should be on the regulatory aspect of scientific progress. How intelligent chimerical creatures should be treated is a very real moral dilemma, but it is not necessarily the sole outcome of a scientific study of genetically human/animal beings.
By regulating the production of chimeras as closer study may demand and not abandoning this avenue of scientific pursuit as the spirit of Newman's patent advises, we raise the very distinct possibility of developing a more universally acceptable (and beneficial) middle ground.
Just as few ethicists condemn the use of limited (and phenotypically unnoticeable) numbers of human genes in animals, chimerical creatures with human elements but not intellects should also be more morally acceptable. This is especially true when we consider the likely capacity of such mixed genetics to be a source of important medical benefits. Vaccines and life-saving drugs could be tested, as well as bone marrow and organs used for human transplant.
I admit the notion of human chimeras is still unnerving and worthy of debate, but we must not look at the issue as a slippery slope. Humankind (researchers and the rest of us alike) has always proceeded with some trepidation on genetic research, and caution is usually the rule of thumb. In fact, with the charged morality of the chimera issue, it is highly unlikely that any scientist would try to create a species with near-human intellect and even more inconceivable that they could do so with the hopes of monetary profit that Newman has in mind as motivation.
The debate on animal testing and the definition of humanity are important, but they should be approached with an understanding that scientific progress is both essential and sometimes necessarily unsettling. The prudent course of study on this issue exists within the self-correcting scientific community as a whole and with oversight from joint government entities such as the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy or a specially-appointed commission.
For now, the U.S. Patent Office has the next move, making the difficult decision of where a line might be drawn on "commercial" life forms. But the debate should have begun elsewhere.
Science has not reached the stage where chimerical human organisms could readily be created, but beneficial progress in that area of research could still have continued. The danger now is that researchers might feel they have a permanent roadblock and discontinue their efforts--silenced by one of their own.
Mattias S. Geise '99 is a government concentrator in Leverett House.
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