The Genetics of Fear

Sci-fi fantasies about the risks of genetic engineering can’t get in the way of life-saving research. A response to Jamie Metzl.

By Henry Greely

Tagged Bioethicstechnology

Jamie Metzl takes the title of his article, “Brave New World War” [Issue #8], from Shakespeare via Aldous Huxley. In The Tempest, Miranda, on seeing more than a handful of people for the first time in her (literally) insular life, exclaims “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” Her father, the once and future Duke of Milan, responds simply, “’Tis new to thee.”

Metzl sees genetic technology as threatening, among others things, “Frankenpeople,” an international arms (and legs) race, and gene wars. This makes for great science fiction. But reality is, as usual, both less novel and more complicated, and the international treaty Metzl proposes is unnecessary and potentially dangerous to human well-being and freedom. Metzl overestimates the power of genetic engineering in humans while ignoring the many other more immediate and beneficial ways of human biological enhancement. His solution is, happily, impracticable, as it could lead to an internationalized version of the Bush Administration’s war on science, a result neither progressive nor wise.

There are two fundamentally flawed assumptions in Metzl’s argument that genetic engineering poses a revolutionary national security problem. First, Metzl greatly overestimates the practical power of genetic engineering. To do successful genetic engineering for a trait–say, protection against malaria or unusual height–we need to know how to insert genes successfully into the developing organism, which genes are responsible for the trait, and whether those genes will have dangerous side effects. We are able to put new or different versions of genes into plants, fruit flies, and rodents only because we are willing to sacrifice thousands of them for each success. In humans, the less complicated task of moving new versions of genes into born people, the hoped-for “gene therapy,” is nearing its 30th anniversary with almost no successes–and with several high-profile, deadly failures.

Even if we could move new genes into people’s DNA safely, we would have to know which versions of genes to move. Which genetic variations give super-vision or constant alertness? We don’t know, and it is hard to see how we could find out, as we cannot find humans now with those traits. We could only, by trial and (dangerous) error, speculate about packages of genetic variations from other animals or from computer-design programs. Not many people are going to sign up to find out.

What about merely giving babies the best traits currently found in humans–the strongest muscles, the highest intelligence? We don’t know the genetic variations responsible for those, either. We know “the genes” (actually, the nonfunctional or dysfunctional genetic variations) that cause about 4,000 genetic diseases, all of them uncommon and most of them vanishingly rare. For common diseases or normal human traits, we know that many of them are affected by genes–as well as by environment and by chance–but the only thing we know with certainty is that untangling the genetics of complex traits is complex. We are likely to be dealing with variations on 40 or 50 genes for many of these traits, none of which contributes, very much, to the result. In short, the idea of genetically engineered super-intelligent people is, for at least the next several decades, clearly fiction.

And even when or if we have untangled that skein, we still would not know what dangers may be caused by a concentration of “good genes.” On their own and in combination, genes have many different and often unpredictable effects. Sticking ten “high intelligence” gene variations into a fertilized egg could produce geniuses–but geniuses who always contract fatal childhood cancers. There is no way to know the effects in humans, good or bad, without trying it out in humans, and we are not good laboratory animals. Even beyond our status as holders of moral and legal rights that must be respected, we have long generation times and complex environmental needs that make truly controlled experiments impossible.

Some will argue that we are only at the beginning of the technology, and who knows what we will be able to do. There is some fairness in that caution; who could have looked at the room-sized basic computers of years ago and seen today’s laptops? But, at the same time, many of the problems discussed above are truly hard. Time may not solve them, and if it does, it will give us plenty of warning.

The second problem with Metzl’s argument is that even if human genetic engineering eventually works, human biological enhancement is not new. Assume genetic engineering can lead to Metzl’s “soldiers who need only an hour of sleep a night, have the eyesight of the best sharpshooter, or possess the endurance of Lance Armstrong.” So what? We already have soldiers who, with no genetic engineering, can fly faster than falcons, see better than eagles, and move heavier weights than elephants–not through genetic engineering, but through airplanes, binoculars, and trucks. Human enhancement in warfare has already swept the battlefield; the genetic possibilities for making war seem small by comparison. No matter what genetic modifications scientists can think up, technology will adapt even faster. Think of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones confronts a huge turbaned man, weaving an intricate series of patterns with a massive sword in preparation for carving up our hero. Jones promptly pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. So much for special human skills. If you want to invest your national security budget in a better military, investing in better weapons makes a lot more sense than highly speculative investments in human genetic engineering.

But if one does want, for whatever reason, to have soldiers enhanced by biology rather than by tools, genetic engineering is, again, a day late and a dollar short. We can already create soldiers who need little sleep, through drugs today and possibly through deep brain stimulation tomorrow. We can give them the eyesight of the best sharpshooter by laser surgery. We can give them endurance
approaching that of Lance Armstrong by performance-enhancing drugs, a strategy already used by some of Armstrong’s rivals. Ultimately, using genetics to obtain the enhanced warrior does not present a special threat.

But even given Metzl’s unrealistic assumptions, his prescription is a bad one. To regulate future human genetic engineering, he suggests a Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty, a proposal similar to one offered in 2002 by bioethics experts George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi (as well as one put forth by Max Mehlman in his 2003 book, Wondergenes). This proposed solution is, happily, not viable. Metzl admits that his treaty “would be incredibly difficult to negotiate.” But that’s an understatement. The same technology he lambasts has beneficial uses–to produce treatments that prevent or alleviate human suffering–and those beneficial uses also hold out the possibility of economic gains for the countries that produce them. His treaty would leave decisions about all these contentious matters to an ongoing panel of “experts and ethicists,” not a group many national governments are likely to trust with such important, and traditionally national, decisions, especially if the need for the treaty is questionable. Getting agreement on an effective treaty in those circumstances would seem impossible.

But assume a treaty with teeth is negotiated–how would it be enforced? Nuclear bombs require large and complicated equipment to produce plutonium or to enrich uranium. Nuclear reactors and banks of thousands of centrifuges are hard to hide, but they have been (and undoubtedly are being) hidden successfully. Human genetic engineering would require, at most, a small lab and an in-vitro fertilization clinic–both cheap, easy, and already in common use. If a country really thought genetic enhancement was the key to its national security, cheating on the treaty would be easy.

Human enhancement does come with some real problems, particularly issues of fairness, safety, and coercion. But those problems can all be addressed in better ways than an international treaty and, in fact, absent the unlikely international arms race, can be addressed at the national or, for the European Union, supra-national level. The externalities caused by a country’s work in human genetics are just not that great.

When not speculating about future speciation events, Metzl seems most worried about fairness–that genetic enhancement would be a way for the rich and powerful to stay both, and to ensure their children’s wealth and power. This is a real issue, today and tomorrow. Fairness in access to life-enhancing activities like good education, adequate nutrition, safe streets, and decent health care need to be among our primary concerns today. But if, against my own
expectation, human genetic enhancement becomes both effective and clinically available, the better policy response would be to assure that it is available to those who want it. This is both more practical and more ethical than trying to ban it. Just because educational opportunities are unequal doesn’t mean we should ban education.

Safety issues can and should be addressed, but as safety issues are for other biomedical technologies. In the United States that largely means through the Food and Drug Administration (though an FDA free from the political and budgetary constraints that have caused it to leave genetic testing, for example, almost totally unregulated). Europe, the United States, and Japan do not have identical safety regimes, but they have proved effective regardless. Why should genetic engineering be any different? And, of course, when coercion is a concern, the regulatory response that deserves primary attention is banning or limiting coercion, not eliminating the object of the coercion.

Some have a deeper concern about human genetic engineering, one Metzl does not expressly name but hints at–and one that is attractive to parts of the left in the United States and elsewhere. It is a concern about the naturalness of genetic engineering, about the need to “preserve” the human genome against its intentional modification by humans (as opposed to its constant and unintentional modification by chance and natural selection). This concern peeks through in Metzl’s apparent but unexplained eagerness to ban human reproductive cloning, even if it were shown to be safe.

But it is neither progressive nor prudent to launch complex crusades without close analysis or to be dazzled into seeing everything new as posing uniquely new problems and requiring dramatic action. Indeed, such arguments, in reproductive cloning and elsewhere, are being made by the “bioconservatives,” centered, in the United States, in President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. This branch of the religious and philosophical right is convinced that biotechnology is dangerous because humans should not tamper with their human natures or their human selves, which were, after all, made in God’s image. The chief spokesman for the bioconservatives, Leon Kass, is famous for propounding the “wisdom of repugnance.”

The parts of the American left–found in both activist groups like Greenpeace or California’s Center for Genetics and Society, as well as in various corners of academia–drawn to arguments against biotechnology are pulled in, I think, by the lure of naturalness. But we need to worry about what–and whom–an emphasis on “the natural” human may exclude. We cannot let “natural” be an important guide to what is “human,” especially when religious fundamentalists and conservative bio-Luddites will be only too eager to provide their definitions of human nature. Progressives must be very wary of allying themselves with a line of argument that was used against freedom for slaves, votes for women, and tolerance for gays and lesbians.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the possibilities for preventing or relieving human suffering that might be stillborn because of these moral concerns. The techniques for first understanding and then modifying human genes do not differ depending on whether the goal is treatment or enhancement. To slow their use for enhancement either means slowing the development of the techniques or understandings or close supervision and regulation of the thousands of laboratories working in this field. This would almost certainly mean slowing treatments. Some of the bioconservatives are not unhappy with that; suffering is importantly human, they believe. I am perfectly willing for competent adult bioconservatives to choose suffering for themselves. But we cannot let them choose to make the rest of us suffer, too. Handing them a chance to regulate genetic engineering on security grounds risks just that.

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Henry Greely , a professor at Stanford Law School, chairs the California Advisory Committee on Human Stem Cell Research and directs Stanford's Center for Law and the Biosciences.

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