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The Genome as Commons

Through all the trials and tribulations of human history what binds us in the end is our common humanity
by Tom Athanasiou and Marcy DarnovskyWorldWatch
July 1st, 2002

July/August 2002

The atmosphere. The oceans and fresh waters. The land itself, and the fruits and grains our forebears bred and cultivated upon it. The broadcast spectrum. The attention spans of our children.

Does such a list adequately evoke "the commons," and the stakes we face in trying to save it—both for itself and as the foundation of our common future? Or must we add yet another, more shocking example? Perhaps we must put the human genome itself on this endangered commons list, and note that if this genetic commons too is lost to partition and privatization, if it too becomes the privilege of the affluent, then none of us on either side of the divide can be sure of retaining the "humanity" we like to think we've achieved.

The biotech boosters, of course, don't see things this way. Many of them insist that any conceivable application of human genetic engineering is essential to medical progress, and that the possibilities, no matter how speculative, trump all other considerations. Thus they shrug off the likely outcome of embryo cloning—that it will sooner or later lead to reproductive cloning, and then jump-start both the technologies and justifications of inheritable genetic modification.

Some of them are even enthusiastically promoting "designer babies" and "post-humans" as the next new things. Indeed, the techno-eugenic hard school is now promising that, within a generation, "enhanced" babies will be born with increased resistance to diseases, optimized height and weight, and increased intelligence. Farther off, but within the lifetimes of today's children, they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new bodily forms, extend life expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some actually predict splicing traits from other species into human children: In late 1999, for example, a Ted Koppel/ABC Nightline special on cloning speculated that genetic engineers will eventually design children with "night vision from an owl" and "supersensitive hearing cloned from a dog."

There are dark portents here in profusion, and many of them will seem familiar to environmentalists. But consider first the fundamental point: our patently inadequate ability to protect the resources of the global commons, to do them justice, to make them (in reality as well as in United Nations rhetoric) "the common heritage of humankind." Consider, through this lens, the likely fate of the human genome—the script which unites us as a biological species—as it too goes on the auction block.

And attend to this chilling bit of futurology from Lee Silver, a Princeton professor and self-appointed champion of the new techno-eugenics:


[In a few hundred years] the GenRich—who account for 10 percent of the American population—[will] all carry synthetic genes... All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry [will be] controlled by members of the GenRich class… Naturals [will] work as low-paid service providers or as laborers… [Eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class will become… entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.

Silver's predictions, in case this isn't clear, are not voiced in opposition to a eugenically engineered future. Here and elsewhere, his tone alternates between frank advocacy of a new market-based eugenics and disengaged acceptance of its inevitability.

Is such a future likely? We hope not, and we take some comfort in the possibility that scenarios like these may long remain beyond technical reach. Notwithstanding the flesh-and-blood accomplishments of genetic scientists- glow-in-the-dark rabbits and goats that lactate spider silk-artificial genes and chromosomes may never work as reliably as advertised. Transgenic designer babies may be too ridden with unpredictability or malfunction to ever become a popular option.

Still, both the technological drift and the strength of ideological feeling among proponents compel us to take the prospect of a techno-eugenic future seriously. Some surprisingly influential figures—including controversial celebrities like Nobel laureate James Watson and philosopher-provocateur Peter Singer, as well as mainstream academicians like Daniel Koshland of U.C. Berkeley and John Robertson of the University of Texas—are publicly endorsing visions similar to Silver's.

These boosters frankly acknowledge that designer-baby techniques would be very expensive and that most cloned or genetically "enhanced" children would be born to the well-off. They concede that the technologies of human genetic redesign would therefore significantly exacerbate socio-economic inequality, and they speculate about a future in which a genetic elite acquires the attributes of a separate species. But they do not find in any of these possibilities reason to forego eugenic engineering. In Children of Choice, for example, John Robertson writes that genetic enhancements for the affluent are "simply another instance in which wealth gives advantages."

So ask not if the techno-eugenic agenda will come true anytime soon. Ask instead why it's getting so much air time, and why Silver et. al. have not been taken even mildly to task, either by their scientific colleagues or by liberal and progressive intellectuals who might be expected to muster a bit of angst over such crass eugenic visions.

And they are crass. Note the coarse neoliberalism that underlies Silver's certainty about the eugenic future: "There is no doubt about it," he writes, "whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme." Moreover: "[I]f the cost of reprogenetic technology follows the downward path taken by other advanced technologies like computers and electronics, it could become affordable to the majority of members of the middle class in Western societies... And the already wide gap between wealthy and poor nations could widen further and further with each generation until all common heritage is gone. A severed humanity could very well be the ultimate legacy of unfettered global capitalism."

The techno-eugenic vision carries with it a deep ideological message. It urges us, in case we still harbor vague dreams of human equality and solidarity, to get over them. It tells us that science, once (and sometimes still) the instrument of enlightenment and emancipation, may bequeath us instead a world in which class divisions harden into genetic castes, and that there's not a damn thing we can do about it. The story of an "enhanced" humanity panders to some of the least attractive tendencies of our time: techno-scientific curiosity unbounded by care for social consequence, economic culture in which we cannot draw lines of any kind, hopes for our children wrought into consumerism, deep denial of our own mortality.

This last theme, the one that brings our life expectancies and bodily functions to center stage, is a powerful one. Its driver is medical biotech, and the market niche for it is clearly waiting: All those aging boomers now avidly dropping Viagra and DHEA and Human Growth Hormone are the natural constituency of the techno-eugenicists. Tell them that they'll live longer, and they'll follow you anywhere. As James Watson put it in a conversation about how to convince the public that eugenic manipulation of future children is acceptable, "We can talk principles forever, but what the public actually wants is not to be sick. And if we help them not be sick they'll be on our side."

Watson, unfortunately, is tuned to the zeitgeist of the well-off and the well-funded. Those of us disinclined to embrace eugenic engineering will have to work harder to be heard above the din of wildly exaggerated biomedical claims. It won't be easy, but the bottom line is clear enough: we have to distinguish genetic techniques that are plausible and appropriate from those that are likely to be unsafe, ineffective, unjust, and pernicious.

The history of environmentalism is instructive here. Advocates of ecological sanity have for decades expended oceans of sweat and tears to show the need for caution in the face of powerful new technologies—nuclear power plants, large dams, Green Revolutions. To be sure, the precautionary principle is generally swatted aside by powerful political and economic interests, but many people, and a few courageous policy makers, have accepted its key assumption: that technologies shape lives and societies and thus are appropriate matters for both careful forethought and democratic oversight.

This elementary precautionary lesson, however, is seldom applied to medical technologies. Even those desensitized to the Sirens' song of triumphant technical progress may find themselves dreaming of new therapies, fountains of youth, and genetically-enhanced memories. We may nurse, if only in the backs of our minds, the comforting assurance that this is all moving too quickly to be stopped.

The near-exemption of biomedical technologies from the principles of precaution may help explain the sudden emergence of embryo cloning as a national issue and the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the debate about it: the out-on-a-limb promises of near-term cures (would that Christopher Reeve, a spokesman for therapeutic cloning, could be Superman again); the overblown claims of research breakthroughs (those cloned human embryos? Actually, they stopped dividing at six cells); the loose talk of treating millions of sufferers with "therapeutic" cloning (after, of course, finding the women to "donate" millions of eggs).

Biomedicine's dispensation from the precautionary principle may also shed light on another oddity. The nation's pundits, noting that both pro-choice liberals and conservatives are now voicing caution about embryo cloning, are suddenly fixated on the "strange bedfellows" that make up the anti-cloning lobby. Yet they've entirely overlooked the more disturbing lapses that still characterize so much of the liberal/progressive reaction to the prospect of unrestricted human biotechnology.

What, for example, are we to make of a recent comment (made in an off-the-record meeting of a national progressive organization) that "we don't ban things-bad guys ban things"? What about ozone-depleting chemicals, above-ground nuclear testing, and medical experimentation on inadequately informed women in the global South? And what of a new eugenics based on high-tech reproduction, consumer preferences, and market dynamics? If we don't ban these things, who will?

And what are we to think when a columnist in an intelligent liberal journal like The American Prospect opines that "humans are part of the natural world and all their activities, science, cloning, and otherwise, are therefore hardly unnatural, even if they may be unprecedented." Surely environmentalists have been adequately warned against the naturalistic fallacy and are well aware that appeals to "Nature" can be made to justify anything. So aren't we entitled to a similar level of sophistication from those inclined to see "Luddites" behind every bioengineered bush? Surely even liberals who staunchly maintain their faith in the onward march of science can see the political dangers of conflating categories, of erasing the difference between the products of millions of years of evolution and the products of commerce and fashion.

When liberals throw in their lot with libertarians, there is danger near. The tension between personal liberty and social justice is a necessary one, and should not be collapsed into uncritical support for individual (or corporate!) rights. Commitments to solidarity and fairness must not be allowed to wither and die. The right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is very different than the "right" to modify the genetic makeup of future children. Biomedical researchers and fertility doctors have no "right" to develop species-altering technologies in their petri dishes. And despite the eagerness of venture capitalists and the willingness of the patent office, they certainly have no "right" to send them out into the world.

Which brings us back to the rich and the poor, and their respective claims on the various global commons. Any serious vision of the future must address this issue, and clearly. Remember Aldous Huxley's Brave New World? It was, first of all, a world of caste. All the rest—the meaningless drug-optimized sex, the soma, the feelies, even the bottled babies—was secondary, just more bricks in the wall.

The emerging human genetic and reproductive technologies are a turning point. Unless we harness our moral intelligence and political will to shape them, they will conform to the existing social divides and to the inadequacies of our democracy, and they will exacerbate both. Until the designer babies and "post-humans" begin to populate the planet, until we allow inequality to be inscribed in the human genome, we're all in this together.


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