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
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
[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
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
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.
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always
been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such
material available in our efforts to advance understanding of
biotechnology and public policy issues. We believe this constitutes a
'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section
107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section
107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those
who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included
information for research and educational purposes. For more information
go to: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107. If you wish to use
copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go
beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.