Synthetic biology is the rapidly developing field devoted to engineering life from the ground up. It has recently generated headlines about startling applications such as the effort to artificially construct a living bacterium, molecule by molecule. But one of its leading practitioners doesn’t think the engineering of life will stop there. Stanford’ University’s Drew Endy recently told The New Yorker:
“What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring? Think about what happens when you really can print the genome of your offspring. You could start with your own sequence, of course, and mash it up with your partner, or as many partners as you like.”
Synthetic biology is just one of a set of powerful emerging technologies challenging efforts toward environmental sustainability, human health, and social justice. The on-going controversies surrounding genetically-modified crops are just the beginning. Biotech companies are now deploying cloned and genetically modified farm animals.
Nanotechnology, or manufacturing at the atomic scale, proposes to remake the world “from the bottom-up” and simple forms of nanotechnology are already in use in over a thousand consumer products, despite a dearth of safety studies. Soon, neural interfaces may expand and alter cognitive processes. And some human reproductive and genetic biotechnologies are already paving the way for “designer babies.”
These technologies are not just “emerging” – they’re also “converging.” They often mutually reinforce each other and blend together at the levels of cells, genes, and molecules. And while many of the applications being developed or envisioned are likely to be beneficial, others come with significant environmental and social risks that have yet to be confronted.
Some applications could radically transform the global economy, our natural environment, and human nature itself. Drew Endy’s comment, for example, suggests how easily projects to engineer bacteria for the production of useful chemicals can slide into profoundly dangerous efforts to redesign future children and generations. In this view, living organisms and non-living matter are effectively indistinguishable, and are proper subjects for deliberate modification of any sort.
Environmentalists are in a position to play a critically important role in determining how these technologies are ultimately developed, used and regulated. Those of us concerned with protecting the natural world and its biological riches have been grappling for decades with issues involving the technical manipulation of the natural world, and can bring the lessons we have learned to bear on these emerging technologies.
One key environmental lesson, of course, is the need for precaution in the face of powerful new technologies. Another is the conviction that they are appropriate subject matter for public policy, and should be subject to democratic and accountable governance – especially when they can radically alter the natural and social world, damage human health, and exacerbate inequalities.
Human Genetic and Reproductive Technologies
This article focuses on human reproductive and genetic technologies, though much of its analysis is applicable to nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and other domains of emerging technical innovation. Some new and emerging applications of these human biotechnologies are worthy of enthusiastic support; others hold both promise and challenge, and should be handled with care.
For example, a wave of direct-to-consumer genetic tests claim to offer information ranging from the frivolous (Do you have the gene for soft ear wax?) to the profound (Do you have genes for an untreatable, fatal illness?). Matters of privacy, accuracy, and appropriate counseling need to be addressed by robust policy.
Other human biotechnologies require even more careful scrutiny. Most disturbing are techniques - current and future - to influence and potentially “seize control” of human evolution. A small but disturbing number of influential figures advocate the use of genetic and reproductive technologies to engineer the traits of future children, in ways that would then be passed on to all subsequent generations.
Of course, this is not modern society’s first effort at influencing the human gene pool. Programs in Nazi Germany to sterilize and ultimately to murder those deemed undesirable are well-known. Fewer people are aware that the movement for eugenics - literally Greek for “good birth” - was actually launched in the United States and led to tens of thousands of forced sterilizations, a practice endorsed by the US Supreme Court and continued into the 1960s.
Contemporary advocates of a new high-tech, market-driven eugenics based on genetic and reproductive technologies acknowledge that it would likely exacerbate social inequality. Princeton biologist Lee Silver writes in Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World that after some generations of inheritable genetic enhancement, “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…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.” This is not issued as a warning; Silver believes not only that this future is inevitable, but that it should be embraced.
These kinds of applications represent a profound challenge to foundational environmental values. Some techno-enthusiasts suggest that we should renounce the natural world altogether and explicitly reject a precautionary sensibility. The environmental community has a deep interest in confronting these challenges, and can play a key role in meeting them.
If these emerging and converging technologies are to be used and regulated wisely, we must approach them with the care and sensibility that environmentalists have developed for other powerful technologies: with precaution and careful forethought about consequences; with health, human rights, and sustainability firmly in mind; and with the conviction that democratic participation in shaping these technologies and democratic oversight of their use is justified and urgently needed.
The good news is that policies that encourage responsible uses and discourage misuses of human genetic and reproductive technologies are not only feasible, but have already been successfully implemented in many jurisdictions. Only a few applications - notably reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification - need to be removed completely from the table; this has been done in nearly 50 countries to date. Several international bodies, including the Council of Europe and UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee have also taken strong stands against these applications.
A number of countries have adopted public policies tackling a broader range of reproductive and genetic technologies, so that they can be used appropriately and regulated responsibly. The most comprehensive models are Canada's Assisted Human Reproduction Act and the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. Each establishes a government agency that licenses and monitors research and commercial facilities that work with human embryos. Both were preceded by extensive and robust public engagement and consultation methods, which are also used in the agencies’ continuing work.
Unfortunately, the United States has neither put policy in place nor provided vehicles for public involvement. We have no federal laws addressing reproductive cloning or inheritable genetic modification. We have no enforceable rules to prevent future “OctoMoms” or programs like the one recently advertised by a Los Angeles fertility clinic to select the hair, eye, and skin color of future children.
Thinkers, Advocates, and Organizations
In order to be effective, public policies need to be accompanied by widespread and robust understanding of the need for accountability and responsible oversight. A spectrum of voices is providing the intellectual foundation and pragmatic plans for a cautionary approach to powerful technologies.
Jurgen Habermas, one of the most influential living philosophers, takes on these matters in The Future of Human Nature. Political philosopher Michael Sandel addresses them in The Case Against Perfection and in his popular Harvard University course on justice. He notes that, “It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment.”
A number of environmentalists have also become deeply involved in the issues. Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature was the first sustained popular warning about climate change, explores the intrinsic connections between the inadvertent technological transformation of the earth’s climate and the prospect of a deliberate technological manipulation of human nature in Enough, subtitled in the United Kingdom Genetic Engineering and the End of Human Nature.
Other perspectives strengthen the case for a precautionary approach to these powerful emerging technologies. Given their history as targets, people of color and people with disabilities are particularly sensitive to potentially eugenic endeavors. Feminists and women’s health advocates bring another essential perspective, since women’s bodies are the site of experiments in “better” reproduction. Human rights advocates recognize efforts to alter our genome as a path to division and oppression.
Other emerging technologies, especially nanotechnology and synthetic biology, raise more familiar but still urgently pressing issues of potential damage to human health and the environment. The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona Statue University is developing innovative “anticipatory governance” frameworks for powerful technologies in general.
This summer, the Center for Genetics and Society is organizing the first of an annual series of invitational meetings of individuals and organizations working to ensure responsible societal oversight of emerging and converging technologies, with a special focus on human genetic and reproductive technologies. There is widespread agreement in the public and among policy makers that efforts to dramatically intervene in the human genome should be off limits, and that other powerful reproductive and genetic technologies must be brought under effective and accountable oversight. We have a rare window of opportunity to establish understandings and policies that will allow these technologies to be used for beneficial societal purposes, while preventing their use for pernicious applications that could endanger the entire natural world, including plants, animals, humans and ecosystems.
This essay is developed from two webinars hosted by the CGBD Horizons Committee, with presentations by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society and David Guston of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.
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