Medical Technology

Artificial Selection and its Application to Medicine



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Artificial selection may sound like what you may get at a visit to the plastic surgeons, but it is in reality, a far more serious issue and one that has raised several ethical issues in the modern age.

What is selection in the first place? A little history here: Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, otherwise known as the guy who proposed fishes grew feet over the ages, proposed a theory for the development of species as they were. He suggested that the fittest of each type survived, and those which had modifications that were suited to the changing environments had the best chance of survival and hence could live on to reproduce and pass those characteristics down to their offspring. So in essence, nature, or the changing circumstances of the environment, had selected which characteristics in animals survived and which died out. A good example would be how animals with thicker fur coats had chances of survival in the Arctic region, thus those which did not possess that eventually died out, resulting in thick fur coats being a trait of Arctic animals.

Artificial selection then, is the process where humans intervene to ensure the preservation of certain characteristics or genetic material, which otherwise might not have been the case if Mother Nature were the only one to decide. One thing would come to mind at this moment, for most people, "Cloning!". But that future possibility aside, there are many applications of artificial selection already present in the medical arena that can and should be examined.

Imagine a young girl dying of a genetic deficiency. The only chance of a normal life that she has, would be for someone with highly similar genetic coding as her, yet without the deficiency to "lend" her some of their healthy cells so that her body can start producing its own. Artificial selection has been used before, and continues to be used in situations like this. An embryo that best fits the criteria that the little girl needs is selected from amongst dozens of eggs, and then carried to full term and given birth to. The little baby in essence, was artificially selected for his ability to save his older sister.

A flurry of issues arise from such artificial selection. Does the baby lose any worth because his parents had him only to save his older sister? Will the child grow up any less loved because his original function was more of a tool than a being? All this questions, can only be answered by the parents who do have this child and how they subsequently view him. But this essentially brings up the biggest problem that can arise from artificial selection. Designer babies. Imagine row upon row of blue-eyed, blond haired children, stronger than their peers and more beautiful in the eyes of society. How can any normal child compete with these babies, when these babies have already been selected before birth to be better, stronger and more beautiful than them?

Stem cell research has been another controversial area when it comes to application of artificial selection in the medical field. Stem cells are cells that are produced in the early stages of embryo development. The unique thing about them is that they have the capability to develop into almost any kind of human cell possible. Artificial selection allows scientists to select the cells that are best suited to develop to specific organs, and thus herald a solution to many illnesses such as organ failure. This is still highly theoretical however, and still in the experimental stages. "The Island", a popular novel then movie, explored the concept of organ cultivation and organ harvesting, and the possible creation of beings who are little more than skin bags of organs, leading to many ethical objections being raised.

Artificial selection isn't all about crossing the boundaries however, and has been used in the past decades in far more innocuous and highly useful processes. The cultivation of healthy bacteria and its inclusion on health drinks is one of the more innocent uses of artificial selection that has been benefiting humans for years. Other uses include genetic modification of viruses, to imbue them with qualities that are necessary to cure illnesses, yet which the normal cells may be deficient of.

Artificial selection helps speed up the process of developing cures for many illnesses, as well as increasing the odds in the favor of mankind, yet we have to be careful to understand and consider the consequences of our actions before readily applying such a process to any living organism.

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