Kirk Versus the Therminator
Kirk versus the Terminator
Star Trek predicted a war between genetically modified humans and their lesser, unmodified cousins. Well, we saw where that led. Kirk kicked Khan's butt twice. Babylon 5 predicted a war between the telepaths, who were genetically modified by the Vorlons in order to combat the Shadows, and their lesser, unmodified cousins, the mundanes. An Outbreak of a genetically designed disease is narrowly averted by either Dustin Hoffman or Milla Jovovich. Jurassic Park turns into a Pirates of the Caribbean ride in which the pirates get off the boats and eat the tourists. Science fiction, which often has very unscientific leanings, seems to regard genetic manipulation on any scale with great suspicion. Now, this could be the banal meme of the Frankenstein tendency of Hollywood to simplify and stuff every science fiction theme into the idea that "there are things man is not supposed to know." On the other hand, science fiction examines the hard ethical problems we face today and seeks to understand the ethical and social significance of these ideas. Most impressively, it seems that science fiction firmly believes that Genetic manipulation of living and almost living organisms is dangerous beyond our ability to wisely control.
The process of genetic manipulation has already given us tremendous advances. We now have glow-in-the-dark pigs with tissue that can be used in human surgery. We have corn and wheat strains that can resist common crop diseases and thrive on less water. We have techniques that can cure threatening illnesses and malformations. And the hopes for further developments are staggering. Think of stopping the aging clock at 29. Think of nanobots that can clean out arteries. Think of genetically modified viruses that can attack specific cancers. The science of genetic engineering is still in its infancy, but the possibilities are staggering.
So, why does the European Union refuse to import cheaper genetically modified tomatoes? Why is President Bush calling for a containment of stem cell research? Why does the scientific community approach the rogue experiments on mammalian genetic engineering with such animosity and suspicion? Why does no reputable scientist think that human cloning of organs might be a good idea? There are twin answers that are the languages on this Rosetta Stone of genetics: morality and safety.
The moral issues behind genetic engineering are the same ones that plague Dr. Bashir of Star Trek and Lyta Alexander of Babylon 5. Genetically engineering wheat that can be grown in the arid climate of Africa is no problem for these thinkers, but when it comes to playing with humans, then the problems become philosophically sticky. Consider President Bush's objection to unregulated stem cell research. Where do we get the stem cells? Most likely from aborted fetuses. But can we allow the harvesting of baby parts? Isn't that as heinous as the present Chinese government's practice of harvesting organs from prisoners against their will? The cloning of genetic material is just as bad, for it ignores the possibility that a cloned human is a product rather than a person. And genetically modifying a baby for cosmetic or enhancement purposes is an effort to redefine humanity and relegates unmodified babies to a second class citizenship, thereby creating a caste system seen in films like Gattaca.
The safety issues are just as thorny. The European Union's objection to genetically modified food is a product of the overblown fear that eating genetically modified food may have unseen effects that do not show up easily or rapidly. But planting genetically engineered crops may have an even more drastic dark side. Monsanto, a leader in genetically modifying plants, has developed what they call the Terminator Project. This is perhaps a very poor choice for a name, but regardless of the name's connection to rampaging robots, the Terminator Project has real dangers. To protect its patents and to ensure the continued purchase of its genetically modified seeds, Monsanto has placed a genetic code into the plants so that its seeds are infertile. Corn can be planted and eaten safely, but the corn cannot be used to plant again. This ensures that users of this corn strain have to come back year after year to buy more seed.
The problem with the Terminator Project stems from three directions. First, farmers in third world countries that would be dependent on such drought-resistant crops depend heavily on being able to re-plant from collected seed. This technique threatens their livelihood at the expense of corporate profits. But that is purely ethical. The other two threats are much more severe and concrete. Agronomists predict that pollen from the terminator crops may be spread to other non-terminator crops, diminishing future yields as farmers harvest these contaminated crops. There is also a tendency toward "genetic drift." A recessive gene like the terminator gene might drift from wheat to other grass plants. This could signal the extinction of entire species of plants, which would affect the ecosystems disastrously. Especially considering the world's dependence on just a few strains of wheat, such extinctions could be devastating.
Are humans capable of handling advanced technology. Well, it is true that man has never invented a weapon that wasn't eventually used to kill people, no matter how terrible or powerful. Remember that Joseph Nobel invented dynamite to end war, because he theorized that it would make war to horrible to even consider. Pope Gregory said the same thing about the crossbow. As we continue to progress in our understanding of the powerful forces of genetic engineering, it is critical that we apply to it not only our best scientific talent, but our greatest ethical thinkers.