Monday, December 17, 2007

The Power We Wield

In case you haven’t been paying attention, we really do live in a Brave New World.

My favorite segment in the ethics classes I teach is our time spent on bioethics. I tell my class at the beginning of the semester that I am going to blow their minds in a few weeks, and sure enough, it is not hard to get stunned reactions out of the unsuspecting students.

Along those lines, comes this story from the Washington Post. For decades now, scientists have been manipulating bits and pieces of DNA for all kinds of reasons (a sizeable portion of the food you buy has been modified for some reason). But now, scientists have the ability to create whole strands of DNA, or create the right combination of chromosomes that when implanted in the right way can “recreate” the host DNA structure.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

What does this mean? As with almost all biotechnologies, it is a double-edged sword. Many of the applications can be harmless, silly, or genuinely helpful. Imagine scientists in their lab coats creating simple “bugs” to do their bidding when stimulated in the right way. The article notes companies that do just that:

LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Imagine that! Your next suit might not mean the discomfiture of sheep somewhere in Ireland. Your next fashion statement might be fabrics woven from the excretions of artificially created bacteria in Tennessee.

But as fate would have it, there are at least two deeply serious problems. The first is frightening on a practical level, and the other is frightening on a more fundamental level.

While the government regulates harmful microbes and bacteria (in the noble goal of avoiding super-bugs, biological Armageddon, and things like that), the regulations do not apply to the DNA structures required to build them. And, as it turns out, you can find instructions on how to create those on the Internet.

ETC is a kind of biotechnology watch-dog group. Their program manager, Jim Thomas, notes, “The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet.”

The more fundamental problem has to do with the meaning of life. Not the kind of “meaning of life” intended when existentialists opine in their angst, but the kind of “meaning of life” that actually defines who and what we are.

Along with a technology that has the power to create completely fabricated and pre-designed life come the looming evils of eugenics. In the case that one is tempted to dismiss the radical realities of large numbers of individuals or governments deciding how people should look when they are born, keep in mind that less than 100 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of forced sterilization for the mentally handicapped. And who needs to recount the eugenic horrors of the Nazi regime? On a more immediate level, advances in biotechnology have lead to a new wave of abortions of children with downs syndrome. It may not produce the same visceral reaction that the Nazis and their genocidal policies receive, but that is eugenics nonetheless.

More than ever before, we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to technological and scientific progress for the sake of it. We have grown comfortable with scientific advancement—after all, its promise and much of its delivery has been to the ease of my life.

We need to listen to those in the public square who call for deep, careful, and even time-consuming thought on what it means to be human, and how these technologies either need to be regulated or simply disallowed.

And in addition to that, we need the Christian church to step up and meet the challenges of our culture. Instead of piddling with postmodern sensibilities and the consumer fancies of the people around us, we need to meet these deep and disturbing realities head-on with all the tools the Church has at its disposal.


The Gyrovague said...

Well said. I am glad you are one of them in the public square going "hold your horses now, lets think about this".

It is mind boggling what the human cell and DNA can make. It is great that we are learning more becuase it reveals more about our creator and how we are truly "fearfully and wonderfully made", but someone out there will want to exploit it and turn it for evil. The line between good and evil is just getting more blurry as we go along.

Rusty said...

While the quote is from a fictitious character, I've always thought it interesting. In Jurassic Park, the movie, Ian Malcolm (the chaotician) chastises John Hammond for having cloned dinosaurs. Malcolm states, "You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you never stopped to think if you should."