What View Does Science Have on Genetic Engineering? For the first time in history, evolution has taken a backseat to the meddling of humankind with their own genetic makeup. There is an “ongoing realization that humanity is capable of directly shaping its own and other species’ evolution”. As we ease into the twenty-first century, we realize that genetic engineering is undoubtedly going to have a dramatic effect on our lives. It seems that “with genetic engineering, science has moved from exploring the natural world and its mechanisms to redesigning it.” Now, we must ask ourselves this, will that influence be for better, or for worse? However, even the responses of science differ on this topic. Scientists remain divided in their opinions. Some have warned against the hazards of genetic engineering, while others have dismissed these perils as inconsequential.
Two opposing viewpoints, which is right? Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, says that “There are no ethical issues because you are not doing any harm to anyone.” And indeed, the gist of his statement is staunchly supported by James Watson, a Nobel Prize winner and president of Cold Spring Habour Laboratory. “If we can make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we do it? The biggest ethical problem is not using our knowledge.” They are both extremely critical of excuses that genetic engineering is a bad idea. Are they absolutely right? Are the predictions of “doomsday” just insubstantial bits of fluff with no proof to support these claims? Are we truly so confident as to proceed with no holds barred?
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Both scientists seem not to have the slightest bit of anxiety regarding potential glitches. They have found a fascinating “playground” in genetic engineering and appears that it is not only a way for them to earn their livelihood, but also gain fame and fortune. Is their attitude towards this serious issue too cavalier or biased? Are they too unclear about the likelihood of threats to civilization? In contrast, two other prominent scientists have displayed their displeasure about genetic engineering. They have made no secret of the rather strong feelings against genetic engineering. George Wald, Nobel Prize-winning biologist and Harvard professor, wrote:
“Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution. It is all too big and is happening too fast. So this, the central problem, remains almost unconsidered. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain… Forgoing ahead in this direction maybe not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.”
Erwin Chargoff, an eminent geneticist who is sometimes called the father of modern microbiology too echoed Wald’s concerns. He commented: “…The principal question to be answered is whether we have the right to put an additional fearful load on generations not yet born. Our time is cursed with the necessity for feeble men, masquerading as experts, to make enormously far-reaching decisions. Is there anything more far-reaching than the creation of forms of life? You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosols; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.
Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists? This world is given to us on loan. We come and we go, and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.” For some Catholics, their stand on genetic engineering is steadfast but rigid. For them, “God alone is the master of human life and of its integrity”, and in this belief, their only viable course of though is to be “wary of the potential of genetic engineering for fundamentally altering God’s sacred creation.” They seem to leave no room for the possibility that there might be a whole new viewpoint to this.
In his 1983 address to members of the World Medical Association, Pope John Paul II, as the representative of the Catholic Church, shed some light on the topic from a different perspective. He did not refute the blatantly true statement that God is the “creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen”, nor did he deny that “medicine is an eminent, essential form of service to mankind.” However, he hastened to add, “the extraordinary and rapid advance of medical science entails a frequent rethinking of its deontology.” Pope John Paul II touched on three major points: the respect for life, the unity of the human being and the rights of the human being. These key factors contribute to the concept of the fundamental rights of man and the dignity of humankind. Also, is there the realization that while evolution is inevitable, genetic manipulation poses “a serious question to every individual’s moral conscience?”
In his words, “A strictly therapeutic intervention will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of man and does not infringe on his integrity or worsen his conditions of life. Such an intervention, indeed, would fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition. But here the question returns. Indeed, it is of great interest to know if an intervention on genetic inheritance that goes beyond the limits of the therapeutic in the strict sense should be regarded likewise as morally acceptable. In particular, this kind of intervention must not infringe on the origin of human life. It must, consequently, respect the fundamental dignity of men and the common biological nature which is at the base of liberty, avoiding manipulations that tend to modify genetic inheritance and creating groups of different men at the risk of causing new cases of marginalization in society.
Moreover, the fundamental attitudes that inspire the interventions of which we are speaking should not flow from a racist and materialist mentality aimed at human well-being that is, in reality, reductionist. The dignity of man transcends his biological condition. Genetic manipulation becomes arbitrary and unjust when it reduces life to an object; when it forgets that it is dealing with a human subject, capable of intelligence and freedom, worthy of respect whatever may be their limitations. Or when it treats this person in terms of criteria not founded on the integral reality of the human person, at the risk of infringing upon his dignity Scientific and technical progress, whatever it be, must then maintain the greatest respect for the moral values that constitute a safeguard for the dignity of the human person.
And because, in the order of medical values, life is the supreme and the most radical good of man, there must be a fundamental principle: first, oppose everything harmful, then seek out and pursue the good. To tell the truth, the expression “genetic manipulation” remains ambiguous and should constitute an object of true moral discernment. It covers, on the one hand, adventuresome endeavours aimed at promoting I know not what kind of superman and, on the other hand, desirable and salutary interventions aimed at the correction of anomalies such as certain hereditary illnesses. Not to mention, of course, the beneficent applications in the domains of animal and vegetable biology that favour food production. For these last cases, some are beginning to speak, of “genetic surgery,” so as to show more clearly that medicine intervenes not in order to modify nature but to favour its development in its own life, that of the creation, as intended by God.
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