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Birth of the biotech religion

Scientists and ethicists explore the brave new frontier of cyborg citizens, transhuman democracies, altered embryos, and tropical hair


Birth of the biotech religion
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For some, genetic engineering is a new religion that promises a new Eden. Every human (or at least those with money) will have the brain of an Einstein and the body of one of People magazine's beautiful people. We'll live for many centuries and through most of them be able to hit massive home runs without primitive pharmaceuticals like steroids-and if we can't do that for ourselves, we can do it for our children.

Denominations within the new religion include cyborgians, who see a merger of man and computer, and chimerists, who see human-animal combinations down the road. There are a lot more, too-but let's jump into our look at two books that sell the new gospel, two others that raise questions about its rationality and honesty, and two more that oppose it ethically.

More Than Human

Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Broadway, 2005)

Software engineer Ramez Naam argues that the engineering of humans is inevitable: "Scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing, for they're integrally related." Research on Alzheimer's and other diseases "is the very same research that could lead to keeping us young, improving our memories, wiring our minds together, or enhancing ourselves in other ways."

More Than Human takes us from drug therapy (common now) to gene therapy (just beginning): "Drugs sent into the body have an effect for a while, but eventually are broken up or passed out. Gene therapy, on the other hand, gives the body the ability to manufacture the needed protein or enzyme or other chemical itself. . . . Insertional gene vectors penetrate all the way into the nucleus of the cell and splice the genes they carry into the chromosomes. From that point on, the new genes get all the benefits your other genes enjoy. . . . If the cell divides, the new genes get copies to the daughter cells, just like the rest of your DNA."

Here's an example of how biotech companies could make big bucks from gene therapy: "Leptin regulates body weight by controlling metabolism. Mice given a single gene therapy injection lost weight while eating just as much as undosed mice. . . . As Sergei Zolotukhin, a professor at the University of Florida, noted, 'This would be the couch potato's dream: You can eat what you want but stay lean.'"

Other research offers "eccentric cosmetic possibilities. There's no reason, for example, that gene therapy couldn't be used to deliver green fluorescence genes to human skin or hair. Such gene therapy would produce humans who glowed under black light."

People could even have brightly colored skin or hair and look like tropical birds or fish. In a step up from such play, gene therapy could be a longer-lasting or permanent alternative to powerful anti-depressant and ADHD drugs like Prozac and Ritalin: "If and when gene therapy in the brain is ever feasible, it will be possible to opt for permanent or semipermanent alterations of personality."

The biggest market for genetic engineering, though, may be among parents of early embryos. Mr. Naam notes that "altering the genes of a person before he or she is born is in some ways actually easier than doing so after birth. It's easier to get a gene into every one of a small number of cells than into a large number." As genome mapping becomes faster, we may learn which genes dispose a person to certain personality traits. (The word dispose is important: Environment also plays a major role, and Christians understand that God's grace is decisive over both nature and nurture.) Genetic engineering will then "give parents a tool that can increase their odds of having a certain kind of child."

Will parents do better than God? Mr. Naam doesn't pose the question that way, but he does acknowledge some drawbacks: "Genetic alterations of personality come with [the] risk of overshooting the target. If you genetically engineer an embryo to select genes associated with, say, agreeableness, you increase the odds of getting not only a pleasant, agreeable child but one who is agreeable to a fault. If you genetically engineer your child to increase the odds that he'll be an aggressive go-getter, you also increase the odds that he'll become an overbearing boor."

Citizen Cyborg

James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Westview, 2004)

Mr. Hughes alternates sarcastic attacks on "bio-Luddites" (those opposed to genetic engineering) with proclamations of a glorious future: Now-emerging "transhuman technologies will not only let us live longer, be smarter and have more control over our emotions and our bodies. They will also permit us to clone, to mix human and animal DNA and genetically modify our bodies for aesthetic reasons. We will incorporate computers into our bodies and brains, and simulate human brains in computers."

This book goes beyond Mr. Naam's, though, by packing a political punch. Mr. Hughes says we should drop the idea that humans are special and substitute for it the Peter Singer concept of "personhood" based on thinking ability (the very young and the very old are out, great apes are in).

Here's the core proclamation: "Persons don't have to be human, and not all humans are persons. To create a transhuman democracy we will have to establish a new definition of citizenship, a 'cyborg citizenship,' based on personhood rather than humanness. With cyborg citizenship we can deal with the scary boundary-crossers, the cyborgs, the animal-human hybrids, the genetically engineered kids, the clones and the robots. We can add more chairs at the table."

Mr. Hughes uses and abuses the 14th Amendment's mention of "persons" and then grandly predicts, "We will give non-human animals human-level intelligence. . . . Soon we will have identified the genes that distinguish human intellectual and communication capabilities from those of the great apes. Soon we will be able to genetically enhance primates to have human intellectual capabilities"-and anyone who opposes that will be called a "human racist."

Maybe yes, maybe no, but the prospect of "uplifted chimps" is a wake-up call. Citizen Cyborg takes seriously wild high-tech prophets such as "extropians" who hate their "meat puppet" bodies and want to meld their minds with computers or . . . something else.

Rapture

Brian Alexander, Rapture: A Raucous Tour of Cloning, Transhumanism, and the New Era of Immortality (Basic Books, 2003)

Not everyone takes the prophecies so seriously. Brian Alexander offers an amusing tour (in Michael Lewis style) of the excesses of a fast-growing biotech industry that has its share of either con men or con men who have themselves been conned.

Funny stuff aside, Rapture explains well the basic worldview behind genetic engineering: "If you don't believe in God, and you don't believe in heaven, then what are you supposed to do when you stare into James Frazier's 'darkness of the grave'?" Mr. Alexander quotes Richard Cutler, a National Institute on Aging scientist, as saying, "If you are not religious, then you see biotech as a hope"-because the alternative is to sit in a French café "feeling depressed and drinking absinthe."

The book's title comes from biotech pioneers who prophesy a dramatic world-shaking change-the Singularity, some call it-when computer minds will link up in a new world consciousness. But here's Mr. Alexander's description of the reality: Even if bio-utopians "made all the disease go away and imparted immortality and introduced a full-option LX model human, there would still be no posthuman future. A thousand years from now, people will wish they felt as good at 520 as they did at 350. They'll wish their kids would have listened and not ruined their lives by becoming artists instead of lawyers specializing in interplanetary torts. People will still hate each other."

But will 520 years or 350 or anything much beyond 90 come? Mr. Alexander writes that the biotech rapture will be "much more difficult to call forth" than its prophets contend. We're already seeing backtracking: For example, in all the debate about human embryonic stem-cell research "there was very little evidence that ES cells would provide any of the miraculous advances science had advertised, at least for now . . . developmental biologists began to air their own misgivings, even predicting a backlash when the public realized there had been far too much promise and far too little delivery."

Rapture memorably profiles some of the overpromisers, such as "big, blustering salesman" Wallace Steinberg, a former pharmaceutical company executive, who saw himself becoming "the gene Rockefeller." He wanted literal immortality for himself and at least $1 billion in sales for his companies, but he died in 1995 at age 61, perhaps because "he dozed off and choked to death on his false teeth."

Are We Spiritual Machines?

Ray Kurzweil et al., Are We Spiritual Machines? Ray Kurzweil vs. the Critics of Strong A.I. (Discovery Institute, 2002)

Mr. Kurzweil, an inventor and entrepreneur who wrote a 1999 bestseller, The Age of Spiritual Machines, argues that man can become essentially immortal by downloading consciousness and then having it placed in a new "body" of some kind: "We scan someone's brain and [place] their personal mind file into a suitable computing medium. The newly emergent 'person' will appear to other observers to have much the same personality, history, and memory as the person originally scanned. That is, once the technology has been refined and perfected. Like any new technology, it won't be perfect at first. But ultimately, the scans and recreations will be very accurate and realistic."

They would still be recreations, not the real thing-and that's where Mr. Kurzweil's critics smack him around. University of California professor John Searle notes that the software-based human will not be alive: "Actual human brains cause consciousness by a series of specific neurobiological processes in the brain. What the computer does is a simulation of these processes, a symbolic model of the processes. But the computer simulation of brain processes that produce consciousness stands to real consciousness as the computer simulation of the stomach processes that produce digestion stands to real digestion."

University of Oklahoma zoology professor Thomas Ray is skeptical of claims that computers will be able to replicate themselves and change their form and structure: "The exponential increase of computing power is driven by higher densities and greater number of components on chips, not by exponentially more complex chip designs. The most complex of artifacts designed and built by humans are much less complex than living organisms. Yet the most complex of our creations are showing alarming failure rates. Orbiting satellites and telescopes, space shuttles, interplanetary probes, the Pentium chip, computer operating systems, all seem to be pushing the limits of what we can effectively design."

Consumer's Guide to A Brave New World

Wesley J. Smith, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World (Encounter Books, 2004)

Here's a basic introduction to both the scientific and philosophical debates involving stem-cell research, personhood theory, and other hot topics. Mr. Smith advocates pushing forward with adult stem-cell research and notes an imaginative proposal by Stanford professor William Hurlbut, a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics: Scientists could genetically engineer a human egg so that it could create embryonic stem cells without ever becoming an embryo. Pro-life leaders such as Princeton professor Robert George find that approach acceptable.

Mr. Smith also lists and explains what he and many others find unacceptable: human cloning; genetic alteration of human sperm, eggs, or embryos by inserting into them chromosomes from animal, artificial, or other human genes; and the fabrication of chimeras, those part-human, part-animal creatures of mythology and fantasy. He points out the importance of not allowing companies or universities to patent bioengineered human genomes and related products and techniques: "No scientist, university, or corporation should be able to own any human life. Period."

Human Dignity in the Biotech Century

Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, eds., Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy (InterVarsity, 2004)

The authors here go deeper into the theological and ethical questions. For example, Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes that "if we permit germline [sperm and egg] experimentation in humans, we could cause great harm not only to one individual, but also to all the children and the children's children. The only way to control a failure in germline engineering would be to sterilize those whose reproductive cells had been altered. Mandatory sterilization of competent adults is not itself morally defensible."

But the issues go even deeper, as Christopher Hook of the Mayo Clinic points out: "The greatest flaw of any utopian dream of human perfection is the failure to understand, or even recognize, the darkness of the unredeemed human heart." After all the revolutionary failures of the 20th century, Dr. Hook writes, man again "seems ready to plunge headlong into another human, or demonic, contrivance promising salvation and eternal happiness for all."

The contrast between salvation by biotech and salvation by Christ is clear: In Christianity, "the two greatest commandments given to us are to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. . . . Do we need to remodel our bodies and brains into some trans- or posthuman form to fulfill these commands?" We don't, Dr. Hook says, and concludes with a telling question: "Why did Jesus not make the apostles the most amazing of men, with towering intellect and bodies impervious to pain, illness and death?"

His answer: "He did not do so because they didn't need to be altered that way to accomplish their mission. And I believe Jesus also recognized that if they were so altered, they would probably soon strike out using their own power and opinions, refusing to be dependent on the Holy Spirit and on God's provision and guidance."

Conclusion

Where are we? Money fuels biotech exploration, and some money will be spent on pets: As the periodical Nature Biotechnology harrumphed about "Cc," the first cat clone, "Cc was not created to advance medical knowledge or provide fundamental biological insights. She was created because there is a market among certain rich cat owners for resurrected animal companions." Such money could be better spent, but idiosyncratic expenditures of that sort do not threaten mankind.

Much money will be spent by people who don't believe in life after death and are desperate to live longer. Christians and others who see this life as a vestibule to the next, or a school from which we will graduate to eternity, will regard 80 years or so as long enough to serve the purpose of such an entryway. Those without faith, though, see prolongation as an alternative to despair. It's unlikely that life will be lengthened much-at a certain point if one disease doesn't get you another will, and there are so many diseases-but this also is not dangerous to mankind's future, although it may rock societies where the goal is early retirement.

Much money will be spent by people looking to give their kids an edge. The offer will come: "We can genetically engineer your offspring so they will not only be smarter, stronger, and faster, but also less likely to be anxious and restless." Will parents resist? Will Christian parents who should understand that the sense of displacement we sometimes feel is not a symptom of disease but a pointer toward the cure?

After all, the restlessness within riches that is typical of our society shows the truth of the Christian understanding that we all have ineradicable spiritual longings. Some will want to attempt to eradicate them through genetic engineering. They won't succeed, but if power falls into the hands of individuals who aspire to be utopian redesigners of the human race, a lot of misery will result. We may witness a drive through germline genetic engineering to change not just the next generation but all generations to come. Yet we can be confident that God is not helpless before such an assault.

In his 2003 book Our Final Hour, British astronomer Martin Rees gives mankind a 50-50 chance of surviving the coming natural and man-made disasters of the 21st century-but the same could have been said of other centuries. It's astounding, for example, that the Cold War at some point didn't become nuclear hot (it came close several times). But the 50-50 prospect often seems to be where God places us individually and collectively. That's where we are now as the genetic bomb is almost ready to explode.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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