Playing at Being Gods?

Last summer in Cambridge, I enjoyed that rare combination of tradition and modernity that the British seem to obtain with such ease. In the afternoons I would often go to the King’s College chapel to listen to the inspiring choir that sang there. It seemed incredible to me that this peaceful, Gothic setting was the scene of one of the most magnificent scientific findings in history: the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid.

The two key protagonists in this discovery have related their adventure each in his own way, in two books I like to recommend to my students: The Double Helix by James D. Watson, and The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick. It is a great lesson to philosophers—given our habit of writing too much—to observe that the article in which they proposed their hypothesis, discreetly titled “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids,” filled little more than a page in the journal Nature [April 1953]. But with that article, a turbulent era of molecular biology began.

Twelve years later, Werner Arber discovered how to divide DNA molecules, and still another five years later, Janet Mertz and Ron Davis developed a technique for joining the segments. Genetic engineering had arrived. Clearly defined limits were abolished, and it was possible to create entirely new organisms and to patent them. And thus, genes became a commodity.

In 1995, the U.S. Patent Office granted the National Institutes of Health a patent for the genetic material of an inhabitant of New Guinea. The phantasm of cloning was brought to life with the appearance of Dolly the sheep, and the boasting of the Raelians [a religious sect that claimed in 2002 to have cloned a human baby—WPR]. The mythical figure of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was revived. Genetic engineering made it possible for men to play at being God.

The resulting upheaval and scandal were to be expected. Biotechnology has entered terrain previously considered sacred, specifically, the matter of life and the reproduction of life. What we have witnessed is the same lack of confidence in science that atomic research provoked decades earlier.

Biotechnology introduces new problems in ethics and law that we don’t know how to resolve. I believe we must treat this matter with intelligence and humility. The condemnation of some applications of genetic engineering tends to be based on three assertions: (1) they are bad applications because they go against the law of nature; (2) they are bad because they obey an economic-based logic; (3) they are bad because they violate human dignity. I will briefly review these three positions.

Appealing to nature as a moral criterion has little to offer. Many cases of social discrimination that seem unfair to us now were legitimized through the idea of what is “natural”: slavery, women’s inferiority, and homosexuality, to give some examples. And we still find religious beliefs that claim blood transfusions go against nature. The extreme cautiousness with regard to transmitting interspecies genes or modifying certain genes is very different, however, because we might alter the regulatory mechanisms established by nature during millions of years of evolution.

The second criterion is part of a more general criticism of the capitalist system. Who is going to direct the evolution of biotechnology? Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University who enthusiastically defends the new technologies, has written that for good or bad, we are in a new era, and whether we like it or not, the world market will reign above everything else. This is what frightens many people, and probably justifiably so. Fear was in the air after two private companies—Human Genome Sciences and Celera Genomics—forced their way into the Human Genome Project in 1998. Public funds were no longer financing this research but rather companies with an interest in making a profit.

The third condemnation comes from those individuals who believe the new technologies violate the dignity of human beings. I think this is a good criterion, but it is important to understand clearly its contents. The dignity of mankind is not a fact but rather an enormous project undertaken by the human species. From the viewpoint of nature, we are merely intelligent animals. But we strive to be animals with dignity—in other words, to mutually recognize the intrinsic value in ourselves, independent of our situation and even of our behavior. We are inventing ourselves as a species. The ancient Stoics coined an expression that later became part of Roman law: Homo res sacra homini. Mankind is a sacred thing to mankind. This was not a fact but a desire.

So, this is where we are. Dignity comes at the end of our history, not at the beginning. It is a creation that is tentative, progressive, and precarious—a project that can easily collapse. In the case of a new technology, just as in the case of a new social organizational form or an economic system or a way of sexually or affectively relating to one another, what we must ask ourselves is whether it contributes to the great ethical project or whether it represents an obstacle. The only way to confront the serious problems proposed by biotechnology is to take an extremely cautious approach to all human beings. If we value individuals, if we clearly define the values necessary for coexistence, if we undertake a tireless struggle against pain and injustice (which is another source of pain), and if we are conscious of the difficult nature of the project we are undertaking, then we will find we have the sensibility we need to resolve, with humble perseverance, the problems that are of concern to us.

José Antonio Marina is a philosopher and the author of Memorias de un investigador privado and  Etica para náufragos,  among other books.