Aug.-Sept. '00 Articles:
by Edward R. Rosick, D.O., M.P.H.
Lebensborn. A German term meaning "the wellspring of life."
Sixty years ago, it was the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler's right-hand man and leader of the feared SS arm of the Nazi political machine. Himmler's and Hitler's idea of Lebensborn was to bring into the world a genetically "pure" race by having only "pure" Aryans reproduce with one another. In other words, an attempt to genetically modify, or engineer, a group of human beings with certain selective traits.
Of course, sixty long years ago, carefully selecting your sexual partner was about the only way to try to ensure certain traits would show up in your offspring. Now, however, we are on the verge of an unparalleled time in human history, when the very essence of what makes us human, our genes, can literally be changed at will.
The speed at which we Homo sapiens have almost arrived at this pivotal point in our evolutionary history is a lesson in the vast changes that technology has wrought upon our world. Consider that the concept of the gene, or genome, is barely over a hundred years old; the discovery of the general structure of genes-the DNA double helix- happened only fifty years ago; and the ability to determine the sequence of a single gene came about thirty years ago. This past May, a private company, Celera, announced that it had sequenced the entire human genome, and in June, a goverment-sponsored venture, the Human Genome Project, made the same announcement.
Should this really mean anything to the common man and woman on the streets of Detroit or London or Mexico City? Should I or you really care (unless of course we own some stock in Celera) that some private company and the federal government knows every 3.1 billion molecules of the human genetic code? Well, folks, unless you plan on dying yesterday or today, you should care, because one way or another, what the scientists have learned today is going to affect you tomorrow.
The term "genetic engineering" conjures up all sorts of fanciful thoughts, and the big media boys are more than happy to play up on this. It seems that every other week some talking head on the big three networks or the cover of the mainstream magazines are screeching about how the magic of genetic engineering will allow mad scientists to create living dinosaurs to wander about, a la "Jurassic Park." Other stories proclaim how we're one step away from being able to clone humans, bringing up the horrendous image of a thousand James Carville's ranting simultaneously on every Sunday morning news show.
The mundane fact is, though, that like most basic scientific research, the truth behind the smoke and glitter is pretty damn boring. In a nutshell, the initial work of genetic engineering is identifying all 3.1 billion molecules of adenine (A), cytosine(C), guanine(G), or thymine(T), which are the molecules, or parts, that make up the double helix strands of DNA. DNA contains the genetic information of ourselves, and thus can be considered the master blueprint of each and every human being on this planet . Each DNA molecule is made up of many genes; genes are molecules of long string of A, C, G, or T in a specific sequence. The genes contained in our DNA can be thought of as the instruction kit of the human body; each gene (with humans having approximately 80,000 of 'em) directs the body to make certain substances and chemicals -- substance and chemicals that tell the developing fetus whether it's going to be a boy or girl; chemicals that trigger adolescence; chemicals that perhaps predispose certain people to greatness and others to murder. In short, genes make us what we are, figuratively and literally.
So without too great a leap of the imagination, the ability to manipulate, or engineer, genes is arguably the greatest revolution that will take place in human history, changing the very nature of what it means to be human. But is that a bad thing? Certainly, there are many people, both in the private and public sector, who think not. A recent March of Dimes survey reported that forty percent of the American public think that it would be fine to use genetic engineering to make a child more intelligent or more attractive than they otherwise would have been. Optimistic proponents of genetic engineering promise a future where terrible diseases of today are cured in the womb before birth. They imagine, and would have all of us imagine, a future where diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are just distant nightmares, much like the virulent form of bubonic plague, known as the black death, that decimated Europe in the 14th century is to us today. They remind us that we are already practicing crude genetic engineering: amniocentesis is done before birth to detect any possibly correctable (or non-correctable) genetic defects in fetuses, and testing women for what the media has dubbed "the breast cancer gene," BRCA-1, is now available for patients who have a strong family history of breast cancer. Instead of a revolution, the proponents of genetic engineering just see a logical progression of scientific knowledge marching along for the betterment of all mankind, or at least those of us lucky enough to live in westernized, technologically-advanced countries.
Of course, in this world, for every bright-eyed optimist there is a fearful pessimist, and certainly in the debate over genetic engineering, the latter has made strong arguments against a head-long rush into this brave new world. The pessimists worry that in our zeal to create new and better human beings, we may inadvertently cause new, heretofore "hidden," genes to be expressed which could have worse consequences for people than the diseases and afflictions we hope to cure. They worry that genetic engineering will usher in a new, more insidious form of eugenics, where a person's genetic fitness, instead of race or ethnicity, will determine their place in, or out of, society.
As the country in possession of the keys to the genetic code, we are at a pivotal point in human history. We need to decide whether we will blindly follow the optimists to the never-never land of eternal genetic bliss, or pay heed to the worriers who try to frighten us with tales of doom and destruction. Looking at the debate from what I believe is a pragmatic viewpoint, I think we can safely assume that the genetic genie is out of its bottle, and to try and stop any further research at this point would be fruitless. In fact, I actually find myself cautiously on the side of the optimists. As a physician who has watched helplessly as his patients, and even some of his own family, succumbed to and died from such terrible diseases as Alzheimer's and cancer, I think there is great promise in this new technology. I think the real question is whether or not we will control it. Remember, this revolution, like all revolutions, isn't going to happen overnight. While the entire 3.1 billion molecules of DNA have been identified, they haven't been put into order. It's like not knowing the English language, but having the alphabet all scrambled up in front of you. Until you know how to put the letters (or in the case of genetics, the molecules A, T, G, and C) together, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot.
But the words able to be written by the genetic alphabet will be figured out, make no mistake about it, probably within the next decade or two. So that means we have at least ten, maybe twenty years to have some serious public discourse and discussion to see just how many wishes we want this new genie to grant to us before placing him back in his bottle. This means that instead of watching the latest moronic corporate or government (thank you, PBS) sponsored drivel on television, we the people need to educate ourselves about what the big boys in their corporate offices and National Institutes of Health are proposing and planning for us. It means that instead of going out with friends to score some killer weed and smoke the night away, we the people need to get on the web and pull up the Department of Energy site (address at end of article) and check out what the government is doing with our hard-earned tax dollars. And finally, after we've read and digested the truly astonishing ideas behind genetic engineering, we have to get involved in the political process (yeah, I know wading through bullshit is no fun, but nobody said a worthwhile democratic society would always be fun) and make sure our voices are heard.
And if we don't get involved? Well, maybe it won't matter. Maybe the powers-that-be in Washington and Wall Street will prove to be kind and benign, and we will all end up living in a genetically-engineered utopia, unfettered by disease and unhappiness, unencumbered by all the ills that still trouble the human race. Maybe all the multimillionaire Hollywood stars and starlets and the billionaire owners of the dot-coms will say, "Hey, all this money we have is just a pain in the ass, so we're going to give everyone a couple million so you can have your genes and your offspring's genes made nice and pretty, just like ours."
Of course, if the above scenario is just a bit too far-fetched, and I have an inkling it might be, then our silence in this revolution has the very real chance of helping to tear the fragile curtain of civility and society completely apart. Remember, genetic engineering is a tool that has the capacity to change the very nature of what it means to be human, and perhaps, what is acceptable. While the current political climate clamors for celebrating "diversity," it has to be recognized that genetic engineering will do anything but insure diversity. In fact, in the genetically engineered world that is knocking on our door, diversity could very well be anathema. Soon, the opportunity to customize yourself and your offspring with genetic traits deemed in-vogue will be possible, at least to those with the money to make it so.
But what about those without the money to make it so? If there isn't a way created for the great mass of people to share in the riches of this revolution, then there is a very real chance that a far bloodier revolution could be seen. While there have always been haves and have-nots in this world, genetic engineering could magnify that inequity a thousand times. Once that disparity is in place, it won't be hard to imagine a genetically perfect society where people with Downs syndrome or people who are genetically prone to cancer or to abuse drugs or smoke tobacco, could easily be viewed as a genetic and financial drain on society, imperfect flotsam and jetsam impeding the march of humanity to godhood.
The technological promises of genetic engineering present to us the sharpest double-edged sword ever wielded by humans, surpassing even the discovery and use of the atom. With one edge, we can use this magic-like science to forever banish diseases and disabilities such as cancer, arthritis, and birth defects. Yet with the other edge, there is the possibility we will use it to again unleash the darkness and evil that exists in all our souls, the darkness and evil that whispers to us of our superiority over all those who are different than us, who happen to have different skin colors or religious beliefs. It is up to us to never allow genetic engineering to release those smoldering prejudices and hatreds, because if that happens, in the not-to-distant future, in the deep, fetid bowels of hell, Hitler will be laughing.
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