Genetic engineering is neither good nor bad, but the outcome could be judged as one or the other (Dawkins, 1998). We, as a species, have been manipulating nature's gene pool since before recorded history, intentionally selecting for specific traits in food crops, flowers, trees, race horses, pets, our romantic partners, and for many of us, our friends. This human-mediated selection process represents a mechanism of evolution, one with significant power and impact. The historical goals of such manipulations have been the enhancement of species survival and lifestyle. Determining whether these intentional selection pressures produce good or bad outcomes most often occurs in hindsight, but not always. Some efforts are obviously a good or bad idea from the start, and even when we can predict the outcome our record is mixed.
Almost everyone would agree that eliminating a lethal virus like smallpox from the world would be a generally good idea and so far we appear to have been correct. The last recorded case occurred in 1977 as a result of the development and world-wide distribution of an effective vaccine (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 2011), and there is no indication that this eradication campaign will produce an adverse outcome in the future, although in terms of evolutionary time 34 years is just an eye blink.
Most people today publicly agree that the Nazi efforts to purge their country of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill were morally wrong, but few people seem to realize that the science behind these eradication efforts was also fundamentally flawed. For example, efforts to eradicate mental illness through first sterilization, and then euthanasia, would have only addressed the genetic contribution to mental illness. Today, current estimates suggest that only 10-40% of some mental diseases would have been theoretically eliminated through such efforts (Mitchell, 2010, p. 832).
In addition, this 10-40% genetic contribution to mental illness is the result of the combined effects of DNA variations in multiple genes, each of which contributes only a small percentage of risk for such diseases as schizophrenia, bipolar, and autism. This implies that eradication of schizophrenia from a population would involve eliminating multiple genes and that a much larger segment of the population would have to be sterilized. At what point would we choose to stop the genetic purging of the population just to lower the risk of schizophrenia by 10-40%? Would 75% or 95% of the population be acceptable?
The idea that homosexuality, gypsies, or so-called 'Jewish traits' could be eliminated through similar methods would be hysterically funny, if not for the fact that the Nazis and others have actually tried. Nazis Germany provides a well-known example of flawed science serving political interests, but they are not alone in history. American psychiatrists had engaged in similar programs prior to the emergence of Nazi Germany, programs which may have directly contributed to the inclusion of eugenics in the Nazi agenda (reviewed in Whitaker, 2002, pp. 45-72). Any suggestion that Nazi Germany represents an aberration in human history therefore simply doesn't withstand close scrutiny and instead should serve as a cautionary note against the use of immature or selective scientific findings to justify the pursuit of biological perfection.
Striving for Perfection
We have all arrived at our current genetic identities after millions of years of adapting to countless biological and environmental opportunities and threats. Our bodies are well suited for surviving in the world which we came from, the one that existed prior to the emergence of civilization. As civilization began to develop we began to tinker with the gene pool of our world through breeding activities, but even this is a relatively recent technological development (Dawkins, 1998). The next step, which we have already begun in limited ways, including commercial applications, is genetic engineering.
Somatic Cell Genetic Engineering to Treat Medical Conditions
Genetic engineering can take many forms. One of the more benign methods, at least in terms of its impact on our species and the world in which we inhabit, is somatic cell gene therapy (Sandel, 2004, p. 330). Although there is some controversy over the methods used and how safe they are, generally any modifications to genetic material is limited to somatic cells, which will naturally expire once the individual dies. In the case of somatic cell genetic engineering therefore, our tinkering with the gene pool is restricted to a single individual for a single generation. This represents a fail-safe mechanism that severely limits the impact of any adverse outcomes. The general acceptance of such efforts is evidenced by the considerable investment governments have made into genetic engineering research. Any ethical concerns regarding the use of somatic cell gene therapy for these purposes are generally limited to worries about adverse treatment outcomes, not to genetic engineering research and medical treatments for disease and injuries.
Somatic Cell Genetic Engineering to Enhance Performance
The use of somatic cell gene therapy to improve upon our natural gifts though, is more controversial (Sandel, 2004, p. 330). Athletes from high school to the professional level have strived to improve their natural abilities by taking steroids, which is not condoned under current public policy. This 'doping' has been going on for decades and is becoming increasingly hard to detect because genetic engineering technologies in the form of recombinant protein drugs are entering the fray. There is also increasing concern over the use of 'gene doping' in the near future (Azzay, Mansour, and Christenson, 2005). The expected benefits of doping using these methods are increased stamina, strength, speed.
The recombinant proteins human growth hormone and erythropoietin are potent performance enhancers that are currently injected directly into the bloodstream of athletes (Azzay, Mansour, and Christenson, 2005, p. 960). Detecting the recombinant form of these proteins is technically challenging and expensive because it's hard to discriminate between the recombinant proteins and the naturally-occurring protein our bodies produce. Gene doping can involve taking somatic cells from an athlete, inserting one or more copies of genes encoding human growth hormone or erythropoietin for example, and then placing these cells back into the body of the athlete. There are other genetic engineering methods that can be used for gene doping, but the above would probably represent one of the more common approaches due to the dangers inherent in the other methods (Azzay, Mansour, and Christenson, 2005, p. 961). The technical challenges faced by anti-doping enforcement agencies would be even more difficult than those used to detect injected recombinant proteins, because the protein products produced by the human cells would likely be indistinguishable from the natural form of the protein.
The Moral Implications of Genetically Engineered Performance Enhancement
Doping through genetic engineering provides an example of our striving for perfection in one area of our lives, despite considerable government and athletic agency efforts to put an end to such practices. The ethical concerns have been defined by anti-doping efforts, but what are the moral concerns?
For most of us, the issue of doping in sports may only represent the occasional news article or posting on a sports blog, but the moral questions this practice raises are relevant to other areas of our lives including cosmetic surgery for the aging, memory enhancement for academics, and sleep avoidance by college students cramming for an exam. Sandel, (2004, p. 334) would argue that such strivings represent the pursuit of mastery over our environment and what is lost is the religious or spiritual sense of humility. One of the examples he provides is the arrogance of parents who seek perfection by controlling the outcome of births through genetic engineering methods, such as sex selection, rather than being 'open to the unbidden' (Sandel, 2004, p. 335). In other words, we reveal our ignorance about the meaning of our lives, our place in nature, and the long-term outcome such manipulations…