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Bad axioms in genetic engineering.

Bad Axioms in Genetic Engineering

The parade of wonders mounted by biological science marches by at an increasinly rapid race. In a kind of mimicry of Genesis, we have synthesized a living, functioning gene from shelf chemicals in the laboratory. Through improved cloning techniques we are able to produce exact copies of lower life forms--genetic replicas down to the very shape and location of spots on the backs of leopard frogs. Even more significantly, recent techniques for gene mapping and recombination ("gene splicing") are throwing open doors to the treatment of diseases, ecological control, and the technological production of a wide range of goods from pharmaceuticals to peanuts.

In short, we are now able to control the destinies of ourselves, our offspring, and our environment in ways that are much more direct and trait-specific than previously imagined.

Profound and fascinating moral dilemmas accompany the new biotechnical achievements, particularly those that involve manipulating the human genome, going to the very heart of who we are and how we think about ourselves. Many have argued that our technical advances have outpaced our ability to deal ethically with them. But they have not said why this is so, or what we ought to do about it. In fact, no ethical tradition seems sufficient to comprehend either the peculiarity of the genetic dilemma or the multiplicity of moral conundrums it presents.

New Moral Challenges

The new methods of genetic engineering pose difficult ethical problems in part because they offer technological options that never before existed. Still, it is not the fact of options that is problematic, but rather their nature. What revisionist social philosophers and theologians of hope have described as the category of the novum, the generation of the qualitatively new, independent of any organic evolution from what already exists, has seen its first genuine demonstration in the realm of the biological sciences. Inasmuch as many of the new genetic techniques allow scientists to bypass development in creating novel life forms, some scientific achievements can be appreciated only in these nonorganic, nonontologic terms. In the new biology, we confront in its most irreducible form the direct, minute, and purposeful design of life. That fact presents us with moral problems that are not just new in history, but new in kind.

As it applies specifically to human genetic manipulations, genetic engineering presents an unprecedented technological leap from merely designing the environment to "designing the designer." [1] These prospects threaten wholly to subvert traditional philosophical paradigms and undermine the standard ethical touchstones of "human nature," "humanity," and "rationality." These would become synthetic products rather than points of common reference. Of course, this scenario would result from proposed eugenic manipulations to alter human capacities in "positive" ways. It may be precisely such scenarios that give us a distinct basis for deciding where we would balk at further interventions.

An additional complicating feature is that genetic engineering is not a single problem at all, but rather a complex set of problems occurring in quite different domains of inquiry--epidemiological, ecological, evolutionary, human-genetic, and political. Many of the original concerns about recombinant DNA arose on the epidemiological level, involving fears about the accidental dissemination of altered, pathogenic bacteria for which there is no known antidote. And fear of the consequences of human germline alteration led fifty-six clergy and several scientists in 1983 to adopt a "Resolution", delivered to Congress, requesting a ban on all such interventions.

Finally, what Willard Gaylin has called the "Frankenstein factor" has influenced the tone of the genetic debate in negative ways. The spectter of new life forms somehow "threatens our sense of identity, our sense of uniqueness, and our sense of primacy among the creatures of the earth." [2] Perhaps this is as it should be, that some nonrational element in our respect for extant genomes be maintained alongside our rational affirmations of them. But to the extent that these premonitions become exaggerated beyond what the facts can support, they tend to generate peremptory condemnations. The recombinant DNA controversy in this country was instantly polarized by disputants who charged that scientists were conspiring to create the master race and take control of our genetic futures. In response, many scientists joined battle and categorized their critics as anti-science ideologues.

Bad Axioms

The combination of these characteristics of genetic engineering--its newness, its potential for manipulation of the "human," its complexity, and its capacity for arousing fear and recrimination--has proven fertile soil for the growth of an assortment of bad axioms whose distinguishing feature is that they are reductionistic. They substitute invocation of formula for careful analysis and in the process cut off precisely the kind of balanced scrutiny called for by this complex set of problems.

It is not the cases that bad axioms contain no truth, however. Quite the contrary, it is their tendency to encapsulate a partial truth that makes them alluring. The problem with bad axioms is precisely their power to convince the hearer that a partial insight comprises the whole truth, that looking through a single porthole provides panoramic vision. Thus the initial step in an appropriate ethical assessment of genetic prospects is to identify the axioms that have most obscured the issues. The second step is to consign them, as axioms, to history. The final step is to discern what element of truth they may contain in their nonaxiomatic forms.

Playing God

In the Jewish and Christian traditions "playing God" is characteristically associated with pride and arrogance, the aping of divine power, or the attempt to gain salvation without the help of the divinity. It is not the use of power and creativity that offends, but ratther attributing power to one's own resources, denying its origian in what Jews and Christians believe is God's continuing creation. Those who object to any genetic medicine on religious grounds need to be clear that "playing God" is not, in this usage, an act against morality, but rather one against faith. Its verbal counterpart is blasphemy. However, it would not seem that individual genetic pursuits would be forbidden in any necessary sense, unless the motive were an attempt to stand in God's place. Therapeutic interventions are, in fact, consonant with the benevolent, other-regarding impulses of Judaism and Christianity.

Yet these traditions might well morally object to particular applications of genetic science, or point to problems with human conceits about our ability to predict or control the outcomes of our actions.

Such legitimate concerns are similar to those expressed in the secular usage of "playing God," in which the phrase is often used to remind us that it is only with caution that we should tamper with the most elemental organic forces in the universe. It intends to point to the great uncertainties we face as we consider how genetic science may eventually shape our physical being, our social structure, and our moral culture.

If these sorts of concerns lie beneath "playing God," then the concept has valid standing. Used in this sense, it ceases to be a bad axiom insofar as it rightly recommends a cautionary posture. The appropriate response, however, is not that we should not "play God," but that we must do so intelligently. That is the essence of making choices, and it undeniably is our destiny, whether we choose to accept genetic options or reject them.

Interfering with Nature

There is nothing problematic in this axiom in its descriptive sense. Homo faber is, by definition, one who interacts with and reshapes the environment. But in the genetic context the phrase is often used as an indictment.

Behind such use of "interfering with nature" usually lies the notion that nature has a prescribed telos and a single program for reaching that telos. But it is not clear that the uncontrolled reign of nature produces the most humane world we can imagine. As molecular geneticist Stanley Cohen has noted, it is nature that gave us the genetic combinations for such afflictions as yellow fever, typhoid, and diabetes. 3 Humans have always danced a delicate ecological minuet with various other potent life forms, including bacteria and viruses. Deadly microorganisms have their own survivalistic ecology, and nowhere in nature's book is it written that human survival is the most preferred. The emergence of Homo sapiens in the evolutionary drama does not, according to biologists, represent a necessary, end-directed process. And we have always interfered with nature to protect the species and its livelihood, from the medical use of antibiotics to the draining of swamps that festered with malaria-bearing mosquitos.

The issue is not whether we interfere, but whether or not our incursions enhance or diminish the human prospect. Erwin Chargaff has put it eloquently: "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." [4] We have the ability to make genetic choices in symbiotic rhythm with nature, or to assault our contingent relationship with nature. We also have the ability to make intergenerationally sensitive choices or to take the short-term perspective.

This is not to underestimate the difficulty of deciding what is or is not an assault upon nature, particularly with regard to human genetic engineering. For example, whose definition of what is "natural" shall we accept? And as the President's Commission to study the question of gene splicing noted, the widely accepted belief that there is a fixed human genome is faulty, given that the "genetic basis of what is distinctively human continually changes through the interplay of random mutation and natural selection." [5] Our choices, then, should be based on some human conception of what is natural, not on a naturalistic definition of what is human. It is in the latter sense that the charge of "interfering with nature" becomes a bad axiom.

The truth in the axiom lies in its implicit invocation of the basic rule, primum non nocere, and in its explicit dual challenges for critical examination prior to action. First, it suggests an honest self-examination of motives for "intrusions" into the natural. Such motives can be venal and short-sighted, as has been frequently alleged against eugenics programs, or they can give relief to those who are or will be genetically crippled. Second, it suggests a careful examination of the external world for impacts and outcomes, not only on the physical, but on the social and cultural environments as well.

Slippery Slopes

Those who use the "slippery slope" argument seem to imply two principles at work, one of momentum and one of logic. The principle of momentum states that, once you perform x, you will not be able to restrain yourself from doing y, even though x does not necessarily imply y. The principle of logic states that y will inevitably follow from x, since doing x contains the principle of permission for doing y. It is the latter that is more ethically relevant and seems to be operative in the following passage from the "Resolution":

Once we decide to begin the process of human genetic engineering, there is really no logical place to stop. If diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and cancer are to be cured by altering the genetic make-up of an individual, why not proceed to other "disorders": myopia, color blindness, left handedness. Indeed, what is to preclude a society from deciding that a certain skin color is a disorder?... What is the price we pay for embarking on a course whose final goal is the "perfection" of the human species? [6]

This line of reasoning mistakenly assumes that beginning the process of human genetic engineering means carrying it through to any conceivable application. It claims that if the principle of permission allows some kinds of interventions it will hold for all kinds of interventions. But morally to endorse positive eugenic measures would require justification by a very different, and certainly more disputable, principle. There is a seismic moral difference between treating leukemia and enhancing IQ, and to recognize that difference is one of the preeminent purposes of moral reasoning. The moral gulf between these two classes of action suggests that there is, in fact, a "logical place to stop"; it is just prior to the leap from therapeutic to eugenic measures. Once this boundary has been crossed, then there really is no logical place to stop. To be sure, in practice there are gray areas in what constitutes "eugenics." The better part of wisdom may tell us that we should not enter even that territory.

When used to refer to genetic enhancement of characteristics, the slope argument is no longer a bad axiom. It functions correctly in alerting us to the fact that permission for one eugenic measure inevitably establishes the principle of permission for other eugenic measures. Once the new moral rationale is in place, license would be the order of the day. It is not clear what could prevent us at that point from engaging in genetic wanderlust.

To assert that our final goal is the "'perfection' of the human species" does not accurately report the motivation behind genetic research, except in the sense that all our endeavors aim at making the world a more hospitable place. Most of our genetic efforts are not even aimed at "final goals." They are more immediate attempts to find cures for diseases that disfigure, kill, or deny individuals the basic capacities to realize a minimally recognizable human existence. To deny afflicted individuals these therapies on the ground that we cannot make distinctions between remedial germline alterations and eugenic enhancements indicates a lack of trust in the human ability to act discriminately on the basis of distinctive ethical classifications.

The Ethical Neutrality of Science

Taken in its most literal sense, the claim that science is ethically neutral is accurate. We would be hard put to defend the proposition that knowledge alone has a moral value or disvalue. But the claim is not usually made in this pure sense. It almost always conveys the notion that scientists do not have responsibility for the production of knowledge. As Jacob Bronowski has noted, however, this belief confuses the findings of science, which are ethically neutral, with the activity of science, which is not. [7]

Even so, the argument continues, it is not the activity of science to which notions of responsibility attach, but rather to the applications of the products of that activity. Knowledge itself is value-neutral and "ambipotent"; for example, the same chemicals used to create nerve gases in the Great Wars turned out to be "elegant research weapons in the protein biochemistry revolution." [8] Therefore, the moral burden lies with those who choose to implement scientific information for ill purposes.

This argument combines a prima facie plausibility with some degree of disingenuity. The source of each is the attempt to form a cleavage between scientist qua scientist and scientist qua moral agent. But scientist qua scientist does not really exist except as a heuristic notion. The scientist in the laboratory is always moral agent at the same time that he or she is scientist. It is not possible for the scientist to hang the moral self on a coatrack on the way into the laboratory and then proceed indiscriminately with the scientific venture.

But in what precise sense is the scientist responsible for this production of knowledge? In his Double Image of the Double Helix, Clifford Grobstein distinguishes three kinds of research with recombinant DNA--basic, applied, and technological--and suggests that only the latter two be considered for any kind of external regulation, leaving the search for pure knowledge unfettered except for certain judicious forms of self-regulation. [9] Reasonable scientists may well agree with this recommendation, concurring that the connections between some kinds of applied or technological research and scientists' accountability can be readily established. For example, it is not hard to see the direct and predictable link between applied research on nerve gases and their use on human populations. But the same reasonable scientists may insist, along with Grobstein, that there is no such obvious connection between basic research and its unpredictable--perhaps even improbable--applications. Can the inventor of diesel engines be held responsible for Nazi submarines?

Still, the inability to predict the uses of pure knowledge does not relieve scientists of the responsibility for thinking in advance about how such knowledge might be used. The scientist, no less than other professionals, is required to exercise the "imagination principle" in projecting potential uses of scientific information. [10] I am speaking here of ordinary responsibility as a moral agent. In actual practice, scientists cannot be expected to think in terms of infinite causal chains into the future ("Only God can be a good utilitarian"). Since the eventual permutations of discovering pure knowledge are highly speculative, we would not expect to find frequent moral deterrence in the pursuit of basic knowledge. Nor is the moral responsibility to imagine uses the same as the moral responsibility to refrain from doing.

In its axiomatic form, then, the claim that scientific activity is ethically neutral is not accurate. Yet hidden within this bad axiom is often a more modest claim, that most knowledge may be used for good or ill, and that scientists should not shoulder the burden of responsibility for harmful applications. Corrupt persons, societies, and political regimes may misuse even the most innocent knowledge for deplorable ends, and therein lies considerable responsibility. If that is what is meant by the claim, then it ceases to be a bad axiom. Still, far from relieving scientists of all responsibility, it merely confirms that all share responsibility.

Genetics Is the Answer

For many, the biological revolution has signaled the dawn of a bold new era of omnipotence. The euphoria of the 1970s, generated by rapid developments in genetic science, was for many a result of prospective applications in medicine, reproduction, agriculture, industry, and pharmacology. For others, it was the result of imagining these heady genetic technologies as the long-awaited solutions to perennial human problems and aspirations. Theoretical biologist James Danielli contended that "from the point of view of genetics, man is a barbarian," and it is only such radical interventions as genetic alteration that will allow civilization to "advance to a modestly stable state." [11] In a recent letter to the New York Times, Robert Davis spotted divine intentionality behind the new genetic powers:

God has put into our hands the possibility of what has so long been demanded by the great world religions, a change in man himself.... To succeed will be to begin a new and glorious stage in the history of what has been so defective a humanity. [12]

Among others, Joshua Lederberg and Joseph Fletcher have argued for the direct, asexual copying of superior human traits, or of entire individuals, in the place of the genetic dice roll of ordinary reproduction.

In both their milder and more extreme expressions, these views share hope for instant genetic remedies that are themselves problematic. There are no single, discrete genes that code the complex arrangements of proteins that produce given human traits; and to manipulate one is to change the original, fragile configuration in unforeseeable ways. But even if such Promethean methods were developed in the distant future, who would decide what traits should be preferred? Who would decide what makes a person a more fit specimen, and under what idealized plan for human harmony and well-being? What would be the criteria for choosing alternatives that seem to some a social boon, to others a form of dehumanization?

Use of genetic methods for positive, eugenic purposes should give us sudden pause for another reason. It would involve us in the historic and shameful confession that we have not been able to resolve problems of social intercourse in ways that rely on human intelligence and character. Whatever problems we may have defining what is "human," it would be clear that use of these technological shortcuts would signal the repudiation of our current human abilities--in both material and immaterial senses. The legitimate desire to improve the human lot need not evolve into this sort of collective humiliation. Long before teleological thirst deteriorates into technological lust, it will need tempering by the acknowledgment of human finitude and by the willful determination to resolve problems by means that realize human integrity, not ones that undermine it.

Every such argument for "technological fix" merits counterargument from the fact of technological tragedy. The latter occurs in at least three senses. First, all inventions are two-edged swords. The obvious example is nuclear energy; on balance, it is not clear that the capability to split the atom nets human good. A second sense of technological tragedy is summarized in Chargaff's complaint about the microorganisms produced through the inexact and serendipitous methods of gene splicing:

You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosals; 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. [13]

It is not just new forms of life that are dubious in this respect, however. Once introduced, no unit of technological knowledge can be recalled, even if particular technologies can. In that sense, all technology is a new organism that insinuates itself into living cultures through altering them irrevocably.

Finally, the third meaning of technological tragedy is that technology's problem-solving innovations seem persistently to create new problems. What Reinhold Niebuhr articulated as a general social principle is equally true for genetic discovery: Every advance in the fulfillment of human aspirations creates problems at an entirely new level. An urgent example in the world of medical ethics is the host of moral dilemmas issuing from the new life-prolonging and resuscitative devices. We are still novices at resolving the legion of problems that accompany these otherwise beneficent technologies.

Of course, the fact that technology creates rich and challenging new problems is in no way determinative for the case against invention, either in genetics or in any other pursuit. But it does serve us notice to be perspicacious in the applications of science, and temperate in our expectations of it. Knowledge of tragic implications need not and should not paralyze action. To "know sin" is our ineluctable fate and fortune, and to lose nerve in the face of such knowledge would only enlarge the tragedy. On the other hand, that knowledge should take some of the color out of glib fantasies about what genetic science will do for us, as well as inform moral decisions about what we want to do with it.


[1] Leon Kass notes that "engineering the engineer seems to differ in kind from engineering his engine," "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate?," Science 174 (November 19, 1971), 780.

[2] Willard Gaylin, "The Frankenstein Factor," New England Journal of Medicine 297:12 (September 22, 1977), 665-66.

[3] Stanley Cohen, "Recombinant DNA: Fact and Fiction," Science 195 (February 18, 1977), 655.

[4] Erwin Chargaff, "On the Dangers of Genetic Meddling," Science 192 (June 14, 1976), 904.

[5] President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Splicing Life: A Report on the Social and Ethical Issues of Genetic Engineering with Human Beings (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), 70.

[6] Jeremy Rifkin, "Resolution" (June 8, 1983), Foundation on Economic Trends.

[7] Jacob Bronowski, The Identity of Man (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Press, 1965), ix. Quoted in William Lowrance, Modern Science and Human Values (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 5.

[8] Lowrance, Modern Science, p. 5, uses this example to show the dual uses of scientific knowledge, not to argue that science is value-neutral, a position with which he does not identify.

[9] Clifford Grobstein, Double Image of the Double Helix (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1979).

[10] Daniel Callahan, "The Social Responsibility of Science in the Face of Uncertain Consequences," Annals of the New York Academy of Science 265 (January 23, 1976), 4.

[11] James Danielli, "Industry, Society, and Genetic Engineering," Hastings Center Report 2:6 (December 1972), 5-7.

[12] Robert Davis, "What New Adam Lurks Inside the Gene Splice?," New York Times, March 15, 1987.

[13] Chargaff, "On the Dangers of Genetic Meddling," 938.
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Author:Boone, C. Keith
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Aug 1, 1988
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