The Magazine

New Genetics, Old Quandaries

Debating the biotech utopia.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By ERIC COHEN
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IN JANUARY, the President's Council on Bioethics began its first meeting with a reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark," a parable of a scientist's obsessive effort to remove a "crimson stain" from his wife's cheek. It is about the mad quest for perfection--the revolt against "sin, sorrow, decay, and death"--that ends with the destruction of its momentarily perfected subject.

Fortunately, most Americans--and most scientists--are not so mad. But the animating myth of both modern democratic politics and modern technology is that misfortune is not inevitable, and that health and happiness are possible for everyone. We do not worship progress. We don't believe it is our "destiny." But we think and act as if progress is always possible, and the future will always be better than the past.

President Bush expressed this spirit at the end of his speech last week on the dangers of human cloning: "I'm an incurable optimist about the future of our country. I know we can achieve great things. We can make the world more peaceful, we can become a more compassionate nation, we can push the limits of medical science." Even as he called upon scientists to respect moral limits that many of them wish to deny, the president celebrated the coming "age of genetic medicine, a time when many of the most feared illnesses" might be "overcome." Even as he documented what he deemed to be morally grotesque biological experiments already underway both at home and abroad, he affirmed the American capacity to "pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose."

One has to admire America's "incurable optimism." Unlike Europe, which seems to have arrived (or believes it has arrived) at the end of history, America still believes there is work to do, and therefore responsibilities to meet.

But there is a danger, too, in living too much for the future. C.S. Lewis explained this in the guise of "Uncle Screwtape," a senior devil giving advice on how to tempt human beings away from "the Enemy" (i.e., the good). As he put it: "We want a man hagridden by the Future--haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth--ready to break the Enemy's commands in the Present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other."

The belief that the future will be better than the past--indeed, that it cannot be otherwise--is at the very heart of the American biotechnology project. As biotech spokesman Carl Feldbaum declared at last year's industry conference: "Our revolution is about more than science. Make no mistake, it touches the whole earth, potentially every individual, and we have to keep faith with global society. Only then will we be doing our jobs and delivering on the promise of our distinct revolution which so far, we can all be very, very proud of."

But is the genetic revolution good for us? Is it a "revolution" at all? Is it happening "now"? And is this revolution utopian or bourgeois? Does it expand the American commitment to equality by making those with Jefferson's "saddles on their backs" (diseases, disabilities, mediocrity) more equal? Or does the coming age of genetic choice and control threaten to unravel our commitment to equality by enshrining the principle that only some lives are fit to live?

THE FIRST QUESTION is whether there is in fact a genetic revolution and whether the key moment is now. After all, many of the arguments and dilemmas in the current biotech debate are very old: the clash of religion and science; the humanitarian desire to relieve man's estate, and the moral hazard of seeking such relief by any means possible; the promise of technology to improve the human condition, and the danger that our technological hubris will lead to the abolition, self-destruction, or degradation of man.

Moreover, the debates themselves--over human cloning in particular and genetic manipulation in general--are also not new. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, debated the ethics of human cloning in the Washington Post in 1967. James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, testified before Congress about human cloning in 1971, declaring, "If we do not think about it now, the possibility of our having a free choice will, one day, suddenly be gone." And the Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey addressed cloning in 1970 in "Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control." "To soar so high above an eminently human parenthood," he wrote, "is inevitably to fall far below--into a vast technological alienation of man."