Mal Fletcher examines the consequences of progress

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

It's a fact: we're standing on the threshold of a whole new era in science. The discoveries that lay just around the next corner will probably dwarf all the great developments of the last century. The big technologies of this age could change forever the very makeup of the human being.

Last week, President George W. Bush declared that he will use his right of presidential veto to knock down any legislation allowing human stem cell research. Is he overreacting?

In the last 10 years, scientists have been doing a lot of work with germline genetic engineering. Working with animal embryos, researchers add or subtract sections of their DNA to produce particular outcomes.

The goal, of course, is to do the same with people, to shape human characteristics that are affected by our genes, such as intelligence, sporting ability and even emotional stability.

For all the hype surrounding these developments, philosophers and theologians question whether scientific advance always leads to a better society. Are scientific progress and human advancement really one and the same thing? The problem is not with the science itself but with the moral, ethical and practical consequences of using our knowledge.

For quite a long time now, novelists like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and Mary Shelley (Dr. Frankenstein's Monster) have reminded us that scientists are fallible human beings: they can't see into the future any more than you or I.

Some scientists like to talk as if they're making infallible pronouncements that we should take on face value. But they can't possibly predict the future effects of their technologies, especially where things are moving as quickly as they are with genetics.

Anthropologists want to know what new genetic technologies will do to families and communities. In some nations, female babies are often aborted for cultural reasons, such as the fact that parents must pay a high dowry price to marry off their female children.

As a result, there's a huge imbalance between the male and female populations in these nations. What will happen if people are able to genetically engineer the sex of their children?

Some authorities warn that genetic selection techniques may lead to a new apartheid. Genetically enhanced people may one day be separated from their natural-born counterparts and given special privileges - as in the movie Gattaca.

Lawmakers will face major challenges, too. Will marriage partners try to stop one another from using embryonic gene treatments? Will children sue their biological parents for not giving them a better gene structure? The mind boggles!

Being a parent is already pretty demanding. But imagine how stressful it will be in a world of 'designer babies', where we struggle to keep up with the genetically modified Joneses. Most of us have enough trouble choosing the colour of our next car. How will we cope with choices that will affect our child's personality or intelligence?

And what happens when child number two or three comes along and new genetic features are available? Do we inject upgrade 'patches' into our older kids, or just learn to say, 'Why can't you be more like your younger brother?'

What will happen to the way we see human sexuality? Sex has already been stripped of much of its mystical significance. Now we're stripping sex of its importance in reproduction too, especially as some companies strive to develop artificial human wombs and even artificial sperm and eggs.