Genetic Engineering Gone Wrong?

By Asa M. Budnick

Evolution is dumb. Which is to say that evolution is utterly blind and acts with no intention. Evolution is just trial and error: some DNA gets bumped around here, a little bit of shuffling happens there, and one time in a billion it results in a change in phenotype. Evolution has no goals, no desires, no plans; evolution is just the byproduct of random variation, heritability, and natural selection. This idea that all life is essentially bits of organic matter bumping into each other and sometimes dying is worrisome. Even more worrisome is that humanity is on the brink of turning this system upside-down.

It took man sixty-six years to go from airplanes to the moon. It took man sixty-six years to go from not even knowing what DNA looked like to knowing how to precisely edit it. In that time, we have cloned animals and redefined the agricultural landscape of the world. We have the ability to put spider genes in goats, jellyfish genes in bacteria, human genes in pigs, and basically any other gene wherever we want to. For the first time in the entire history of life on earth we have the power to directly control our genetic composition and our evolutionary future, and that is terrifying.

We are no longer bound by the chaos of evolution and natural selection; we have the option to shape the very foundation of the world around us, or the option to shape ourselves to that world. While this may be an extreme hyperbole since the technology isn’t quite there yet, but it’s coming.

Soon mankind will come to the threshold of redefining all that we are, and we should probably think about what it means to cross it.

Genetic engineering thus far has been peanuts compared to what’s coming. In 2012, 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in the United States were genetically modified. We have golden rice and glowing cats. We have maps of genomes, epigenomes, proteomes, transcriptomes, and superdomes, the last being the least useful in terms of biotechnology. Looking ahead at some of the future applications of current technologies we can see completely synthetic designer organisms, perfect cloning, biological 3D printing, effective antivirals and infinitely reusable and specific antibiotics. However, we have no universal agreement on how these technologies should be used, or even on who should decide how they should be used.

There are some rather weighty bioethical issues to be considered when dealing with the future of all life on earth. First, there’s the obvious notion that these technologies should be used only for good. Good and evil, of course, are subjective terms, and most bacteria surveyed placed the notion of a perfect generation of antibiotics decisively into the evil category. Even if we limit our definition of good to “good for mankind,” we still don’t know if it’s worthwhile to artificially jack-up the carrying capacity of the earth using genetically modified crops and potentially cause huge overpopulation problems; even utilitarianism has its limits.

Every action at this level of biological organization causes ripples that propagate outwards. A DNA modification gives a crop a slightly thicker husk, which stops a beetle from eating it. Which in turn selects for beetles with stronger jaws, or the beetles find a different food source, or the beetles die out. Each of these in turn causes other ripples throughout the biosphere, for instance birds who used to eat the beetles having to respond to a decrease in food, or, more likely, swarms of rampaging super-beetles destroying civilization.

Even when we put the limitations of utilitarianism on hold we still have oodles of conundrums to muddle through.

There’s the need/want dilemma asking whether we really need to increase human muscle strength in the general population, or just in individuals who are weaker than average, or just heart tissue in people with heart disease. There’s also the problem of government reaction speed, because this technology has such diverse and unpredictable effects it is nearly impossible to place reasonable limits on its application. Legislative bodies won’t know whether or not they outlawed salvation or protected the public unless they let the proverbial crops be sown, and in some cases that might already be too late.

Ultimately the future is coming whether we like it or not. The bulk of the technology already exists, and with each advancement in our understanding our progress accelerates. We are on the brink of laughing at evolution and shaping the world to our whims, our vision of best, and our version of what deserves to live and die. There is no clear compromise, no solution that will satisfy everyone, no magical answer that will make everything okay. In order to build a world we are proud to live in we must all educate ourselves and advocate for the future that we believe in.

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