A biotech company in Massachusetts has made cellular copies of the human embryo; dozens of laboratories around the world are cloning cattle and sheep; the Bush Administration is offering limited federal support to researchers working on embryonic "stem cells;" and the United States Congress just failed to enact a mildly-worded temporary ban on human reproductive cloning. You're not alone if you think biotechnology is hurtling down the road at 100 miles per hour and the highway patrol doesn't seem to want to pull anyone over.
Two closely-related but distinct issues are at stake: genetic engineering and cloning. Should you be afraid that genetic engineering is about to produce something horrifying? Maybe not. Should you be afraid that human cloning is uncomfortably close? Maybe so.
Rapid as the pace of biotech is, scientists still know just shy of nothing about how to manipulate human DNA. Consider that the gene that causes cystic fibrosis was identified nearly a quarter-century ago, and as genes go it is a relatively basic structure. Twenty five years later -- after many, many millions of dollars have been spent on an intensely studied subject where every researcher is keenly aware that personal fame and a Noble Prize will come to the person who defeats the CF gene - there has been little progress. No one knows how to stop the cystic fibrosis gene from "expressing" itself, or any practical way to get it out of human chromosomes. And the CF gene is a single, simple challenge compared to such prospects as making people taller, stronger, smarter or blonder.
It's well to bear this in mind when you hear proclamations that scientists are on the verge of bizarre, Brave New World alterations of Homo sapiens. Probably the ability to genetically engineer human beings will be attained at some point, and an awful lot of careful thinking will be required before we decide whether genetic alterations should be allowed. But there's no reason to oppose them in principle.
Then might come the types of genetic engineering that people fear: not just making people more healthy but altering what they are, even if with good intent--by making people smarter or stronger, for instance.
No one today has the slightest idea how this might be accomplished, because scientists don't yet know how our genes make us smart or strong in the first place. This is why Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics, the private company "mapping" the human genome, has called the idea of making super-people (or human drones, or anything else) "science fiction." No researcher knows where on the 23 human chromosomes is the information that forms our brains or muscles, to say nothing of which gene makes people blond rather than brunette.
Complex traits such as intelligence are likely to turn out to result from complicated interplays of multiple regions of DNA: odds are, there is no "IQ gene." Consider that studies now show there are somewhere between 30,000 and 75,000 total human genes. But an adult person has one trillion nerve cells connected by 1,000 trillion synapses. If DNA alone is dictating how our central nervous system works, these figures mean each human gene is controlling on average three billion synapses - along with everything else each gene must shape.
But suppose scientists do someday figure out how to alter genes so that people become smarter or stronger. The ethical questions that would arise would turn not so much on whether this was unnatural - antibiotics and surgery are unnatural - as what it would do to the social fabric. As Lee Silver, a Princeton University biologist, pointed out at a recent forum at the American Museum of Natural History, the likelihood is that only wealthy parents could afford to have their children "improved" through genomics. "Once this technology is used by some wealthy parents," Silver continued, "it's going to be difficult for other wealthy parents to decide not to use this technology, because they're not going to want their children left behind." Soon the children of affluence may be born not just with every material advantage, but advantages in genes. Today, most analysts believe that differences between well-off and poor kids in school and test-score performance have to do mainly with nurture, not nature. But if well-off kids really were smarter than everybody else, this would not be good for society.
Switching gears from genetic enhancement to cloning, what are we to make of the latest cloning news? The announcement by Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachusetts firm which duplicated human embryos, was played in the media as astonishing news, but actually was not. Researchers often duplicate (technically, clone) human cells; everyone assumed that embryos could be duplicated. So the company did not invent anything new. What it did was cross an ethical line that perhaps should not be crossed. Yet artificial creation of embryos in this sense is not much different than what fertility clinics often do, arousing little notice.
As recently as last winter, when George W. Bush was talking to scientists about setting up a bioethics advisory system, many told him he didn't have to worry about human cloning because animal cloning trials were going so poorly. Most cloned animals had grown up abnormal, or died young; the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep required more than 100 attempted cloned sheep that had to be destroyed. Because most mammal clones were abnormal, scientists told the president, it would be unthinkable to attempt to clone a person with current technology - and there might never be technology that insures healthy clones.
Just a few months later, the picture looks very different. The cow study suggests that reproductive cloning can produce healthy, normal adults, and that the knowledge necessary to do so is close at hand. Human genetic engineering is speculative and probably decades away. Human reproductive cloning - much, much simpler biologically - may be uncomfortably closer than we think.