Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hitting the Stop Button on Genetic Panic

A fairly recent (January 30th) column in the Guardian announces that "there is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering." According to the piece, the next quarter of a century will bring expected life spans of 110 years, substantial genetic modification of embryos, cognitive enhancement for schoolchildren through pharmacogenetics, and "iPod chips" implanted behind the ear.

And this is hardly science fiction. For columnist Madeleine Bunting, the post-human world "outlined above for my descendants was the most benign I could imagine. There's no point in sci-fi style panic." No point in panic indeed.

Bunting would have her readers believe that the future she outlines is "the most conservative of a range of scenarios about the possibilities of 'human enhancement.'" In fact, by engaging in what, despite her claims to the contrary, can only be described as science-fiction, Bunting is undoubtedly inducing precisely the sort of panic among some segment of her readers that she claims to disdain. By labeling her depiction of the future as "conservative" Bunting leaves it up to the imagination of her readings to spin the more dire tails: armies of clones, human-octopus hybrids, giant organ farms populated by orphaned children, an immortal Vice-President Cheney, etc.
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Because Bunting's ultimate point - that the UK should participate in the debate over how existing and emerging genetic technologies should be pursued in labs and integrated into society - is a sound one I can recommend the article is worthy of a quick read. But it's critically important to distinguish Bunting's ultimate thesis from the tactics she uses to convey that message. The media's sensationalization of genetic technologies - both in reporting on the import and consequences of current breakthroughs and in imagining the long-term implications and applications of these technologies - only serves to drown out and obscure the reasoned and scientifically grounded debate that is vital to ensuring the successful development and implemenation of new and more powerful science.

Quite simply, it is in no way inevitable that by the year 2030 we will all live to be 110. Given that we're still looking at grapes and fish to help understand the basics of longevity such a prediction can't fairly be described as "conservative" either. What is inevitable, and what Bunting recognizes when she says that we can't hit the "stop button", is that the science underlying genetic engineering continues apace almost entirely apart from the moral disapprobation of certain segments of society.

It is the ongoing evolution of genetic science and technologies which presents us with an opportunity for careful scientific debate, and which is already saturated with fantastic media-generated imaginings of the future. Today we are presented with real and immediate questions of ethics and policy that deserve immediate address. To answer these questions we need an open debate that not only imagines the future of genetic technologies but also endeavors at a reasonable calculation of their probability, and pays appropriate respect to the inherent contingency of any scenario purporting to describe the world a quarter of a century hence.

In contemplating the future we must decide how to allocate scarce scientific resources and how to craft policies that best guide the inevitable development of the genetic sciences down a path we believe to be morally palatable. To do this we must avoid engaging in hyberpole and sci-fi panic; engage our rational faculties rather than our gut instincts.

Bunting, I think, understands this basic idea. Unfortunately, re-packaging fantastic science-fiction scenarios as a "conservative" and realistic prediction of the future isn't all that helpful.


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