A FUTURISTIC HELL
A Review of Lee Silver's Remaking
I remember watching a PBS program in the mid-1980s where they showed how dairy breeders spread the genes of prime dairy cows to as many calves as possible. Guys in white coats visited guys in flannel shirts and took sperm from the bull of a champion cow mother and combined it in a lab with eggs from another high-yielding cow. After fertilization had occurred, the guys in white coats revisited the guys in flannel shirts and placed the super-embryos that emerged from these petri dish unions in the wombs of unexceptional cows, who served as gestators. The pregnancies unfolded and average cows gave birth to super milk producers. The guys in the flannel shirts smiled.
Though it was fairly common, this scenario horrified me. Similar activities now occur in the human sphere.
In Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World,(1998), Princeton Molecular Biologist Lee Silver examines the growth of reproductive technologies and considers where the applications of these technologies may lead society. The book does not have a happy ending.
Silver discusses several technologies already in use, including in vitro fertilization (“IVF”), artificial insemination, surrogacy and embryo selection. By invoking various actual and hypothetical reproductive scenarios, he shows how parenthood has been transmogrified one step at a time and, therefore, how it will be difficult to halt the march of reprotech.
For example, IVF entails combining, outside the womb, eggs and sperm. Once fertilization occurs, the embryos derived can be implanted into a gestational mother, who may not have provided the egg. IVF can be used in combination with genetic screening to facilitate embryo selection. Genetic screening entails examination of embryonic cells to determine certain of the embryo’s characteristics, including gender. Armed with such knowledge, parents can choose which embryos they will allow to grow and which to throw away. The NIH’s Human Genome Project is developing more knowledge about which gene sequences cause which traits. As this knowledge increases, child-bearing can ever more closely resemble a trip to Wal-Mart.
Silver then discusses two technologies looming on the horizon, cloning and genetic engineering. Cloning entails taking a cell nucleus from another animal and placing it, with a micro-pipette, inside an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. When an electrical charge is supplied, this new cell may start replicating. If this process occurs, the embryo is placed in the womb of a surrogate mother. If all goes according to plan (it often doesn’t), the embryo’s cells differentiate and it becomes an exact copy of the animal from which it was taken. After gestation, the surrogate mother delivers a newborn version of the organism from which it was cloned.
Silver believes that, if sheep can be cloned, so can humans. He asserts that even if few human adults are cloned, cloning will have a huge impact on humans because it will facilitate genetic engineering. Genetic engineering attempts in animals have such a low success rate that the application of this technology to humans would bother too many people. However, if human embryo cells were cloned, there would be more “room for error” in attempts to alter genetic composition. The embryos that failed to accommodate the genetic modification could simply be thrown away. In this moral vacuum, parents could design offspring to have traits the parents want, including height, body type, eye color, intelligence or specific aptitudes.
Silver observes that the emergence and spread of these technologies can be attributed to several factors. First, in a society where it has become increasingly difficult to forge a consensus on many issues, society has not strongly opposed several of the major changes in reprotech that have occurred since the first test tube baby was born in 1978. Second, our society exalts parental choice, regardless of the offspring’s welfare. Third, stockholders and technology providers will do just about anything for a profit. Fourth, governments can’t control activities outside their borders. Taken together, Silver predicts, these factors will ensure that the business of making human replicas (or, in the case of genetic engineering, enhanced semi-replicas) will continue to grow.
Silver asserts that parents will do whatever they can to give their children “a leg up on the competition.” For example, he notes that parents strive to send their offspring to such universities as the one at which he teaches. He postulates that when genetic engineering is made available in a society, where parents seek to provide their “children” with every “conceivable” advantage, those that can afford these technologies will use them. Once they do, the current stratification in our society with intensify dramatically. Society will divide into two classes, the Genetically Enriched and the Naturals. The Genetically Enriched Rich will run the show and the Naturals will run the floor waxers. As the Naturals will be both socially and biologically disadvantaged, the Feudal Era will seem egalitarian by comparison.
We continue down a path where reproduction has been separated from sexuality. Maybe people like me who think that’s dehumanizing will become extinct in the new millennium. You say evolution. I say devolution. Or revolution.
Field-crossing two varieties of corn can be characterized as a form of genetic engineering. But there is a qualitative difference between that and the reprotech discussed in this book that, I think, will limit the use of these forms of reprotech.
Why? Because I suspect that people may reconsider what it means to “conceive” their “own” children. If they are genetically modified, are they really ours? Do we have kids to outcompete other kids or because we want to nurture and share laughs with them? Can’t we do so just as well with an adopted child as a reprotech-ed one? And won’t a society that is almost terminally bored become even more so if we can design our offspring? Ultimately, I think humans will reject these technologies because we will refuse to be treated like livestock.
But I’ve been wrong before.