how to stop worrying and learn to love playing god

melbourne age, 11 july 2003

The genetic revolution seems to have divided the world into two camps: utopians and dystopians. Utopians look to science to solve the world's problems - to eliminate hunger, eradicate disease and improve the human species by enhancing our intelligence and personalities. Dystopians, on the other hand, warn darkly that scientific advances threaten to transform human nature, undermine human dignity and usher in a new era of eugenics. The trouble with both arguments is that that they're as plausible as the plot of Terminator 3 - and as considered as Arnie's political convictions. Much of the debate revolves around technologies that don't exist - and that are unlikely to exist for a long time, if ever.

Take, for instance, the furore over 'designer' babies. Depending on whom you talk to, we should either welcome or deplore the possibility that parents - or, perhaps, even the state - may soon be able to design babies selected for high intelligence, good looks or a sunny personality. Well, I wouldn't give up just yet on more conventional ways of enhancing your child's life chances, such as parental love or a good education. It's not just that 'intelligence' is a fiendishly difficult concept to define outside of specific contexts. Nor that it is largely a product of our social environment. It is also that dozens, maybe hundreds, of genes underlie the cognitive processes that help shape intelligence. There is no such thing as 'the gene' (or even a handful of genes) for intelligence. And even if there were it is unlikely that we would, in the near future, be able to design genetically enhanced babies. There are some 4000 disorders - such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntingdon's chorea and thalassaemia - that we know are caused by single genes. We have yet to discover a way of engineering a genetic solution to any of these disorders. As geneticists know only too well, even single-gene disorders are complex phenomena, and clinical breakthroughs take time.

If proponents of biotech overplay the possibilities of the genetic revolution, opponents overegg the dangers. Underlying much of the criticism of biotechnology is a fear of 'tampering with nature' and of scientists 'playing God'.

But what's wrong with this? Nature, it so happens, is a bad designer because it is a blind designer. We only need medicine, and hence biotechnology, because evolution has left us with jerry-built bodies that constantly break down with headaches and backaches, cancers and coronaries, schizophrenia and depression. So why shouldn't we try to improve our genome? After all, from agriculture to transplants, improving upon nature has been central to human development.

One reason that contemporary debates about biotechnology seem so fraught is that, at a time when people have become disenchanted with politics, both their hopes and fears for the future are often displaced on to science, leading to fantasy scenarios. The danger is that such fantasies can act as obstacles to the possibilities of real, pragmatic advances. While everyone gets into a froth about designer babies, for instance, the true scandal is that proper screening programmes for genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis barely exist. Preposterous claims about human cloning have helped promote in many countries restrictive legislation on embryonic stem cell research. If we left science fiction to Hollywood, we'd be able to think more clearly about how science fact really can improve our lives.