During the past decade, genetic engineering has been a very controversial issue facing our world that ultimately questions our power as humans to control nature. Genetic engineering has many potential benefits, such as curing all diseases, growing more food, and altering our genes, but these advantages also cause some disadvantages, such as overpopulation, ecological, ethical, and social issues, which all must be assessed before we advance any further in this field. We should definitely move ahead with genetic engineering because its advantages are very important to us, and its problems can be addressed. Probably the most important reason why we need genetic engineering is to cure diseases. Through genetic engineering, we will probably be able to cure many of the diseases plaguing our world today. By altering genetic code, we can cure diseases, such as AIDS, and increase the life expectancy of humans. We can optimize everyone’s genes to certain physical and mental characteristics. In 1991, the National Institute of Health patented over 2,000 gene sequences from human brain DNA (Christianity Today, 1994). This indicates that our ability to control every facet of human life is rapidly coming within our reach.
Despite many ethical issues opposing genetic engineering (read on), it will definitely help us cure the sick, and that reason alone is enough reason for us to go ahead with this new field of science. One of the main reasons why we should use genetic engineering is to solve our global food shortages. Through genetic engineering, scientists can grow larger tomatoes, more apples per orchard, and crunchier lettuce. With all the recent natural disasters and ecological problems, such as El Nino, wild fires, and global droughts, acres of crops all over the world are being destroyed. Places such as Florida and the mid-west are among the many that are being hit severely. And with scientists predicting increased global warming, and droughts in the future, genetic engineering is the only safe alternative to solving this crisis. So far, the only genetically engineered product in the market is something called the “Flavr Savr” tomato, which is engineered to stay firm longer than ordinary tomatoes (The Economist, 1997).
The principle behind transferring genes between plants is not new. It is actually almost like hybridization (to produce crossbreeds), except more precise in its method. With genetic engineering, scientists take individual genes from one plant and insert them in another. There are no chemicals needed, such as those used on many crops lately. Overall, genetically engineering plants to make them better tasting or larger is a natural process similar to gene mutations, except it is controllable. Another major advantage of genetic engineering is manipulating genes to change physical and mental characteristics. Eugenics, a field of genetic engineering, has the potential to manipulate human characteristics, such as intelligence and weight, to any specifications. By making people more intelligent, we can shorten the years spent at high school and college because people will be able to learn much faster than before. In turn, this will make our global economy more efficient because there will be more people in the work force at a younger age. No one will have to go to costly and timely exercise classes to lose weight also.
We will not have to spend money on making new health care programs, and older people will be more productive. This technology will make our world much simpler because it will save us valuable time throughout our life and, thus, focus our intelligence towards more productive things, such as work and family. It will also give us more free time to do what we want. The benefits of eugenics are clearly outstanding, but if we get out of hand and do not regulate our manipulations of humans, we might cause a catastrophe. As we excel in genetic engineering and discover more information about the human body, we are met with new ethical issues that have never been revealed before. One of these issues deals with treatment vs. enhancement. Most writers in the past have stated that when genetically intervening with the human body, a distinction must be made between therapy and enhancement.
Neither therapy nor enhancement is totally morally correct, but therapy is considered better than enhancement because it is trying to get rid of something that has entered the system to cause harm. On the other hand, enhancement is aimed at making the body better, or superior to someone else, which opposes the general Western belief that “all men are created equal”. However, this ethical argument made by many writers, scientists, and religious officials, all depends on each individual’s standard of disease and enhancement. One person might think that losing 100 pounds with genetic engineering is enhancement, but another person might percieve it as therapy because the excessive weight could be a result of hormonal imbalance and may cause disease in the future. In other words, laws cannot be made that determine what is therapy and what is enhancement because each human characteristic might directly or indirectly cause physical or mental harm.
This also means we really cannot determine whether certain kinds of genetic engineering are morally correct (e.g. changing intelligence, weight, height etc.), and, thus, we should just leave it to each individual to decide according to his/her values and beliefs whether changing height is worse than curing the common cold. Another lingering ethical issue with genetic engineering concerns our right to act like God. According to the Christian religion, God is the sole creator of life, and he/she is the only one with the ability to create it, manipulate it, or destroy it. This long-standing belief is probably the most crucial opposition to genetic engineering because so many people believe it, and our society basically revolves around it. For example, a statement signed by twenty-four religious leaders from a variety of religious beliefs affirms that “the gift of life from God, in all its forms and species, should not be regarded solely as if it were a chemical product subject to genetic alteration and patentable for economic benefit (Bioethics, 935).”
The opinions of religious leaders in this statement should be respected, but there is no concrete proof to provide a significant, considerable argument against genetic engineering. According to religious leaders, this affirmation is self-evident. In that case, what does self-evident mean? The only reason the belief that God creates everything is so commonly accepted or self-evident, is because it has been accepted for about 2,000 years (tradition). Two thousand years ago, this was our only explanation for the miracle of life. But our society has changed greatly since 60 b.c. and, thus, some of our views and ethical beliefs also might have to change . If our society had been run on a strict theological code, we would not have advanced nearly as much as we have. This is because a strong religious belief in a society takes much of our thought, in some sense narrows our perspectives and, thus, keeps our society from excelling at a fast rate.
One of the largest religions on this planet, Christianity, promotes simplicity as a way of life. So, instead of following religious affirmations on certain ethical issues, such as genetic engineering, we should as a society scrutinize our theological perspectives, and alter them accordingly to fit our new, contemporary world. Aside from the ethical issues revolving around genetic engineering, there are also more crucial ecological issues which must be assessed. When we genetically engineer animals or plants to better serve our food supply, we basically replace certain genes with other genes. This sounds quite safe at first, but what if by doing this we eventually diminish the supply of a certain gene in an ecological system, or create a type of plant far superior to all others. And then what if this plant reproduces and gets into a diverse ecological system and kills all other plants there? The characteristics that are engineered into an organism (plants and animals) might have innumerable negative consequences. For example, we can genetically engineer beef cattle in such a way that we increase cattle supply, in turn, causing an increase in a certain hormone which might be carcinogenic. Or we can create certain plants superior to others, which might eventually kill all other plants.
Radically altering an animal and then having escape into an uncontrolled environment could turn into a massive problem. Basically, by manipulating gene pools and diminishing certain genes from different populations (plants or animals), we might create an imbalance in the homeostasis of an ecology, which might lead to the extinction of certain species. The long term social result of genetic engineering might be catastrophic because of narrowing of gene pools. With genetic engineering we will promote certain genes over others. Most people that want their children to be genetically engineered will choose pretty much the same genes which are considered by the general population better than others. If the majority of the population in the world recieves the same genes, this will be similar to mass cloning because everyone will have the same physical and mental characteristics. In our current day, many cultures are distinguished by characteristics, such as height, skin color, eye color, hair color, and certain behavioral characteristics. By making everyone the same from at birth, we are fabricating one big culture and unfortunately diminishing individual cultures and racial identities.
Genetic uniformity is not good because of the risk of having a harmful recessive trait emerge into the gene pool. To avoid the risk of reaching genetic uniformity, we have to limit the amount of traits that can be changed for each individual. Another disadvantage of genetic engineering is potential overpopulation. By using genetic engineering to cure all diseases, and perfect human genes, we will be able to increase the overall life expectancy of humans as much as we want.Within our genes, each human has a life expectancy (considering no outside forces interrupt), which is specifically controlled by telomeres. By manipulating the telomeres (parts of chromosomes that control life expectancy) we can program humans to live longer. This concept might seem great, but it will result in severe overpopulation. Everyone has a right to live, but logically our planet can only handle a certain amount of people. This does not mean we should go kill a few million people, but we should defintely not artificially promote a greater population.
This overpopulation will cause a gap in our work force in the beginning since there will be many more retired people than young people. It will also cause problems to our current health care system, which can barely handle the population as is. When dealing with genetic engineering, we should leave life expectancy alone and let nature run its course. Genetic Engineering is a “brave new world”, which must be approached and scrutinized with great caution. The main controversy circling genetic engineering concerns our ability and right to control nature’s course. Once we answer this question and many others, we should definitely make the greatest effort to pursue with research and development in genetic engineering. Overall, genetic engineering will be explored imminently because it offers us control of nature and the world, and that alone is all we have ever wanted.