Apr 302009
 
Authors: Alex Stephens

Imagine a world where people are no longer born but are grown — where endless fields are dedicated to the farming of humans to be made into soldiers, slaves and replacements.

No, this isn’t a meshing of Huxley and Wachowski. It is one possibility of a future that our generation will soon likely witness.

For centuries, civilizations have sought methods of social engineering — from the legendary Spartan methods of judging a child’s strength, a la the exaggerated “300” to the American Eugenics Movement of the 1930s, social Darwinism and the subsequent Nazi Holocaust. Finding ways to create, as Adolf Hitler phrased it, a “master race” has always been present in one form or another throughout history.

Methods of social engineering progress as technology advances.

Our current understanding of DNA, spurred by biochemists in the 1950s, has led to genome mapping which is the ability to read, like a map, a person’s list of genetic traits. Genes that determine the color of your hair and eyes, your potential physical strength and even your lifespan are continually being discovered and understood.

Eventually, doctors will be able to discern and correct undesirable traits in unborn children upon the parents’ request. Devastating genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis will be preventable.

But this raises the possibility of “designer children” for those who can afford it. Social stratification would reach new heights; discrimination against “faulty” individuals might become the future equivalent of racism.

The sci-fi movie “Gattaca” presents these possibilities in a medium most of us can relate to.

Cloning is quickly coming to the forefront of ethical debate. In 1996, Scottish scientists created the first reproductively cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, which raised a host of moral questions ranging from the edibility of cloned animals to whether we should be playing God.

Sometimes science erases questions of ethics while prompting new ones, as in the case of stem cells.

For the past decade it was believed that therapeutic stem cells used to repair damaged organs and tissue could only be acquired through embryos. That led to the heated debate of whether saving a life was worth sacrificing another.

Earlier this year Japanese scientists found a way to essentially reprogram any cell to become a stem cell, eliminating the old requirement of embryos. The newfound ability to reprogram cells and genes has opened the door to science that was once thought fictional.

In the recent May issue of National Geographic an article described the process of cloning or resurrecting long extinct animals.

The ability to create a long-extinct wooly mammoth is within reach of current reproductive technologies. This raises many more interesting and frightening ethical questions than stem cells ever did. Scientists that once laughed at “Jurassic Park” are now reconsidering the very real possibilities of bringing dinosaurs back to life.

What’s more currently feasible than dinosaurs though is cloning your dead great-grandmother. All it takes is a small sample of her genetic material implanted in a reprogrammed enucleated female egg.

Now, what if you were able to take some of your own genetic information and clone yourself? If any of your organs fail, you could harvest your clone for fresh pieces. Perhaps you could even transplant your brain into your younger clone’s body.

Who’s to say that’s impossible when a year ago we thought today’s technologies were unimaginable?

Will our ethics catch up to or ever outpace our scientific and technological advancements? In February, President Obama lifted the ban on government funding for embryonic stem cell research, but it was not controversial enough to reignite the debate over cloning.

In order to preserve our societal ethics, we need to be discussing even the most seemingly absurd possibilities of cloning now before they become a reality.

Alex Stephens is a senior political science major. His column appears Fridays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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