genetic engineering is a hotly-debated topic. On the one hand, giant corporations, ambitious scientists and powerful politicians are pushing forward with projects they claim will benefit mankind, and on the other, public opinion, environmentalists and consumers’ associations are concerned that these projects are insufficiently safeguarded and pose irreversible risks to life on this planet. In this paper I will set out the main issues in the debate on genetic engineering. First I will summarise the history of genetic science, and look at the origins of the debate. Then I will discuss the manipulation of plant, animal and human genes in turn, and consider the possible benefits and dangers of each. Finally, I will suggest that, for all its potential dangers, it is better for research to go ahead openly than for governments to try to ban such research altogether.
GE is quite a recent science. DNA, the basic material that determines genes, was discovered in 1953 (the discovery was announced in Nature magazine on April 25th, 1953), and ‘It was only in 1956…that cytogeneticists learned that each human cell contains 46 chromosomes’ (Lipkin and Rowley, p. 4).
‘Recombinant DNA’ – which makes it possible to actually change or modify genes – was not discovered until 1973 (Howard and Rifkin, p. 13).
Brad Miller Ms. Cheryl Weatherly English Composition and Research 2 July 2000 Gene-therapy: How will it Change the Future of Genetic Disorders Ten years ago researchers from the U. S. , Britain, France, Germany, Japan and China sat down and began developing the most important map ever made. Instead of roads and landmarks, this was a map of letters. It was "a rough map of the 3 billion letters of ...
However, the debate about GE goes back much further. It was first popularised by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World (1932), in which humans are born in bottles (‘test tube babies’), and genetically conditioned to think and behave in certain ways.
When GE became a scientific reality in the 1970s, the debate continued to focus largely on the mainulation of human genes, following the trend set by Huxley. (See, for example, Karp, 1976, Howard and Rifkin, 1977, the former in favour of GE, the latter mainly opposed to it.) The perception was that, ‘In the great game that is played, we are the players as well as being the cards and the stakes’ (de Chardin, quoted by Hauerwas in Paoletti, ed., p. 130).
However, as we near the turn of the century, the debate has widened considerably, and taken on a new practical significance. The first cloned animals (sheep and cows) are now actually alive (and breeding), and ‘Genetically modified crops are already entering the human food supply in the UK’ (Nuffield Report, p.1).
The remainder of this essay is devoted to exploring the issues relating to GE of plant, animal and human genes, and discussing their advantages and disadvantages in turn.
The debate about GE in plants is of particular urgency, since ‘Genetically modified crops are already entering the human food supply.’ Nuffield Council on Bioethics, April 1998(p.1) and, in many cases, there is ‘no way of knowing which food has genetically altered ingredients’ (BBC News Online, March 18th)
Supporters of GE argue that ‘Genetic know-how might provide the means to feed the millions of hungry people in the world.’ (Karp, preface, p. xi) This hope applies particularly to the plant world. Scientists hope to produce crops which are resistent to diseases, able to survive in rough conditions, and have a long shelf life in the store or supermarket. ‘Food for Our Future’, a web site produced by the UK Food and Drink Federation, presents this hopeful vision of the future of GE of plants.
On the other hand, environmental groups like Greenpeace warn that GE crops may pose a threat. Once they have started to grow, genetically-modified crops cannot be removed from the environment, and they may have all kinds of unexpected influences.
Picture a summertime barbecue; children playing in the grass, friends and family gathered to share a meal, hot dogs and hamburgers cooking over the grill…. For most people this is a classic image of American culture. What most don’t consider is that there is something sinister lurking in the details of this scene. While it might not be apparent at first, the problem here is what is cooking ...
For example, GE crops often have a natural insecticide built into their genes. In time, insects may develop a resistance to this insecticide, so it will become useless. Growers of organic foods use this insecticide, because it is natural, but if insects develop a resistance to it, they will not be able to protect their crops.
Another fear is that farmers in poor countries, who stand most in need of this kind of technology, will not be the ones who benefit from it. In fact, with today’s market economy, they are more likely to be driven out of business by big agricultural companies (Nuffield Report, p. 7).
Gene technology took a big step forward with the birth, in February 1997, of a sheep, called Dolly, ‘from an egg cell which had its own nucleus removed and replaced with the nucleus of a body cell from a six-year old adult sheep’, and on April 23, 1998 Dolly herself gave birth to a lamb (BBC News, April 23, 1998).
The main practical results that are expected to result from such experiments are in the field of medicine. ‘An estimated 25 per cent of all diseases are caused totally or in part by genetic malfunctions’ (Karp, p. 35), and GE could potentially eliminate all of these diseases, as well as making available substances which can be used in the treatment of other, non-hereditary diseases.
For example, if all goes well, ‘natural chemicals produced in the milk of cloned animals will be used in the widespread treatment of diseases such as haemophilia and the lung disease emphysema’ (ibid.).
Meanwhile, American scientists are currently working on ‘creating cows that produce large quantities of an important human blood protein in their milk’ (BBC News, May 22, 1998).
It is also expected that animals with certain qualities (for example, cows which produce very large amounts of milk) will pass those qualities on to future generations through genetic engineering (Lappe, p. 134).
In a sense, genetic engineering of animals is the least debated of the three areas (plants, animals and humans).
So far, at least, the public is not being asked to eat genetically-modified animals or their products (milk, eggs, etc.).
Whether its social, business, or personal, animals play an extremely important role in the lives of humans. Humans have been using animals to survive since before 100 BC. Animals have been protectors, companions, benefactors, co-workers, and even best friends. Humans need animals in their lives to stay healthy mentally and even physically. Animals are used in everyday physical therapy to increase ...
Once they start to enter the food chain, though, there will probably be a controversial debate.
What the successful cloning of animals has done is reawaken the debate about human cloning. The reasoning is, if it can be done with animals, then it can be done with humans. Huxley’s nightmare future has become a scientific possibility. The fears are so real that nineteen European countries have signed an agreement banning human cloning, and President Clinton has called for a five-year ban on human cloning experiments (BBC News Online, 12th Jan., 1998), while scientists like Richard Seed claim that they could be mass-producing human clones within a few years.
As with animal cloning, the promised benefits focus mainly on health issues. For example, human organs, could be transplanted from cloned donors, and genetic manipulation could make many diseases a thing of the past. (See, for example, Benoit, ‘Why clone human embryos?’)
However, what some see as benefits are regarded by others as potential dangers. If cones are to be used to provide organs, what are the rights of the clones themselves (Benoit, ibid.)? Are they simply to be kept like cattle?
A potentially even more serious worry is that through genetic engineering scientists will come to control, not only the health of future generations, but also their personalities. There are genes which put some people at risk of becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, or thieves. Environment and culture play a part, but genes are an important influence on our personality (see for example, the Home Arts web page on Children’s Personality).
Once scientists start interfering with human genes, the process will be irreversible, and it is not possible to know in advance what all the results may be.
Prince Charles recently spoke out against GE, saying that it is interfering in areas that ‘belong to God and to God alone’ (The Guardian Weekly, June 9th).
In a sense, he is right. The processes that created this planet and all the life which exists on it are natural processes. Nature (or God, as Prince Charles believes) has created a balanced harmony. By interfering with that balance, humans risk results that they cannot even dream of.
Genetic Cloning Genetic cloning has become an issue in these past years, and many questions have arisen due to this scientific breakthrough. As with any new technology, ethical and moral ideals have clashed between those who support it and those who favor the opposing side. The dispute involves what to do with our ability to clone and manipulate DNA of human beings, plants, and animals, and ...
On the other hand, humans have been altering their environment ever since the beginning of their appearance on the planet. Ever since humans started lighting fires, discovered the use of the wheel and began to grow their own food they have been on a path that has led inescapably to the world we live in today. If we had to go back to a world without technology – without petrol (gasoline), electricity, concrete, etc. – we would not survive. Humanity is committed to a path which relies on science to solve the problems that science itself has caused.
That is not the same as saying that anything should be allowed; clearly some courses of action are foolish. However, experience suggests that humans will not go back; once they have started on something they will continue until they reach their goal. Whether we like it or not, the race for perfection has begun in the field of genetic engineering. Trying to stop it will only drive it underground, it will not make it go away.
Rather than having scientists working secretly in some remote country where they cannot be controlled, surely it is preferable that they should work in an open society, in full consultation with politicians and consumer/environmental groups?
Howard, T., and Rifkin, J., Who should play God? : The artificial creation of life and what it means for the future of the human race ( New York, Delacorte Press, 1977)
Karp, L.E., Genetic engineering, threat or promise? (Chicago, Nelson-Hall, 1976).
Lipkin, M., and Rowley, P.T., Eds., Genetic responsibility: on choosing our children’s genes, (New York, Plenum Press, 1974)
Paoletti, R. A., Ed., Selected readings: genetic engineering and bioethics, (New York, MSS Information Corp, 1972)
Dr. B. Benoit, ‘Human Cloning and Re-engineering’:
‘Food for Our Future’ (UK Food and Drink Federation web site):
Home Arts web page on Children’s Personality: