After reviewing my last post, I felt that some additional clarification was needed beyond some appending (which I have already done). Adding it to the last blog would only make it unreadable.
First and foremost, I must clarify that I am not condemning Dr. Church, his theories, or his work. I tried (unsuccessfully in the first draft) to state that Dr. Church had been misquoted, and that he had attempted to correct the problem by denying the accusation that he was attempting an ethically questionable procedure. I also was not implying that he was a reflection of the fictional John Hammond from “Jurassic Park”.
The hypothetical scenario postulated by Dr. Church in Der Spiegel and the fictional story by Michael Crichton bring up the same ethical questions, and are easily compared by anyone who has read the book, or seen the movie. Dr. Church has simply become the focal point of the Internet’s knee jerk reaction. The ethical conversation is constantly happening in academic circles, and has been going on for years.
The interesting thing I noticed (after my own knee was done jerking) was that the Internet seemed to react in an amazing way. Reporters, bloggers, and laypeople tended to react as if this technology was readily available, and ready for implementation. Dr. Church, correctly, pointed out the current theories and techniques required to accomplish the cloning processes are evolving quickly, and that it will be possible to manipulate DNA to benefit society. He also noted that this isn’t possible right now.
Cloning a complex organism like a human is extremely difficult, and fraught with problems. Even mammals that we can clone are very expensive and usually reserved for research purposes only. The high rate of failure and multiple problems with live births makes cloning impractical for anything else. The idea that this technology is currently perfected and practically viable shows just how our society has difficulty discerning fact from fantasy.
The problem comes from the ethics and morality of manipulating the genetic structure to such an advanced degree. There are shades of grey, and certainly slippery slopes that have to be negotiated. Frankly, Dr. Church came off as arrogant, and dismissive of the morality involved in such endeavors. This isn’t surprising as it’s his passion and life’s work to investigate all the possibilities available, and to increase our understanding of our own genetic code. Being able to understand the potential and truth about our universe is essential for any good scientist.
The main issue he brings up is that the ethics and morality used to determine what is right and wrong largely depends on what any society is willing to accept. There are parts of the world where genetic manipulation, of any kind, is unacceptable, and illegal, but others where they are more tolerant.
Where this becomes troubling is where the unintended consequences of such actions become a hazard that can spin beyond our control. A current controversy is applicable.
A researcher, studying how to weaponize a strain of the influenza virus, wants to publish his research in a publicly available peer reviewed journal. This person is doing what scientists are supposed to do research, review, and repeat. Research is only good if it is reproducible by one’s peers. If you want a case study of what happens when they circumvent this process, Google Pons and Fleischmann. The issue isn’t that he shouldn’t be doing this research in the first place, but what will happen if someone capable or repeating his research uses it as an actual weapon.
This is when the variation in morals and ethics become unacceptable. A terrorist or rogue state might have no problem justifying the use of a weapon that can’t possibly be controlled, but the government that funded the research would never dream of using it.
This is the double-edged sword of science. Oppenheimer regretted the use of the atomic bomb as a weapon. He wasn’t a bad scientist, or person. He was doing the research he felt was right, but was disenfranchised by those who used his research as a weapon to take the lives of thousands of Japanese civilians.
The subjective nature of ethics and morality make the issue of genetic research a perilous venture. The unintended consequences must be weighed against the benefits of any genetic manipulative technology. What can easily be used to extend life and cure disease, can easily be turned to destructive ends. What Dr. Church advocates is open discussion of these topics. The free exchange of ideas is laudable, and clear definitions about what is, and isn’t, acceptable need to be established. The difficulty with this discussion lies with the subjective nature of these ethics.
What Dr. Church understands, but appears to dismiss, is that people are uncomfortable with the idea of creating a sentient life form, so closely related to humans, in a lab. The idea that humans would assume control over our own evolutionary process appears to be inevitable to Dr. Church, but that doesn’t sit well with most people. The religious implications of supplanting God aside, the idea is arrogant and elitist. Who determines the direction of human evolution, and who evolves and who doesn’t? Does this degrade into an X-men, Gattica, Hunger Games, or Dune Sci-fi morality tale?
Science fiction writers have posed these questions since H.G. Wells. In many ways, fiction allows us to explore these ideas, and have these hypothetical discussions before they occur. The problems really start when the actual discussions begin over science fact. Most people have a difficult time separating the facts from fiction, and it is interesting to watch the ignorance square off with the arrogance online.
The unfortunate reality is that scientists seem to dismiss the concerns and ideas of the countless works of fiction because they are just that...fiction. That is what frightens the public the most, and why we have celebrities touting wild discredited “scientific” theories about the causes of autism in children. That is why there is such a firestorm over the very idea that Dr. Church postulated the cloning of a 30,000-year-old extinct hominid species. The idea that science would be too arrogant to understand the full consequences of their actions is a common theme in science fiction, and is only reinforced when scientists don’t choose their words carefully. I guess writers, like me, won’t run out of material anytime soon.