Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man’s upper chamber, if he has common
sense on the ground-floor.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The quality of our future through genetic engineering will depend on how rational and prudent we are in evaluating our findings and forging ahead. With the advent of genetic engineering we are no longer dealing with inanimate inventions but with complex living alterations, which can affect our entire biosphere.
Initial controversy over this field began with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 of Diamond Vs Chakrabarty (447 U.S. 303) which set the precedent for the patenting of microorganisms. On April 7, 1987 the US Patent and Trademark Office based itself on the Chakrabarty case and extended patents to cover all multicellular organisms except for humans (under 35 USC 101-Inventions Patentable). From this decision, on April 12, 1988, the first patent for a multicellular organism was awarded to Harvard College, and about two dozen more are pending. Although these decisions are controversial, the Patent Office and the Supreme Court acted on sound legal principle based on precedent. Since such legal principles are often based on technicalities, morally relevant issues must therefore depend on Congressional supervision.
Members of Congress (Sen. Mark O. Hatfield R-Oregon and Rep. Charlie Rose D-N.Carolina) have attempted to curb these decisions but with little long term success.
The question remains that if the Chakrabarty case evolved from the patenting of microorganisms to multicellular organisms, what prevents it from evolving to humans.
In light of potential abuse in this matter, it will be Congress’ responsibility to curb business and military ventures in genetic engineering. Various interest groups and the media, not always for the right motives, are also important forces which can spur public opinion to these problems. This is a major concern because the profit and power motive supersede caution and actual necessity. A patent should not mean “carte blanche.”
A fundamental problem in our contemporary societies is that we have been unable to bridge the widening gap between scientific and sociopolitical evolution; maturity. This leads to a multitude of problems which we must learn to control before we forge blindly ahead. Our scientific innovations are too far reaching and therefore dangerous for us to further avoid prudence as to their long term effects, e.g. drugs which are brought to the market and considered safe are at a later date found to cause unforeseen side effects.
Since anything created by man alters the environment, we must think carefully before acting. In the latter part of the 20th Century we have exponentially destroyed many of our natural elements. Since the end of World War II the problems we face due to modernization are numerous. They range from the depletion of the rain forests by 40 % which provide over 1/4 of our oxygen. Over 1000 animal species have been destroyed through the advent of careless technological applications. We severely depleted the protective ozone layer of our atmosphere, already a known fact in the early 70’s. Waste disposal impasse. The hazards of nuclear power and radioactive waste which we are unable to store much less destroy safely even in the absence of natural disasters. Problems of destruction by acid rain due to environmental pollution. Etcetera.
In nature, the evolutionary process takes millions of years. During which time period different species evolve and change with their environment to create a stable and balanced biosphere. this is called Succession. Succession is a crucial part of this topic because with genetic engineering we are attempting to alter lifeforms in a short period of time. The rapid introduction of new organisms on an ecosystem can have devastating effects. I.e., The Mediterranean fruit fly (Medfly) which appeared in 1981 and devastated crops throughout Northern California for two years and a 100 million dollar price tag.
Our biosphere suffers because changes occur too rapidly without accurate control and understanding at this stage. Can we safely create new lifeforms when we are incapable of safeguarding our own present natural habitats. Can we then safely assume that new patented species of animals will not cause harm to the breeders, consumers, and other natural habitats. The rapidity at which these species could be created would not allow for the timely observation that one would have with selective breeding.
An important answer to the uncertainties of genetic engineering can be found in gene mapping. It is the most efficient way to understand our genetic makeup. Through better understanding of the genetic code, scientists are learning how to decipher the human genome, which contains all the genetic information on humans. It is estimated that the genome’s information and the mapping of its structure will take between 10 to 20 years, for over 90% of the genome’s code sequence has no known function.
Until we acquire additional information we cannot claim to follow a prudent course. But with patience, gene mapping is the best way for optimizing our use of genetic engineering; to offset the negative unforeseen effects.
It is therefore too early and far too dangerous to meddle with a whole balance of life at this early stage of the game without full awareness of all known present and future ecological consequences, just for the sake of pride and profit. The profit motive, further encouraged by the government’s patent law.
Genetic engineering could be most productive in improving our life quality, such as the treatment of ailments, aging control,non animal testing, etc. But as recent agricultural developments show, we must also learn to successfully integrate genetic advances with the economy. Through genetic engineering we have increased the resistance and efficiency of farm animals. Therefore, we have a huge surplus of agricultural goods in the United States and European Economic Community. This was demonstrated by the failure of the 1985 farm bill (U.S. dairy herd buy out program). Low feed prices and genetic improvements not only make this obsolete but compound the problem. At present, agriculture and food problems do not need to be improved through genetic engineering but through political means. The majority of the world’s food problems come with political ineptitude.
We have reached a period in our history when we can no longer compromise our environment for political or economic questions. The pressures on our biosphere have reached a saturation point. The tradeoffs are no longer in our favor.
We must first be aware and able to control the normal inputs we make on the environment before we can effectively control altered genetic inputs we make on that environment. It is therefore imperative that genetic research be done in a strictly controlled environment. That provisions be made for dealing swiftly with products of such research leaking into the environment. That Congress help keep strict supervision, at least until further advances in genetic engineering come to fruition.
Any new developments we wish to make cannot be successful if they do not balance in the biosphere as a whole. Genetic improvements can only be achieved through concerted sociopolitical maturity resulting in a greater grasp and respect of our environment and all its combined elements.
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