Another excellent newsletter from the Center for Genetics and Society.
The IN THE NEWS sections and SUMMER READING particularly recommended.
These 2 excerpts make for an interesting juxtaposition:
*Many newspaper, radio and television accounts of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix focused on the eccentric genius and baffling charm of co-discoverer James Watson. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, Nobel laureate Watson celebrated in his own way: by continuing to aggressively advance his agenda for genetically re-engineering the human species--even if that requires engaging in medical experimentation that puts lives at risk. [Watson is, of course, also a big supporter of GM crops which he also used the anniversary to punt]
*Gene Therapy 'Causes Leukaemia' (June 1)
Genetic Crossroads #31
Newsletter of the Center for Genetics and Society
June 9, 2003
I. NOTABLE QUOTE: ATWOOD
II. FEATURE: SUMMER READING
III. IN THE NEWS
V. LEGISLATIVE BEAT
VI. NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIPTION AND FORMATS
I. NOTABLE QUOTE: ATWOOD
Very soon, RejoovenEsense hoped to hit the market with the various blends on offer. They'd be able to create totally chosen babies that would incorporate any feature, physical or mental or spiritual, that the buyer might wish to select. The present methods on offer were very hit-or-miss, said Crake: certain hereditary diseases could be screened out, true, but apart from that there was a lot of spoilage, a lot of waste...."These are the floor models," [said Crake.] "Not everyone will want all the bells and whistles, we know that. Though you'd be surprised how many people would like a very beautiful, smart baby that eats nothing but grass. The vegans are highly interested in that little item. We've done our market research." - Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, pages 304-5
II. FEATURE: SUMMER READING
Authors of speculative fiction have long pondered the making and marketing of tools that could re-engineer future human generations. Fortunately for those of us wishing to enrich our collective consideration of this troubling prospect, they are still mulling over its many implications. Also fortunately, they are now being joined by some of the finest writers and thinkers working in other genres. The mini-reviews here represent a sampling of recent works focused on the technologies and ideologies that could push us into a "post-human" era.
Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Bill McKibben (2003)
Regular readers of Genetic Crossroads are already aware of Bill McKibben's landmark Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. McKibben's project is an exploration of the ways in which species-altering technologies might reshape not just individuals and social arrangements, but also the meaning and experience of being human. Enough is essential reading. Happily, it is every bit as thought-provoking and "summer-readable" as the best of the fiction works on our list. (For more on Enough, see http://www.genetics-and-society.org/r.asp?s=gc31&t=mckibben.)
The Future of Human Nature, Jurgen Habermas (2003)
The core preoccupations of The Future of Human Nature by Jurgen Habermas are similar to those of Enough, though of course in a much more theoretical register. Habermas is often identified as the most influential philosopher and social thinker in Germany today; his erudite attention to "the biopolitical future prophesied by liberal eugenicists" and the meaning of genetic manipulation "for our self-understanding as moral beings" is understood there as a significant political intervention. The Future of Human Nature was released in the US in April, and so far seems to have attracted surprisingly little attention here even among progressive intellectuals. Perhaps that will change as those inclined to critical social theory encounter Habermas' slim volume, take to heart his urgent call for broader public discourse about the human biotechnologies, and rise to his challenge: "Philosophers no longer have any good reasons for leaving such a dispute to biologists and engineers intoxicated by science fiction."
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)
Margaret Atwood is one of the outstanding literary talents of our time. Her new novel, Oryx and Crake, begins shortly after a catastrophe triggered by a combination of genetic manipulation, climate change, corporate excess, and popular complacency. Jimmy, who may be the sole survivor of a global pandemic caused by a biotech marketing scheme gone awry, shares the ruined landscape with the Crakers, a tribe of human-like folk from whom impulses to hierarchy, competition, territoriality, and sex out of season have been genetically eliminated.
As this partial synopsis hints, Atwood's political sensibilities are piercing and caustic. Their effect is simultaneously heightened and relieved by her hilariously florid linguistic inventions: Young elites in pre-collapse gated communities play Extinctathon and Kwiktime Osama, while their parents labor at biotech companies called OrganInc and Helth Wyzer making wolvogs, pigoons, and other lucrative transgenics. Atwood's anthropological imagination is both droll and provocative: Her story begins with Jimmy literally coming down from the trees; as it ends, we are left to wonder whether and where humanity will pull through. Will it be through Jimmy's discovery of a handful of other human survivors? Or as an evolutionary development of the Crakers' tentative dabbling in art and religion?
Critical reaction to Oryx and Crake has been strangely polarized. Lisa Appignanesi expresses what seems to be the majority view (and mine) when she writes in The Independent (UK) that "Oryx and Crake is Atwood at her best-dark, dry, scabrously witty, yet moving and studded with flashes of pure poetry."
That a couple reviewers sharply disagree with this assessment is not in itself remarkable. But it may be significant that these critics seem reluctant to contemplate the future that Atwood extrapolates. Thus Deborah Blum (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) complains that Oryx and Crake "is preachy, and its apocalyptic catastrophe is unbelievable" and Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) calls it "didactic, at times intriguing but in the end thoroughly unpersuasive."
On the other hand, Atwood's chilling futurology is unreservedly appreciated by The Economist: "The scary thing is that this latest book seems less contrived, less invented than [The Handmaid's Tale]." Ronald Wright uses nearly the same phrase in the Times Literary Supplement: "The truly frightening thing about Atwood's dystopia is that so little of it is far-fetched." Wright's one quibble with the book serves also as a telling comment on our collective predicament: "If Oryx and Crake has a failing," he writes, "it is that too little is left to the reader's imagination, but this is also a strength: most of our troubles as a culture stem from failure to imagine the worst." (For links to these and other reviews, see http://www.reviewsofbooks.com/oryx_and_crake/.)
Feed, M. T. Anderson (2002)
Babies are gestated and born in conceptaria, in part because ambient radiation levels have made the old-fashioned way too risky. Cyborgian adolescents spend their time accessorizing the mysterious lesions that everyone is suddenly sprouting. One of the teenagers, Link, is a clone produced from the dried blood on Mary Todd Lincoln's dress.
But reprogenetics and environmental collapse are, in a sense, just background details. The teen protagonists--like everyone else in the world of Feed--literally have computer chips where their brains should be. Their implants bombard them nonstop with individually tailored commercial incitements, rendering them almost incapable of utterances beyond an instant-messaging / Valley-speak pidgin. ("Omigod! Like big thanks to everyone for not telling me that my lesion is like meg completely spreading.")
Feed pits frenetic technology-enhanced consumerism and heartless corporate logic against a few very ragged remnants of human caring. The outcome, as in several of the other books on this list, is uncertain.
M. T. Anderson's novel is ominous, tender, and savagely funny. It is categorized as "young adult" literature, but is also suitable for adults mature enough to contemplate the possible futures of today's teenagers.
The Secret, Eva Hoffman (2001)
The Secret is a beautifully rendered literary speculation about reproductive cloning: about the new puzzles it would splice onto venerable existential quandaries about human agency and identity; about the unfamiliar twists it would bring to enduring emotional issues about family secrets and the proper limits of parental control. A first novel by an acclaimed British author of memoir and history, The Secret combines coming-of-age story and cautionary tale.
Iris is a teenager when she discovers that she is her mother's clone. Her first reactions clearly echo the ordinary angst of adolescent struggles for autonomy, and clearly depart from them: "I was a replica, an artificial mechanism, a manufactured thing. I was unnatural. My sense of myself as a young girl with her very own, unique self-an illusion. My feelings, my precious feelings-an illusion. A sleight of hand. I was nothing more than a Xerox of her cellular matter, an offprint of her genetic code."
In a later scene, Iris confronts the scientist who cloned her. He is at first smugly proud of his handiwork--"I'd say you're practically perfect"--and then baffled by her accusations. "[W]e had lots of discussions," he tells her defensively. "Lots of American-style talk. We had ethics panels, with the best experts. We followed all their recommendations."
The exchange soon becomes openly hostile. It ends with the cloner playing the cards that he believes trump all--cards that will be familiar to those following the ongoing debates about human genetic manipulation. "I am a scientist.I can't hold back change," he asserts. And in any case, the cloning procedure was "what your mother wanted." Iris' mother, he says, gave her informed consent, and she is the party with standing in the matter. "She was my customer, not you."
Beggars in Spain (1994), Beggars Ride (1996), Beggars and Choosers (1997), Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress' Beggars trilogy begins with a designer-baby experiment. The good news is that the child surpasses the design specs laid out by her corporate mogul father: She not only needs no sleep, but is hyper-intelligent and practically immortal as well. Unfortunately, the fertility doctor has made one small mistake. Somehow he has implanted a second embryo--undesired and unenhanced--into the womb of the uneasy but submissive mother.
The relationship between the decidedly non-identical twin sisters provides an intimate launching point for this "hard sci-fi" epic that spans several hundred years and more than a thousand pages. Kress' story moves from discrimination and mob violence against the Sleepless, to the machinations of the next-generation (or rather, new-release) SuperSleepless, to a nuclear exchange between the now radically divided human subspecies, to an almost-happy ending in which altruistically motivated genetic enhancement gives the normals the ability to photosynthesize.
Kress is well attuned to the dire social and political risks of human genetic enhancement. And she is clearly aware of--and often unabashedly didactic about--the divergent political values and visions in play. Her plot is driven, and at times bogged down, by the irresolvable conflict between radical libertarianism and a commitment to human solidarity.
At the end of it all, Kress seems unable to make up her own mind about either the political theory or the technological path she prefers. But she raises key questions about the possible social consequences of future human redesign. She also poses an urgent challenge that too many of us manage to dodge: What do we make of the fact that human beings today live in biologically distinct realities? (Think life span, infant mortality, access to clean water, caloric intake.) What are the responsibilities of "choosers" when social structures and power arrangements consign billions to be "beggars?" Will we dismantle the walls that enforce those divisions, or head toward a world in which they're inscribed in our genes?
III. IN THE NEWS
Clonaid Nothing But Double Talk? (June 2)
Remember Clonaid, the self-proclaimed "human cloning company" spawned by a UFO cult? These days, it's cashing in on its outrageous claims. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/06/02/eveningnews/main556590.shtml
Gene Therapy 'Causes Leukaemia' (June 1)
Scientists in the United States have warned that some forms of gene therapy may cause patients to develop cancer. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2954986.stm
Stem Cell 'Master Gene' Found (May 30)
Scientists yesterday said they have discovered a long-sought "master gene" in embryonic stem cells that is largely responsible for giving those cells their unique regenerative and therapeutic potential. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55817-2003May29.html
Mule Birth Marks Equine Cloning Breakthrough (May 29)
The birth of the world's first equine clone, a mule named Idaho Gem, has been announced. http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993780
'A Clone Would Be Uglier, Sicker and Dimmer' (May 21)
Human cloning would serve no purpose; all it would do is create imperfect beings, Carlos Alberto Redi, the Italian scientist who created the first mouse clone, said in an interview. http://www.ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=18319
Designer Baby Couple Begin Treatment (May 20)
A couple is to start treatment on Tuesday to create a "designer baby" to provide a donor for their sick son. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/3042393.stm
Boys' Gene Therapy to Continue (May 20)
Doctors at Great Ormond Street hospital, London, are to continue gene therapy treatments for baby boys with a potentially fatal bone marrow disorder, despite two children in a parallel program in France developing leukemia. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,959554,00.html
Pushing for a UN Ban on All Human Cloning (May 17)
Negotiations to reach an international treaty to ban human cloning broke down last September and countries agreed to put off a decision for 12 months. Costa Rica, however, has recently put forward a new proposal aimed at renewing efforts to formulate a ban. http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=35675
UN Panel Studies Medical Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (May 12)
Medical ethics in the era of genetic engineering dominate the agenda of a three-day meeting of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization panel which opened in Paris. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=7034
Television: Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home (June 10)
A baby with five "parents" and none of them recognized by law. A patent application for a creature that would be genetically part human and part chimpanzee. A corporation secretly doing genetic tests on its workers. These scenarios are not only real, they are challenging our most fundamental beliefs and establishing legal precedents that govern our future. Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home, a one-hour documentary that premieres Tuesday, June 10th at 9 PM on PBS (check local listings for rebroadcast schedule), reveals how new biotechnologies are raising ethical, legal and social dilemmas as cutting-edge science intersects with the law. Accompanying it is an extensive website. http://www.pbs.org/bloodlines/
Article: Ralph Brave, "James Watson Wants to Build a Better Human," AlterNet.org (May 28, 2003) Many newspaper, radio and television accounts of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix focused on the eccentric genius and baffling charm of co-discoverer James Watson. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, Nobel laureate Watson celebrated in his own way: by continuing to aggressively advance his agenda for genetically re-engineering the human species--even if that requires engaging in medical experimentation that puts lives at risk. http://www.genetics-and-society.org/r.asp?s=gc31&t=resources/cgs/20030528_alternet_brave.html
GenInfo is a bimonthly electronic newsletter concentrating on new policy statements on human genetics from international, regional and national sources. GenInfo is aimed at policy makers, researchers, health professionals, and the general public. It is published, in English, by the Centre de recherche en droit public (Center for Research in Public Law) of the Université de Montréal. http://www.humgen.umontreal.ca/en/GenInfo.cfm
Journal: The New Atlantis
This new journal examines the moral and policy implications of new technologies, with an emphasis on human biotechnology. Launched by Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, it features social conservatives, many associated with President Bush's Council on Bioethics. http://www.thenewatlantis.com
V. LEGISLATIVE BEAT
Around the World
European Union health ministers reached an agreement on a proposed directive setting quality and safety standards for the donation, procurement, testing, storage and distribution of human tissues and cells. The health ministers rejected amendments proposed by the European Parliament that would have prohibited the creation of human embryos solely for research purposes or to supply stem cells. It was agreed that the directive only applied to human tissues used in clinical trials, and did not apply to research activities. News: http://www.eubusiness.com/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=111611
Landmark legislation that would establish a comprehensive framework for assisted reproductive technology is still pending in the Canadian Parliament as it approaches the end of its session on June 27. It is unclear whether a vote will take place. the landmark legislation will see a vote this session. Bill Summary and Text: http://www.parl.gc.ca/common/Bills_ls.asp?lang=E&Parl=37&Ses=2&ls=C13
In the States
The Louisiana House passed a bill (HB 1810) that would ban both reproductive and research cloning. Louisiana currently has a law banning reproductive cloning which is set to expire on July 1of this year. The state Senate recently passed legislation that would extend the current ban for an additional three years. Bill: http://www.legis.state.la.us/leg_docs/03RS/CVT5/OUT/0000K8X5.PDF
Legislation was introduced in the Wisconsin state Assembly (AB 104) and Senate (SB 45) that would ban cloning for both research and reproductive purposes. The University of Wisconsin-Madison and private biotech companies currently conduct embryonic stem cell research, and fear that research funding would be lost to other states if the total cloning ban becomes law. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Governor Jim Doyle (D) has promised to veto the legislation.
Assembly Bill: http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2003/data/AB-104.pdf
Senate Bill: http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2003/data/SB-45.pdf
The Delaware state Senate passed a bill (SB 55) banning reproductive cloning. The bill would allow cloning for research purposes. Scientists who violate the law would face fines of up to $250,000. Senate Bill: http://www.legis.state.de.us/Legislature.nsf/
With only seven days left of the legislative session, the Nebraska Legislature decided last month to table a bill (LB 602) that would prohibit the production of cloned embryos for research or reproductive purposes. The Legislature will likely take up the measure next session. Bill: http://www.unicam.state.ne.us/PDF/INTRO_LB602.pdf
VI. NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIPTION AND FORMATS
For information on subscribing and unsubscribing to the CGS email newsletter Genetic Crossroads, and on changing between enhanced HTML and plain text formats, go to http://www.genetics-and-society.org/r.asp?s=gc31&t=newsletter.
For information about the Center for Genetics and Society go to