WASHINGTON--There are some things humanity cannot get used to without jeopardizing its humanness--without becoming beastly. Creeping toward us, as on little cat feet--little monkey feet, actually--is perhaps the gravest imaginable crisis, one that could result in the end of history as a distinctively human, and humane, story.
Recently a rhesus monkey named ANDi (``inserted DNA,'' backwards) became the first genetically altered primate ever created. Created, not begotten; the result of manufacture, not procreation. There is a world of difference. Humans are primates. We are next. Or at any rate, we are in line for genetic ``enhancement.''
Not until ANDi reaches sexual maturity will scientists know if the jellyfish gene inserted into his genetic makeup--a gene which seems to be in all his tissues--is in his reproductive cells and will be passed along, making possible a man-made line of primates. But such an outcome is just a matter of time. So, probably, is the maximum genetic transfer--human cloning.
Let us stipulate that genetic manipulations can yield therapeutic blessings. Genetically altered animals can illuminate causes and possible cures or ameliorations of many diseases. Genetic manipulations in humans can be therapeutic for diseases, even injuries (e.g., to spinal cords), and will make possible research clarifying the roles of nature and nurture in shaping human beings.
Enhancement is not therapy, it is eugenics. Genetic selection--the negative eugenics of preventing certain traits in children--is already common, through genetic screening and amniocentesis. However, at least negative eugenics is supposed to serve an existing norm of health. But positive eugenics, any tailoring of an individual's genetic endowment, even when less ambitious than cloning, will put us on a slippery slope to the abolition of man. Leon Kass, a biologist and ethicist with the University of Chicago, explains why in his essay ``The Wisdom of Repugnance.''
Genetic manipulation extends the belief that all children should be wanted--a principle justifying abortion--to embrace the belief that children, to be acceptable, should, in their genetic traits, satisfy our wants for their identities. Eugenics exemplifies the modern project--to control the future, including the imposition of our design on our children, while our autonomy remains uncontrolled. A casualty of this project is, Kass says, the awe and respect for life arising from ``the unique, never-to-be-repeated character of each human life.''
When parents stop saying (in Kass' words) ``yes to the emergence of new life in its novelty,'' when they stop saying yes to whatever the child turns out to be, then the meaning of having a child, and the parent-child relation, will be profoundly altered, with consequences that are unforeseeable but cannot be benign. When parents can preselect their child's genetic constitution, procreation will become manufacture, children will become artifacts, identity and individuality will become confused, and parents will become despots.
Hubris and narcissism will color even the well-intentioned transformation of a child--for its ``own good''--from an unscripted surprise into someone's artifice or project. And there is a fundamental threat to humanity in the reduction of another being to an extension of a person's will. There must be a despotism of the enhancer over the enhanced, a despotism that would not be justified even if the enhancement really were an improvement. It would condemn a child to never achieving true independence from its parents.
It is, Kass says, ``moral myopia'' to think that all values must yield to the goals of better health and desirable traits. A cost of such yielding can be the reduction of man to the status of just another man-made thing.
But such warnings may be overwhelmed by what Kass calls ``the technological imperative''--whatever science can do, will be done. That imperative seems irresistible because today's moral vocabulary is so impoverished that society can hardly even formulate good intentions. Part of that vocabulary is desiccated utilitarianism that weighs only tangible harms and benefits: If something reduces an individual's suffering or improves an individual's well-being, it should be done. Another part is simplistic libertarianism--anything consensual should be permissible and anything that expands choices is good.
But it is not good, Kass insists, if human nature becomes just the last part of nature turned into raw material for human willfulness. ANDi is an intimation that nuclear explosions are not the only way science can end the human story. Biology might do that more gradually than physics can, but no less decisively, and even more repugnantly.