In the heels of Dr. Frankenstein
The news the other day told of a computer printer that could print human organs. Using stem cell technology a machine is now almost available that can produce transplantable organs using computer technology. The first great advantage of the technology is that organs are produced using regenerated copies of the recipient’s own cells, thus minimizing organ rejection, thus answering the problem of the shortage of organ donors, and thus, solving the problem of the illicit trade of human organs sold ostensibly by the poor from all over the world.
This development comes in the wake of genetic engineering and the production now of what are called genetically modified organisms, GMOs. Environmental groups have traditionally opposed the application of these technologies and there is now active debate over the safety of these and the potential of these technologies to eventually wreak havoc in the environment and endanger human life. This debate is bound to continue and perhaps rightly so. The fast rate of change since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s puts humans collectively and personally into a moral quandary. Change brought on by new machines and technology far outstrip the development of new mores and values and ethics that may be applied to new choices humans now have to make on issues like food, health, human life and the environment. The options have broadened to meet problems related to these. And yet, so also the risks.
Used to be, organisms flourished and perished according to principles studied by Charles Darwin and published in his book, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”. This book was published in 1859. And yet for thousands of years before that humans have been breeding animals and plants for particular desired traits altering these through artificial selection. Genetic engineering technology is not at all new and we must presume that most of the species of especially domestic plants and animals we now see are far different from what they were even a thousand years back.
Man by his very existence is the main part of the selective environment for all natural organisms in the planet. Indeed, the idea of changing the very nature of organisms is not really “playing God”. It is only continuing to play the inevitable role of man. It is only man playing Man. And it is right that Man must be careful. For while this makes Man look powerful He or She is not and has never been in total control. New technologies have historically produced human crises in the past. We have not lost the memory of plagues that resulted from the growth of what had been new ill-designed cities. And yet, we did outlive these crises drawing from them lessons to keep them from happening again in the future. As ever, in the collective sense, we learn mostly by trial and error.
Which only gives us good warning. Since the 1970s humans have practiced the ability to alter organisms at the level of molecular biology. Catchwords like genome, chromosomes, DNA, RNA, clones, transgenics, and Genetically Modified Organisms are words to describe the human ability to now change and even create new organisms. These are organisms designed for particular goals and purposes. And of course this is technology that would change the planet.
And it will do so for better or worse. We are reduced to saying it is only a tool. But lest we tempt ourselves to say it is a tool like a pair of pliers. The fact is it is not like that at all. It is more like a tool much like a nuclear power plant or the atom bomb propelling itself by rocket science. There is much to be gained by the technology and much that must be risked.
And once we bring the problem down to the rich vs. poor divide we get the clearer picture of our true quandary. To suppress the testing of these technologies can only drive their costs higher. And so inevitably the result will be that they become accessible only in advanced countries and exclusively by the rich and powerful. Remember that we are talking here about possibly easing hunger in the world, finding cures to heretofore incurable diseases, the production of medicines and pharmaceuticals to improve health. Things like cheap insulin produced through new genetic modification technology. And in any case, all these beg the questions: Can we ever stop progress? Can we ever really suppress scientific inquiry? Do we really want to? Can we really afford to?
Even so, these do raise to a new height the level of absurdity of the human condition. For instance, the fact that new living organisms are now patented, essentially to be owned by an individual or a company for purposes they see fit. The first being the purpose of profit. Thus, these are and must be licensed for use by government and state institutions. How rationally? How effectively? We do follow closely in the heels of Dr. Frankenstein bearing with us the consequent burden of risks and promise.
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