Genetic Engineering (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog Genetic Engineering (I), which I originally wrote in 2003.
Prague's Jewish Cemetery

Today, it should be noticed by every policy maker – political, economic, social, military, medical, religious, scientific – that in fact conscious decision making alters natural selection. Human intention (and all its unintended consequences!) is now part of natural selection’s effects on the human gene pool. Design instigated by human choice effects the evolutionary process, probably influencing or changing the human gene pool at the same rate as natural selection would in its random creativity. Whatever are the limits of human intelligence or wisdom, they still have become part of the evolutionary process and thus nature itself. War, genocide, racial purity, marital laws, reproductive technologies, social constraints, and medical success in keeping diseased people alive and part of the reproductive genetic pool, all are the result of human conscious choice and are in fact altering the pure “randomness” of natural selection in human evolution. The fact is these policy choices in realms beyond science have a greater impact on the human gene pool than any current genetic technologies. Political, moral, medical, military, industrial and economical choices and policies do impact the human gene pool. Obviously as long as humans have existed, we had the potential to change the human gene pool. The revolution which occurs is our gaining awareness of human conscious choice and our own design influencing the creativity of natural selection and the entirety of the human gene pool.

The human effect on our gene pool is not limited to our efforts to preserve human lives or destroy them. Human use of energies and human technologies which are driven by population growth, which in turn are promulgated by advances in farming technologies, food production and medical science’s ability to preserve life, are all interacting with and producing changes on the environment. Evolution’s mechanisms work such that those species or even genetic combinations which are best able to adapt to these environmental changes will be the ones that carry forward into the future. Thus again the process of natural selection finds itself shaped by human choice. Policy makers today by their choices impact not only the immediate present but the genetic future of humanity as well.

gods of war

Ever since humans became capable of making conscious choices, we have been altering both the human genome and our environment. Human migration has spread the effects of human intention throughout the world. Globalization again reconfigures the human gene pool and impacts the environment. To focus so narrowly on genetic science and its potential risk of influencing or changing the gene pool causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture of human endeavors and decision making. It is a near-sightedness that fails to take advantage of human consciousness itself. For now we are capable of understanding how powerfully ideologies and politicians impact our gene pool. Our self-awareness can serve us far more than we currently allow it by helping us grasp the effects of societal and global decisions on our hereditary future. We may fail to pass along to future generations the wisdom of conscious awareness, but we will not fail to pass along the genetic effects of our decisions. The question is not only can or should policy makers be overseeing the work of geneticists, but how can we make use of genetic sciences to comprehend the effects of policy makers on the gene pool and to shape the policies of ideologies and governments accordingly.

The unknowns are many, but the very fact that human consciousness and choice has far reaching impact on human genetic destiny means that human policy makers today have a responsibility to realize how their many decisions in the diverse realms of human endeavor impact the human species and our viability to survive or thrive on planet earth. The issues may in fact be too large for current human imagination to deal with, yet its importance is too large for us to ignore.

See also my blog series DNA: The Secret of Life

Genetic Engineering (I)

(Originally written in 2003)

Dachau Crematorium: Genocide is Genetic Engineering

Though much attention gets focused on the work of genetic scientists and their potential impact on the human gene pool, in fact modern geneticists are not the inventors of “genetic engineering.” Ever since humans began making choices regarding mates and mating, the value of various human lives, and warfare, policy makers have been engaged in a process of genetic engineering not based in modern science but in ideologies, nationalism, and economic self interest. The question is not only should policy makers oversee genetic science and technologies, but how can all humans use the knowledge of the genetic sciences to understand, be aware of and influence the decisions of humanity’s leadership. Humans as a species have conscious self awareness, only now are we becoming consciously aware of the power of this knowledge.

Becoming Aware of the Impact of Human Consciousness

Scientists involved in various forms of genetic research and technology have become the focus of attention in the debates regarding their potential effect on the human gene pool. The reality of life however is that current geneticists are not the originators of efforts to manipulate the human gene pool. These scientists have merely helped focus our attention on the effects of human conscious choice on the gene pool. Policy makers worried that such genetic scientists need to controlled have in fact dangerously narrowed the perspective required to understand the issues involved. It is not science alone that has, is, or can change genetics, nature and humanity. Politicians, ideologues, industrialists, doctors, and military leaders have been shaping these same issues for all of human history. Geneticists by helping us understand how genetics work and by mapping the human genome have helped reveal how the genome is also a written history of the effects humans have made through time.

Humans emerged as beings with conscious self awareness. Individuals and decision makers throughout history used this consciousness to make a wide variety of policy choices. These decisions have impacted and been recorded in the human gene pool. That is the story of humanity. Intentionally influencing genetics is not the invention of science. What is new to us recently is our becoming aware of the meaning, implications and the power of this consciousness. This is what genetic science is helping us to understand. The mapping of the genome helps reveal to us how human choices enter into our hereditary nature and are recorded within each person’s genome. The policies we adopt and employ thus do have an impact on all of human history.

Humanity now becomes cognizant of how human policy decisions in so many realms of life effect humankind and our human hereditary future. The mapping of the human genome is making it possible for us to trace the history of human choices as recorded in our genes. What needs to become clear to policy makers is that these issues are not merely scientific. To understand what is at stake for the human species requires a much broader perspective than focusing on the scientific community. Human activity in the realms of politics, government, the social sciences, ideologies, economics, are all shaping human genetics, natural selection and thus nature itself.

For example issues of genetic control of the human race, predate the modern world. For at the very moment that humans began making conscious choices based in self awareness (rather than purely instinctual behavior), humans began affecting and changing the genetic makeup of humankind. This certainly predates any awareness of what was being accomplished. Humans began choosing mates for particular reasons (strength, looks, wisdom, family blood lines), rather than instinctively copulating. Tribes, villages, or nations adopted rules about who could marry whom, again forming the basis of “genetic engineering.” The same is true when tribes and hordes and nations went to war. Modern genocide is in fact a form of genetic engineering not being engaged by scientists (though as in Nazi death camps science intentionally aided the process), but in fact an engineering condoned by politicians, ideologues, armies.

As another example of how the human gene pool is altered by human decisions we can consider medical science with its many advancements in prolonging human life, in helping diseased and genetically mal-adapted people to live not only productive lives, but reproductive ones. The human desire to relieve suffering from poverty, famine, disease, and to lengthen life has in fact been another form of “genetic engineering” undoing natural selection’s tendency toward the survival of the fittest, perpetuating gene problems into future generations.

In addition, reproductive technologies of all kinds in as much as they help infertile couples have children, or help children (including premature) come to term, are in fact changing the gene pool. No longer is human reproduction guided merely by the creative chance of natural selection, for now humans are introducing into nature a conscious creative element for procreation. This can keep in the gene pool genetic forms of infertility as well as perpetuating previously inviable genes or gene combinations. We have thus by human intelligent design already altered the human gene pool and contributed an intelligent, conscious and intentional factor into human evolution and genetic makeup. Chance alone is not the sole factor now shaping human evolution.

Next:  Genetic Engineering (II)

(see also my blog series DNA: The Secret of Life)

Give a Hand for Descent with Modification

Iguana

One of the ideas found in the basic theory of evolution is “descent with modification.”  

This idea finds its support in genetics and what we now understandabout  how DNA works.

Tiger

All living things on our planet have DNA which are the basic building blocks of how new life is brought into existence.

  The “parent” or “parents” contribute DNA to the offspring. 

Bat

The offspring can genetically be shown to be the offspring of their parents. 

 However each offspring has a slightly different combination of the DNA than the parents had when there is sexual reproduction. 

Gorilla

 So on the one hand the offspring are like their parents, on the other hand, there is descent with modification.

Gibbon

So within any specieces genetic modification is contantly ongoing and is completely natural and is the method God put into His living creatures to continue their species. 

Descent with modification allows species to form a variety of genetic combinations which enable the species to better adapt to and survive the ever changing world in which we live.

Bonobo

Genetic studies also that Evolutionary Theory does give account for both the wide variety of species which exist in the world and why species which cannot successfully breed together have some great genetic similarities.

A visit to the zoo shows just how many ways animals have similar features, which can be accounted for by the theory of evolution and descent with modification.  

Human

It’s in the DNA.

Let’s have a show of hands for all who can see the possibility or the probability that there is a relationship in the vertebrate family. 

Evolution of Language

I have been listening to The Teaching Company series THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE taught by Dr. John McWhorter – a fascinating account of what linguists have come to know about the development of human language and languages.  I’m learning more than I ever wanted to know, but still it is very informative.

What stood out in my mind was McWhorter’s presentation on languages and dialects naturally changing through time with new combination of sounds and other combinations of prefixes and endings and grammar occurring constantly in every generation.     It sounded exactly like the descent with modification which occurs genetically in evolution.  Language is living, not static and constantly undergoing change and thus new dialects emerge and from them given enough time, new languages are developed.  Language seems like another natural model following the patterns of evolution.   Perhaps because genetics is presented through the recombination of the DNA nucleotides referred to at G A T C it seemed to me exactly what was happening in human language as well as letters/sounds are recombined to form dialects and then new languages.  We receive our languages from those around us but just like our genetic recombination, we do modify what we received and some of these modifications become part of a dialect.

Though major changes in language take long periods of time, changes in language – in pronunciation and in the meaning of words – are constantly occurring.     Linguists seem to think change occurs naturally, and even perhaps somewhat by chance, though the changes tend to follow certain now identifiable patterns.   The changes don’t necessarily serve a purpose even if they follow a path recognized throughout the family of languages.  (For example one word whose meaning has changed in my lifetime – gay.  The cartoon Flintstones theme song used to tell us that we’d have a “gay old time” if we joined them as also in “The gay ‘90’s” referring to the rowdy end of the 1800’s.  The word back then innocently enough just referred to a good time.  But eventually “gay” came to mean almost exclusively homosexual – the gay ‘90’s in the 1900’s had a new meaning – I don’t know if the Flintstones ever dropped “gay” from their theme song or if the cartoon series stopped production before the word gay became a synonym for homosexual.  The word underwent further change – a few years ago I began to hear some young people use the word gay in a negative way to mean “lame” or “stupid” or “worthless.”    When something frustratingly didn’t work right, they would say, “That’s gay.”  Even if that terminology has not caught on in politically correct society, it becomes slang within a certain population which can eventually become a distinct way of speaking).

As a language becomes written rather than just spoken, some change slows down especially as dictionaries and grammar books endeavor to record meanings and fix the “correct” pronunciation or spelling or grammar.  This I think corresponds in genetic evolution to modern medicine’s ability to keep many people alive into their reproductive years thus “unnaturally” keeping genes in the gene pool that would have been eliminated by nature.  We can and do alter descent with modification in the same way we can alter the way languages change over time.

Why did God make insects?

I began reading E.O. Wilson‘s THE CREATION: AN APPEAL TO SAVE LIFE ON EARTH.   Wilson, a Harvard Professor who has stirred up plenty of controversy in the scientific community with his ideas in sociobiology, is a secular humanist who addresses his book to fundamentalist Christians in an appeal that they cooperate with scientists in taking a passionate concern for the environment. 

“Some postmodern philosophers, convinced that truth is relative and dependent only on a person’s worldview, argue that there is no such objective entity as Nature.  It is, they say, a false dichotomy that has arisen in some cultures and not in other cultures.  I am willing to entertain such a belief, for a few minutes anyway, but I have crossed too many sharp boundaries between natural and humanized ecosystems to doubt the objectivity of Nature.”

In this statement Wilson, a former Baptist himself, gets as philosophically close to the world view of believers as he is going to get – he believes in objective truth and opposes the notions of postmodernism. Wilson probably would not accept the prediction of some that science and Buddhism have a future together but that more doctrinal religions like Christianity will disappear over time, unable to compete in the world of intellectual discourse (see my Science vs Religion or Truth is truth?).  Wilson takes a fairly dogmatic stand that there is such a thing as objectivity when it comes to truth.  However, he does not accept a theological truth or objectivity, but believes the only truth worth pursuing is that which is empirical.  He is not very sympathetic to religion:

“There are still thinkers around the world, some in commanding political and religious  positions, who wish to base moral law on the sacred scripture of Iron Age desert kingdoms while using high technology to conduct tribal wars-of course with the presumed blessing of their respective tribal gods.”

Ouch!  While I would say to have such a low opinion of Christians he seems unfamiliar with the ideals and spiritual writings of the best in Christian history, nevertheless he certainly has witnessed plenty of examples of modern American leaders who seem to fit his description and whose opinions prove his point.

Wilson is somewhat famous for claiming that eventually genes will be found which determine much of human behavior, including genes that govern whether a person is a believer in God or not.  Despite his thoughts about genetics, science and secular humanism, he offers some warnings about where genetic research is headed.

“Beyond the curing of obvious hereditary diseases such as multiple sclerosis and sickle-cell anemia, by gene substitution, the human genome will be modified only at risk.  It is far better to work with human nature as it is, by changing our social institutions and moral precepts to get a more nearly optimal fit to our genes, than it would be to tinker with something that took eons of trial and error to create.”

In other words, in his thinking humans should pay a lot more attention to the human impact on the world  environment rather than trying genetically to change humans to better survive in the world we are creating by our lifestyles and environmental disregard.  This is a main theme of his book.  He is hoping to interest religious people in environmental issues – to be concerned about the things we intentionally do that have unintended consequences on the environment.   As Wilson sees it, we should be concerned about the tiniest insect populations which are part of this earth.

“People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us.  If all humankind were to disappear tomorrow, it is unlikely that a single insect species would go extinct, except three forms of human body and head lice…. But if insects were to vanish, the terrestrial environment would soon collapse into chaos.”

He describes why this is so as the ecosystem of planet earth relies on insects for pollination, for food, for giving us flowering plants as food, for renewing the soil, for decomposing dying things.  Humans surviving in a world without insects, so Wilson says, “would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”

Those very pesky pests – weeds and bugs – which we wonder why God ever created, Wilson says would be sorely missed in a world in which humans manage to damage the environment to the point it cannot sustain insect life.  The smallest creatures play a significant role for the existence of Christians and for the world we know.   That idea was not lost in the screenplay of H. G. Wells’ THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and what finally defeated the invading Martians.

“The end came swiftly all over the world, their machines stopped and fell.  After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity saved – by the littlest things which God in His wisdom had put upon this earth.”

Bene Gene Modification

While there is much rightful concern among Christians about ethical issues related to genetic engineering, it is only fair to also point out occasions in which science can use genetic engineering to the advantage of humans and to do it well within morally accepted principles.  Olivia Judson in two New York Times Opinion pieces gives examples of ways in which genetic engineering is and/or can help humans.   The first article, Braking the Virus, explains how genetic modification of viruses can produce a safer vaccine against some diseases.  The second article,  A Genetically Engineered Swat, discusses a means for eradicating the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever by releasing genetically modified male mosquitoes – it is only the females which bite, so no one would be bitten by the modified mosquitoes, and the potential is that the mosquito population can be greatly reduced without the use of toxic insecticides.   

I mention these articles because sometimes people hear about “genetic engineering” and begin to fear that scientists playing god will sow the seeds of the destruction of the human race.  There is a great deal of legitimate science going on to benefit humanity, and this we ought not to lose sight of.  We do indeed need to pay attention to ethically questionable scientific study, but on the other hand not in a knee jerk emotional frenzy condemn all that science does, when in fact it has done some marvelous things to make life on earth better. 

Christians would do well to learn more science and understand it in order to ethically influence its direction rather than condemn its work (and benefits) without understanding it.  If we understood science better, we also would be in a better position to raise and discuss the ethical implications of various scientific work with the scientists themselves.