render of DNA

Suppose you are told with just a few changes in your genes, you can be better than you are. How do you feel about that? Do you want to get a better memory or make yourself more fit or attractive? How about eliminate the risk of stroke, cancer or Alzheimer’s? What about adopt the super attributes such as quick wit or good temperament?

If we can change ourselves in any of these ways, our world would be very different. Is it pure imagination or soon-to-be reality? With the advancement of biological science in recent decades, the prospect of changing human biology through gene alteration is becoming increasingly possible, according to Dr. Harvey Fineberg, health policy expert.

The practical applications of biological science can already be seen in our daily lives. Cloning created a media circus in addition to some heated ethical and religious debate. But it isn’t going to be a big deal when the success rate improves significantly in the next decade or two. Today embryo screening is used to avoid rare disease. I was talking to my friend the other day and she told me the story of her colleague who lost her daughter to a tragic accident. This mother managed to get pregnant with the help of modern technology and pre-selected the sex of her baby. Surprisingly such act of baby customization has raised few eyebrows.

What about moving one step further by going in and altering the gene of the first cell in the embryo? Do you think it’s morally acceptable to choose our offspring’s genes in order for them to possess certain temperament or a competitive edge in sports, arts or math? How about giving them the upgraded version of the human cell that contains a human artificial chromosome (47th) and performs a variety of functions including disease defenses? Who doesn’t want happy, healthy and outstanding children?

Reviewing the long history of evolution and the critical point of where we stand today, Dr. Fineberg predicted three possibilities of the course of future evolution:

1) No evolution. As a species, we humans may have reached some kind of evolutionary equipoise. With modern medicine, we are able to preserve genes that would have been selected out. We have also managed to configure our environment in such a way that it adapts to us as much as we adapt to it. Human intermix has almost eliminated the isolation necessary for evaluation to take place.

2) Traditional evolution. The wheels of evolution will be grinding slowly but inexorably by the force of nature.

3) Neo-evolution. This form of evolution is guided and chosen by us. Dr. Fineberg calls it self-directed evolution. Baby customization and gene alteration for the purpose of disease prevention are examples of neo-evolution.

The Human Genome Project that started in 1990 took 13 years and cost $3.7 billion. In April 2004, doing the same thing would have taken 3-4 months with a price tag of $20 million. Today you can get your genome map for $20,000 in a matter of a week. Before long, the $1,000 human genome will be available to everyone. Self-directed evolution will compress an evolution process that normally takes 100,000 years to 1,000 or even 100 years. The lines between needs and desire, treatment and prevention will continue to blur and ethical, legal and social concerns will remain the focus of vehement debates. What’s ahead of us is extremely exciting but also frightening. We aren’t going to reach consensus since things of this nature touch us too deeply. If the camp of abomination wins (which is highly likely), what will happen is that development will be shipped elsewhere and the technology will be reserved to the wealthy who have the resources and means to bypass the legal barriers and get to it. But eventually as the new technology becomes increasingly feasible and is validated in thousands of labs, it will be impossible to police or resist. Seriously who doesn’t want to live longer and in good health?

Humans are a creative bunch. We’ll continue to explore and seek explanations to questions we don’t have answers yet. As a species, we’ve made amazing and yet still baby and clumsy steps towards unlocking the secret to life and our surrounding universe. At the same time we hold in our hands the power to destroy this world we call home and everyone in it. How we settle our differences will determine the future of mankind.

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