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Author Bill McKibben: Genetic Engineering at a Crossroad

Recent news that Italian scientists cloned the first horse is another reminder of the progress made in genetic engineering over the past half century. Fifty years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA, the genetic substance of all living things. The discovery has brought remarkable gains in medicine, crime solving and other fields. But it also holds out disturbing prospects for the future, says best-selling writer Bill McKibben. His latest book is called Enough: Staying Human in An Engineered Age. Speaking with VOA's Nancy Beardsley, Bill McKibben said he's fascinated by turning points that set society on a whole new course.

Bill McKibben: In peoples' living memory I think there have been three of these. The first was the invention of nuclear weapons. The second was the environmental moment, especially the knowledge that our species was now large enough to heat the surface of the planet in dramatic ways. That was the subject of my first book, The End of Nature. And now we move into this next technological moment, ushered in by genetic engineering, where working on a microscopic scale, we're able to make the most profound transformations.

Nancy Beardsley: And what alarms you so much about these transformations?

Bill McKibben: Well, first maybe I should say what doesn't alarm me. We're fifty years into the genetic age, and we're developing better treatments for disease and figuring out how to screen embryos against genetic defects and things like that. However, we're nearing a point where this technology may start to head in what I think are much more dubious directions. In the last 10 years, scientists have begun to do a lot of what they would call germline genetic engineering with animals, taking an embryo and going into its DNA and adding or subtracting sections of that DNA in order to produce particular outcomes. So we've made fat mice and smart mice and changed the behavior of all kinds of other animals, and now there are people who want to do it on human beings. All these traits of appearance, IQ, sociability, seem to be genetically influenced in large ways. In a world as divided as ours, this will rewrite those divisions in wealth and power into our very biology. There are also I think even deeper questions about what it would feel like to be the product of this kind of engineering. Your parents, in the words of the chief of gene structure at the National Cancer Institute, might soon be able to go into a clinic and choose the emotional make up of their child, on a spectrum ranging from Mother Teresa to a cutthroat captain of industry. They'd be able to do that probably by regulating those genes that control the output of different mood chemicals in the brain. And once they've done that to that embryo, every one of their cells for their entire life would be expressing that set of proteins, and indeed so would all the cells of their offspring and their offspring and their offspring.

Nancy Beardsley: You also write about the problem of genetically engineered humans becoming obsolete. In what sense?

Bill McKibben: Let's say you go into the clinic in a few years to get this sort of enhancement or genetic upgrade for your first child. Five years later you decide you want another child. By now, the upgrades are better, and there are more genes they know about. What's your first child - sort of Windows 95? The conversion of human beings into products means we will have all the attributes that go with products, including that kind of obsolescence.

Nancy Beardsley: And beyond this move to create perfect human beings is the idea of robotics, creating machines that can exceed what humans can do?

Bill McKibben: Yes, there are all sorts of people, including many of the people interested in genetics technologies, who also look forward to a not very distant future when they'll be able to merge carbon flesh and silicon in some way. Already scientists have been able to build fish with robot brains that can issue commands to the fish and make them swim, things like that.

Nancy Beardsley: So do you believe that to some extent we need to change our ideas about how much perfection we really need?

Bill McKibben: If you really had to answer the question, what makes the human animal different from other animals, I think one of the answers you would come up with is that we're the creature that can decide not to do something we're capable of doing. After we exploded the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki we needed to sit down and try to figure out what the new limits to violence and force were going to be. We haven't solved this problem yet, but the fact that we haven't dropped another one since Nagasaki is at least a small piece of encouragement. I don't know if we'll be able to do it with these technologies. They're seductive in their initial appearance, but most of the countries in Europe have already banned this kind of germline genetic engineering. And there are a fair number of other countries around the world that have done likewise. Happily you don't need to do this kind of germline genetic engineering in order to deal with genetic disease. Nancy Beardsley: How would you like people in America to say 'enough?' Bill McKibben: Eventually there will need to be a piece of legislation. But that's just like the Voting Rights Act was less important than the conversation that went on before it about civil rights in this country. So this conversation will be the important one. And I have some hope that this is a large enough issue and one that doesn't follow easily our conventional political divisions that we may actually have some interesting conversation about this at some point.

Nancy Beardsley: Bill McKibben, thank you very much. Bill McKibben is the author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.