To Germline Engineering
An open letter to participants at the Asilomar Symposium on Science,
Ethics and Society
Pacific Grove, California
February 16, 2000
It is fitting that a symposium on the occasion of the 25th anniversary
of the Asilomar Conference consider not just the legacy of that event,
but also the controversies generated by ongoing developments in genetic
Our primary concern is with human "germline" genetic engineering
—the manipulation of the genes passed to our children.
An increasing number of noted scientists, academics, and others are
saying that human germline engineering is an acceptable use of the
new genetic technologies. Some of their recent statements are shown
Many of these advocates have dropped any pretense that their interest
in germline engineering is limited to "therapeutic" applications.
They now speak enthusiastically of using germline engineering to "enhance"
the human species.
This is alarming, and demands a response. Human germline engineering
is a threshold technology which, if developed and used, would put
into play a wholly unprecedented set of social, psychological and
political forces. It would change forever the nature of human society,
feeding back upon itself with impacts quite beyond our ability to
imagine, much less control.
Some of the new proponents of germline engineering look forward to
a world in which parents select their children's genes, literally
from a catalogue, in order to give them a competitive "edge"
in the quest for success. They freely acknowledge that this could
lead to profoundly greater inequality, with humanity eventually segregating
into genetic castes, or even into separate species.
This vision of the human future is grotesque. Casually dismissing
principles of democracy and civil society, it celebrates nothing less
than the end of our common humanity. The fact that many scientists
appear ready to welcome it is deeply disturbing.
Equally disturbing is the eagerness of many scientists to authoritatively
declared that human germline engineering is "inevitable."
In fact, many countries have already banned, or have agreed to ban,
germline engineering. The United States and the rest of the world
can decide to do the same.
There is no compelling medical justification for human germline engineering.
Many existing alternatives allow couples at risk of passing on a genetic
disease to avoid doing so. Scientists who propose germline engineering
as a general means of preventing conditions such as cystic fibrosis
and sickle-cell anemia are abusing the trust the public puts in them.
Citizen concern about genetic engineering is growing rapidly. Controversy
over genetically modified food has spilled into the streets. Anixiety
can only mount as the public becomes aware of the plans to produce
genetically modified humans.
The prospect of human germline engineering presents a point of decision—one
that ranks among the most consequential that humanity will ever make.
We should acknowledge that human germline engineering is an unneeded
technology with potentially horrific risks, and adopt policies to
ban it. Such a decision will help clear the way for support of those
applications of modern genetic science that hold promise for preventing
disease and reducing suffering.
It is imperative that responsible scientists and others speak out
in opposition to human germline engineering. In the face of the concerted
efforts underway to promote it, silence implies consent.
Many of the participants in this 25th anniversary symposium are pioneers
of genetic science. Others are social scientists or policy makers
who have shaped its public perception and regulation. All of you have
high stakes in the future of genetic science and technology. Your
response to the effort to push humanity toward a techno-eugenic future
will speak loudly. It will shape the way you and your work are remembered.
The Asilomar 25th anniversary symposium offers a historic opportunity
to speak out forcefully and publicly against human germline engineering.
We urge you to take it.
[The letter was signed by 247 persons. Organizations were listed
for identification purposes only.]
Selected recent statements from scientists and scholars concerning
'germline' genetic engineering
"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say
it, if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add
genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?….Evolution
can be just damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect
genome and there's some sanctity to it? I'd just like to know
where that idea comes from. It's utter silliness."
James Watson, Nobel laureate and founding director of the Human
"[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny
dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen
in the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to
at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great
breeders…try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a
Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy in the Schools of Medicine
and Arts/Humanities at the University of Alabama
[In the future…] "The GenRich—who account for
10 percent of the American population—all carry synthetic
genes….All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment
industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members
of the GenRich class….Naturals work as low-paid service
providers or as laborers….[Eventually] the GenRich class
and the Natural class will become…entirely separate species
with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest
in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee…But
in all cases, I will argue, the use of reprogenetic technologies
is inevitable…whether we like it or not, the global marketplace
will reign supreme."
Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience
at Princeton University
"[B]iotechnology will be able to accomplish what the
radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably crude
techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring about a new
type of human being….[W]ithin the next couple of generations…we
will have definitively finished human History because we will
have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new posthuman
history will begin."
Francis Fukuyama, professor of public policy at the Institute
for Public Policy at George Mason University
"Some will hate it, some will love it, but biotechnology
is inevitably leading to a world in which plants, animals and
human beings are going to be partly man-made…Suppose parents
could add 30 points to their children's IQ. Wouldn't you want
to do it? And if you don't, your child will be the stupidest
child in the neighborhood."
Lester Thurow, professor of economics, Sloan School of Management,
"[O]nce people begin to reshape themselves through biological
manipulation, the definition of human begins to drift….
Altering even a small number of the key genes regulating human
growth might change human beings into something quite different….But
asking whether such changes are `wise' or `desirable' misses
the essential point that they are largely not a matter of choice;
they are the unavoidable product of…technological advance…"
Gregory Stock, Director of UCLA's Program on Medicine, Technology
"Absolutely, somewhere in the next millennium, making
babies sexually will be rare," [bioethicist Arthur] Caplan
speculates. [M]any parents will leap at the chance to make their
children smarter, fitter and prettier. Ethical concerns will
be overtaken, says Caplan, by the realization that technology
simply makes for better children. "In a competitive market
society, people are going to want to give their kids an edge,"
says the bioethicist. "They'll slowly get used to the idea
that a genetic edge is not greatly different from an environmental
ABCNEWS.com; Arthur Caplan is Director of the University of
Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics
SOURCES OF QUOTES: Watson: Gregory Stock and John Campbell,
eds., 2000. Engineering the Human Germline (New York: Oxford
University Press) pp. 79, 85. Pence: G. Pence, 1998. Who's Afraid
of Human Cloning? (New York: Roman & Littlefield) p. 168.
Silver: L. Silver, 1997. Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond
Will Change the Human Family (New York: Avon Books) pp. 4-7,
11. Fukuyama: F. Fukuyama, "Second Thoughts: The Last Man
in a Bottle," The National Interest, Summer 9299, pp. 28,
33. Thurow: L. Thurow, 1999. Creating Wealth: The New Rules
for Individuals, Companies and Nations in a Knowledge-Based
Economy (New York: Harper Collins) p. 33. Stock: G. Stock, 1993.
Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism
(New York: Simon & Schuster) pp. 165, 168. ABCNEWS.com: