Pinker's Damn: A Naive Rejection of Controls Over Genetic Engineering
Some scientists like to think of themselves as modern counterparts of Prometheus, the Greek god who brought the creative power of fire to humankind. Privately they may express surprise that an activity – research – in which they take so much satisfaction can (at least potentially) attract public or private funds. But the fact that this occurs, and is indeed routine, only confirms their self-image as foremost among society's heroes. Much rarer is for scientists to question why this money flows to their enterprise, or how science and technology has helped those governmental and commercial institutions with such resources to dispense increase their leverage over everyone else.
There are other academics, frequently in quasi-scientific fields, who take it on themselves to publicly congratulate scientists for all the good that they do. How dare anyone presuming to speak on behalf of the public even suggest putting precautionary or ethical obstacles in the way of scientific research and its commercial implementation, they ask. “Get out of the way,” barks Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, in a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece.
While addressing himself to professional bioethicists (a notoriously meek lot when it comes to recommendations that would alter the course of technological developments in any meaningful way), Pinker’s broader target is a purported pro-disease and pro-death lobby which he claims to be concerned about such things as “warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs.” Pinker’s disingenuous rhetoric notwithstanding, after mammalian cloning was shown to be feasible in the late 1990s, there was in fact active discussion of producing genetically replicate humans (usually conceived as lacking a conscious brain) to provide replacement organs.
Pinker decries “perverse analogies with…Nazi atrocities,” assuring his readers that “we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.” He might have benefited from looking into the origins, at the Nazi war crime trials, of the Nuremberg Code, the basis of these “ample safeguards,” and the opposition to them while they were being drafted by the American Medical Association, using professionalist arguments much like his own. He might also have considered the evidence that the Code is routinely ignored.
Pinker mocks those skeptical of using the new CRISPR/Cas gene modification methods for “editing genomes” (presumably including those of humans, since his op-ed concerns human health). He supports his call to leave to the experts all decisions as to when, or if, to genetically engineer humans by invoking increased lifespan and decline of disease in prosperous countries – as if these were attributable to biotechnology rather than improved nutrition and sanitation. Genuine advances in medicine due to molecular biology, such as treatments for heart disease and therapies for certain cancers, were arrived at by trial-and-error on volunteers chosen among desperately ill existing people with few alternatives. They were not intended as techniques for irreversible experimental refashioning of prospective people, as germline modification would be.
Non-specialists may not have the nuanced technical understanding of the CRISPR/Cas system that Pinker seems to believe qualifies one to make these decisions (though apparently technical expertise is not needed in order to cheer the scientists on). Anyone who follows the news, however, can read about the brewing industrial battles over patents for “gene drive” technologies that would permit a company’s preferred genes to displace natural variants, or those of competitors. They might also acquire an alternative perspective on the moral and social compass of some experts by following the stories of computer scientists aiding the government in the collection of massive amounts of personal data on ordinary citizens, or the design and participation in CIA torture programs by Pinker’s fellow members of the American Psychological Association.
Clearly not all experts or genetics researchers are inclined to take the low road by participating in such ethically unacceptable activities. The sad reality, however, is that the grip on technology by commercial and governmental centers of power ensures that scientists, whether Manhattan Project researchers (some of whom hoped that the Atomic bomb be used in a demonstration, not on population centers) or well-intentioned developers of antibiotics who have seen their efforts to alleviate disease turn into their opposite, do not control the fruits of their research, notwithstanding the optimism of certain aficionados of science.
Stuart A. Newman is professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, where he directs a research program in developmental biology. He has contributed to several scientific fields, including the theory of biochemical networks and cell pattern formation, protein folding and assembly, and mechanisms of morphological evolution. He also writes on the social and cultural dimensions of biology and biotechnology, and was a co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, Cambridge, MA. He is co-editor (with Gerd B. Müller) of Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology and co-author (with Gabor Forgacs) of Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo.
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