Garden of Eden II - the genetically engineered sequel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2003, 12:00am

The word 'transgenics' sounds sinister and clinical. It should, because it means implanting the genes of one species into another. Many people feel repelled by the notion. Transgenics is, however, on the rise, its influence no longer restricted to crops such as soy beans.

Watch out for man-made moths, chickens and sheep, and the various new breeds of 'Frankenfish' coming soon to fish tanks everywhere. According to The Los Angeles Times, scientists in Singapore are now tweaking zebra fish so that they glow green when infused with a jellyfish gene. Likewise, American genetic engineers have created so-called 'supersalmon' which, endowed with a gene found in flounder, grow twice as fast and more than twice as big as their natural cousins.

Genetic engineering is all the more topical because of the birth last Monday of Britain's first 'designer baby' a boy genetically matched, while still an IVF embryo, to his four-year-old brother, who has a rare form of anaemia that can be cured only with a transplant of stem cells from a sibling with identical tissue.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson. The latter snorts at the notion that the human genome is sacred, calling it 'utter silliness'. If Mr Watson and his kind have their way, one day society will be crawling with 'posthumans': genetically enhanced people with awesome physiques and genius IQs.

Enter an environmentalist campaigning to stop the march towards genetically modified everything - the redoubtable Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, alerted the world to the problem of global warming. In his new book released this month, Enough: Genetic Engineering and the End of Human Nature, the 43-year-old argues that science must restrain its appetite for meddling with the genome of plants and animals. 'We need to do an unlikely thing: We need to survey the world we now inhabit and proclaim it good. Good enough,' he writes.

Whatever the potential health benefits, the human genome in particular should be left pretty much intact. If science is allowed to start creating designer babies, the result will probably not be paradise. More likely, in McKibben's view, we will see a version of Brave New World: the mindless dystopia described by the classic British writer Aldous Huxley. Life would supposedly have no meaning because everyone would be perfect and have nothing to strive for - we might have turbocharged brains and muscles, but our 'souls' would atrophy from disuse.

Despite denying that he wants to turn back the clock and return to an untampered Arcadia, McKibben comes across as deeply hostile towards gene splicing in general. When he considers the issue of souped-up salmon, his eyes bore angrily into the carpet: 'I think it's insane,' he says, adding: 'I think it's one of these solutions in search of a problem.'

He underlines that America already has vast reserves of salmon, largely thanks to one of the world's few sustainable fish populations: the Alaskan salmon run. So why bother 'upgrading' the species? Scientists are merely paying tribute to the idea that more and bigger are better, McKibben reckons. Speaking slowly and mordantly, he calls this 'America's greatest contribution to the world,' adding: 'It's just ridiculous.'

He paints as abhorrent the prospect of making humans brighter and stronger through transgenics, stressing that, above all, it carries the metaphysical or philosophical risk that human meaning and human identity cannot survive the transition from 'born' to 'made'. McKibben advocates a total ban on human 'germline' (embryo-stage) genetic engineering.

In response to those hoping for a better future for their children and who might see an urgent need to improve the babies they make, McKibben says the underprivileged would probably be unable to afford germline engineering. He adds that in any case, upgrading would only create an evolutionary 'arms race'. But however vociferously McKibben campaigns against transgenics, one thing is certain: the practice will not just disappear. The attraction of ultra-fertile plants, amazing creatures and godlike humans is so intense it could prove irresistible to thrill-seeking scientists and businessmen.

McKibben acknowledges he has only a 50-50 chance of winning the argument. Whatever happens, the debate must, he stresses, take place soon. He is concerned transgenics could advance with great suddenness before society has had time to assess its dangers. He gives the example of the recently deceased dolly the sheep. The week before she was cloned almost every genetic engineer would have said it was impossible, he says. The week after, there were supposedly a hundred labs doing similar work on other animals.

McKibben believes that true happiness does not result from 'some endless Ecstasy buzz' but from trial and achievement. We need to appreciate the richness that life already offers, he concludes.

'There's unbelievable opportunity for interest and excitement in every human life and it comes from contact with each other and contact with the natural world and contact with ideas. The world is a full and rich and fascinating place. It's more than enough to engage our senses and delight them and perplex them.'