X-Message-Number: 21505
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: Economist: Man and superman
Date: Sun, 30 Mar 2003 07:55:55 -0800


Man and superman

Mar 27th 2003
From The Economist print edition

Biotechnology could transform humanity provided humanity wishes to be 

WARNING against intellectual arrogance, Alexander Pope wrote:  Know then 
thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.  But 
his words have turned out to be misguided. Though studying man may not 
exactly have led scientists to scan God, it has certainly led to accusations 
that they are usurping His role.

More drugs; cheaper food; environmentally friendly industry. Who could 
object? But people do. The image that haunts biotechnology, and perhaps the 
most influential piece of science fiction ever written, is Mary Shelley's 
 Frankenstein . When the book was first published in 1818, most people did 
indeed believe that life was created by God. Shelley's student doctor apes 
that act of divine creation and comes a cropper. He has come to epitomise 
the mad-scientist figure: either downright wicked, or at the least heedless 
of humanity's good.

The book's subtitle, though, is telling:  The Modern Prometheus . 
Prometheus, in the Greek myth, stole fire from heaven and gave it to mankind 
with the intention of doing good. The reason Prometheus was punished by his 
particular set of gods was that he gave mankind power, and with that power, 

Biotechnology is not about to create a human from off-the-shelf chemicals, 
nor even from spare parts. But it may soon have the power to manipulate 
human life in ways which could bring benefits, but which many will find 
uncomfortable or abhorrent. A choice will have to be made.

Clones to the left of me...
No one has yet cloned a person, or genetically modified one, at least a 
whole one. But people are working on technologies that could help to do 
these things.

An existing individual might be cloned in several ways. The first would be 
to persuade a cell (say a skin cell) from the individual to be cloned that 
it was, in fact, a fertilised egg. That would mean reactivating a whole lot 
of genes that skin cells don't need but eggs do. As yet, no one knows how to 
go about that.

The second way is the Dolly-the-sheep method, which is to extract the 
nucleus of an adult cell and stick it in an egg from which the nucleus has 
been removed. That seems to trigger the desired reprogramming. Or instead of 
putting the nucleus into an egg cell, it might be put into a so-called stem 
cell from an early embryo. Embryonic stem cells can turn into any other sort 
of cell, so might possibly be persuaded to turn into entire people.

Regardless of that possibility, embryonic stem cells have medical promise, 
and several firms are currently studying them. Geron, the most advanced of 
these firms, has worked out how to persuade embryonic stem cells to turn 
into seven different types of normal cell line that it hopes can be used to 
repair damaged tissue. Blood cells could be grown in bulk for transfusions. 
Heart-muscle cells might help those with coronary disease.  Islet  
insulin-secreting cells could treat diabetes. Bone-forming cells would 
combat osteoarthritis. A particular type of nerve cell may help sufferers 
from Parkinson's disease. Cells called oligodendrocytes may even help to 
repair the insulating sheaths of nerve cells in people with spinal injuries. 
Geron is also working on liver cells. In the first instance, these would be 
used not to treat people, but to test potential drugs for toxicity, because 
most drugs are broken down in the liver.

Such transplanted tissues might be seen as foreign by the immune system, but 
Geron is keeping its corporate fingers crossed that this can be dealt with. 
Embryos have ways of gulling immune systems to stop themselves being 
rejected by the womb. In case that does not work, though, the discussion has 
turned to the idea of transplanting adult nuclei into embryonic stem cells 
as a way of getting round the rejection problem. This idea, known in the 
trade as therapeutic cloning, has caused alarm bells to go off. The 
technique would create organs, not people, and no one yet knows whether it 
would work. But some countries are getting nervous about stem-cell research. 
This nervousness has not been calmed by the activities of Advanced Cell 
Technology, a firm based in Worcester, Massachusetts, which announced in 
November 2001 that it had managed the trick of transplanting adult nuclei 
into stem cells and persuading the result to divide a few times. In effect, 
ACT created the beginning of an embryo.

Last year President George Bush issued a decree restricting federal funding 
in America to existing embryonic stem-cell lines. Attempts are now being 
made in Congress to ban it altogether. Reversing the usual traffic flow, 
some American scientists have upped sticks and gone to Britain, where the 
regulations on such research are liberal and settled. Some countries, 
indeed, have more than just settled regulations. Singapore, for example, is 
actively recruiting people who want to work on the human aspects of 
biotechnology. China, too, is said to be interested. Cynics might regard 
this as opportunism. But not everyone's moral code is shaped by 
Judeo-Christian ethics and besides, moral codes can change.

At the moment, cloning mammals is a hazardous business. It usually requires 
several hundred attempts to get a clone, and the resulting animal is 
frequently unhealthy, probably because the original transplanted nucleus has 
been inadequately reprogrammed. Nor does there seem to be much of a market, 
so no one is trying very hard.

Genetic modification is a different matter. GTC's drug-producing and Nexia's 
silk-producing goats are valuable, and people are putting in serious work on 
the technology. If someone wanted to add the odd gene or two to a human egg, 
they could probably do so. Indeed, something quite similar is already being 
done, although under another name: gene therapy intended to deal with 
illnesses such as cystic fibrosis is in fact a type of genetic modification, 
although admittedly one that is not passed from parent to offspring. But 
extending gene therapy to germ cells, to stop the disease being passed on, 
is under discussion.

...jokers to the right?
A scene in  Blade Runner , a film that asks Shelleyesque questions about the 
nature of humanity, is set in the headquarters of a prosperous-looking 
biotechnology company. The firm makes  replicants , robots that look like 
humans, and the firm's boss describes how they are grown from a single cell. 
The replicants, it is plain, are genetically modified people without any 
legal rights. In this dystopia, it is the unaltered humans who rule. By 
contrast,  GATTACA , another movie set in a genetically modified future, has 
the modified in charge. They are beautiful, gifted and intelligent. It is 
those who remain untouched by modification who suffer.

All this is in the realm of fiction, but the contrasting views of the 
potential effects of genetic modification point to an important truth about 
any technology. What really matters is not what is possible, but what people 
make of those possibilities. In the fantasy worlds of science fiction, 
people are frequently dominated by the technology they have created, and 
made miserable as a result. Yet so far, the real technological future 
ushered in by the industrial revolution has defied the fantasists. Dystopia 
has failed to materialise.

Perhaps, one day, some tyrant will try to breed a race of replicant slaves, 
but it seems unlikely. It seems much safer to predict that the rich will 
attempt to buy themselves and their children genetic privileges if and when 
these become available. But there is nothing new in the rich trying to buy 
privileges. The antidote is not a Draconian ban on basic research, but 
reliance on the normal checks and balances, both legal and social, of a 
liberal society. These have worked in the past, and seem likely to work in 
the future.

Tyranny, by definition, is incompatible with liberalism. More subtly, the 
one near-universal feature of technologies in liberal societies is that in 
time popular ones get cheaper as market competition does its work. Personal 
genetic modification may start out aristocratic, but if it does turn out to 
be a good thing, it will become demotic. Conceivably, it may indeed prove to 
be the field's killer application. And perhaps it is a useful antidote to 
hysteria to point out that trite, fun applications say, temporarily changing 
your skin pigmentation are conceivable, too.

Critics may say that decisions on cloning and germ-line modification are 
different, because they affect an unborn individual who has no say in the 
matter. But equivalent decisions about the unborn are routinely made 
already, albeit with the watchful eye of the law firmly on the 

Even if people do not choose to alter themselves, though, biotechnology is 
likely to become ubiquitous. Its potential is too great to neglect. Its 
current woes will come to be seen as mere teething troubles. The first route 
to ubiquity is likely to be via the chemical industry. As people become more 
confident about manipulating enzymes and micro-organisms, ever larger 
swathes of industrial chemistry will fall into biotech's grip. Like existing 
chemistry, though, the results will be taken for granted almost instantly.

Health care will also be revolutionised by biotech: not merely through new 
drugs, but through the ability to deploy them precisely and to anticipate 
the need for their use from studies of an individual's haplotype. Medicine 
will become less of an art and more of a science. It may even become a 
consumer good, if drugs intended to let people operate beyond their natural 
capacities are developed. That, though, is another area fraught with moral 

What remains unclear is the extent to which bioengineered organisms will 
become products in their own right. The raspberry blown at GM crops, which 
are the only transgenic species on the market at the moment, does not 
encourage the idea that modified organisms will be welcomed with open arms. 
But captive, genetically modified micro-organisms, such as those that would 
run Dr Venter's putative solar-powered fuel cells, probably do have a big 

Large organisms, too, may be exploited in ways as yet hard to imagine: 
furniture that is grown, rather than made; clothing that eats the dead skin 
its wearer sheds; miniature pet dragons (fire-breathing optional) as 
household pets. Whatever happens, however, it will be because somebody wants 
it to. Bacon was right. Knowledge is power and generally a power for good. 
The century of Watson and Crick is just beginning.

Copyright   2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights 

The new MSN 8: smart spam protection and 2 months FREE*  

Rate This Message: http://www.cryonet.org/cgi-bin/rate.cgi?msg=21505