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The complete accounting of the human genome, a de facto guide for building a person, met with predictable fanfare last week. Its celebration marked 50 years since Francis Crick and James Watson published their Nobel Prize-winning description of that iconic spiral staircase, the double helix of DNA.
"After three billion years of evolution, we have before us the instruction set that carries each of us from the one-cell egg through adulthood to the grave," Dr. Robert Waterston, of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, told a crowd at the National Institutes of Health.
With this new knowledge comes new power, the ability to shape our fundamental formand, one day, to better it. Within our lifetime, scientists say, we will see the advent of genetically enhanced human beings, babies who might look like all the others in the nursery but will grow up to jump higher, learn faster, live longer. Powerful and privileged, they could also become a vulnerable minority, as much subject to prejudice as primed for success.
On January 3, during the final, furious effort to sequence those 3.1 billion units of DNA, a federal court in Lower Manhattan handed down a ruling that by some bizarre twist could serve as precedent for a third-millennium Dred Scott decision. Judge Judith Barzilay of the U.S. Court of International Trade decreed that intelligent characters with "extraordinary and unnatural powers," beings with "tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs," "highly exaggerated muscle tone," or "exaggerated troll-like features," are "nonhuman creatures." Really.
That ruling, regarding a tax on comic-book toys, revealed a mindset that doesn't bode well for the souped-up variants of human who could be living shoulder-to-shoulder with your grandkids, or could be your grandkids. They could very well be augmented with better genes and robotic prosthetics or implanted chips, by choice or necessity. Will they face an angry mob of normals when they start filling the roster at Harvard? When they go to vote, will they be recognized as citizens? The law has gone a lot further in banning their birth than in protecting their rights.
Months before that court decision, Olympic officials and scientists meeting in New York City resolved to bar genetically engineered athletes from future competitions. And preferring phrasing that sounds protective, the Council of Europe stated as far back as 1982 that "Human Rights imply the right to inherit a genetic pattern which has not been artificially changed."
Watson, founding director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, isn't part of that consensus. "It's strange to say we've come to a point where we don't want to improve things," he told the Voice. "It's against the main thrust of civilization's work."
Before we swallow an overweening sense of preciousness about the human being, we should be mindful that our Constitution never defined what one was. Rather than narrowing our sense of perfection to Leonardo da Vinci's precisely proportioned Vitruvian Man, we might define ourselves, for ourselves, according to values and qualities like intelligence, empathy, compassionregardless of outward form or inner tinkering.
The grand-père terrible of genetic research, Watson argues that "nature knows best" is a delusional quagmire. Evolution, after all, is a messy set of continual compromises designed to make do for the moment. There's the wondrous human hand and the horrible human knee. In his new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson advocates genetic modification not just to protect us from disease, but to make us smarter, too.
Other scientists foresee new, superior offshoots of our species spawned by genetic blending with various flora and fauna. Leading lights in these fields gathered at Boston University this month to sort it all out in a symposium called simply "The Future of Human Nature."
"Enough," says environmentalist author Bill McKibben in his new book of that name, a jeremiad against such supposed technological sins. But should fine-tuned babies and transgenic beings pop up among us anyway, he says, "I am certain the better angels of our nature will prevail and we will treat them as we would anybody else."
His assessment, that we can hate the sin but love the product of it, seems glib given our planet's track record of prejudice. Even children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, so-called Amerasians, faced severe discrimination in the land of their birth because the circumstances of their conception carried a stigma of colonialism. And the organic farming movement has denounced genetically modified "Frankenfoods." How much of a stretch is it to imagine that metaphor coming full circle, demonizing people enhanced by those same technologies?
The transgenic revolution is already herefish genes have been spliced into tomatoes to make them frost resistant, and jellyfish genes have been used to make a fluorescent rabbit. Now imagine if the problem of world hunger were eased by creating an even hybrid of human and plant, people who could feed off sunshine. We'd all benefit from the reduced demand for food, but "would those individuals be protected by the Constitution?" asks Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and author of Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics.