Bigger, Stronger, Faster…Better? Genetic Engineering or Evolution

Many of the authors whose work we have read thus far seem to be cautious, if not offering outright warnings, about the possible effects of genetic manipulation. This is appropriate, as much that could happen is unknown. Personally, I find the lack of predictability to be terrifying. Perhaps as a warning to us, Eldon Tyrell, the creator of the replicants in Blade Runner says, “To make an alteration in the evolvement of an organic life system is fatal.”

In Blade Runner and Beaker’s Dozen, we see examples of genetically engineered beings that are superior to their human creators. This creates a power struggle that ends in war and death in each of these works. In Blade Runner, the creation of the replicants Roy, Pris, Zhora, and Leon (the Nexus 6 replicants) was permitted for use “off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.” But they eventually grew violent, caused an uprising, and were declared illegal on Earth. The inhabitants of Earth did not like it when their Nexus 6 creations came back looking for answers and the Blade Runners were employed to “retire” the replicants. Many humans are excited by the possibilities of genetic engineering, but perhaps we can take a cue from Blade Runner and realize that if we create beings that are “superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence,” we better be ready for the consequences if conflict arises. In “Beggars in Spain” (Beaker’s Dozen), “sleepers” created the “sleepless” only to begin to fear and hate them for their achievements and for being exactly what they had created them to be – superior. Perhaps the warning here is that if we are willing to engineer genetics to their bigger, stronger, faster, ends then we must acknowledge that this new “species” will eventually begin to take our place. The prospects are scary. (re: extinction)

The flip side to this coin, at least for me, is that humans become bigger, stronger, and faster naturally through evolution. In fact, this is so natural and commonplace that it is not uncommon for parents to have children that are more talented than they were in particular areas. It is a well-known parental sentiment that you always want what is best for your kids and you hope for a better life for them than the one you had growing up. But would you go as far as Anna Olsen does in the “Dancing on Air” (Beaker’s Dozen) story? One of the important messages I took from this tale is the power of choice. We are rendered powerless when others make definitive choices for us. Anna Olsen chooses a life for her daughter; Caroline, finds out about her mother’s choices and is utterly repulsed by the idea. Personally, I am not sure how I would feel knowing that my parents had me genetically engineered to lead a specific life. It takes away the capacity and power of choice and its consequences, one of the things that make us most human.

Of course, humans do not always make wise choices when given the opportunity to decide for themselves. Sadly, the “Dancing on Air” story reminds me of the performance-enhancing drugs scandal surrounding professional baseball today. The end for the players (Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds most famously) does not appear to be a pleasant one. And the steroids scandal seems to be genetic modification on a small scale compared to the possibilities of genetic engineering.

We should proceed, if at all, with extreme caution. Hopefully we will learn that bigger, stronger, and faster does not necessarily equate with better. This seems to be one of the messages in many of the stories we have read thus far. Unfortunately, history does not serve humans well and we very often do not learn from our prior mistakes. Instead, history often repeats itself. Despite this, I would like to submit that the choices we make are not inevitable (an almost direct quote from Prof. Arleen Tuchman) and that this is where literature and the humanities have much to offer towards public policy – particular in discussion of genetic engineering. I hope that literature will help guide policy that leads us toward evolution rather than extinction.

Corey A. Kalbaugh

~ by coreykalbaugh on February 26, 2009.

One Response to “Bigger, Stronger, Faster…Better? Genetic Engineering or Evolution”

  1. I view “genetic engineering” as a natural process of evolution. Its like sexual reproduction. For billions of years, life on earth was limited to asexually reproducing one-celled organisms. They had to reproduce rapidly and relied on mutations to adapt to their environment. Multi-cell organisms, plants, animals, these are all too large, complicated, and long-lived to rely on mutations to adapt to their environment. Then an evolutionary leap was made: sexual reproduction. With this development,
    organisms could be more “directed” in their evolution by mixing and matching the DNA of already succesful organisms. Now they could afford to become larger, more complicated, and longer-lived, because their evolution was more directed. The fact that one of those animals, homo sapiens, has begun to acquire the ability to mix and match DNA in an even more directed manner, is just another evolutionary leap in the story of life on Earth. You can call it “genetic engineering” as if we had a choice in the matter, and as if we can control it at will, but we can’t. I don’t know how far you can take this analogy, but the the one-celled asexually reproducing organisms were not wiped out by the new “technology” of sexual reproduction. To a large extent, the sexually reproducing organisms simply had a new, empty niche available to them, and they filled it. Maybe that will happen here. Asking what will happen with the advent of genetic engineering is like asking one of those one-celled asexual organisms to predict the results of the new sexual reproduction technology they were faced with. Its not even a question they can understand, much less answer. Just like those little organisms, I think our will to thrive will prevent a disaster. I hope.

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