Where Will the Genetics Revolution Lead?

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Where Will the Genetics Revolution Lead?

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July 20 of this year marks the 30th anniversary of perhaps the most captivating moment in a century rich with technological achievements. A few years ago U.S. News & World Report called the first manned moon voyage "the signature of our century." With that event mankind fulfilled a dream of decades. It seemed to many people at the time we could accomplish almost anything.

In this amazing century one invention after another has altered forever the course of history. Of all man has achieved, two developments seem to have brought about more sweeping changes than any other. These are the automobile in the first half of the century and the computer in the second.

If this century has given us future shock, the pace of change in the next century will be even more dizzying. How fast is human knowledge advancing? "In the past decade, more scientific knowledge has been created than in all of human history" (Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, 1998, p. 4).

British journalist Paul Johnson adds: "We may think science moved fast in the 20th century, but we are going to be dazzled by its acceleration in the century to come. And the rapid rise of the life sciences means that many of the changes it will soon be in our power to make will be fundamental and irreversible" (The Daily Mail [London], May 22).

Keep in mind, as Mr. Johnson implies, that the focus of technology has changed. Although still prominent, the main focus of science is no longer on outer space. It is on the inner space of the deoxyribonucleic-acid (DNA) molecule. Next century's frontier is the science of biotechnology.

If scientists are correct in their projections, the futuristic wave of genetics will present us with fascinating possibilities—and perplexing choices.

Genetic Engineering Already Here

For centuries mankind has manipulated genetics to ensure the passing on and strengthening of desirable traits in animals and plants. Humanity has seen many benefits from understanding and properly using genetics. Animals have been bred to be stronger, more hardy, to produce more wool, milk or meat. Strains of wheat, corn and rice have been created that produce more food while needing less fertilizer and water. Fast-growing trees provide more lumber, pulp, fuel and shade. Even flowers are bigger, more colorful, more beautiful than they would be otherwise.

But, since scientists began unlocking the secrets of DNA in the 1950s, genetic manipulation has taken new meaning. Researchers have discovered ways to change the inherited shape, form and function of living things by altering their genetic material. This process is known as genetic engineering.

All living cells—plant, animal and human—contain the genetic material DNA, which determines the attributes of the offspring of all living things. By directly manipulating that material, scientists can change inherited characteristics in predetermined ways.

Such manipulation of genetic material is a reality. Your world has probably already been affected by it. Many food products have been genetically altered. Tomatoes have been genetically manipulated to have a longer shelf life. Rice strains have been engineered to be disease-resistant. Genes of fish have been placed into potatoes and strawberries to make these plants more resistant to cold weather.

Not all of these products are in commercial production yet, but work continues. Even so, a considerable amount of processed foods sold in Britain has in some way been genetically modified.

Scientists have also tinkered with livestock. Cows have been injected with growth hormones to increase their milk production. Attempts are underway to engineer sheep that produce a chemical in their skin that will provide immunity to insect parasites. Researchers are attempting to develop herpes-proof pigs. These projects are only the tip of the iceberg.

Genetic Engineering: Good or Bad?

Not everyone views such tinkering as positive scientific advancement. Some, particularly in Europe, skeptically view it as an assault on nature. "If something goes wrong, how can it be put right? The truth is, nobody knows ... And like some drug complications, ecological side-effects may take years to appear" (The Economist, June 13, 1998).

Some engineering of plants involves the use of virus particles. One concern is that this could result in the unintentional creation of viruses harmful to existing crops. Another concern is that, in the efforts to design plants that produce toxic chemicals that ward off their natural pests, chemicals might result that poison native animals or beneficial insects. The inadvertent production of allergens in foods is another concern.

Proponents of genetic engineering believe these risks are justified because of the potential that such research offers to lessen the effects of food shortages and malnutrition.

If genetic manipulation of plants and animals causes concern, it is nothing compared to the concern in some quarters about genetic engineering in humans.

The Human Genome Project

The seminal event for the science of genetic engineering occurred in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. If this were the birth of modern genetics, many scientists believe the Human Genome Project (HGP) is its industrial revolution.

The HGP is a global scientific project. Its director is an American, Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health (NIH). He calls it "the most important scientific project mankind has ever mounted."

The purpose of the project is to make a "map" of the approximately 100,000 human genes on the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the cells of our bodies. "Once it is completed, we will have an 'owner's manual' for a human being" (Kaku, p. 143).

The implications of such research are far-reaching. The original target date for completion of the project was 2005. The expectation is that it will be completed before that time, perhaps as early as the end of 2001. In running not only ahead of schedule but under budget, it is unusual among government projects. The rapid progress is attributable in large part to the prodigious information-processing power of the computer.

By unlocking the genetic code of life, scientists believe they may eventually have at their fingertips the power to heal diseases, create new species, fashion "designer children" and perhaps move closer to grasping the Holy Grail of immortality by reversing the aging process.

A New Era in Medicine

Many diseases are influenced, at least in part, by genetic factors. Through the HGP, genes that are linked with various cancers, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes have been pinpointed. Through such progress, geneticists hope to discover new ways to fight disease. Some believe it will be possible in a few years to develop custom-made drugs for the best fit to an individual's body chemistry.

These possibilities excite scientists. Not only will this new knowledge deliver the potential to treat diseases, it will bring the possibility of preventing the diseases in the first place.

But, with the possibility of obtaining a readout of our individual genetic makeup, we may be presented with a Pandora's box of choices.

Genetic testing and screening could arm parents or prospective parents with the foreknowledge that they have the potential to beget a child with a serious physical impairment. As more disease-causing genes are identified, this will present painful choices, such as whether to abort or deliver an unborn child. Some parental carriers of the gene for cystic fibrosis have already faced this dilemma when they identified the disease in their developing fetus.

Genetic blueprinting will beget a host of privacy concerns. Will governments at some point mandate genetic testing for couples seeking to get married? This is sure to raise serious concern about the prospect of government intervention. Would governments pressure pregnant women who are carrying defective fetuses to submit to abortions? Governments might conceivably do this out of concern over the financial burdens placed on their health-care systems by children with incurable lifelong afflictions requiring expensive care.

Design Your Own Child

If gene-manipulation procedures sufficiently improve to yield predictable results, what will happen then? Some believe it may be possible to design a dream child with the characteristics the parents desire in their offspring. Parents might be able to plan a customized child who is genetically disposed to be physically attractive, of superior intelligence or athletically talented.

On the other end of the spectrum, if certain genetic traits are associated with physical violence, totalitarian societies might move to counter with this by targeting those who are considered apt to commit or have committed felonious acts. These concerns may seem far-fetched to some, but they should not be dismissed, given that attempts at ethnic cleansing have been a sad reality in several regions in recent years.

Is It Right or Wrong?

Is there such a thing as right or wrong in these matters? Does genetic engineering or cloning have anything to do with God? Many in the field of science do not believe in God, so to them it is a nonissue. But those who believe God exists need to address the matter of what He may think.

After God created life on earth—plants and animals—He proclaimed it all to be very good (Genesis 1:31). God also declared that sanctity exists between species. Everything, including plants (Genesis 1:11-12), animals and man (Genesis 1:24-28), was created to reproduce "according to its kind." In Genesis, "kind" is generally equivalent to a species.

Genetic engineering is an attempt to improve on what God made. God designed into every species considerable genetic diversity and potential, which is why we see hundreds of different breeds of dogs, cats, birds and cows, along with billions of people, all different. As noted earlier, humans for centuries have used this diversity to produce stronger, more productive, more beneficial plants and animals.

But could taking genetic engineering a quantum leap forward produce unforeseen problems?

"Researchers in the field of molecular biology are arguing that there is nothing particularly sacred about the concept of species" (Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan, Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering, 1996, p. 64). In reality, such genetic engineering amounts to tampering with God's creation. Those who call for caution are wise in having and voicing concerns. "No new scientific or technological development can claim immunity from ethical scrutiny" (Reiss and Straughan, p. 6).

In addition to protecting individual species, we should also be concerned about the environment in a larger sense. Just because we can do certain things technologically does not mean we can do them safely.

At one time nuclear power plants seemed like a brilliant idea, but a string of nuclear-power-plant disasters has dimmed their luster. Decades ago nations embarked on a binge of building nuclear facilities without adequately thinking through long-term storage solutions for radioactive wastes. Humanity has a long history of short-sightedness when it comes to considering the possible consequences of our actions. The potential for ecological damage to other plants and animals from genetic engineering should raise warning flags.

Genetic Tinkering Gone Awry

A case in point is a United States experiment in which pigs were given a human growth hormone gene in hopes they would put on weight faster. They put on weight but were also partially blind and arthritic and developed ulcers. Is this the way God wants us to manage His creation?

Among the dangers we face with plants is that an altered plant might bring unforeseen consequences to the environment. Researchers recently found that one variety of genetically engineered corn produced pollen that was toxic to monarch butterflies. Others raise the concern that manipulated plants could become "weeds" with no useful purpose and the potential to run amok. Man has often introduced animals or plants to areas in which they were not indigenous, only to see them become a major nuisance harmful to other species in the area and impossible to eradicate.

The bottom line is that man's attempts to improve on God's handiwork can-and do—sometimes backfire.

Genetic engineering of humans and cloning is an area where man should tread with a special awe. Evolutionists believe man is simply the highest life form. With knowledge of genetics, some are tempted to look at man simply as so much genetic material to be manipulated in an attempt to improve the human species. The truth is that God designed man to be the highest form of physical life—made in the very image of God—and with the wondrous potential of becoming a part of His family. (To better understand this astounding truth, please request our free booklet, What Is Your Destiny?)

Misplaced Priorities

The desire to alleviate human suffering through genetic engineering may spring from good intentions, but we should consider why sickness and disease exist. One of the reasons, simply put, is sin and abuse of our bodies. The health costs from alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases and improper diet, not to mention crime and violence as a means to solving problems, is staggering.

The problem that man most needs to address—but that we frequently ignore—is the need to change our nature rather than trying to improve on the physical design of mankind.

As with many other contemporary issues, some will use the issue of freedom as a trump card to get their way. Some cloning advocates speak of "human procreative liberty." Do we have a right to clone that outweighs other ethical considerations?

Are we, without adequately considering the consequences, tampering with the society's building block, the family? "Whether or not we know it, the severing of procreation from sex, love and intimacy is inherently dehumanizing, no matter how good the product" (Flesh Of My Flesh, Ethics of Cloning Humans, Gregory E. Pence, ed., 1998, p. 26).

In God's plan, children should come into the world in a stable home environment founded on a committed marriage between a man and woman (Genesis 2:24). At one time this was the cultural norm in most nations. This standard has been shattered in recent decades by a series of cultural earthquakes and repeated assaults on the family. Manufacturing children by cloning could prove to be another step in the further disintegration of the family.

Where will all this lead?

As humanity approaches the 21st century, with an incredible arsenal of technology in our possession, we will be wise to consider what can happen to a civilization that is infatuated with its own wisdom and rejects the knowledge of God.

The world in the days before the flood of Noah had rejected God's ways. "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). The result of living that way was destruction. We would do well to heed the lesson of what can happen to a society that rejects the knowledge of God.

One of the gravest dangers of our modern, technologically advanced society is the power we have created to destroy all human life. Man has possessed this frightening potential for some time—since harnessing the power of the atom to create enough nightmarish nuclear weapons to eliminate all life on earth many times over.

In the wrong hands, biotechnology can be a grave danger. Germ weapons could be used by rogue nations or terrorist groups, or even by misguided individuals, to devastate entire countries. Karl Johnson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta expressed this very concern: "Any crackpot with a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment and a college biology education under his belt could manufacture bugs that would make Ebola look like a walk around the park" (Kaku, p. 258).

Jesus Christ prophesied a time when the survival of human life would be jeopardized. "It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again," He warns. "If that time of troubles were no cut short, no living thing could survive ..." (Matthew 24:21-22, Revised English Bible).

As we move rapidly down the pathway of scientific progress, mankind moves closer to the very moment Jesus predicted. When that time comes, we will discover that the god of technology will not be able save us. Our deliverance will come from God alone. GN

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