Life is the frontier we explore deeper and deeper with every breath. It's as basic and as complex as anything we know.
Now, there's something new happening with the creation of life, and no one is sure what to make of it. No longer is the act of creation seen as the sole province of God or nature or the Great Whatever. Tomorrow belongs to me. And to you and other humans.
Genetically altered mice are scampering all over the place, losing weight, acting hyperaggressively. There are reports of cloned cattle, pigs, goats, rabbits and kittens, since a sheep named Dolly was cloned in 1996.
Just about every week we get details of some newly minted -- or demented -- form of life. In late November, genome-mapper J. Craig Venter announced that he plans to systematically disable the genes of a bacteria-like organism called a mycoplasma to figure out just how few genes are needed to sustain life -- thereby creating a minimal kind of neobug.
"Scientists Attempt to Create New Life Form in Lab," reads a headline in Genomics & Genetics Weekly.
New Scientist magazine reported the same month that a bunch of bench scientists under Michael Travisano, a biologist at the University of Houston, have figured out a relatively simple way, called hybrid speciation, to create new species of yeast. Each new species needs a name. Each new species is a new form of life. "Humankind has created a new species for the first time," the magazine observed.
Recently the sensational and suspect doctor Severino Antinori told Italian newspapers that two women, somewhere on the planet, are carrying cloned babies and another one has just been born. And the Raelians, a flying saucer cult, claim that . . . oh, never mind.
The serious scientists may not be as tabloid-worthy, but they're even more provocative. They believe that these steps toward self-creation -- toward tampering with our own DNA right down to the fundamental, heritable part of our biological code known as the germline -- are natural and necessary in human evolution.
"The arrival of safe, reliable germline technology will signal the beginning of human self-design," writes Gregory Stock in "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future."
Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA's School of Public Health, writes enthusiastically of human beings seizing control of their own evolutionary future. He spins tales of artificial chromosomes that will enhance life for one generation, then be replaced -- or upgraded like software -- for the next. He waxes on about germinal choice technology that could possibly give us longer life spans, sexier characteristics, smarter babies and other heritable traits such as greater height, greener eyes and perfect pitch -- as well as enhanced aspects of personality and temperament.
In a phone interview, Stock says, "We are forced to adapt ourselves to the designed environment we are creating around us. This is really a transition for our species."
To hear some scientists talk, though, this is not so much about the Evolution of the Species as it is about the Evolution of the Self.
"Going for perfection was something I always thought you should do," the godfather of modern genetics, James D. Watson, told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "Who wants an ugly baby?"
Bye-bye baldness? Vamoose Viagra? Is it the dawn of disease-free teens, sexually zestful old folks and century-plus life spans for all? Not-so-distant futurists speak offhandedly of transitional humans (or transhumans) and posthumans, of the polyamorous orgy of microbiology, nanotechnology and information technology.
Not so fast, say some scientists and theologians. Just because you can create new life doesn't mean you should create new life.
"The system we belong to," says George Fisher, a geologist at Johns Hopkins, "has emerged from a long, slow process of evolution in which the rate of innovation -- the emergence of new varieties of all organisms in response to mutations and sexual recombination -- has been roughly comparable to the rate of selection, that is, the gradual disappearance of less competitive varieties."
Evolutionary theory, Fisher says, holds that "if the rate of innovation greatly exceeds the rate of selection, an otherwise stable system can change drastically and unpredictably."
For several million years, Fisher says, humans were pretty much concerned with staying warm, scrounging for food and avoiding molten lava. "For the first 2 or 4 million years we were barely hanging on the edge. Somewhere in the last 500 years we've crossed a barrier, and going along in the old sense is no longer the issue."
The question, according to Fisher and others, is both simple and complex: Do we continue to focus on ourselves -- our genes, our lusts, our vanities, our longevity?
Or do we turn our attention, and godlike talents, elsewhere -- to the salvation of the planet, for example?
"We've evolved in an ecological system in which we had to focus on ourselves," Fisher sighs. "We've gotten past that."
Prometheus and Friends
It all seems so new. It's not.
From Day One, humankind has seized its own evolution -- sometimes with glorious results, such as improved sanitation, cured diseases, ameliorated pain, saved lives.
Sometimes with vainglorious -- and disastrous -- outcomes, such as genocide, the "unsinkable" Titanic, Chernobyl and weapons of mass destruction. The high-flying, fast-falling mythic Icarus also comes to mind -- using a pair of wax wings fashioned by his techno-tinkerer father, Daedalus.
Ancient Greeks also sang of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Zeus to give to man. Zeus, for his part, sent man a gift -- Pandora. And, through her, a whole box of troubles.
The ancients, explains Victoria Pedrick, an associate professor of classics at Georgetown University, "had an interest in gifts."
Gifts from the gods, she says, "are deceptive. Inside of them are dangerous consequences. Their contents are powerful."
These days Prometheus is lifted up as a hero. Here's a blurb from a New York publishing company: "Founded in 1969, Prometheus Books took its name from the courageous Greek god who gave fire to humans, lighting the way to reason, intelligence, and independence."
The Judeo-Christian tradition uses a similar story. Adam and Eve were warned by God not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the serpent told the nudist couple that if they did eat the fruit, "ye shall be as gods."
By eating the fruit, the couple seized part of their own evolution. They hoped to determine their own destiny. "By craving to be more, man becomes less," writes Saint Augustine in "The City of God," "and by aspiring to be self-sufficing, he fell away from Him Who truly suffices him."
There are other instances in the Bible of mankind outreaching its grasp. The tower of Babel, for instance. "Now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do," God said. So He put a stop to the tower-building.
Through the ages, cultures have recognized the pros and cons of playing god. In eastern Europe, the tales of the Golem and Pinocchio are stories of man creating life. From this tradition comes the cautionary novel, published in 1818: "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Inspired by the experiments of Luigi Galvani, an Italian scientist in the 1790s who used electricity to force the nerves of dead frogs to twitch, Shelley crafted a brilliant tale of human overreaching.
"It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn," says narrator Victor Frankenstein, "and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world."
Frankenstein, like scientists of today, purports to be motivated by the best intentions. "I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!"
But hubris takes over. He proclaims: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation."
Shelley wrote the novel in response to her times, a period of immense scientific discovery. All around her, people believed that science and technology would bring great change to the world and usher in a period of prolonged prosperity.
Shelley wasn't so sure. "Frightful must it be," she wrote in an introduction to a later edition, "for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the World."
The subtitle of her novel: "The Modern Prometheus."
A Century's Achievement
It all came together in the 20th century:
Radical scientific advances, rampant existentialism blended with the godless nihilism born of world wars and unparalleled vanity from the Hollywood dream factory.
During that long-ago century, life on Earth became so comfortable for most people in developed countries that thoughts of a better afterlife faded into a blue TV mist. Because many pains were relieved, infirmities overcome, diseases cured, doctors and pharmacologists turned their attention to the enhancement of humanity, making the good life better.
The elitist eugenics movement, dedicated to "improving" humankind by better breeding, gained a foothold in America in the late 19th century. More than 30 states passed laws in favor of forced sterilization under certain circumstances. It's estimated that more than 60,000 people underwent the procedure. The horrors of the practice were driven home when the Nazis used eugenics to attempt to create a master race.
In the post-World War II West, attention turned toward self-augmentation. These days an industry has arisen from medical or technological self-improvement -- from plastic and Lasik surgery to steroids to vitamin therapy. In the past 10 years, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of cosmetic surgery patients in this country has tripled. In 2001 7.5 million people underwent some form of cosmetic plastic surgery. That year: 125,000 Americans had their faces lifted, 220,000 received breast enhancements and 275,000 received liposuction. It's no wonder that we have come to believe a long, happy, healthy, handsome pain-free life is our inalienable right.
With the mapping of the human genome, we can now begin to tinker with future generations.
English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley saw the possibilities and the pitfalls early. He wrote about the contemporary world -- contemporary now, not then -- in his 1932 novel "Brave New World."
"The principle of mass production," he wrote, "at last applied to biology." Embryos, genetically altered and enhanced in laboratories, are divided into various castes of rulers and workers. Through biological manipulation and conditioned learning, people are forced to embrace their "inescapable social destiny."
In Huxley's milieu, nature is the enemy. People are conditioned to loathe nature. "What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder."
God has been replaced by Henry Ford and because people are living longer, they must consume more. "Nowadays the Controllers won't approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games," one leader explains in "Brave New World." More gaming apparatus equals more sales equals ever-expanding economy.
No longer are women viviparous. Huxley envisioned the same world that Gregory Stock predicts. Here's how Stock writes it: "A thousand years hence, these future-humans -- whoever or whatever they may be -- will look back on our era as a challenging, difficult, traumatic moment. They will likely see it as a strange and primitive time when people lived only seventy or eighty years, died of awful diseases, and conceived their children outside a laboratory by a random, unpredictable meeting of sperm and egg."
Huxley thought through the ramifications of cloning. In the new world, reading books is discouraged because "you can't consume much if you sit still and read books."
People, he writes, spoke of a time when "there was a thing called the soul and a thing called immortality."
Because of scientific breakthroughs, "at 60 our powers and tastes are what they were at 17."
Only a few folks still feel warmth and rage and love and grace.
"I want to know what passion is," one character says. "I want to feel something strongly."
And at another point: "We haven't any use for old things here," a controller says.
"Even when they're beautiful?"
"Particularly when they're beautiful," the controller says. "Beauty's attractive, and we don't want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones."
John the Savage, who rebels against this utopia, says, "I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin."
He adds, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."
The Theologian and You: A One-Act Play (Your lines are in italics.)
You: This is all so confusing, separating the hope from the hype, the possible from the impossible, the right from the wrong, the good from the evil. Are scientists in 2003 just blowing smoke?
Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: "There is enough novelty here to be taking it all seriously."
You: But what is life?
Cole-Turner: "Life is an assemblage of complex biochemicals, but theologically, Christian theologians have wanted to say it's something more -- the result of an animating presence in the cosmos of God, the Holy Spirit."
You: So if God is the animating presence, why are we continuing to push the envelope?
Cole-Turner: "In nature, but now increasingly in the heads of engineers, there is sheer, raw creativity. What happens if we try this? Try it and see what happens, which is somewhat what nature does. If it's biologically viable, it takes off."
You: Do you think that's good or bad?
Cole-Turner: "When humans are forcing the changes, what functions in the selective role? Is it the market? . . . Is there a selection at the level of morality or spiritual wisdom? Increasingly we're not sure there is."
You: So the market makes the decisions. If humans want something and can afford it, it will happen? The market, in effect, becomes God.
Cole-Turner: "That's a sober assessment of what market dynamics alone are likely to give us."
Cole-Turner: "Wealth is unevenly distributed. We're about to develop technologies that enhance your offspring, allow you to live longer, make you less vulnerable to disease."
Cole-Turner: "It doesn't take any imagination at all to see that some will have access. Some won't."
Cole-Turner: "Will we allow the technology to expand the amount of injustice in the world? I don't think that's a good idea. How do you avoid that? You need something more than a distant mechanism provided by the market. The question: What kind of society do we want to be?"
What Is Life?
"Nobody's creating any new life forms," says William Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Rockville-based Human Genome Sciences and a former research partner of J. Craig Venter. "In so far as I can tell, it's almost always linked to publicity."
Venter, he says, is simply "reassembling components that already exist and fitting them into a context."
Haseltine believes that before we can create a new form of life, we must first figure out exactly "what life is." Though scientists do delight in discovering first and asking questions later.
Here's his definition of life: A system that can reproduce itself with error . . . and reproduce those errors.
This stems from a 1963 workshop in which Haseltine and others were asked to hammer out the definition of life in preparation for the design of instruments to be carried on the first Mars probe.
Haseltine believes that we may be on the threshold of creating new life, but if we are, it will not be through genetics, but through nanoengineering and computer technology.
"Most of the advances people are worrying about," Haseltine says, "are focused on our health. It is considered a great good to be healthy and to provide health for society.
"We all have fertile imaginations," he continues. "People quickly imagine the worst applications." When in vitro fertilization was introduced, he recalls, "people warned that it would redefine parenthood and be misused by dictators. That has not come to pass, although it could. People have used it for much more reasonable purposes. It hasn't led to any of the dire predictions, such as one man having an unlimited number of children. That's not in our nature."
He adds, "If cloning should arrive, and is proved to be safe, I don't think it's a great threat. To have a delayed birth twin is another way of solving an infertility problem.
"Think of tangelos," he says, referring to the hybrid of tangerines and oranges. "Are those horrible things?"
Isn't that a little like comparing apples and . . . tangelos?
"Scientists downplay the implications of doing these things," says Father John Crossin, executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium. "We do create things, that's part of how we're like God. God has made us to be creative and be free. But what are the boundaries? When do we become too dangerous to others, to ourselves and to the world?"
Crossin puzzles over "the underlying attitudes of pride, that kind of thing. We are proud. What is the purpose? Is it for the good? We have the technical prowess, should we do it?"
He harkens back to the tower of Babel, that "warns us against the overweening pride that goes before the fall."
Beware, he says, "the virus -- that kills the millions -- for which we have no cure."
In the Beginning
And God blessed Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, "and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
At Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, ethics professor Sondra Wheeler says: "Verses like this were invoked to give sanction to unfettered control of the environment. . . . The legacy of that interpretation is with us everywhere. We breathe it."
However, she cautions against believing that we were ever meant to seize the reins of our own incarnation. "If you go from this verse to the assertion that God blesses and intends unconstrained absolute human will over the rest of the creative world, we live with the environmental consequences and the psychological consequences of thinking of ourselves as above, and not as a part of, the natural world."
The verses, she says, "are part of a larger narrative. The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."
The President's Ethicist
Some argue against human-driven evolution not so much on religious grounds as moral grounds.
"Let me begin by offering a toast to biomedical science and technology," ethicist Leon R. Kass tells the roomful of listeners at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington in mid-January. "May they live and be well. And may our children and grandchildren continue to reap their even tastier fruit -- but without succumbing to their seductive promises of a perfect, better-than-human future, in which we shall all be as gods, ageless and blissful."
Kass, chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, looks for all the world like an unassuming professor -- coat, tie, wavy gray hair, tortoiseshell glasses -- standing in the lecture room.
"We are concerned about what others might do to us," he says about the fruits of biotechnology, "but also about what we might do to ourselves."
There are non-therapeutic possibilities such as: instruments of bioterrorism, agents of social control and "as a means of trying to improve or perfect our bodies and minds and those of our children -- for example, genetically engineered supermuscles or drugs to improve memory."
He draws a distinction between therapy and enhancement. It is the latter -- and the concomitant question of morality -- that concerns him.
There are health issues, he says: "Anything powerful enough to enhance System A is likely to be powerful enough to harm System B, the body being a highly complex yet integrated whole in which one intervenes partially only at one's peril."
There are issues of inequality and distributive injustice: He invokes Huxley's world and "its deplorable and impermeably rigid class system."
And he underscores the issues of personal freedom: One generation will be given extraordinary biological power over the following generation. Will we need a national standard for height or leanness or intelligence established by the government? A "No Embryo Left Behind" kind of mandate?
Kass makes eloquent arguments that transhumans and posthumans will gradually lose the feeling of mastery and, ultimately, self-worth. If you excel at something is it because you have worked hard and sacrificed and trained and grown, or is it because your parents paid an extra $100,000 for a fresh set of ballet-dancer genes?
The phrase "No Pain, No Gain" will give way to "By Any Genes Necessary."
Character, which Kass describes as "the merit of disciplined and dedicated striving," will wither. "People whose disruptive behavior is remedied by pacifying drugs rather than by their own efforts," Kass says, "are not learning self-control. If anything, they are learning to think it's unnecessary. People who take pills to block out from memory the painful or hateful aspects of a new experience will not learn how to deal with suffering or sorrow. A drug to induce fearlessness does not produce courage."
Furthermore, the subtext of observations by Kass and George Fisher and others is that rather than becoming something greater than human by improving and enhancing, we are in jeopardy of becoming something less.
If we are able to rejuvenate at will and live hundreds of years and do away with sickness and disease altogether, will anything mean anything anymore? Will we gain the world and lose our souls?
Kass makes an appeal for the dignity of dying a natural death and the idea of a "shape" to life. Poetic, yes. We've looked to poetry through the ages to cut through the science and speak truthfully of matters of life and death. In America alone, from Nathaniel Hawthorne in "The Birthmark" to Michael Crichton in "Prey," writers have sounded an alarm against overzealous technoadvancement.
"The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life-extension," Kass says, "will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive."
Disrupting the Balance
There are religious and moral reasons for us to slow our flow into the future. There may also be some agnostic reasons. Perhaps we live in a balance, some scientists and mathematicians say.
They invoke a version of the anthropic principle, which maintains that there are an enormous number of facts in the universe -- the golden ratio, the temperature at which water boils and pi, for instance -- which are true and immutable and should we ever tamper with them, this whole house of cards known as life will collapse.
Owen J. Gingerich, a senior astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believes in the principle. "The properties of hydrogen and the properties of water are extremely fine-tuned," he says. "We're not going to change those constants."
But by "introducing new and strange species," he says, "you can throw the thing out of balance."
We live, Gingerich adds, "in a very tight kind of ecological balance."
There's not a nanosecond to waste, says Bill McKibben, author of the soon-to-be-published "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." The idea that man will be creating man may seem far out and far off, but he points out that just 10 years ago the only genetically altered plants on earth were being grown in small plots on university research farms. "Then, all of a sudden in the mid-1990s, before anyone had paid any real attention, farmers had planted half the corn and soybean fields in America with transgenic seed. Since 1994, farmers in this country have grown 3.5 trillion genetically manipulated plants." We are just beginning to wrestle with the possible dangers of genetically modified crops and livestock, and now we face a bout with genetically and technologically altered selves.
All of this talk concerns George Fisher of Johns Hopkins.
He puts it into one sentence: "We should do all that we can to avoid mistakes, then monitor the situation carefully."
Very, very carefully, always keeping a wary eye on the apparently glorious gifts the gods have bestowed upon us.