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Wise companions for the new world of genetic engineering

A wide-ranging anthology of reflections on the meaning of humanity

By / April 13, 2004



The ongoing debate over embryonic stem cell research pits its potential benefits for human health against potential changes in what it means to be human. To a certain degree, we've already started asking the right questions: Steroid use by athletes, for instance, forces us to consider whether we care if excellence is separated from effort. And today's mood-altering drugs can separate a sense of well-being from accomplishment. As a recent headline reminded us, "The Altered Human Is Already Here." Biotechnology is posing new questions more quickly than we might realize.

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Those who advocate an unfettered future of better living through chemistry can make a strong case: Who wouldn't want not only freedom from suffering and disability, but enhanced mental and physical capacities, happier moods, sharper thinking, stronger bodies, longer lives? Who could ask for anything more?

But deeper issues roam just beyond The Land of the Obvious, and the two-year-old President's Council on Bioethics is charged with visiting them.

One of the council's most fascinating projects is a new book called "Being Human," a collection of essays, fiction, poetry, and philosophical and religious musings. Its contents range from the ancient "Epic of Gilgamesh," with its primal questions about mortality, to the screenplay for the futuristic movie "Gattica," which asks what role an imperfect "natural" man would play in a genetically enhanced society?

Definitions of bioethics often concern themselves with issues such as safety, fairness, and equal access to treatment. Thus, human cloning might be thought of simply in terms of whether it could safely produce a child free from defects.

But what about the broader implications? asks council chairman Leon Kass in his introduction. For example, if children are the product of one individual, not the joining of two, how might this affect future generations? Will procreation be seen more as manufacturing? If genetic makeup can be altered, will humans begin to consider themselves more as collections of genes?

"Indeed, it sometimes seems as though our views of the meaning of our humanity have been so transformed by the technological approach to the world that we may be in danger of forgetting what we have to lose, humanly speaking," Kass says.

More and more, biotechnology will influence matters close to the core of our humanity, he predicts, including "birth and death, body and mind, sickness and health, sex and procreation, love and family, identity and individuality, freedom and dignity, aspiration and contentment, the purposes of knowledge, the aim of technology, the meaning of suffering, the quest for meaning."

Kass suggests we need a "richer bioethics" that keeps these megaissues in the discussion.

The 95 readings presented here are introduced by questions suggesting their relevance to "being human." They're set in 10 chapters with titles like "Natural Imperfection and Human Longing," which deals with whether man should be "molding or beholding" the natural world. "Scientific Aspirations" asks what should guide the quest for knowledge. "To Heal Sometimes, To Comfort Always" explores the purposes of medical treatment. "Are We Our Bodies?" and "Why Not Immortality?" wrestle with other thorny issues. A final section asks if there is ever value in suffering.

Can we create our own perfection? Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Pied Beauty," quoted here, praises the seeming imperfection of nature, thanking God for making "dappled things ... All things counter, original, spare, strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) .../ He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change...."

The heavy hitters of literary history are well represented: Shakespeare (a sonnet and "King Lear" excerpt), Hawthorne, Homer (both the Iliad and the Odyssey), Ovid, C.S. Lewis, Plutarch, Descartes, Camus, Whitman, George Eliot, Plato, Tolstoy, and St. Augustine. But the collection shows some serendipity too, such as excerpts from the children's works "Peter Pan" and "Tuck Everlasting" (what if we were immortal humans?), and three Japanese poems. Genesis, Job, and Revelation represent the Bible (but where are Paul and the Gospels - or non Judeo-Christian religious writings?).

Unfortunately, the council has distributed all 5,000 copies of "Being Human" to the public. No more are available, and it plans no second printing. However, the table of contents, chapter introductions, and sample readings are available at www.bioethics.gov/bookshelf. And a commercial publisher may decide to reprint the book in the future.

"As we strive to stay human in the age of biotechnology in ever-better and fuller ways, we must take whatever help we can get in deepening our appreciation of 'being human,' " Kass says of the anthology.

Biotech will continue to make a compelling case for being "better than well." And as we explore this strange new world, the best thinkers of the past make wise companions.

Gregory M. Lamb writes about biotechnology and medical issues for the Monitor.

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