AS scientists, businessmen, and the public look at the promise of genetic engineering, they need to constantly guard against a subtle and dangerous attitude. We choose to call it the new creationism. Its impact on human advancement can be just as detrimental as the ``old creationism.'' This holds that a Supreme Being was responsible for creating the material universe and a hierarchy of distinct forms of life in a very brief span of time several thousand years ago.
The new creationism replaces the Deity with human beings wielding the tools of molecular biology. Though focusing solely on organic life, the new creationism assumes responsibility for ``creating'' improved plants and animals strictly for human benefit in a fairly short time.
In essence, new creationism threatens to erode humanity's respect for the intrinsic individuality and value of all forms of life.
Take, for example, genetic engineering in agriculture, surveyed in a three-part Monitor series that ends today. The field is driven by understandable motives: developing meat and produce with higher food value, greater disease and pest resistance, and greater environmental flexibility. Those goals have the momentum of thousands of years of agricultural breeding behind them.
But a closer look at using animals as pharmaceutical factories blurs the picture. It is a function that must be ``spliced'' into an animal's genetic makeup, through taking a gene from one species and inserting it into another. Humans are redrawing an animal's fundamental biological blueprint to serve a uniquely human-defined need or function.
As subtle forms of new creationism take hold on thought, they can lead to the kind of hubris reflected in the summary of a recent genetic-engineering article: ``Regulators and the public are inhibiting a major new industry. They must better understand the potentials and limits of biotechnology, and then get out of the way.''
Get out of the way, indeed - as if those outside a tight circle of experts have nothing of value to say or concerns to raise.
It is also the kind of hubris that led one researcher last year to deliberately flaunt federal regulations to test bacteria designed to fight Dutch elm disease.
Hubris is perhaps the most blatant sign that new creationism is gaining a foothold. More subtle is this attitude's tendency to foster a mechanistic view of animals and humans. If unchecked, this attitude would undercut the moral defenses that have rightly blocked the use of genetic engineering on humans.
Evidence of a mechanistic view toward human worth has already surfaced in areas such as surrogate motherhood, in which a woman's reproductive system is considered a baby-making machine to be rented out.
In an era of vastly increasing knowledge about how organic life functions and how it can be altered, new creationism could become the prevailing outlook almost unnoticed. Its dominance would more likely be the culmination of subtle developments whose implications and direction strike home only in hindsight.
Avoiding such an outcome demands constant vigilance and constant questioning on the part of scientist, businessperson, and the broader public alike.