- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

By Gregory Stock
Houghton Mifflin, $24, 277 pages

If Frances Fukuyama has nightmares, Gregory Stock must play a prominent role. That's because, in his recently released book, "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future," Mr. Stock argues that we, or at least, our descendants, will eventually evolve genetic techniques that allow human embryos to be selected and modified to such a degree that the progeny of this progress might not even be recognizable as human. Moreover, Mr. Stock maintains that despite potential abuses and probable setbacks, this transformation is inevitable and ultimately desirable.
It's a frightening future, one made no easier to face by either the jeremiads of anti-biotechnology activists or the antics of fertility doctor Severino Antinori, who almost certainly has received a Ph.D. in public relations from the Mary Shelley school of experimental biology.
Given both the level of hype and his own controversial views, Mr. Stock presents a highly pragmatic, almost public policy oriented look at the probable ways we will eventually design our descendants through germinal choice technology (GCT), despite our inevitable ethical and experimental stumbles along the way.
Mr. Stock's contention that we are on a slippery slope, (or, as he would prefer, a slippery sidewalk) to such signal change stems from three somewhat overlapping lines of argument: Applications already evolved from mainstream research are the first steps in that direction, and neither senior citizens nor prospective parents will be able to resist using such technology once it has the proven possibility of improving their lives and lives of their children.
The first point is an especially strong one, even given President Bush's recent call for a ban on cloning. Parents are already using techniques such as in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which permit them to screen out devastating diseases like hemophilia and Tay-Sachs in children they could have. Given that scientists now know the entire human genome, the number of those screens will almost certainly increase, and it's hard to believe that parents won't want to use them. So will the aging and infirm, who might one day be able to grow back failing organs and extend their life spans dramatically as a result of applications from stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
That it will take some time for scientists to cure the diseases or raise the IQ points of the next generation while they are still just alphabet soup in a test tube is a point Mr. Stock readily acknowledges. However, he presents several plausible pathways to such a future, ranging from the increased use of DNA chips for disease screening to the development of artificial human chromosomes carrying actual traits that could be deleted or upgraded as one wishes.
It's puzzling that Mr. Stock does not acknowledge the prolix protein pathways between faulty genes and inherited diseases (indeed, the word "protein" cannot be found in the book's index), even though the elucidation of those interrelationships is crucial to the future he outlines. The difficulties involved were recently outlined in a Scientific American cover story entitled "Proteomics: Biotech's next big challenge," and it is odd that Mr. Stock ignores what seems to be such a necessary intermediate step.
Mr. Stock doesn't overlook many of the ethical pathways and pitfalls on the way to embryonic experimentation. Part of what makes his views so refreshing is his ready realism. He acknowledges that there is little hope of an ethical consensus on the uses of such technology as it continues to evolve, and while he is forceful in promoting his own point of view, he is careful to present the arguments against.
However, he fails completely to answer the critical objection of consent. After all, at some point in the processes Mr. Stock outlines, experimenting on an embryo becomes experimenting on a human who hasn't had a chance to give his/her permission to be an experiment in what are, well, highly experimental processes. Those unfortunates won't develop the awesome mutant-like powers of the X Men. Instead, if forays into animal cloning offer any hints, such individuals will suffer developmental problems, mysterious organ failures, and even shortened life spans.
Mr. Stock is optimistic that those inevitable failures will be more than made up for by inevitable successes. Moreover, he is confident that neither freakish failures nor public prohibitions will slow the inevitable use of GCT. So what will a world of designed humans look like? Will the beef industry go bankrupt because celery eating super-smart super-models dominate food choices?
Here again, Mr. Stock sticks mostly to realities. He points out that because of the complexities involved, designing superhumans would be, well a superhuman achievement. Moreover, the same parents who agonize for months about whether to name their son Stephen or Spencer (only to realize in the delivery room that the sonogram tech muffed the diagnosis, and they now have to choose between Sarah and Sharon) are likely to have different ideas about what traits are "best" for their child. Besides, designer genes will only provide certain predispositions and possibilities they cannot dictate an individual's choices or tastes. Parents who successfully cook up the genes of Chef Emeril LaGasse for their son might end up with a life-long bachelor whose idea of gourmet dining is a burger and three brewskis.
Nor does Mr. Stock believe that our capacity to design ourselves will cause the sort of posthuman spiritual evisceration that Mr. Fukuyama and others imagine (brewski-drinking bachelors notwithstanding). While he foresees the possibility of dissension between those who are enhanced and those who are not, he suggests that most individuals will eventually adopt GCT, for the wildly enriching opportunities it offers. That, he suggests, is nothing more than humans have always done. In his opinion, "Remaking ourselves is the ultimate expression and realization of our humanity."
While that point is arguable, the author may well be right about GCT being inevitable. After all, each of us hopes to live a long, healthy life, and each of us has a friend or a relative who might benefit from some of the developments Mr. Stock hopes we will see. As he points out, "In the struggle to reconcile our values and philosophies with personal necessity, consistency often goes out the window."
That may be the most frightening aspect of the future Mr. Stock describes. That our eventual genetic transformation will be brought about by individuals who are all too human.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and commentary editor for The Washington Times.



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