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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
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To Uplift or Not To Uplift: The Ethics of Genetic Manipulation

Katie Kaczmarek

In David Brin's science fiction series called The Uplift Novels, the reader is presented with a world in which humans have not only become a space faring species and made contact with extraterrestrials, but also made an astounding feat on their own world; they have made dolphins and chimpanzees into thinking, sentient creatures through a process called uplift. Uplift is a process of elevating animal species to full sapience through methods of breeding and genetic engineering. The uplifted species, known as clients, then serve their patrons, the species who uplifted them, until the patrons release them from indenture. Naturally, this causes many problems. Client species are often looked upon as inferior; this is partly due to strict regulation of activities such as breeding. Although uplift is still just an author's invention, we are rapidly gaining the techniques and knowledge to make uplift a reality. This is why we must carefully examine the ethics of genetic manipulation.

First, the methods of genetic manipulation must be discussed. In the Brin novels, a combination of selective mutation, breeding programs, education and prostheses were used to evolve the natural form into a sentient being. These methods, while hardly gentle, were not drastic and took place over hundreds of years, gradually eliminating the undesirable traits and encouraging admirable characteristics (1). Today, there are several methods of genetic manipulation, most of which involve various methods of inserting foreign DNA into the animal. They all share the same goal: "to integrate and stabilize a desired DNA strand into the genome of an organism" (2). The most widely used are retroviral infection, pronuclear microinjection, and nuclear transfer.

Retroviral infection uses a virus, which contains the desired gene that will be incorporated into the organism's genome, to infect groups of embryos in culture in both prenatal and postnatal life. This method takes a lot of time and effort because the construction of the virus is quite complicated. Another effect of infection is that the information of the viruses may not always be incorporated into all the cultured cells, requiring outbreeding of selected organisms to isolate those with the desired gene (2).

Pronuclear microinjection is another method of genetic manipulation. Linear DNA fragments containing the desired gene are injected into the nucleus of a fertilized egg, where they will be incorporated at random locations. The desired gene will eventually be expressed in a percentage of resulting organisms. While relatively simple, there is little control over the expression rate of the genes or the disruption of genes vital to the organism's survival (2).

Nuclear transfer is the most efficient method of genetic manipulation we have yet developed. Cultured cells are transfected with the desired genes; these cells can then be analyzed to determine whether the integration of DNA is successful. Selected cells are starved so they will not divide, then the nucleus is inserted into the original egg. The transgenic animal is then born, hopefully expressing the desired gene (2).

The biggest concern about the methods of genetic manipulation is the large number of failures, that is, animals that don't express the desired gene. What will be done with the failures? Should they be killed, and would that be merciful, or cruel? Also, as Philip Tung Yep pointed out, when it comes to scientific technology, we don't have the patience to uplift animals like they did in the Brin books; if such a project were developed, it would be done "as quickly as we knew how" (1). Brin himself acknowledged this human impatience, saying, "For all of their unusual and rapid successes in Uplift, Terren geneticists still had a way to go with neo-dolphins and neo-chimpanzees . . .. By Galactic standards they had made great strides, but Earthmen wanted even more rapid progress" (Brin, 110). Should we even attempt to evolve other species into full sapience if the methods will create so much misery?

The most important question about the ethics of genetic manipulation in animals is not whether the methods are sound; it is whether it is moral to do so in the first place. There are several issues, including playing God, interfering with nature, reducing diversity, ownership, and religious objections.

Playing God suggests that by manipulating genes, we are taking the power of creation into our own hands. We have altered animals in the past, but our biotechnology was always "limited to what organisms produce naturally. We could put yeast to work for us, but we did not alter its products. In selective breeding, we were limited to traits that already appeared within a given species" (3). Now, however, we can produce organisms with traits that were never there to begin with. Playing God also suggests that we do not understand all that God does, so we should tamper cautiously with genes, if we should tamper at all. We should be cautious because we still do not fully understand the risks and side effects of genetic manipulation (4).

Interfering with nature is another aspect of genetic manipulation that is a cause for concern. If genetically altered organisms were released into the wild, it could dramatically affect the ecosystem. What effect would these organisms have on the already-established balance since they have never been subjected to natural selection? (5). Because they are living things that can reproduce, it would be very hard to stop them if they had a significant impact on the ecosystem. The only genetically altered organisms that would be safe would be those that cannot exist without human help (6). Reduction of diversity is another way in which the natural order would be affected. As species are genetically manipulated, they will become increasingly dependent on human technologies to maintain the diversity (4).

Genetic manipulation is offensive to some because it turns animals into commodities. With the patent system the way it is, any cloned or altered organism can be patented and owned (7). Genetic manipulation is most often used to alter farm animals so they will be more productive. These same methods have been used on plants for many years, but people have become more aware of the issue because of the way these commodified animals are treated. People aren't concerned about patenting new varieties of plants, but when scientists patent new varieties of animals they protest, especially about the "rights" of the animals. It is this kind of double standard that complicates the issue of whether genetic manipulation is ethical.

Another point to consider is if we did uplift a species into sapience, would we patent them as new animals or would we give them the rights of a thinking being like humans? Our previous history does not tend toward the latter; humans have a history of prejudice even among those of our own species who look or act differently. What are the chances that a creature, who has until that time been nothing more than an animal, would be welcomed into society? Even if uplifted species were officially given the rights of a thinking creature, it would take many years for humans to fully accept them as equals.

Brin also points out in his book that to most people, the actions of the uplifted species look like a mimicry of their patrons. We would have no way of knowing which behaviors were true decision-based actions and which were merely copied from humans. If we did genetically manipulate a species into sentience, "How much of the original animal will remain and how much will be behaviours, values, concerns and drives grafted on by the engineers? In short, will we meet another equal but alien mind or a reflection of our own desires? If the latter, will there be any point to the exercise?" (1). If the result of all our manipulations is simply to produce beings that our reflections of ourselves, we not only are "playing God," we have accomplished nothing more than exercising our "power" over nature by doing something "just because we can." Also, there is no guarantee that our client species would appreciate being ripped from their carefree existence into our hectic world. Higher intelligence isn't necessarily a benefit; to that species, it could be as much a curse.

Brin shows us the consequences of genetic manipulation involved in raising a species into sentience. He believes that humans would be mostly sensible, not only in the methods of uplifting, but also in our decision to do so in the first place. Based on our development of genetic manipulation so far, is this the most likely scenario? Or are we more likely to exploit in the name of science?

WWW Sources

Brin, David. The Uplift War. New York: Bantam, 1987.

1) The Ethics of Uplift , ethics of biological advances in science fiction

2) Cloning and Transgenic Technologies: Animals, Plants, and Microbes; , description of the methods of genetic manipulation and cloning

3) Is Genetic Engineering Co-Creation? , theological exploration of the ethics of genetic engineering

4) Shaping Genes: Ethics, Law and Science of Using New Genetic Technology in Medicine and Agriculture , description of different areas of concern about genetic engineering

5) Urgent Appeal , objections to the European Directive on the patentability of living beings

6) Genetic Engineering: Dreams and nightmares , discussion of the principal ethical issues caused by modern biology

7) Hybrids, Genes and Patents , description of current patent process as it applies to genetically engineered organisms




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