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By Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of ''The End of History'' (Free Press, 1992) and ''Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002). This article is taken from the current issue of WorldWatch, ''Beyond Cloning: The Risk of Rushing Into Human Genetic Engineering.'' More information can be found in English at; in Spanish at; in French at; in Portuguese at; in Japanese at In Italy contact La Nuovo Ecologia.

-- People who have not been paying close attention to the debate on human biotechnology might think that the chief issue is abortion, since the most outspoken opponents of cloning to date have been right-to-lifers who oppose the destruction of embryos. But there are important reasons why cloning and the genetic technologies that will follow upon it should be of concern to all people, religious or secular, and above all to those who are concerned with protecting the natural environment. For the attempt to master human nature through biotechnology will be even more dangerous and consequential than the efforts of industrial societies to master non-human nature thorough earlier generations of technology.

If there is one thing that the environmental movement has taught us in the past couple of generations, it is that nature is a complex whole. The different parts of an ecosystem are mutually interdependent in ways that we often fail to understand; human efforts to manipulate certain parts of it will produce a host of unintended consequences that will come back to haunt us.

Watching one of the movies made in the 1930s about the construction of Hoover Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority is today a strange experience: the films are at the same time naive and vaguely Stalinist, celebrating the human conquest of nature and boasting of the replacement of natural spaces with steel, concrete and electricity. This victory over nature was short-lived: In the past generation, no developed country has undertaken a new large hydroelectric project, precisely because we now understand the devastating ecological and social consequences that such undertakings produce. Indeed, the environmental movement has been active in trying to persuade China to desist from pursuing the enormously destructive Three Gorges Dam.

If the problem of unintended consequences is severe in the case of non-human ecosystems, it will be far worse in the realm of human genetics. The human genome has in fact been likened to an ecosystem in the complex way that genes interact and influence one another. It is now estimated that there are only about 30,000 genes in the human genome, far fewer than the 100,000 believed to exist until recently. This is not terribly many more than the 14,000 in a fruitfly or the 19,000 in a nematode and indicates that many higher human capabilities and behaviors are controlled by the complex interworking of multiple genes. A single gene will have multiple effects, while in other cases several genes need to work together to produce a single effect, along causal pathways that will be extremely difficult to untangle.

The first targets of genetic therapy will be relatively simple single gene disorders like Huntington's disease or Tay Sachs disease. Many geneticists believe that the genetic causality of higher order behaviors and characteristics such as personality, intelligence or even height is so complex that we will never be able to manipulate it. But this is precisely where the danger lies: We will be constantly tempted to think that we understand this causality better than we really do and will face even nastier surprises than when we tried to conquer the non-human natural environment. In this case, the victim of a failed experiment will not be an ecosystem, but a human child whose parents, seeking to give her greater intelligence, will saddle her with a greater propensity for cancer, or prolonged debility in old age, or some other completely unexpected side effect that may emerge only after the experiments have passed from the scene.

Listening to people in the biotech industry talk about the opportunities opening up with the completion of the sequencing of the human genome is eerily like watching those propaganda films about Hoover Dam: There is a hubristic confidence that biotechnology and scientific cleverness will correct the defects of human nature, abolish disease and perhaps even allow human beings to achieve immortality someday. We will come out the other end a superior species because we understand how imperfect and limited our nature is.

I believe that human beings are, to an even greater degree than ecosystems, complex, coherent natural wholes, whose evolutionary provenance we do not even begin to understand. More than that, we possess human rights because of that specifically human nature: As Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his life, Americans enjoy equal political rights because nature has not arranged for certain human beings to be born with saddles on their backs, ready to be ridden by their betters. A biotechnology that seeks to manipulate human nature not only risks unforeseen consequences, but can undermine the very basis of equal democratic rights as well.

So how do we defend human nature? The tools are essentially the same as in the case of protecting non-human nature: We try to shape norms through discussion and dialogue, and we use the power of the state to regulate the way in which technology is developed and deployed by the private sector and the scientific research community. Biomedicine is, of course, heavily regulated today, but there are huge gaps in the jurisdiction of those federal agencies with authority over biotechnology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can only regulate food, drugs and medical products on the basis of safety and efficacy. It is enjoined from making decisions on the basis of ethical considerations, and it has weak to nonexistent jurisdiction over medical procedures such as cloning, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (where embryos are screened for genetic characteristics before being implanted in a womb), and germline engineering (where an embryo's genes are manipulated in ways that are inherited by future generations). The national Institutes of Health (NIH) make numerous rules covering human experimentation and other aspects of scientific research, but their authority extends only to federally funded research and leaves unregulated the private biotech industry. The latter, in U.S. biotech firms alone, spends more than $10 billion annually on research and employs some 150,000 people.

Other countries are striving to put legislation in place to regulate human biotechnology. One of the oldest legislative arrangements is that of Britain, which established the Human Fertilization and Embryology Agency more than 10 years ago to regulate experimentation with embryos.

Twenty-four countries have banned reproductive cloning, including Germany, France, India, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom. In 1998, the Council of Europe approved an Additional Protocol to its Convention on Human Rights and Dignity With Regard to Biomedicine banning human reproductive cloning, a document that has been signed by 24 of the council's 43 member states. Germany and France have proposed that the United Nations draft a global convention to ban reproductive cloning.

One of the early efforts to police a specific genetic technology, recombinant DNA experiments, was the 1975 Asilomar Conference in California, which led to the establishment under the NIH of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC). The RAC was supposed to approve all recombinant experiments in which genes of different individuals and sometimes species were spliced together, initially in agricultural biotechnology and later in areas like human gene therapy. A conference held in 2000 on the 25th anniversary of Asilomar led to a general consensus that, whatever the virtues of the RAC a generation ago, it had outlived its usefulness. The RAC has no enforcement powers, does not oversee the private sector and does not have the institutional capability to even monitor effectively what is happening in the U.S. biotech industry, much less globally. Clearly, new regulatory institutions are needed to deal with the upcoming generation of new biotechnologies.

Anyone who feels strongly about defending non-human nature from technological manipulation should feel equally strongly about defending human nature as well. In Europe, the environmental movement is more firmly opposed to biotechnology than is its counterpart in the United States and has managed to stop the proliferation of genetically modified foods there dead in its tracks. But genetically modified organisms are ultimately only an opening shot in a longer revolution and far less consequential than the human biotechnologies now coming on line. Some people believe that, given the depredations of humans on non-human nature, the latter deserves more vigilant protection. But in the end, they are part of the same whole. Altering the genes of plants affects only what we eat and grow; altering our own genes affects who we are. Nature -- both the natural environment around us and our own -- deserves an approach based on respect and stewardship, not domination and mastery.

(c) 2002, WorldWatch/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/16/02)