Someday soon, men and women could be able to direct human evolution—possibly to the point where parents could prevent passing on an inherent disease to their children, or space explorers might become more suited for travel to other planets.
In his new book, published this month, Maxwell J. Mehlman examines matters of law and bioethics certain to emerge.
Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (Johns Hopkins University Press) is about balancing genetic innovation with caution. Natural evolution is a gradual process. Advances in genetic engineering are changing that picture with ways to improve human mental and physical capacities.
With available technology, parents will be able to make crucial decisions about forming the next generation. Reproductive cells can be altered, for example, to remove risk of a disease passing to offspring. Mehlman, the Arthur E. Petersilge Professor of Law, co-director of The Law-Medicine Center at the law school and a professor of biomedical ethics at the School of Medicine, refers to such genetic design as “evolutionary engineering.”
In his book, Mehlman explained that “transhumanists” are those who are certain humanity can be improved and are convinced that evolutionary engineering will make humans disease-free, long-lived and perhaps even immortal, resilient to environmental change, and adaptable to new habitats.
“Quite literally, it could be our ticket to the stars,” he wrote.
He acknowledged that there are those whose belief systems are threatened by directed evolution. There also are concerns among members in the scientific community, who point to the intricacies of genetics and a need to better understand interactions between genes and the environment.
Despite concerns, technology advances. Mehlman pointed to an emerging bank of information developed through the Human Genome Project, the well-known research effort to determine in detail the sequences of the chemical base pairs that make up human DNA.
“Now, the process is highly automated, and massive amounts of DNA are sequenced simultaneously. Decoding has become not only much faster, but more accurate and much less expensive,” he explained.
Researchers are becoming more adept at linking genetic information with specific human characteristics and at manipulating DNA to change human characteristics.
Mehlman argued that scientists, whether optimistic or dubious, tend to agree on two things: However long it will take to perfect the process, it is inevitable that humans will attempt to control their evolutionary future, and in trying to direct their evolution, humans are bound to make mistakes.
The challenge, said Mehlman, is to minimize the harm to children who are engineered and their descendants, and to prevent the destruction of the human lineage. Mehlman identified the social and legal tools that will be needed and explained how they must be wielded.
He wrote: “Rather than just passing genes on to our offspring the way those before us did, we are acquiring the technological wherewithal to reconstruct those genes. If we botch it, children will suffer, the lineage may die out, and that will be that. If we succeed, we will earn the gratitude of our descendants. It seems to me that we owe it to all those ancestors and to all those potential descendants to get it right. We also owe it to each other. ”
Mehlman is also author of The Price of Perfection: Individualism and Society in the Era of Biomedical Enhancement, published in 2009 (Johns Hopkins University Press), and Wondergenes: Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Society, published in 2003 (Indiana University Press).