Humor aside, naive optimism has been the hallmark of the average American’s view of genetic research. As endless hype touts the latest advances in genetics, the imagined benefits appear irresistible: the elimination of disease and the unprecedented alleviation of suffering; an enriched and ever more abundant food supply; improved health and enhanced intellectual acuity; life spans verging on immortality. The wish list lengthens. What seemed a dream just a decade ago now seems to have become a reality. Genetic engineering, including transgenics (the process that transfers genes between organisms that would not naturally interbreed) and cloning, is fast becoming a fact of contemporary life, and one which many welcome with the same easy hope with which they greet most scientific advances.
But it seems there’s something altogether new afoot: with its agricultural, medical, and reproductive applications, genetic engineering will leave no aspect of our world or our lives untouched. Transgenics is used to manipulate corn, wheat, rice, and other crops; manufacture biological and genetically targeted weapons; create fuel; develop medicine and medical procedures. When combined with cloning, it offers humans the ability to genetically modify the sentient world. Yet even as genetic engineering has begun to rewrite life and its evolutionary processes, the applications of this powerful and unpredictable technology have remained largely unexamined. And while Buddhist ethics in the West continues to focus on issues like abortion, sexual indiscretion, physical abuse, race, and gender, the young science of genetic manipulation progresses rapidly in both agriculture and medicine with little or any public notice from the same quarter.
What shape would a Buddhist perspective take? Is genetic engineering of life forms a compassionate response to suffering? Or is it a dangerous and dramatic proliferation of ignorance fueled by the greed, hate, and delusion that motivate so much human activity?
On the agricultural front, the “Gene Giants”—Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, and other purveyors of genetically engineered seeds—advocate genetic engineering from the compassionate high ground. Genetic engineering is necessary, they assert, to feed the hungry, reduce the use of toxic pesticides, and deliver medicine and vaccines to the poor. But their actions belie their rhetoric. The economics of feeding the poor, for instance, has been insufficiently profitable for the Gene Giants to pursue it. The only crop designed to improve nutrition, so-called Golden Rice, was developed by scientists funded exclusively by foundations. To date, serious questions remain with regard to its efficacy.
In addition to genetically modified crops, transgenic goats, cows, mice, and pigs already exist. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is preparing to approve for release a fast-growing, genetically modified salmon, and genetically modified carp may already be in commercial use in China; and scientists are preparing to release genetically engineered bugs into the wild—a male moth designed to pass a fatal flaw on to any egg it fertilizes. In an attempt to eradicate the bollworm moth, which decimates cotton, millions of these modified males will be scattered over crops, enough to crowd out wild males in the quest for mates in the hope of reducing the bollworm population. However, these insects will be impossible to recall, whatever the consequences.
While genetically engineered plants, bugs, and fish are likely to alter the processes and evolution of the natural environment, cloned and genetically engineered humans could forever change the course of human evolution. What once seemed like science fiction is imminent. In fact, two human cloning experiments are now under way, one by the “Raelians,” a spiritual sect hoping to clone the dead child of two of its members in a hidden laboratory; another by Dr. Panayiotis Zavos of the Andrology Institute of America and the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine and In Vitro Fertilization. Dr. Zavos has launched a serious effort to clone humans for infertile couples; he expects a viable clone will be born within the year.
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