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Five | Improving Nature

Human beings are inveterate improvers. The strong pressure to explore and devise new ways of doing things is one of the marks of human intelligence. Admittedly this has not always been as obvious as it is today. It seems to have taken more than a million years for our pre-human ancestors to improve their method of manufacturing stone handaxes. The next stage of advance, lasting a mere 200,000 years or so, reveals a growing use of intelligence in the more careful selection of stones, and more sophisticated methods of knocking them into shape. It was only with the arrival, some 100,000 years ago, of homo sapiens, and still more brainpower, that the real acceleration began, visible nowadays in the increasingly numerous and complex artefacts which eventually became the main evidences of civilised life.1 From then on it is a story of ever-increasing success in adapting nature to human ends. But though the modern world can boast of staggering powers over nature, these do not in themselves imply greater intelligence. It has been the steady accumulation of knowledge and the refinement of practical skills, rather than increased intelligence, which in recent centuries have given the human race such dominance. A major turning point was reached in the nineteenth century with what A. N. Whitehead called ‘the invention of the method of invention’, the systematic technological exploitation of science-based discovery. This is the key which has unlocked such huge potential for innovation, and has today created for us a world almost spinning out of control, as new products and possibilities are generated faster than our intelligences can assimilate or assess their full implications.

The widening gulf between our human ability to control the natural world for our own ends, and our ability to use these powers wisely, is a reminder of the inherent ambivalence of the concept of control itself. More control in one area of life frequently entails less control in another, as when individual freedoms have to be restricted as a direct consequence of technological advances. In the previous chapter I floated the idea that one of the earliest signs of specifically human culture, with all the new powers at its disposal, might have been the imposition of social constraints on sexual behaviour. There can be no culture without some kind of ethical control over its members, without established practices which define the group and set it apart from others. It seems equally true that in almost all circumstances the control of nature requires an element of social co-operation.

The taming of fire is an obvious example, whether one is thinking of the controlled burning of vegetation, which has to be a co-operative effort, or the common hearth as one of the earliest evidences of human habitation. There is also the importance attached by Lévi-Strauss to cooking as a marker of the transition from nature to culture, in view of the degree of social organisation necessarily entailed by it.2 Cooking clearly distinguishes human beings from other animals, as well as being a fertile source of social differentiation. Roasting, for instance, is said to be socially more prestigious than boiling, because it is more wasteful of precious juices. Fire itself, though, does not have to be understood scientifically in order to be culturally significant, any more than the processes of reproduction have to be understood scientifically in order to control sexual activity. But scientific understanding enormously increases the possibilities of adapting both for the better service of human ends. Our modern concerns arise from the fact that, while human beings have always tried to improve on nature by controlling it, the expansion of knowledge has now given us such powers that urgent new questions, and new kinds of question, have to be asked about how, and on what basis, these powers can themselves be controlled.

Agriculture is another example. In its earliest forms it stabilised control over the food supply, thus leading to the establishment of settled communities, and eventually to the growth of cities, and so to all the gifts of civilisation which flow from living together and sharing responsibilities. Improvements in control and production through breeding, through the invention of agricultural implements, and through better care of the soil, also set the scene for large increases in population. But it is worth noting how slow the changes were, and how recently some of the now familiar improvements arrived in parts of the world which might have been expected to be more inventive. The value of planting crops in rows, and weeding thoroughly between them, for instance, was known in China in at least the sixth century B.C. It was not practised in Europe until the eighteenth century.3 A possible reason for the difference is that improvements in efficiency could be promoted and propagated much more rapidly in a bureaucratic society than in a feudal one. Similarly in many parts of the world today subsistence agriculture continues, not primarily through ignorance, which is remediable, but because patterns of land tenure impede the adoption of more efficient methods. Social patterns of control, in other words, may be as critical to success as technical knowledge. We are now discovering, to many people's alarm, that in the face of really big and rapid technical changes, such as the proposed use of GM crops, social factors, even in supposedly scientifically orientated cultures, may prove to be decisive. They were clearly a factor in the disasters which befell British agriculture at the beginning of this century as a result of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. Whatever the precise causes, it seems to have been the character of modern agricultural markets which helped to create the circumstances in which such diseases could get out of control, while technical methods of combating them proved relatively ineffective.

Freedoms Gained and Lost

These indications of ambivalence in the idea of control over the natural world are part of the paradox of freedom itself. It is rare to gain freedoms without at the same time losing some, or to be able to choose without at the same time rejecting. Hence the importance of such questions as, who exercises control? and who benefits from it? Do we know enough about some new potential power to be sure of its possible costs and dangers? At one level, ever-growing technical mastery over nature has given many people unprecedented freedom to order the pattern of their own lives, but has not been matched by a corresponding growth in social awareness and responsibility. In developed countries the majority of people now live in an environment which, in almost every aspect, has been controlled and improved to make for ease of living and to widen our choices. But the price paid for this is a high degree of dependence on social structures and processes which may not be as stable or reliable as they are assumed to be. A fuel blockade can rapidly demonstrate how vulnerable the support systems of industrialised countries really are. Indeed it has become increasingly obvious that, even apart from dreadful errors like BSE, our new freedom to shape the natural world to suit our own ends can have unwelcome consequences. Some of these might be classed as nature fighting back, some entail massive social changes and the imposition of new forms of social control, and some raise profound ethical issues. My concern in this chapter is mainly with this third category, the ethics of ‘improvement’. But before developing the theme, let me give some brief examples of the first two.

Before retirement I used to live in a house, the oldest part of which, the basement, was built in the early thirteenth century. Like many old houses it was sited near a navigable river, which now is only ten yards away and thirteen feet down. Next to the basement door is a series of flood marks, with dates. It is clear from these that in the last two centuries successive floods have been getting higher, so much so that my predecessor and I both kept a boat in the basement. On one notable occasion when the level of floodwater was approaching the main fuse box, he rang what was then the Central Electricity Generating Board to ask what he should do. ‘On no account, your Grace,’ was the reply, ‘should you attempt to walk on the water.’

Why have the floods got worse? Global warming might have something to do with it, but almost certainly the main reason is that over the years the river has been ‘improved’ by a lock a few miles downstream, by increased flood protection in York upstream, and by better drainage in the hills from which most of the water comes. During my twelve years there, we had two major floods, and duly added marks higher up the wall. My successor will by now have added a still higher one.

I cite this as a small, but personal, example of the unintended effects of changes which may in themselves have been desirable. On a vastly larger scale one can think of the disasters which have followed the building of dams in environmentally sensitive areas. Turkey's new dams, giving it control of water supplies over a huge area, are already exacerbating the political problems of the Middle East. Hydroelectric dams almost anywhere can create a conflict of interest between the needs of electricity production and the needs of farmers downstream. It has been claimed that the holding back of normal flow during the dry season can be a major cause of subsequent flooding, as appears to have happened in Mozambique.4 In other parts of the world some of the floods and mudslides have probably been unleashed by deforestation, and global warming may even have caused hurricanes in Hampshire. In theory we ought to be able to calculate the consequences of our actions. In practice we do not seem to be very good at it, particularly in complex natural environments. Nature still has the capacity to take us by surprise.

For my second category—the unwelcome social consequences of the exploitation of nature—we need look no further than the ever-expanding legislative jungle within which modern life has to be lived. The taming of fire, for instance, has now been extended to the extraction, distribution, and use of natural gas, a marvellous improvement on collecting sticks from the local forest, but one necessarily hedged around at every stage by complex and detailed regulations. Its use also makes demands, not always fulfilled, on the safety consciousness of everyone who has anything to do with it. The same is true of agricultural weed control, as weedkillers and pesticides are substituted for the time-consuming labour of hoeing between straight rows of plants. Regulations over GM crops are likely to be even more stringent and far-reaching. Even that great symbol of twenty-first century freedom, the Internet, is beginning to explore legal safeguards as its potential for fraud and unwelcome intrusion becomes more apparent. In short, there seems to be a repeated pattern whereby every technical advance brings a corresponding increase in legislative control, and a renewed demand for responsible personal use.

One of the sad truths underlying this pattern is that in practice it is frequently unwise to trust people not to abuse or misuse the enormous powers which, in an industrial society, allow us to exploit nature according to our own individual desires. If our environment is largely self-created and if, apart from when faced with disasters such as earthquakes and fatal disease, we have come to think of nature as an instrument, subject to almost unlimited manipulation for human ends, and if there is no acknowledgement of strong moral constraints or of a moral authority outside ourselves, it is not clear where, other than in the efforts of legislators, the constraints on our behaviour will in future lie. The only answer seems to lie in more and more complex forms of legislative coercion. Such legislation, we may hope, will usually be devised by well-meaning people concerned to protect some freedoms at the cost of others. But the legislators are themselves in difficulties as they are required to make definitions in more and more complex areas of life. And in any event, laws are clumsy instruments for dealing with often delicately balanced issues, especially those which are not yet well understood. How, for instance, can one define precisely in law the distinction between proper and improper uses of human embryos?5 Hence the importance of my third category—the need for widely accepted ethical criteria by which to tackle such questions, as well as informed public discussion about what are genuine improvements, and what are not, and what the social and environmental costs of them are likely to be.

I suggested in the previous chapter that there may still be some bases for constraints on human behaviour in the form of self-evident values, which are seen to be rooted both in our physical nature and in the experience of all actual cultures. These are not as stable as we might wish, however. The physical factors which might otherwise constrain us can seem less significant the greater the emphasis on ‘improving’ nature, including our own nature, to suit our own ends. The validity of cultural traditions, meanwhile, is progressively undermined by the growing tendency to write off the past as no longer a relevant source of guidance in a rapidly changing world—indeed in many instances as a positive hindrance to human fulfilment. We are thus left feeling the need of a value system robust enough to counteract the disruptive impact of ever greater manipulatory powers, when ironically it is the very exercise of those powers which is changing our concept of what it is to be human. I am not encouraged by the exuberant words of a molecular biologist, one of the initiators of the human genome project:

The old dreams of the cultural perfection of man were always sharply constrained by his inherited imperfections and limitations… The horizons of the new eugenics are, in principle, boundless. For the first time in all time, a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future…6

There are echoes of Nietzsche in the bald and bold assertion that humanity can re-create itself, a kind of romanticism which thinks it can transcend history. What sort of future can we expect, I wonder, under a regime in which the old constraints have disappeared, and the idea that there might be self-evident values is discounted? Science at its best ought to teach us humility, especially when it reminds us what latecomers we are within the world of nature. But if the message is that we can remake ourselves in whatever image we choose, and if there is no acknowledgement of any source of moral authority outside ourselves, how can a proper humility be learnt, except through the kind of disasters which expose the actual limitations of our knowledge, our human incapacity to use it wisely unless we are coerced into doing so, and nature's propensity to upset our plans?

The limitations are deep-rooted and, to illustrate both the technical and social problems which designing our future is likely to entail, I take the obvious example of genetic manipulation.

The Nature of Genes

One of the most readable popular accounts of the history of genetics, from its birth as a science to the start of the project to spell out the entire human genetic code, was unfortunately given the wrong title—The Human Blueprint.7 Genes are units of heredity, and were believed to exist on the evidence of experiments in breeding, long before anybody knew what they were. But now that so much more is known about their composition and how they actually work, it is clear that the genetic code is not a blueprint of the animal to which it gives rise. In reality it acts more like a set of instructions. The difference is not pedantic, but crucial to an understanding of what genetic manipulation can realistically be expected to achieve.

In a blueprint there is a one-to-one correspondence between the details as represented in the design and the details of the finished article, such that a particular line or circle directly specifies the manufacture of an edge, or hole, or whatever. In following a set of instructions, however, there is no such direct correspondence. The finished article emerges as the result of a procedure, with one process building on and modifying another, in such a way that a tiny alteration in one instruction may lead to a completely different product, just as a small word like ‘no’ might change the whole course of a life.

This dependence on instructions rather than blueprints is what makes it possible for quite small variations in genetic structures to generate such an enormous diversity of living forms. The fact that we human beings share some 98.4 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees is constantly quoted as evidence of our close relationship. It looks less impressive when set alongside the 75 per cent or so that we share with nematode worms. No doubt we have the same basic metabolic processes and the same segmental structure in common with worms, but that is about the sum of it. Palaces and hovels may both be built of the same kind of bricks. A process of development based on instructions can give rise to very simple structures or to vastly complex ones, with only a comparatively small number of the instructions directly responsible for distinguishing one outcome from the other. Recent comments, to the effect that we should be humbled by the discovery that the number of human genes may be about half the original estimate, totally miss the point.

The confusion between a set of instructions and a blueprint tends to arise because the first stage of genetic activity does have analogies with a blueprint, in that it is really a form of copying rather than instructing. Genes provide a kind of template for the formation of proteins, and it is the multifarious interactions between these proteins, controlled by the genes, which determine subsequent development, and result in the formation of a human being, say, rather than a chimpanzee. The discovery that very slight differences of coding within particular genes may be responsible for particular diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, or particular attributes, such as eye colour, can further reinforce the misconception that living matter is built up out of a series of bits and processes, as one might build a car from a set of independent parts. But these one-to-one relationships between genes and easily identifiable outcomes are the exception. The reality is more like what goes on in an elaborate social structure, as in a city, where the different units are constantly modifying each other's action. The result is that the same gene may perform many apparently unrelated roles within the total structure which the multiplicity of genes build together. This is why there is need for great caution in replacing or altering genes, because it is extremely difficult to know in advance what the full ramifications of any change might be.

There is an analogy with language. Words need not have invariable meanings, but interact with other words, and may even change from nouns to adjectives or verbs, depending on the context. Take the three sentences:

James had a fast car.

James had a fast wife.

James had a fast.

The sentences only differ from one another by a single word, but the changes require three quite different interpretations of the word ‘fast’. Similarly with genes. Their effects depend on what is happening around them. In most instances there is no way of bowing, simply by analysing the genes themselves, what subtle transformations of function might occur under their influence at different stages in the process of development.

The astonishing thing is that this complex series of interactions works, by and large, so reliably. But that is by no means the whole of the story. The development of an organism also depends, to differing extents, on constantly changing interactions with its environment. Making the right connections in the nervous system, for instance, depends partly on external stimulation. The optic nerve will fail to grow properly unless its eye is exposed to light. In general it is not possible to understand the true nature of an organism without also understanding the impact on it of the environmental niche it occupies. Knowledge of internal genetic processes only provides half the picture. In bur own case as human beings the crucial importance of what goes on outside us, including the relationships we form, is even more apparent. We not only depend far more than any other animal on learnt behaviour, we are also unique in the extent to which we fashion our own environment. In Chapters 2 and 3 I was concerned to make the point that the world in which we grow up, and to which we respond, is at least in some measure a human creation. In Chapter 6 I shall explore a possible wider meaning of the concept of environment, which has profound implications for what we understand ourselves to be. Here and now my concern is with the way this mutual relationship between ourselves and our environment sets up a kind of feedback system. Like all feedbacks it enormously magnifies and complicates the interplay between the different factors. This is why it is so impossibly difficult to be certain what in our human nature can be ascribed to our genes, and what belongs to the culture and circumstances which have shaped us, and in which we find ourselves. To think of human beings simply in genetic terms is to miss most of the picture.

It is against this complex background of internal and external interactions that any proposals to interfere with human genes, or make genetic ‘improvements’ to human beings, need to be assessed.

Genetic Manipulation

Leaving on one side the very large fields of genetic diagnosis and identification, it is possible to divide the actual and proposed medical uses of human genes roughly into four main categories:

1. Genetic material can be used in vitro for the manufacture of individual proteins which, for one reason or another, the body may not be able to manufacture for itself. For most purposes it is not even necessary to use human genes, because the proteins required are common to most mammals. Much insulin, for example, is made in this way, and the process is relatively straightforward scientifically because it involves none of the subsequent complex interactions between proteins I was describing earlier. It is also ethically straightforward in not being essentially different from any other kind of replacement therapy. The body needs a protein. Genes in vitro can provide it. No ethical principles appear to be at stake.

The use of stem cells in vitro to grow replacement tissues or, possibly one day, organs, should be similarly uncontroversial.8 Stem cells are primitive undifferentiated cells from which other more specialised cells, of whatever type is needed, can in principle be grown. Ethical difficulties arise, however, because in the present state of knowledge human stem cells can only be grown successfully from human embryos. A further complication is that, in order to make the new tissues grown from these cells compatible with those of the patient who is to receive them, his or her genes, in the form of a cell nucleus, would have to be transferred to the embryo, and thus to the stem cells to be derived from it. Though this would technically be a form of cloning, its ethical implications are quite different from the cloning of an entire human being; the embryo itself would not be allowed to do more than produce stem cells, which would thereafter be grown in a separate culture; meanwhile the cloned embryo would be destroyed before reaching the legal limit of fourteen days. The proposed procedure has given rise, however, to anxieties about what might be done with the technique once it has been fully developed, which is why the British government has been quick to put a legal ban on cloning as such.

Ethical anxieties about the purely instrumental use of embryos for a technique which, unlike in vitro fertilisation, has nothing to do with reproduction, and which entails their subsequent destruction, might be eased by the hope that such use need only be a temporary expedient. It is argued that the research has first to be done on embryonic cells before there can be any realistic prospect of learning how to start from adult ones. If this can be achieved, it would also obviate the need for cloning, since the original cells, from which the new tissues would be grown, could be taken from the patients themselves, and would thus automatically be compatible. Ethical doubts remain, especially since so much depends on hopes about the successful outcome of such research, the results of which are by no means certain. But these doubts are not sufficient, in my view, to forbid the temporary experimental use of embryos as a bridge towards the ultimate goal, with its enormous potential for transforming transplant surgery. British government regulations already allow the necessary research, but without what I regard as the necessary provisos—that the permission should be for a defined period of time, and strictly limited to the development of this particular technique.

2. The name ‘gene therapy’ is given to a variety of techniques for transferring replacement genes to appropriate parts of the body, in circumstances where defects in an identifiable gene are known to be the sole cause of some debilitating disease. Cystic fibrosis is the best-known example, and occurs only in children whose mother and father both carry the same relatively common defective gene. The disease is likely to lead to early death, usually from congestion of the lungs. A few thousand other diseases are known to be caused by defects in single genes, but most of them are fortunately very rare. The aim of therapy in such cases is to equip an appropriate micro-organism with the right gene, and send it to the affected site—the lungs in the case of cystic fibrosis—so that it can manufacture the right protein where it is needed. One of the major disadvantages of this form of treatment is that the new gene does not become part of the recipient's genetic structure, and is thus unlikely to reproduce. This means that its effect is only temporary, and the treatment needs to be constantly repeated. The procedure has also revealed some unexpected risks, and has resulted in at least one death. Ethically, though, it is in the same category as the previous examples, as a form of replacement therapy using genes to make proteins which, for one reason or another, the body cannot make for itself. It is not a form of genetic improvement.

3. The same cannot be said of the third category, germline therapy, which would entail the much more drastic step of replacing defective genes in embryos intended to grow into adult human beings. The replacement would have to take place during in vitro fertilisation, and it could, if successful, result in permanent cures for all the single gene defects mentioned earlier, both for the patients themselves and for their descendants. But the uncertainties and hazards involved in tinkering with the genetic code during the embryonic stage of development are, in the present state of knowledge, much too great; and the ethical and legal implications of experimenting on embryos destined to develop into human persons, at present rule all such procedures out of court. Some significant steps have been taken, however, in the direction of germline therapy, such as the current genetic testing and selection of embryos during in vitro fertilisation. But while this may avoid the hazards of actual genetic manipulation, it introduces a new range of ethical problems concerning the role of deliberate science-based choice in the begetting of what are deemed to be suitable children—a topic to which I shall be returning under the next heading. The selection of genetically sound embryos in cases where there is a known risk of inheriting a disease caused by a defect in a single gene, seems to me to be reasonable. Sex selection for social reasons, on the other hand, and in the absence of a specific gender-linked disease, seems to me to cross a dangerous frontier.

Meanwhile, still under the heading of germline therapy, it is worth noting that British government regulations now permit, unwisely in my view, the development of a technique known as ‘oocyte nucleus transfer’.9 The aim of this is to circumvent a distressing condition, mitochondrial disease, which is transmitted through small packets of DNA, the mitochondria, which are found, not in the nucleus of each cell as part of its chromosomes, but in the body of each cell, its cytoplasm. These do not form part of the main genetic code, and are transmitted only through the female line because they are not present in sperm, which have no cytoplasm. A suggested means for preventing transmission of the disease would be to remove the healthy nucleus from the ovum of a potential mother, known to have mitochondrial disease, and insert it into the denucleated ovum of a healthy donor. Normal in vitro fertilisation could then take place, using this new composite ovum. The baby thus conceived would have chromosomes from both its parents, representing some 95 per cent of its DNA, and the remaining 5 per cent in its mitochondria would come from the cytoplasm of the ovum which had been donated.

The procedure would be extremely hazardous. The transference of nuclei from one cell to another has a very low success rate, which is a major scientific reason why the cloning of human beings should not be contemplated. But because the egg donor's mitochondria would form part of the resulting embryo's DNA, me procedure would also breach the present legal and ethical safeguards, according to which no embryo which has been subject to experimental manipulation is allowed to develop beyond fourteen days. No matter how worthy the motives and desirable the possible end-results, it would in effect be a form of germline therapy, in which DNA is transferred to an embryo destined to develop into a person, thereby undermining the principles on which the present law is based, and paving the way for much more drastic developments.

4. The further step of going beyond the cure of clearly defined diseases, whether caused by single genes or mitochondria, to attempting more general genetic ‘improvements’, would hugely increase the risk of unintended consequences, and on these grounds alone there are powerful reasons for prohibiting such interference. Genetic interactions are too complex for geneticists to be certain about any but the most carefully targeted and limited interventions. But it is not just safety which is at issue. There are more general ethical objections to what has been called the designer baby scenario, and these apply with even greater force to cloning. Because some geneticists still nurse the ultimate dream that the practical difficulties will be overcome, it is worth considering more closely why these objections to the aim of human ‘improvement’ are held so strongly.

Nobody knows in advance what difference having a designer baby might make to the relationship between parents and child. Some might claim that, having got exactly what they wanted, they would love the child all the more. What is the difference, it might be said, between bringing up a child the way you want it, and arranging at the time of conception that it has all the qualities you want for it—blue eyes, good looks, a sparkling intellect, athletic prowess, and so forth? My own belief is that manufacturing a child to specification would subtly undermine the quality of givenness which lies at the heart of our respect for one another, and undergirds our sense of each other's independent individuality. It is not for nothing that babies are described as gifts, and as possessing gifts. To have decided beforehand what kind of gift that baby should be, would introduce a proprietorial element into parenthood, when the most pressing need in all children's personal formation is to be accepted, simply and without reserve, for what they are. There is also a vitally important reciprocal relationship between parents and children. Parents, like children themselves, need to grow in maturity and depth as they come to terms with the otherness of those who are dependent on them. It is a learning process all the more necessary in a culture where fulfilling oneself, and being in control of one's own life and destiny, are so highly prized.

But, it might be retorted, some prospective parents deliberately look for a mate who will bear them the kind of child they want and, far from being unnatural, this is what most animals do as well. What is wrong with giving nature a helping hand?

It seems to me that the difference made by genetic manipulation is that it introduces an impersonal, synthetic element into an essentially personal process. This is why words like ‘manufacturing’ and ‘manipulating’ are not just part of a rhetoric of disapproval, but express an essential truth about what is being done. To be a parent is to create in one's own image, from one's own flesh and blood. I know that in some cases this is not possible, but I am not here and now concerned with what might be necessary to have a child at all. My concern is with the deliberate imposition on another human being of innate characteristics selected to fulfil its parents’ predilections. In religious terms this smacks more of magic and idolatry than true creation. Magic is the attempt to control what cannot be fully understood. Idolatry is an escape from the reality of what is genuinely other than ourselves, into the self-regarding worship of what our own hands or minds have made. Creation, by contrast, endows another being with freedom to be itself. It is on such grounds as these that the concept of designer babies can be seen to strike at the heart of traditional religious beliefs about what human persons are. This does not imply a static view of human nature. The element of sheer givenness which I have been concerned to defend in no way precludes massive personal and cultural changes in the interests of improving human nature, but the difference between these and genetic manipulation is that they are personal and voluntary. People need to be able to own for themselves their own personal history. An educational programme, for instance, would be condemned if it failed to respect the integrity and personal responsiveness of those being taught. But a scientifically improved embryo is given no such respect as a person. It is merely used as a means to someone else's end. Such use is at present deemed to be tolerable in an experimental context only when the embryo is not subsequently allowed to develop into an individual. Outside such a strictly limited experimental context I do not see how the use of embryos could be justified at all. When the argument is made that designer babies would be ‘unnatural’ it is this deep feeling of offence against the givenness of the other person which I believe lies at the heart of it.10

The fact that many people with disabilities are fiercely antagonistic to the idea of genetic manipulation bears out this point. It is not that they welcome disability, or wish to see it in other people, but that they accept and value their own identity. They also fear that in an ‘improved’ world they could feel resented for being what they are, and their parents could be blamed for allowing them to exist in the first place. While it is usually possible to defend a particular act of selection or interference on the grounds that exceptional individual suffering might be alleviated, the cumulative effect of such actions subtly changes public attitudes. Ultimately at stake, therefore, is the public perception of what human beings are, and the extent to which the natural diversity of an imperfect world is to be welcomed.

By way of postscript to this discussion, it may be useful to take warning from the United States. There are reports that, for some citizens, procreation (I use the word for its deliberate echoes of creation itself) has already been commodified to the point at which it is possible, and legal, to make bids of tens of thousands of dollars on the Internet for the eggs and sperm produced by glamour models. ‘We bid for everything else in this society,’ said the owner of the website, ‘why not eggs?’11

Genetically Modified Foods

I turn now to a further use of genetics among the varying attempts to improve nature—the equally controversial topic of genetically modified foods. Here the ethical issues are quite different. There are no reasonable ethical objections to modifying crops and foods as such. It has always been done. Human survival has depended on it as the world population has increased, and there is an urgent need, particularly in developing countries, for crops which will produce more food in harsher conditions Ban any of the naturally occurring varieties. I take this as the baseline from which discussion of GM foods has to start. This debate is not about the desires and vanities of human control freaks, as the discussion of cloning and designer babies tends to I be, but about human necessities and how the world is to be fed.

The controversies centre on methods, risks, and on how far it is possible to change or accelerate natural processes before they take their revenge on us. There are also highly charged social attitudes towards the idea of genetic modification itself. In the background are enough examples of previous nutritional and ecological disasters using conventional methods, to make one cautious. We live in the post-BSE era.

In the first chapter I mentioned my own involvement in one controversial area where all these factors operate. Preparation for the possible transplantation of animal organs into humans has led to the breeding of thousands of genetically modified pigs. The idea has been to overcome the first and most violent stage of tissue rejection in humans by developing a line of pigs containing the human genes to control this immunological reaction. This has entailed a long breeding programme in which successive generations have been sacrificed. At the time of writing it is an open question whether many more such pigs will continue to be bred, but the feelings likely to be aroused by any proposal to eat them are still worth exploring, if only as an illustration of many people's instantaneous reactions. Such pigs have a much higher standard of cleanliness than ordinary farm pigs. Apart from their deanliness, they look like ordinary pigs, behave like ordinary pigs, and would no doubt taste like ordinary pigs. But even if it could be demonstrated beyond question that the immunological risks of eating them were insignificant, the chance of humanised pig meat being socially acceptable is nil, no matter how irrational this might appear from a scientific perspective. We share a high proportion of our genes with pigs anyway, and these GM pigs are not remotely human. Nevertheless, what offends is the very idea of them, as does the idea of ‘Frankenstein foods’. Both arouse similar emotions, not least because, as I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, food in human society always carries strong cultural overtones. The growing popularity of organic products testifies to the same rejection of what is felt to be ‘unnatural’.

Such feelings apart, what are the actual differences between GM foods and traditional ones? Both have been developed through careful programmes of improvement. The methods differ in that direct genetic modification allows improvements to be more precisely controlled, to take place in much larger leaps, and to use combinations of genes from different species, a leap which would not be possible using conventional methods of breeding. In all three respects genetic improvement can be thought of as scientifically sophisticated, or unnatural—according to taste. As a high-tech operation, requiring massive investment, it also needs to take place on a large scale and to secure global markets, thereby increasing the social risks, should anything go wrong.

Traditional breeding methods, by contrast, seem safer, slower, cheaper, and less effective. They could be described as a form of assisted evolution, in which the selection of natural variants is made by the breeder instead of being left to normal competitive pressures within the environment. But because each step in the process is small, and progress is slow, the usual competitive evolutionary pressures are not entirely absent, with the result that checks and balances are likely to develop alongside humanly contrived adaptations. Nature, in other words, has time to adjust. In addition, since breeding programmes in the past have on the whole been local, the consequences of mistakes are likely to have been local too.

I stress the importance of competitive evolutionary pressures despite the fact that neither form of breeding really takes place on an evolutionary time-scale. The point is that scientifically controlled genetic manipulation propels the creation of new organisms and varieties much further and faster than has ever happened previously, outside the evolutionary framework. It thus places a greater onus on those who undertake it to assess the impact of any new product on the total environment into which it is to be introduced. But such assessment is extremely difficult, and the risks are compounded by the enormous inducements, both humanitarian and commercial, to spread what are hoped to be advantageous developments as widely and quickly as possible.

The public perception that scientists have been moving with unseemly haste in areas they do not fully understand, seems to lie at the heart of worries about the unnaturalness of genetically modified foods and crops. It goes hand in hand with a certain perception of nature as having its own inalienable character. But it is misconceived if the contrast is simply drawn between so-called natural foods and unnatural foods. Almost everything we eat is the result of successive improvements on what nature in the wild originally offered us. The real contrast is between different processes, those in which checks and balances have developed over long periods of trial and error, and new more scientifically based processes in which trust has to be placed in those who tell us that they have foreseen all the problems. Many of the worries are compounded by doubts about how far it is safe to rely on comparatively new knowledge, which has only been tested under laboratory conditions, in a matter as fundamental to us as the food we eat.

In facing these worries it is useful to draw a further distinction between GM foods and GM crops. Products and processes need different kinds of evaluation. A product, being a physical object, can in principle be subjected to rigorous testing and analysis. A process is much more difficult to characterise completely, especially when there is no certainty about where its spatial and temporal boundaries lie.

If a GM food has been produced under controlled conditions, and modified with well-characterised genes, there is in principle no limit to the thoroughness with which it can be analysed for possible toxic side-effects. Claims that GM foods are safe can thus be directly related to the amount of testing which has been done. It is not possible to test, though, for something nobody has thought of. In science, as in life, there is always the unexpected, but this is equally true of traditionally produced foods, as the BSE outbreak and its link with CJD in humans has amply demonstrated. Protagonists of GM foods may justifiably claim that the degree of standardisation involved means that they are probably safer than new varieties of food produced by conventional methods, given that the latter are less easily controlled, and not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny. Against this claim has to be set the difficulty of foreseeing all the possible consequences of some major genetic change, especially when genes from different species are artificially combined. One of the major errors in the early days of GM foods was the failure to anticipate allergic reactions. There was a near disaster from nut allergy, when genes from brazil nuts were used to enhance the nutritional value of soya. Although there are mechanisms in place now to safeguard against such dangers, the multiplication of allergies and the idiosyncrasies of sufferers make this a tricky area to police.

The growing of GM crops gives rise to quite a different set of problems, and I have already hinted at these in my earlier reference to evolutionary checks and balances. The risks do not lie in the crops themselves which, like the foods derived from them, are analysable, and which may well have been designed to cope with the problems of a specific environment, or the needs of a specific population. A rice crop, say, modified to produce Vitamin A could overcome one of the major health problems in many rice-growing areas. Cereals adapted to flourish in dry or salty conditions could prevent famine. Herbicide-resistant crops could enable farmers to wipe out weeds—always provided the farmers themselves are not bankrupted by profitable collusion between the producers of seeds and the producers of herbicides. The potential benefits are huge. The most immediately obvious risks are to the environment, and these are worrying because, unlike possible toxins in foods, they are enormously difficult to identify, assess, and eliminate.

Weed-free crops, for instance, may sound like a good idea. But do we actually want a countryside from which weeds, and all that live on them, have been eliminated? Some parts of the world, no doubt, can thrive on monoculture, where vast prairies are for all effective purposes isolated from the wider environment. But most of the world is not like that. Nature thrives on diversity. It is in small-scale territories like Britain that the risks inherent in the wholesale genetic modification of crops are most apparent. The threat is not so much to people as to the many complex interactions between multiple organisms. It appears all the more pressing because the processes involved, however carefully managed, are in the long run uncontrollable. Nobody can control the flight of pollen, or insects or birds, and in trials undertaken so far there has been no systematic study of the local ecological baselines against which the long-term effects of GM crops need to be measured.

These are familiar criticisms, but I repeat them to make the point that it is not the unnaturalness of GM crops in themselves which is at issue, but our ignorance of their consequences for the environment, together with differing value judgements about the significance of those consequences. There is thus plenty of room for disagreement.

One form this can take centres on the question whether there is, or is not, a so-called ‘balance of nature’ which ought to be preserved, and which the proliferation of GM crops might disturb. Much of the language about the conservation of nature presupposes that there is such a balance, and in the short term this seems to be so. If there is a fall in the number of larks or thrushes, we assume that something is wrong, and look for an immediate cause in the use of weedkillers or the destruction of hedgerows. And it is surely right that we should take appropriate action. The concept of sustainable development implies that there is something to be sustained, not just for our own immediate benefit or that of our descendants, but out of respect for the long-term stability of particular environments.

Among biologists, though, the belief that there is a stable and continuing balance of nature looks increasingly unlikely, despite continuing interest in the Gaia hypothesis.12 Though it is possible, even plausible, that the environment of the planet as a whole may be in some measure self-regulating, this cannot rule out major upsets of the kind which have happened in the past, and are likely to happen again, whether or not human beings are to blame for them. On an evolutionary timescale nature seems to lurch like a drunk from one form of temporary balance to another. Species flourish or decay, weather patterns fluctuate, the struggle for survival takes a different turn, and life adapts itself to new circumstances in a dynamic ever-changing system in which the majority of species have already become extinct. Far from there being a natural balance, life represents a constantly shifting pattern in response to repeated threats and opportunities. No species, including ourselves, has an absolute right to survive. While it may be wise, therefore, to set limits on our degree of interference with this system for a variety of reasons, ranging from our grossly inadequate understanding of it, to fears about our own extinction, there are no purely scientific grounds, it is claimed, for positing some pre-existing balance which supposedly gives absolute protection to the status quo.

In short there are good reasons both to be cautious about introducing unknown factors into this dynamic and potentially unstable system, and also to be bold in trying to take effective control of those aspects of it which have prime significance for human life. The arguments between cautious conservationists and adventurous innovators are set to continue, as are questions about how to balance concern for our own species with respectful care for the natural world as a whole. In the specific matter of GM crops there remains much which could be done on a purely scientific level to reduce the risk of unwanted side effects.

One of the more exciting possibilities involves research on a method which could enable hybrid crops to breed true. Many of the best strains are hybrids, but the seeds they produce, on the whole, are not; rather than breeding hybrids, they tend to revert to the original strains from which the hybrid was made. The consequence is that new hybrid seeds have to be bought every year. Some plants, however, can be taught to clone themselves, and at the same time to dispense with accepting or producing pollen. GM plants with this property would have the double advantage of not being able to transfer genes via pollen to other plants, and of enabling farmers to take their hybrid seeds direct from last year's crop. At present these are hopes rather than actualities, hut if as seems likely they come to fruition, they will remove two of the most telling objections to GM crops, the fear of genetic contamination, and financial domination by the big seed producers. They will not, however, do anything for the maintenance of genetic diversity. Rather, the reverse, and this remains a worry about all successful revolutionary products likely to sweep the market.13

This latter point is a reminder that not all problems are scientific, or capable of being solved by ingenious scientific advances. In the previous section on the genetic modification of human beings, I appealed in the end to a set of values about the nature of persons, values which have complex roots in the respect for human life and individuality, the need for social arrangements which validate human diversity, and religious insights into what human beings essentially are and can become. Similar considerations ought to weigh heavily in attitudes towards GM agriculture.

It is perhaps significant that some of the earliest protests about what was happening came from bodies primarily concerned with social justice towards developing countries. As long ago as 1979 questions about genetic engineering were on the agenda of the World Council of Churches.14 By 1982 a WCC report was criticising the role of major seed suppliers in trying to patent new hybrids for world-wide distribution, and was urging third world countries to protect their own genetic resources. I am not claiming that the WCC had a monopoly of such concerns, but as I was heavily involved in these discussions throughout the 1980s, I can testify at first hand that it was the social implications of GM crops which at that early stage dominated the agenda. It is not surprising, therefore, that the present eruption of public concern was triggered by a new gene which could have had massive social consequences.

Monsanto's ‘Terminator’ gene was a brilliant conception. If there are worries about the spread of new genes to unmodified crops where they are not wanted, why not arrange for a GM plant to sterilise its seeds after it is fully grown? At a stroke one of the main environmental objections to GM crops is removed. Unwanted genetic side effects could not proliferate. Furthermore Monsanto would reap the added benefit of forcing farmers to buy next year's seed from them as well. What they left out of their calculations was the devastating effect this would have on the poorest parts of the world, the very places where plants able to cope with harsher environments are most needed. This was in 1998, and it marked the beginning of widespread public protest.

Less dramatic, but of greater long-term significance, are the continuing debates about how effectively developing countries can actually use GM crops. There are those who see them as the key to salvation from poverty, provided the technology can be tailored to suit the needs of particular cultures and environments. Some notable successes, backed up by good educational programmes, have transformed areas previously dependent on subsistence agriculture. But it is clear that even the use of supposedly safe pesticides in some areas is fraught with difficulties. The World Health Organisation estimates that in the world's poorest countries between two and five million people are poisoned by pesticides each year, 40,000 of them fatally.15 GM crops against this backcloth of misuse could be a recipe for disaster. As a contrast to these gloomy prognostications, there are reports of experiments in East Africa, in which weeds planted among the maize have cut out the need for pesticides altogether. The local pests seem to prefer eating the weeds. Suitable weeds can also provide a supply of nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus eliminating the need for nitrogen-based fertilisers. It is claimed that by the use of such low-tech methods crop yields in the poorest farms have increased by an average of 73 per cent.16 It would be a pity, therefore, if such simple solutions to some of the problems of subsistence agriculture, tailored to the culture of the people concerned, were to be overlooked in the rush to promote highly sophisticated improvements, which would also make them dependent on resources far beyond their own control. Memories of the Green Revolution, and its long-term legacy of depleted soil and water resources, lead some to question whether further advances down a similar route can actually be sustained.

I am not qualified to judge, but the existence of the debate is itself evidence that in our dealings with the natural world, scientific, social, and historical factors all have relevance. What people are willing to accept as improvements on nature is relative to their particular way of life. The whole subject also raises fundamental questions about how far the impetus to improve depends on beliefs about what nature is, what its possibilities are, and about our own place within it.

Why Improve?

I suggested at the beginning of this chapter that human beings are inveterate improvers, despite an exceedingly slow start. But though there are basic human skills and desires which seem to be universal, there have in practice been enormous differences in human achievements in different cultures and at different stages of development, and in the conscious motives which have inspired them.

Circumstances obviously play a part in these differences. In a study of transition from a nomadic to a settled way of life in the early history of India,17 the point is made that nomads in equilibrium with their food supply, tend not to look for much improvement in their way of life. Similarly a settled agricultural community with just enough food, is likely to be cautious about changing anything for fear of upsetting a delicate balance. But an agricultural community which is able to colonise new land where resources are plentiful, is likely to begin thinking of itself as separate from nature, and hence as possessing a right to exploit it for its own ends. The impetus, or lack of it, in this kind of primitive society, to improve on what nature provides, seems to depend on an awareness of natural abundance, of possibilities which have hitherto been unimaginable, because life has been too preoccupied with the business of surviving. And this in turn can lead to a different perception of what nature is, and how to relate to it.

Circumstances which allow scope for the imagination are thus one part of the picture, and a philosophy of life which can reckon with the possibility of change, and inspire hopes of fulfilment, is another. A fatalistic or deterministic philosophy cannot realistically look for improvement—only for endurance. Many Christians have felt in the past, and still feel, that any attempt to improve by scientific means on God's creation, must be in some degree blasphemous. Aristotle's view of nature as inherently goal-directed, on the other hand, could be the basis of an intense striving after perfection, but it faced problems of a different kind. A way of life which is possible only in a society not all of whose members can share it, such as that enjoyed by full citizens in ancient Greece, cannot provide the ultimate fulfilment of human nature. This, as we have seen, is a problem with all so-called improvements, in that they immediately raise questions about who controls them and who benefits.

Yet the power to see visions, and to dream dreams, and to strive for excellence, is not in itself vitiated by such practical problems, and has a necessary place in a theology of creation which takes human participation seriously. The frequent accusation that attempts to improve nature are a form of ‘playing God’ is theologically inept. There is certainly a recurring temptation to overreach our powers for selfish ends, but for those said to be ‘made in the image of God’ there is also the opposite temptation—to bury our talents for improvement unused and unincreased.18 Christian hopes about the ‘one far-off event, to which the whole creation moves’,19 suggest that from God's perspective time makes a difference, and that believers should therefore be intent on employing it creatively.

The themes I have been exploring in this book all imply attitudes towards the natural world which assume that improvement is possible. Nature is to be understood in order to realise its potentialities. The respect shown for it by those who created our landscapes was compatible with a subtle discovery and drawing out of its capabilities.20 The beauty we value, not least in the exotic variety of flowers, owes much to human art and artifice. Even modern attempts to improve the fundamental constitution of living things, as in genetic engineering, have their parallel in the quasi-religious attempts by the alchemists to do the same with matter. They were inspired, as one of them claimed, by ‘many irrefutable and uncontestable testimonies that nature itself procreates and prepares seed-bearing creatures whereas the art [of alchemy] works together with them towards the end which nature creates’.21

Individuals, too, often dream about, and frequently strive after, some kind of excellence, beating their ‘personal best’, not only in sport but in all fields of human activity. Even the use of consciousness-enhancing drugs is additional, rather sad, evidence of the widespread human desire for self-transcendence. It is not surprising, therefore, that thoughts about improving nature, and the restless longings which inspire it, should lead eventually to questions about nature's God.

  • 1.

    Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (Thames and Hudson, 1996) pp. 17–32, contain a useful summary of the different types of artefacts which can be matched with different stages of mental development.

  • 2.

    Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss (Fontana, 1970) pp. 29–35.

  • 3.

    Robert Temple, The Genius of China (Prion, 1998) p. 15.

  • 4.

    New Scientist, 10 March 2001, p. 12.

  • 5.

    It was precisely awareness of this set of difficulties which led the government of the day to set up the ‘Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’ in 1990 with power to oversee in vitro fertilisation, and to authorise, or rule out, particular types of research within a broad legal framework. The decisions made by an Authority can be much more carefully and sensitively attuned to particular circumstances than a law, especially during a period of rapid change.

  • 6.

    New Scientist, 31 October 1998, p. 56. This issue also contains a long and informative series of articles on ‘Living in a GM World’.

  • 7.

    Robert Shapiro, The Human Blueprint (St Martin's Press, 1991). Among many other books on the same subject Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan, Improving Nature? The science and ethics of genetic engineering (Cambridge University Press, 1996) provides an excellent introduction to the whole field. Pete Moore, Babel's Shadow. Genetic technologies in a fracturing society (Lion Publishing, 2000) covers the same ground in a racier journalistic style. Both books bring Christian insights to bear on the issues.

  • 8.

    The technology is too recent to have received much attention in books for general readers. Moore, op. cit., has a brief mention. A Department of Health Report, Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility, June 2000, provides a clear account of the technology itself and some of its ethical implications.

  • 9.

    See note 8.

  • 10.

    Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop. The Engineering and Marketing of Life (HarperCollins, 1993) is an early, but still relevant, critique of the commodification of human life, especially in the USA.

  • 11.

    Pete Moore, op. cit. p. 187.

  • 12.

    This is the hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford University Press, 1982) in which the earth itself is treated as if it were a self-correcting, self-sustaining organism. Some systems, e.g. the atmosphere in its relation to the oceans, do seem to behave in this way. But the hypothesis remains highly controversial.

  • 13.

    The phenomenon, known as apomixis, is described in New Scientist, 28 October 2000, p. 5.

  • 14.

    It first became possible to ‘engineer’ genes in 1973. This led to a self-imposed moratorium until 1975, while the safety implications were considered. The first successful in vitro fertilisation took place in 1979, thus creating the conditions for genetic manipulation in humans. In the same year the implications of the new technology were discussed, among many other topics, at a major world conference of scientists and theologians, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. The report of the conference was published in 1980 under the title Faith and Science in an Unjust World. A much briefer report, Manipulating Life. Ethical issues in genetic engineering, was published by a WCC working party in 1982. In the intervening years the social problems have not diminished. In 1995 a lecturer, Christopher Haskins, listed ‘the vested interests in the food game’ as devious governments, the neurotic middle-classes, the campaigning aristocracy, unscrupulous farmers, evangelistic organics, self-righteous environmentalists, lethal animal lovers, dogmatic scientists, pompous journalists, and greedy company chairmen. It may have been a bit unfair, but it was a useful reminder that those responsible for our food supply have to deal with more than one set of difficult people.

  • 15.

    New Scientist, 25 November 2000, pp. 16–17.

  • 16.

    New Scientist, 3 February 2001, pp. 16–17.

  • 17.

    David L. Gosling, Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2001) p. 19.

  • 18.
    Genesis 3:5 describes the temptation to ‘be like God’, but in Genesis 1:27 it has already been declared that human beings are created in God's own image. I used the two texts as the basis for a sermon to the conference referred to in note 14. It ended with the words:

    The bigger the conference, the longer the years of preparation, the more intense the efforts, the more generous the supplies of scholarship, the more conscious we are of our ultimate inadequacy. But it is just then, in the failure of our godlikeness, that we can dare to go to the man on the cross. ‘Would you be like God?’ he asks us. ‘Then you can attain it only by sharing the pain and the darkness, the self-giving and the self-restraint, of God's way of being God.’

    The whole sermon is to be found in John Habgood, A Working Faith (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980) pp. 52–7. The reference to unused talents is in Matthew 25:24–30.

  • 19.

    From Tennyson's ‘In Memoriam’.

  • 20.

    The revival of ‘natural’ landscapes in the eighteenth century was largely the work of Capability Brown, who earned his nickname by his skill in drawing out the countryside's ‘capabilities’, rather than imposing on it the highly formalised and artificial constructions which were then in fashion.

  • 21.

    John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, Reconstructing Nature. The Engagement of Science and Religion (T & T Clark, 1998) p. 319.

From the book: