Scientific Notes: Mankind is on the verge of self-evolution

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BEGINNING ALMOST two centuries ago with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein countless works of fiction have focused on the theme of men who attempt to create human life or enhance it beyond its "natural" form. While the stories may differ in detail, the moral is the same. The creation of human life belongs to God.

The Frankenstein theme for many years lay securely within the realm of fiction. But now, as we approach the beginning of the third millennium, reproductive and genetic technologies are racing ahead faster than anyone could have predicted. Genetic engineering and the enhancement of human embryos will soon be a real possibility. Suddenly, we are forced to contemplate exactly what the moral objection to genetic enhancement is based on.

When forced to go beyond religious inculcations, many people find it hard to formulate a clear answer, so they fall back on the Frankenstein idea that "it shouldn't be done because it won't work". But science has moved on. This is not to say there aren't sometimes unintended negative consequences of attempts to improve the human condition. Of course there are, and there always will be.

However, the 20th century has witnessed a series of biomedical advances that have greatly improved human health and increased longevity. The ultimate frontier for genetic enhancement will be the human mind. It is in this realm that many claim we cannot advance, for we are exactly what God intended us to be. But if our Homo erectus ancestors had the ability, they probably would have thought the same thing, 1.5 million years ago. Since that time, the human brain has doubled in size. Why then can't we evolve even further in this direction? It won't happen "naturally". The most important evolutionary consequence of civilisation is that greater intelligence - no matter what its root basis - does not lead a person to have more children. And it's only those genes that increase reproductive output that are "naturally" selected. Thus, the natural evolution of intelligence has come to a grinding halt.

Nevertheless some are convinced that further evolution of our minds will occur. It's just the driving force that will be different. Instead of evolving naturally, the present-day human species is on the verge of being self-evolving. On earth alone, we have five billion years left before the sun burns out. Can anyone really believe we will never learn how to enhance mental capacity when the technology is practically at our doorsteps today?

Of course, just because something can be done does not mean that it will be done. But the driving force behind self-evolution is as transparent as can be. Parents have always wanted to give their children all possible advantages in life, and what could be more advantageous than increased mental abilities? How much money will that be worth? Certainly as much as an education at an American Ivy League university, which now runs to more than $100,000. And where there's a demand, there will be a market.

This brings us to the real moral problem with genetic enhancement. It is not that the technology is inherently bad, or that people will use it for harmful reasons. On the contrary, the power of the technology is so great that it could disadvantage those children whose parents were unable to afford to give it to them. Unfortunately, this has never been considered a valid reason to ban a technology in democratic societies. And thus, the inevitable outcome of a market-based economic system could be a genetic gap between classes of GenRich and GenPoor that becomes wider and wider with each future generation.

Lee M. Silver is the author of `Remaking Eden: cloning, genetic engineering and the future of humankind (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 20)