Human Biotechnology

Many of the most controversial technologies bioethicists study in medicine—artificial fertilization and cloning are obvious examples—originated in the barnyard. The genetic manipulation of animals will be the proving ground for the genetic manipulation and enhancement of human beings. What may be most interesting in the ethical study of agricultural biotechnology, therefore, may lie in its effort to identify something "natural"—some essence, condition, history, or pedigree—that makes an animal characteristically itself and that can be lost as a result of genetic engineering. If this essence proves elusive in the agricultural context or if it turns out that everything physically possible is equally natural, by analogy, it may not be possible to identify any limits in the nature of humans (e.g., mortality) that people may not try to transcend. Human beings may be tempted, then, to improve human qualities through germ cell engineering just as they have improved the qualities of plants and animals.

The distinction between the "natural" and the "artificial" may not survive the advance of biotechnology because everything, including the human genome, may become both. This makes the human species responsible for everything, or it greatly diminishes the "given" or contingent in nature. The ability to manipulate the human genome—as people have manipulated the genomes, say, of salmon and chickens—for many technical reasons is a long way off. Indeed, it still may be considered science fiction. Someday human beings may cultivate themselves as they do other organisms. The idea that people eventually may apply to the human genome the same techniques by which they have changed crops and livestock could be the ultimate irony of agricultural biotechnology.

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