I have just read with great dismay the headline Human embryos genetically altered for the first time (The Times, Saturday 14 March). As usual the benefits are talked up, basically freedom from genetic diseases, a most worthy goal. But there seems to be little awareness of the further implications when we tinker with the terms of our own existence. Consider the following possibilities now opening up before us:
· A militaristic nation creates the perfect soldier, who obeys orders without question and kills without compunction.
· A multinational company creates the ideal worker, who is submissive and able to work long hours without fatigue.
· A government institution creates a designer elite, a highly intelligent oligarchy who have no need of any input from the mass of ordinary people.
But surely we could never accept this in the liberal West? I think we will feel forced to. The line will be, "our workers must be as efficient as theirs or our economy will go down… our armies must be as ruthless as theirs or we will be at risk… our rulers must be as powerful as theirs or we will be unable to compete." We've done this before. When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, he said this would end wars because nobody would be able to face the prospect of using such a horrific weapon. Instead everybody used it to avoid being defeated by their enemies.
This is what you get when you believe that human beings are valuable, not intrinsically for who we are, but for our uses. For the first time genetic tools are going to enable us to select the qualities we want and eliminate others. But what this really means is that we give some people, the ones who wield the technology, power over other people. This is a vastly more significant power than we have ever seen before – the power to determine our very nature.
In effect this means that human beings will become the property of others in a way not dreamed of even in societies that practised slavery on a vast scale. It will become possible for human beings to be created to order by generals, by multi-national companies, by elite institutions. The content of my DNA, my character, my abilities, my personality, will be owned and patented by somebody else.
We have the means to do all this – but do we have the wisdom? As soon as we start to conceive of our fellow human beings as blank sheets to draw our own aspirations on, manipulable to suit our own ends, we demonstrate that we do not have an ethical base capable of handling this technology.
In our contemporary world view, we are no longer children of God, valuable in our own right just by being who we are. Instead we are animals, the random product of a meaningless universe that got here by complete accident. Very soon now we will be saying, wouldn't it be better to be here by design? But who will the designers be? Sony? North Korea? the CIA?
I really, really hope and pray it never happens…