Brave New Galaxy?

The far-reaching consequences of cloning.  Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998.

The far-reaching consequences of cloning. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998.

In the pages of Odyssey, I’ve often referred to genetic engineering as one of the most likely means by which humans will be adapted to travel long distances in space, or live on other, possibly hostile, worlds.  But is it really feasible?  In his 1998 book Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, Professor Lee M Silver of Princeton University provides a highly persuasive account of just how likely, indeed inevitable, the cloning of humans will be.

It’s the science of cloning that moves genetic engineering from science fiction to reality.  Genetic engineering involves altering, or adding to, the genes in an embryo so as to change human characteristics.  But direct alteration of genes is a very “hit-and-miss” affair, and extremely inefficient.  Cloning, which is the process by which cells from one organism are used to derive another (so the two are genetically identical), enables enough cells to be produced so that genetic integrity can be confirmed before a new embryo is allowed to develop.  That new embryo will, of course, then have exactly the characteristics required.

The process by which this could eventually happen is already underway.  In 1978, Louise Brown was the first human conceived outside her mother’s womb, and in vitro fertilisation now allows modification of genetic material before pregnancy; Professor Silver sees this as a stepping stone for many possibilities of genetic changes.  In 1984, Zoe Leyland was the first human to be born from a frozen embryo, and cryopreservation is now routine.  Then, in 1996, there was the first cloning of a lamb from an adult cell – a new embryo formed (without conception) by providing the genetic material of an adult cell with the cytoplasm of an unfertilized egg.

Put it all together, and the prospects for manipulating genetic changes in humans are clear.  Will it actually happen?  Well, genetic selection is already effectively occurring to some extent as prospective parents try to screen out certain disease genotypes – one can hardly blame them.  Genetic engineering will have enormous benefits in preventing certain diseases, and this must inevitably be extended to achieve improvements which are merely “life-enhancing” as opposed to critical for survival: higher intelligence, better physical appearance – one wonders where it would stop.

The downside is that it’s probably only the wealthier part of society that will be able to afford genetic enhancement, at least in any near-term future which seems even remotely realistic.  But, as Professor Silver asks, is this really any different to the advantages which wealthier parents are able to give their children anyway?  Yuval Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, recently suggested that rich people might even become amortal – not immortal but, absent an accident, they might never die – as a necessary outcome of the on-going scientific revolution.

The consequences of all this could be serious, though.  Society could easily become divided, not on lines of race or gender, but between the genetically enhanced and the remaining “naturals” who simply won’t be able to compete.  The fear of diluting the gene pool will minimise inter-breeding, and segregation and discrimination follow as inevitably as night follows day.  The big difference between this scenario and that envisaged in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World is that it results from control of technology being in the hands of individuals, rather than governments.

Eventual separation between two, or even more, species of human would probably require centuries, but adaptations to different planetary environments would only make it more likely, despite the genetically extended life-spans that could facilitate lengthy interstellar travel in world ships.  Ultimately, we could see communities spread throughout the Galaxy evolving entirely separately, losing contact with one another, and maybe even losing the memory of their origin as one species on Earth.

In the meantime, though, the Odyssey team would like to wish all our readers a Happy and Peaceful Easter!

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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