Gene Therapy – Speeding Up Human Evolution?

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CNN online published an interesting article on Feb 6th entitled: ‘Are we taking evolution into our own hands?’.  Written by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, the article raises the spectre of genetic manipulation to improve athletic performance and cognitive abilities. 

In relating the historical hypothesis of human evolution to the modern day situation, Enriquez and Gullans write:

 Today we continue to live the same process, but in an enormously accelerated fashion. For better and worse we are transforming ourselves from a Homo sapiens, a species aware of its environment, into a Homo evolutis, a species that directly and deliberately begins to control its own evolution, as well as that of many other species. In terms of impact on our children and grandchildren, this trend will be unsurpassed in magnitude and speed.

These concerns, valid as they are, are oft-repeated by many commentators in the public arena.  But what is less commonly discussed is the fact that genetic manipulation, as a technology, is still very much in its infancy.  We therefore have to be careful in projecting too far into the future based on an overinflated impression of human scientific infallability and untrammelled progress.  In manipulating specific genes, the results can, and are, often unpredictable.     

Nevertheless, the overall thrust of Enriquez and Gullans article seems to me to be valid and thought-provoking.  They make a very cogent argument that our ethical an moral frameworks, as currently constituted, lag behind the science; in other words, we’re constantly playing ‘catch up’.  Here’s what they say:

 We do not have a moral, ethical, legal framework to begin to deal with the challenges of rapidly increasing genetic and other physical differences among individuals and between groups. This deficit is especially serious now that an avalanche of technologies is coming together that accentuates the speed of change, like gene therapy, organ regeneration, transplantation, robotics, brain mapping, combinatorial chemistry, nutrigenomics, microbiomes, and various fertility treatments and options.

 Enriquez and Gullans argue, quite rightly in my opinion, against the ‘head in the sand’ approach unwittingly advocated by some Christians.  Moreover, an actively ‘anti-technology’ or ‘swimming against the tide’ approach is equally unattractive and counterproductive as a moral/ethical stance.  Interestingly, what Enriquez and Gullans believe is that we should work towards developing:

rapidly evolving, flexible, ethical, legal, and moral frameworks to guide ourselves and humanity through its greatest challenge. 

I agree.  But that’s the easy part.  As always, the devil is in the detail.  I wonder if Enriquez and Gullans have any ideas as to how this can be achieved?  A headache-inducing task awaits them, and us all, as we attempt to construct a decision-making framework that is cognizant of all the relevant factors.

Check out the full article, which is well worth a read:

Also, I’d recommend that you listen to a presentation that was given at a recent Christians in Science Ireland ‘God and Science’ lecture held in Belfast (audio recordings are available from most of these lectures at the CiS Ireland website: We invited the Rt. Rev. Dr. Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon and fellow member of the Society or Ordained Scientists to come over to give a public lecture on ‘Gene Therapy: Playing God or Being Human?’.  Lee is a former member of GTAC UK and is adept at communicating complex scientific concepts to a general audience.

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