Technology, Genetic Manipulation, and the Future

December 1991

By Egbert Schuurman

[Dr. Egbert Schuurman is a professor at the technical universities in both Delft and Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Since 1983 he has also been a member of the upper house of the Dutch Parliament representing one of his country's smaller political parties—the Reformed Political Federation. An expert in technological issues related to the environment and human life, Dr. Schuurman has published widely and participated in numerous international conferences.

[The following selected excerpts are taken from Schuurman's "The Future: Our Choice or God's Gift?"—a recent English translation of a Dutch booklet. The translator and editor is Petrus Simons. The book is available from Exile Press, P.O. Box 12-294, Wellington, New Zealand. —Ed.]

Technology Without Limits

[The parable about King Midas teaches us that too much of a good thing can lead to death.] If used wisely, gold is a delight and able to play a meaningful role in life. Too much of it causes great problems.

It is no different with science and technology. They are fine gifts which our God and Creator has entrusted to us so that we might use them wisely and to his glory, to serve him and our fellow man.

In our culture, however, these wonderful gifts have been used to conquer the world without stopping at any barriers. By means of a thoroughgoing scientific analysis we have been breaking down reality into its smallest possible components. Once we have these basic bits, we try to use them to reconstruct a different whole, according to our wishes. In recent times, this has happened with the discovery and identification of the basic building blocks of living beings: genes. Biotechnology, using recombinant DNA techniques, is now able to breed new types of plants and animals. What about human beings? Should we not remake them as well?

Roots of the New Faith

During the 16th century, two major movements came into conflict. One was called the Renaissance, which had been developing since the 14th century, and the other the Reformation, which had started with the rediscovery of the Gospel by Martin Luther. Each had a profound impact on Western society. Yet, gradually, the Renaissance came to dominate the spirit of the ages that followed.

The people of the Renaissance saw the world as a place in which man is free to work but is answerable only to himself for his actions. He should not be dictated to by the church. He should strive for self-realization and self- fulfillment. He should attempt to discover himself and explore all the possibilities of the world around him. By doing this consistently, man would become a new being, he would experience a new birth (this is what "renaissance" means). This rebirth does not come from God, but results from man's own actions in history. In this renaissance man discovers his own creativity. Man is a creator. By harmoniously developing all aspects of his life, by becoming an all-round human being, man would achieve redemption from the imperfections of his past. This new man could also sin, but only by becoming unfaithful to himself, by subjecting himself to alien authority, be it God's authority or the authority of the church. Man is free to determine his own destiny. If rules are needed, then he will determine those, using his capacity to reason. The world is not a theater in which the drama of God, man and the devil is acted out, or in which God carries out his rescue mission through his Son. It is rather a self-contained, beautiful structure, a great work of art. In the enormous powers of nature man discovers something of himself. There are hardly any limits put to his endeavors. Man's free will propels him to ever-greater heights.

Technism and Genetic Manipulation

Genetic manipulation is a new scientific-technical possibility [that has arisen in the course of a long line of scientific and technological development, fired by Renaissance aspirations.] In company with a growing number of philosophers I have come to view technism as the dominating spiritual driving force behind science and technology. Although it has been the prevailing influence, I emphasize that there have also been other factors, and this suggests that it may be possible to find another, more acceptable road to the future.

"Technism" is man's pretension to control the whole of reality by means of science and technology. This control should serve to solve all problems and to secure material welfare and happiness. Man himself wants to be lord and master, creator, redeemer and renewer.

The Enlightenment reinforced the contents and consequences of technism. Through this 18th-century movement the spirit of the Renaissance—an unlimited trust in man's own power to renew life—became connected with the physical sciences. The heroic man of the Enlightenment believes that by means of the physical sciences he is capable of solving all problems so as to renew himself as well as society.

[When it comes to health care, the implications of technism are that] man relates to reality in the same way as a dictator relates to people. He only knows them insofar as they can be manipulated. Technical possibilities are being overrated when the value of life, so valuable and worthy of protection, is sacrificed to it. This happens in the case of abortion and in cases where the dying process is drawn out by means of technology.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF)—the test-tube-baby technique—has made it possible to use human embryos in a laboratory. Initially it was intended to implant them into mothers who were unable to conceive children in the natural way. More and more, however, experiments are being done with the embryos obtained. It has been suggested that they may be used for the production of medicines. This raises their economic value so that they might become commercial objects. There are also researchers who are in favor of complete scientific-technical control of the procreation process through an experimental approach.

IVF might also allow the selection of embryos. One might prefer boys to girls or vice versa. Moreover, one could be more interested in children with a high intelligence than in others. The next step would be to manipulate genes on the basis of a knowledge of the genetic makeup of the embryo. Someone has said that every individual letter in the book (the genome) of a human being will be able to be read. Thereafter "sick" or "damaged" genes can be replaced by new ones. Perhaps some new genes could be added. Thus the "ennobling" of the human race could become a possibility. Genetics would evolve into eugenics.

New possibilities will lead to pressures on every couple. On the basis of genetic examination and information they will receive free advice, without any obligation. Yet, as a result of public opinion and pressure, many parents will have to face problematic decisions. Initially, abortion will be advised when prenatal diagnostics indicate the possible birth of a handicapped child. In official documents this is called "secondary prevention" and "optimization of the reproductive process." If knowledge of the gene composition of both parents points to an increased risk of conceiving handicapped children, then fertilization will take place more and more in test tubes. This provides the possibilities for prenatal diagnostics, experiments, elimination and selection.

Nobel-prize winner Walter Gilbert, who teaches biochemistry at Harvard University, believes that this is simply the result of the age-old exhortation "Know yourself." This has opened the door to genetic manipulation. Any principled resistance to genetic manipulation of the embryo ceases to have meaning.

In the Christian view—if it is not secularized—resistance to experiments with and manipulation of embryos remains complete because every human being is believed to have been created in God's image and is unique in God's eyes. Its beginning lies in conception. God's love and care extend to the life of every human being. That life is never perfect. It is not up to man to set the norm for an existence worthy of a human person, nor to determine unilaterally the quality of life.

A Different Way

Am I suggesting that the latest scientific-technical possibilities should not be used at all? That would be a wrong conclusion. I would like to plead for a different view of science and technology: rather than playing a key role in human affairs they should play second fiddle. Instead of being demanding masters, they should become humble servants.

When is genetic manipulation of people justified in the light of growing wisdom and when not? Let us start with the latter. If science is influenced by the will to power, then the object to be controlled will not be recognized according to its own nature and meaning. The whole object will be reduced to a knowledge of the abstractions made. This procedure will result in reductions and will lead, in practice, to technization. Such technization will also affect man if the whole of the human person is controlled by means of genetic manipulation. This happens, or could happen, with embryos in the laboratory. In such genetic manipulation it is not appreciated that the whole person is at stake even if only as a potential person. [For this reason I believe we should reject] genetic manipulation of the genome.

At the same time this points to a framework within which genetic manipulation could be a good thing. In this I do not question responsible genetic manipulations of bacteria, fungi or viruses—provided appropriate safety measures are taken—for the production of new medicines for sick people which surpass existing medicines or are able to combat diseases that hitherto could not be cured.

In other words, genetic manipulation of particular organs is possible. Genotherapy on somatic cells in which the whole man is respected in love may contribute to responsible health care. For instance, this is the case in the fight against certain bone marrow diseases, particularly sicklecell anemia, or diabetes through manipulation of the spleen. As with so many therapies, geno-treatment is likely to cause a permanent change in the human body, so it is all the more urgent to exclude those organs from genetic manipulation which interfere with the integrity of the human person. I mention in this connection the germ cells of the genital organs and the brain (in total). Those who advocate genetic manipulations of cells of genital organs because successful repairs would be transferable, ignore not only the structural objections just discussed but also the major uncertainties for the next generation. The consequences of the modification to be made cannot be fully appreciated because of the complexity of the germ cells and of the mystery of the genome which cannot be scientifically fathomed.

[From a Christian point of view all things exist by God's power] and have their destiny in him. If we abstract from this intimate relationship of everything with God, then the proper nature and the meaning of things cannot be appreciated. For this reason, a Christian perspective requires a strong emphasis upon the limitations of science.