A Custom Humanity – What could genes do for you?
The Future of Biotechnology
Biotechnology. To some, the word is an inspiration. To some, it brings the kind of hope that nothing else can, that cure for cancer, a way to grow that replacement heart, liver, or kidney without the fuss, muss, or exhaustively long waiting lists of organ donor transplants, a means to repair the kind of crippling nerve damage that most doctors merely shake their head at, and a clear path into longer, healthier lives for both ourselves and the creatures we depend on, from pets to livestock, and even crops. Some potential applications even aim to help the environment, cutting the ecological impact of food production and working to eliminate existing forms of industrial pollution still circulating in nature.
But to others, Biotechnology is a frightening concept, inspiring nightmares of segregation based on the "quality" of a person's DNA, racism taken to a whole new level, or of eugenics wars, genocide, and a thousand other dramatic outcomes. Still more sinister, consider a future of custom-built humanoids, people genetically engineered and grown, even mass-produced for a specific function, satiating desires from the subtle to the gross, treated as slaves and toys, men and women with no more rights accorded them than a piece of furniture or a pet. Imagine a future where the "perfect" man, designed and re-designed to exacting standards on the outside, is but one among many equally "perfect" men, popping into bars, looking for the "perfect" woman, so like every other "perfect" woman he's ever been with, or perhaps popping down the street to buy a more permanent human fixture, a living, breathing blow-up doll with the brain capacity and life goals of a horny cat.
Now, granted, these are extremes, mere nightmares popping through the minds of members of our modern society, nightmares born of fear and a past full of gross mistakes and corruption, but all speculation aside, consider for a moment what biotechnology has done for us thus far.
First, let's consider Frankenfood- borrowing part of its name from the stitched-together hulk of Mary Shelley's famous work of horrific fiction, Frankenfood is a term widely used to refer to the masses of genetically engineered strains of fruits and vegetables that litter the market, most of them not even labeled, at least, not in the United States (though Japan and the European Union have stricter standards.) But then, who'd want to know the corn or the tomato they're happily munching away on is the result of careful trial-and-error research carried out at the cellular level in a lab somewhere by a white-coated scientist lording over gene sequences from a dozen species of plant, just snipping little bits of code, injecting strains and fragments to create the ultimate hybrid, a vegetable so amazing that the insects won't touch it! But then, if insects aren't interested in eating it, should you be? Another extreme example, especially since genetic engineering has given us so many wonderful things already, such as golden rice and its successor, golden rice 2, both of which are high in Vitamin A, a supplement lacking in the diets of many people in a number of countries across the globe.
Next, what about in-vitro meat? When we swing by the local fast-food joint and pick up a hamburger, there's some part of our mind that's content in the knowledge that the chunk of beef in between those buns came from an honest-to-goodness cow, a living animal that spent its days eating grass on farmer brown's sprawling green fields, but in the very near future, that just might not be the case. First, let's look at the problems with meat production as it stands today. Every part of the process has its unique issues and idiosyncracies- we're talking about raising animals, administering a harsh regimen of chemicals (From antibiotics to growth hormone), butchering them (and only really using part of the animal), packaging the result and keeping it from going rancid or worse before the customer gets a chance to take it home for consumption. There are a lot of places where disease and infection can get into the system, causing all sorts of problems for both the manufacturer and the consumer, not to mention all the other people with jobs hanging in the loop. In-vitro meat, however, has the potential to eliminate these problems. Using muscle cells from livestock, the meat is grown in a lab, much like some forms of skin grafts, and is carefully monitored, kept healthy and disease-free by the hands of lab workers and technicians until it's ready to be unplugged and shipped off, without needing to actually kill or butcher any animals- and this works with literally any livestock, which opens up the market for the production of just about any kind of meat you can think of, from the mainstays like beef, chicken, and pork to the more exotic, such as emu, buffallo, and anything else that there might be a demand for. A quick look at the delicacies of the world will tell you there's definitely a market for dog, cat, horse, and a dozen or more others, perhaps even human. Now there's an interesting thought- A legal way to satiate cannibalistic desires!
The Sum of All Fears
This of course brings us to the issue that is at the root of some of our biggest fears, and perhaps some of our biggest hopes- the genetic modification of humans. Transhumanists see this as a good thing- granted, the tools currently at our disposal are crude, but they are there, and with them is the potential to make humanity greater, to make us genetically "perfect," and so much more. Imagine clinical immortality, the ability to live forever and be all but invulnerable to the dangers one might face in everyday life. Sure, we'd end up with a population problem, but that gives us all the more reason to expand out into the stars and institute global birth-control restrictions. More realistic, imagine an end to diseases and the afflictions of humanity- through Nanotechnology and retroviral engineering, the genetic modification of humans has the potential to make our immune systems invulnerable to anything that might try to compromise them, even age itself. Perhaps even closer to home would be the ability to choose what genetic traits your children will have- Reprogenetics has already given us the ability to more or less choose the sex of a baby through artificial insemination, and everything else is only a handful of steps away. But can we really achieve this post-human condition in our lifetimes? The answer is likely a hearty yes, but then again, do we really want to? It all comes down to asking ourselves if we're really ready to take the chances, shoulder the burden and raise the technological stakes again, double or nothing. Are we ready to open up a whole new can of worms and utterly redirect the course of our own evolution as a species? Are we competent enough to play God in such a profound way, following a path that could lead to something glorious, as well as those things that plague the appearance and practice of every other revolutionary technology, a whole new slew of dilemmas and moral issues, and there are some very serious dilemmas- consider the fact that everything genetically engineered has a patent. Do we really want our children, our bodies, and practically everything else in our lives to be owned and controlled by corporations? Cash is king, and the potential to profit from the evolution of humanity is great indeed.
So, where will the future take us? Like all those dreamers of the past, we can only speculate. Will laws become lax enough to bring us a morally questionable future of human hybrids that are traded and treated as livestock or slaves? Will we see a future of ageless and genetically "perfect" clones, or will our careful footsteps into this daunting field result in something more sinister? Perhaps something grand? But even these dreams may merely be dust in the wind, something to be laughed at decades down the line, looked upon much the same way that we look upon the dreamers of the early twentieth century, predicting a flying car in every garage, or a culture of toga-wearing philosophers carefully cared for by sentient machinery that measures its processing capability in kilobytes. Who knows? Only time will truly tell for certain.