It’s funny how life can often imitate art, and sometimes it’s scary too. Gundam Seed is a popular Japanese anime series currently airing in the United States on Cartoon Network. The series is an alternate universe retelling of Mobile Suit Gundam, except that this time genetically enhanced humans, known as Coordinators, who live in giant space colonies, are at war with unenhanced humans, Naturals, who live on Earth. The war was apparently started by an Earth alliance nuclear attack on a Coordinator space colony. Beyond that, the heart of the conflict is the fear that the Naturals have for the Coordinators who have enhanced mental and physical capabilities. Many Naturals feel that manipulating human genetics for nontherapeutic purposes is immoral, while many Coordinators feel that conscious human enhancement is the next step in human evolution and a way to a better life. They are faster, stronger, and smarter than the Naturals.
That all sounds nice and science-fictiony doesn’t it? Well, this morning’s New York Times has an op-ed article on the subject of genetic enhancement that is all too real. Here’s a bit of it.
"Belgian Blues are unlike any cows you’ve ever seen. They have a genetic
mutation that means they do not have effective myostatin, a substance
that curbs muscle growth. A result is that Belgian Blues are all
bulging muscles without a spot of fat, like bovine caricatures of
The article goes on to describe gene therapies being developed to inhibit myostatin to cure or prevent diseases like muscular dystrophy, and how these same therapies might be used to enhance athletic performance. The article lists a few exceptional athletes who have been found to have naturally occuring genetic mutations that in turn lead to their exceptional abilities. Hmmm, to anyone who has seen Gundam Seed (or the Star Trek episode Space Seed) this sounds all too familiar! So it would seem that questions of just what it means to be human are going to become relevant sooner than we think. The past doesn’t hold much hope for a peaceful discussion of this, as not too long ago (in the history of humankind) my people were not even considered to be human which was very convenient for those in the slave trade.
What do I think of all this? Well first, I don’t believe that genetically enhancing humans is immoral. Our creator has allowed us to enhance ourselves in many ways to suit our cultural tastes and personalities and to learn more about what it means to be human. But I do think that genetic manipulations will be very dangerous with an initially high failure rate. I don’t think there is an ethical way to do this kind of research. We are only understanding little pieces of a large and complex puzzle which means that changing one little thing may appear okay at first, but could have consequences that won’t manifest themselves for some time. There is also the danger of unleashing dangerous organisms that natural systems won’t be able to adapt to in time to counterbalance them. Should this stop us? I don’t know, because someone, somewhere will always have the motivation to go where no one has gone before. So I think it would behoove us all to be fully prepared to deal with whatever fruit comes of genetic research and the consequences.