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Photograph courtesy of UCLA Micro and Nano Manufacturing
biology and the information sciences have developed a close partnership
since the 1980s, the decade that began with the revolution in
microelectronics and went on to spawn the Information Age and
the Gene Age.
SUCH IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES,
however, are not the source of our deep angst about biotechnology.
Our real fears come from more distant possibilities that could
be far more difficult and divisive. Three basic realms are apparent.
The first is the reshaping of our biology. What if we could unravel
the processes of aging and learn to retard, or even reverse, critical
aspects of it? This is a key focus of regenerative medicine, and
its success would affect virtually every aspect of human society.
People often tell me they don’t think it’s a good
idea to extend the human life span. Then they sometimes whisper,
“but put me on the list.”
A second thorny area is our mounting reliance
on pharmacology not just to heal ourselves but to manage our emotional
states. Such “cosmetic psychopharmacology” will be
increasingly challenging in coming decades. Ritalin, Viagra, Prozac
and other such drugs are only clumsy baby steps. The potential
is now emerging to short-circuit the emotional programs that have
arisen in our evolutionary history to direct our behavior so as
to further survival and reproduction. The depth of the challenge
is illustrated by the rising problem of obesity. Humans were simply
not made to live in a pastry shop. If someday we can take a pharmaceutical
cocktail to make us feel happy and fulfilled, will we say no?
Another area where biotechnology challenges
us is reproduction. Setting aside the familiar low-tech methods
of mate selection, we can anticipate the arrival of three high-tech
procedures to let us consciously choose our children’s genes.
The first is reproductive cloning. Media obsession with this is
due more to the symbolism of such an alteration of human reproduction
than to any plausible consequences of the occurrence. After all,
here is a technology that does not yet exist for humans, and yet
enormous global attention has greeted the flimsiest of claims
about the procedure. Even more importantly, fear that someone,
somewhere, might clone a child has generated serious attempts
to criminalize basic biomedical research in regenerative medicine,
endangering the hopes of real people with real diseases and real