May 5, 2014

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Genetic Engineering: Humanity’s Next Step in Evolution – English 5 – Essay 5

Assignment: Ethics of technology: Genetic engineering and interference with the natural order. – Explain how the issue or practice operates in the novel, and take a stand and argue your position on the issue or practice.

Grade: 92/100

Comments: 

- Yours is a well-written, well-structured paper.

- You provide convincing ideas supported by conclusive evidence.

- You have developed a graceful, concise writing style.

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Gabriella Wendt

English 5

05 May 2014

Genetic Engineering: Humanity’s Next Step in Evolution

Human evolution took millions of years to develop our current species and, as far as we can tell, homo sapiens sapiens have been the first creatures on planet Earth to develop the technological sophistication they now enjoy. The possibilities of human advancement seem limitless and the only opposition they have is themselves. Nothing in human history has ever before set limitations. The sky ceased to be the limit in 1967 when the first manned mission to space, Apollo 1, took humans out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Why should humanity limit itself now? What is it about genetic engineering that makes people say that humans have gone too far?

In the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Jimmy, the protagonist, wonders after seeing the genetically engineered ChickieNobs and Wolvogs for the first time, “Why is it he feels some line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how far is too far?” (206). Some say genetic engineering is unnatural, some say it is dangerous, some simply feel uncomfortable and cannot create a better reason than that. The arguments against genetic manipulation are often blurred between moral and scientific grounds. However, I believe that genetic engineering is simply humanity’s next, natural step in evolution, without which their potential becomes unnecessarily limited.

With the ability to hand-pick the genetic makeup up of individuals within their species, humanswould able to achieve great feats. They could eliminate racial superiority and devastating genetic disorders like Alzheimer’s, improve strength and intelligence, and create a kind of general equality where all will be able to contribute to the betterment of humanity. This will leave them in a position to better care for those who cannot contribute due to the inevitable (but limited) social-economic divide. Once more of humanity is able to contribute to scientific advancement, the advancements will increase exponentially and provide humanity with even greater achievements – including deeper discovery of the universe, progressions in artificial intelligence, or even the elusive concept of world peace.

Oryx and Crake paints a particularly sad and exaggerated picture of what a world captivated by genetic engineering may look like. The author’s main purpose seems to be to frighten the reader into believing that genetic engineering will bring only doom and destruction. This sense of fright is easily achieved because the world depicted is seemingly so similar to humanity’s current reality, and shows a near possible future opposed to one that is more alien and too distant for the imagination. The genetic engineering featured in Oryx and Crake is not the main cause of the seeming dystopian world, but merely a guiltless accomplice to the real menace that is unchecked power. The death of the human race was not caused by achievements in genetic engineering, but by Crake’s unleashed imagination and his sociopathic nature.

Genetic engineering is featured a few ways in the novel, including as a central encompassing idea, but one of the first feats of genetic engineering that is introduced is that of the pigoon, or the sus multiorganifer.“The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host – organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejections, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year” (Atwood 22). This scientific accomplishment is one that is currently being explored in reality. Japanese scientists are possibly only a few years away from being able to grow human organs in pigs. Like God’s Gardeners in Oryx and Crake, there are those in Japan and the rest of the world who are opposed to the “idea of pig-human hybrids,” citing, not Oryx and Crake, but HG Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau as the unsettling example (Wingfield-Hayes).

The progress with the pigoons in Oryx and Crake is much more advanced than what Japan has achieved so far, such that “a rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pingoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than being destroyed, it would keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobster could grow another claw to replace a missing one” (Atwood 22).

Despite the astonishing medical applications this achievement implicated, Atwood hinted at great upset over the pigoons through Jimmy’s narrative of his own feelings, those of God’s Gardeners, and his own mothers anguish. The OrganInc brochure even had a disclaimer stating that “none of the defunct pigoons ended up as bacon and sausages” in order to “set the queasy at ease” (Atwood 23). The idea of these creatures containing human genes at some point and then ending up as food brings to mind too many uncomfortable questions about cannibalism and cruelty for the people of that world to handle. Would this reality’s humans be able to stomach it any better? Recent history says no, humans are more comfortable with the idea of waste, and crave a distance from the dirty truths that make them uneasy. Even with the nutritional advantage and abundance of horse meat, insects, and pet animals, the thought of consuming such creatures is too devastating to consider for most of the Western world.

In this vein, Oryx and Crake also heavily features the concept of genetically modified food. In the real world, humanity has made most of their progress in this area. Though a widely accepted idea, it is also still greatly controversial. This practice has allowed humans to provide greater nutrition at a lower cost to impoverished nations, and increase the quantity and quality of food overall. However, despite its current and potential applications, genetically modified food, commonly referred to as GMOs, has been heavily criticized over its safety, health, and ethics for quite some time. Genetically modified food has served to introduce the concept of genetic engineering to many, but their knowledge of it generally stops there.

One of the primary uses of GMOs in Oryx and Crakefeatures the ChickieNobs, which are only just starting production in their world at the time when Jimmy visits Crake at Watson-Crick. The ChickieNobs are described as a “large bulblike object that seemed to be covered in stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing” (Atwood 202). Crake, and the NeoAgricultrual student overseeing the project, likened it to the sea-anemone and the hookworm; it didn’t require growth hormones, didn’t feel any pain, and was able to produce chicken breasts over twice as quickly as the “high-density chicken farming operations” (Atwood 202). Jimmy was horrified at the sight of the creature, but in terms of high producing food in a world with dwindling resources, the ChickieNob sounds ideal. When compared with traditional chicken farming (which is cruel, dangerous and bad for the environment), something like the ChickieNob would be the perfect solution. However, there is something about the unfamiliar and new that causes humans to deem things unnatural and thus less than desirable. Even Jimmy, who was disgusted by the thought of the ChickieNobs and likened it to “eating a large wart,” considered that, “as with tit implants – the good ones – maybe he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” and ended up eating their product in great quantity later in the story (after achieving distance from what was the reality of them) (Atwood 203).

In terms of genetically engineered humans, the most controversial topic in the novel, it’s clear that great feats were achieved in the world of Oryx and Crake. Not only in terms of what Crake engineered into the Crakers, but also by what was available via the Street of Dreams. The ability to change height, penis length, eye color, even gender at the drop of a hat indicated remarkable control of genetics. The modifications procured from the Street of Dreams only interact with the existing human species’ genetic makeup, which is a cisgenic practice. However, what is done to the Crakers moves into an area similar to the Pigoons or the Soat/Gider which is introducing genetic material from one species to another species, commonly referred to as transgenic by genetic engineers (“genetic engineering”).

Crakers consume nutrients in a manner similar to rabbits, mate like baboons, and heal by way of purring like cats, making them undoubtedlyan altogether a new species. They are no longer homo sapiens sapiens, but instead something one might describe as being more animal than humanoid. As a mixture of the most desired traits (in Crake’s opinion), the Crakers are indisputably an unrealistic view of where humanity might end up. Without a situation and an individual with the power and psychosis comparable to that in Oryx and Crake, no one would be allowed, regardless of reasonable ability, to design a completely new and complex species in a single generation.

The most logical approach humans will take in their engineered evolution is that of small changes that will carry on and affect future generations, much in the way evolution naturally acts. The base desire to improve quality of life is what powers the progression humanity makes in this field. Humans wish to improve their own existence and that of their progeny, they do not wish to be replaced by superior and foreign beings (as was Crake’s plan).

Setting the idea of a replacement species aside, one realistic danger of genetically engineered humans might be in the widening of the social and economic divide. Proper applications would include availability to all equally, but there’s no historical indication that its introduction would be ideal. A good illustration of this possibility is featured the 1997 film Gattaca, where genetically engineered children draw a firm line between the haves and the have nots; where those lacking in perfection are severely limited in their future careers and lifestyles. The poor are unable to afford improved intelligence and perfect eyesight, and are suppressed more and more as the ability gap only widens. However, in this world, the privileged far outnumber the underprivileged, which may be the most desirable version of this situation considering the alternatives.

This danger is possible to avoid if humanity is able to create processes and practices that are easy and cheap enough to provide to the masses, the end goal being to close the socioeconomic gap. Even starting with engineering, a genetic resistance to AIDS, SARS, West Nile Virus, or other devastating but prevalent health concerns in impoverished nations would prove to create a greater long term impact than one would with simply devising better medication. Once health and mortality outcomes are improved, those communities are then able to focus more on things like education.

One can also argue that genetic engineering may give rise to the idea of eugenics, as with the Third Reich in 1930’s Germany. Some believe that being able, and having the desire, to prevent disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and blindness in the womb is a form of prejudice. These individuals feel that preventing disabilities is a statement that those with them have a decreased quality of life or are less capable (Seck). There are similar arguments against abortion after early detection of debilitating disabilities, though there is great difference between aborting a fetus and genetically modifying one to a standard model of normal or whole. Those in support of genetic engineering applications for disability prevention believe that “genetic engineering, if done on a purely decentralized basis by free individuals and couples, will not involve any form of coercion. Unlike the Nazi eugenics program of the 1930s, which involved the forced, widespread killing of ‘unfit’ peoples and disabled babies, the de facto effect of genetic engineering is to cure disabilities, not kill the disabled” (Seck). In addition, those with religious convictions who might feel that genetic engineering may be an affront to God could learn to appreciate genetic engineering as it could potentially decrease the number of abortions people seek, because“too often, women choose to abort babies because pre-natal testing shows that they have Down syndrome or some other ailment. If anything, genetic engineering should be welcomed by pro-life groups because by converting otherwise-disabled babies into normal, healthy ones, it would reduce the number of abortions” (Seck).

Some believe or hope that humanity will reach its ultimate potential naturally through continued evolution and feel that genetic engineering upsets the natural order (or consider it to be bypassing God). Regardless of their desire, the unfortunate truth is that because of the intelligence humanity has evolved to achieve naturally, they will not be able to make a similar great step again without artificial means, certainly not in a way which will satisfy humanity’s desire for instant gratification. Humanity has developed so many ways of circumventing natural selection in terms of health care and extension of life that in order to improve themselves they need to now take unnatural steps. Those with undesired qualities who at one point may have been a casualty of natural selection, are able to carry on their unfortunate genes, but with the addition of genetic engineering, humanity would be able to turn those genes into more desirable and contributing members of society.

It is easy to hear these arguments and take moral reproach to their sentiments simply because humans are so quick to preserve qualities of uniqueness and a sense of free will or choice. Genetic engineering does not aim to do away with those qualities; its application simply expects to improve the human experience by removing inequalities and limiting factors. In Oryx and Crake, Crake believed humanity to be beyond repair and needing of replacement, but in reality improvements can be made on humanity’s failings and genetic engineering is the way in which humans can take these significant steps.

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Print.

Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman. Columbia Pictures, 1997. Film.

Genetic Engineering.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Apr. 2014. Web. 04 May 2014.

Seck, Chris. “Arguing For and Against Genetic Engineering.” Stanford Review. Stanford, n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

Wingfield-Hays, Rupert. “Quest to Grow Human Organs Inside Pigs in Japan.” BBCNews. BBC, n.d. Web. 04 May 2014.

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