Tech UPTechnologyLee M. Silver:

Lee M. Silver:

This professor of Human Genetics, Reproduction and Politics at Princeton University has spent years alternating his research on the genetic bases of behavior with his work as an advisor on Bioethics for the US Congress. Since he published his novel in 1998Back to Eden, you have seen how many compared it toA happy worldby Aldous Huxley. With it, Silver revealed one of the dangers of gene manipulation: the birth of an elite of artificially enhanced citizens. Now, after an eight-month trip to Southeast Asia, he admits that he was wrong, although not so wrong. Not for that he abhors genetic engineering. In fact, he would have liked to use it with his son Ari, who has inherited asthma from him. Silver does the interview with an inhaler close at hand.

You divided 2350 American society into 10 percent genetically enhanced supermen and 90 percent normal humans in Back to Eden. Are you still in agreement?
-I was wrong. Genetic techniques can be used just like vaccines today. In Europe and the US, every child is vaccinated against polio, for example, but in other parts of the world this is not the case and half of the children die from drinking water from polluted rivers. They are two very different worlds. My fear is that, in the future, Western societies will have genetically enriched citizens and human groups, which are now socially different, will become genetically different.

In other words, in the same society, most individuals will benefit from these advances.
-As now happens with in vitro fertilization, genetic techniques will be available to anyone in the West. Initially, the technology will be available only to those with a lot of money, but once society demands it, the cost will drop. In addition, in other countries, such as England, there are already reproductive techniques covered by the National Health System.

What are the benefits of genetic engineering?
-Today, there are people who will not contract AIDS, no matter how much they are exposed to HIV. They are genetically protected. In the future, although not near, genetic engineering will eradicate the genes responsible for cancer, heart disease and those due to aging. I think people will accept these techniques. I know that many do not agree with me, but I believe that it will be so.

What other types of genetic improvements can be made?
-Once the Genome Project is completed, it will be possible to discover with the “DNA chips” the genes that protect people against disease, and also those that give artistic talent or other abilities. There are no genes that make you a great musician or a mathematician, but they can give you the potential to be. Knowing these genes, parents will want to give them to their children.

Would it seem ethical to you?
-The technology that protects the child against disease is good. The bad thing is if some get that protection and others don’t. That is the looming political problem.

Can religious beliefs slow progress in this field?
-A 20% of Americans do not accept embryo manipulation or in vitro fertilization; but 80 percent do. This, with respect to protection against diseases. Improving other aspects of the child will be controversial.

What legal measures will be taken regarding these techniques?
-First, there will be laws to prevent harm from being done. Cloning, right now, is dangerous, so it must be forbidden. If gene technology ends up being used as protection against disease, it will be difficult to make it illegal. On the contrary, it would be interesting to make it reach the whole of society. But we still have a problem: the West does not care what happens in the Third World. For example, Europeans vaccinate their children against polio, but children still die of this pandemic in Thailand or in Africa. Westerners prevent a social division, but they do not care about other societies.

When the US Congress asked your opinion on cloning, what did you say?
-That today it is not ethical to clone human beings. It is still dangerous, since it causes a high percentage of birth defects. Cloning itself is not something that people worry about. In fact, most do not realize what it is.

What is it?
-Simply, obtain an embryo from one of your own non-reproductive cells. Cloning produces a child with all the genes from just one parent. Most people are not attracted to this. And, of course, it is different from genetic engineering.

Do you agree that it be used when it is safest?
-It shouldn’t be unethical. If someone wants to use it, let them use it, but now it is not. And yet, an Italian doctor -Serverino Antinori- and another American -Panos Zavos- are going to do it, even if it carries congenital defects. They will be very famous when they get a clone child and they will pay them a lot of money. It is an example of how the market leads to doing something that, in my opinion, is now unethical.

He illustrates his Genetics course at Princeton with films. What will the future look like the most?
-I like Artificial Intelligence, by Steven Spielberg. It raises a fascinating philosophical question: what does it mean to be human? It is about seeing if a computer being, with emotions and feelings, is or is not. It is a key question, because how we treat other individuals will be determined by who we think they are. For example, while human beings have human rights, animals do not. And computers, of course, have no rights.

In debates about abortion or the use of embryonic stem cells, the problem is whether or not to consider the fetus as a human being. What is your opinion?
-There is a human being when the fetus can give rise to a mind. The brain emerges at the end of the embryonic phase, so, for me, during the first three months of pregnancy there is no human being. However, no one knows when the mind actually arises, which brings us to the embryo and stem cell debate. The human embryo is made up of a few cells in which there is no brain tissue. For me, that is not a human being, although the Catholic Church thinks so. Most people in the US accept that these embryos are used. Even Senator Orrin Hatch, who was opposed to abortion, changed his position when a relative of his developed Parkinson’s disease and learned that stem cell research could help him. When it comes to his family, almost everyone agrees.

And the soul?
-It is the individuality of consciousness, which is, in turn, a manifestation of the brain. Although it is not so simple, as the experiences of the Nobel laureate Roger Sperry show. This cut the human brain in half to cure epilepsy without realizing that this way the two parts of the brain are no longer communicating. It is like having two people in conflict inside your head. To avoid this, doctors chemically remove a part of the brain. The question is whether this is murder. In the US it is not, because we relate the human being with the body, not with the mind.

Will these technologies serve to make man happier?
-Not necessarily. There are rich and unhappy people and simple and very happy people. We cannot make people happier, but genetically, it will be possible to eliminate the disease

Jaime Lópe

This interview was published in January 2002, in number 248 of VERY Interesting.

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