In the midst of a banner year for biotechnology, scientists from Princeton University recently unveiled the latest genetic breakthrough. This supposed leap forward involved a genetic technique that significantly increases the brainpower of mice. Nicknamed "Doogie mice" -- after the boy genius of television fame -- the researchers proudly recounted how their tiny subjects performed much better on memory tests than their non-genetically-enhanced peers.
The news also raised the possibility that human beings could be the
next test subjects. And while this technique is amazing from a strictly
scientific point of view, it raises countless ethical questions when
applied, with perhaps the most important one being "why"? What is
the ultimate goal of this type of scientific research? Once developed, will this super race be cloned as leaders and, in the process, create a colony of worker bees from the rest of us?
The Princeton scientists accomplished their groundbreaking task by inserting extra copies of the gene NR2B, which directs production of a nerve protein that helps the brain recognize links between causes and effects. The research shows that giving mice extra copies of this gene helps them remember the location of certain objects more readily. For example, the research mice were placed in a tank of murky water containing a submerged platform. The altered mice found the platform more quickly than their test counterparts and remembered the platform's location for a longer time.
When applied to humans, the technique suggests that IQ scores could be higher. Thus, enhanced persons could perform tasks traditionally associated with intelligence at a higher level than non-enhanced persons could. But should this kind of tinkering be used on human beings?
If the issue is quality of life, this raises the question of what makes life
worth living. An elevated I.Q. is not necessarily a whole measure of
intelligence, and it's not clear that super intelligence is one of the basic
requirements for a fulfilled life. Solomon - long cited as an authority on
wisdom - concluded that intelligence alone wasn't enough to bring
satisfaction. In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, he said, "For in much
wisdom is much grief: and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."
Plato also understood that pursuing knowledge at the expense of other
virtues was the wrong path to take. In The Republic, he wrote, "Until political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day."
One only has to observe the events of the past few years to see this point vividly illustrated. Bill Clinton is cited as one of the most intelligent
presidents of this century: a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of one of the
nation's top law schools. Policy experts have been astounded at his ability to grasp complex issues. Clinton's mental acumen, however, was not enough to save him from a scandal that resulted in his impeachment. In his situation, it's clear that an ounce of integrity would have been worth ten pounds of the gene NR2B.
These philosophical problems, however, won't prevent scientists from tampering with human nature. Abstract ethical arguments get little traction where billions of dollars in potential sales are involved.
When a lab somewhere starts adding NR2B genes to human embryos, a new, more concrete set of issues will arise. These issues will concern both the genetically enhanced and their natural peers. For the enhanced, expectations will be enormous. Experts are already wondering what the psychological impact will be on children whose parents have invested to increase their offspring's brainpower - and are expecting a big return on their investment.
The non-enhanced can look forward to a world rife with genetic discrimination. It's not inconceivable that employers will eventually refuse to hire people who haven't been given a mental boost in the laboratory. It's possible that such discrimination could be covered under the disparate impact protections of certain civil rights laws. That possibility, however, will have to be litigated. And it seems certain that judges and lawmakers will be forced to reconsider our entire conception of civil liberties in America.
These questions and concerns are merely the tip of a gigantic iceberg that scientists are just now beginning to approach. And we should all hope that they heed the warning signals and turn their genetic ship before it's too late.