SOCIAL & LEGAL ISSUES
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. human cloning / 2. genetics & free will / 3. human gene patents / 4. human races
Scroll down to a numbered question and click on it to find its answer.
1. Will human cloning become routine one day? If something can be done, isn’t it inevitable that it will be done, eventually? – Answer: Not necessarily. Where there’s a will, there’s often a way; but just because there’s a way doesn’t mean there’s always a will to do it. There’s little incentive for cloning whole human beings (unlike, for example, the incentive for in vitro fertilization, where there’s clearly a market for the procedure).
What might theoretically be accomplished by human cloning?
(A) Making an army of robots that would unquestioningly obey orders, or a football team with players all of whom are equally talented? The present system works fairly well without cloning technology. Besides, in any organization there are advantages to having different personalities and talents: leaders and followers at different levels, technicians and on-the-ground soldiers, pilots and navigators, quarterbacks and fullbacks and wide receivers and placekickers.
(B) Having a genetically identical clone available for safe tissue- or organ-transplants? There are easier ways to accomplish this, without cloning a whole human being. We are not far from being able to use our own adult stem cells as a source for almost any tissue desired, and methods for transplanting whole complex organs such as kidneys from imperfectly matched donors are improving all the time. And there are moral objections to making a whole human being just for the purpose of having a source of parts.
(C) Replacing a child lost to disease or accident, with another child exactly the same? This is not a good idea, for two reasons. (1) A child made by taking a cells from a dying child and using cloning technology to make another genetically identical child would not really give the same child back again. The lost child cannot be replaced with an identical one. What makes a person is not genes alone; look at the differences between identical twins (a “natural clone”), who are never exactly alike in temperament and personality. (2) Every person deserves a life for the sake of herself or himself, not just as a replacement for someone else.
Another argument against deliberate human cloning is that, for the foreseeable future, cloning technology will be fraught with failures, with many defective embryos being produced and having to be discarded in the process. (Of the 21 successful pregnancies in the experiments that produced Dolly the sheep, only 8 live lambs were born.)
2. If genes determine who we are, is there room for free will? – Answer: The answer depends on what you mean by “determine” and by “free will.” There are deep divisions among thinkers on this subject.
“Genetic determinism” proposes that our genes completely determine who we are and what we do. Nobody believes that, even though genes do have an influence on our temperament, our personality, and our decisions. For example, “identical twins” are in fact not identical in personality, behavior, thought processes, and preferences, so genes can’t be completely determining those things. Other factors have equally strong effects: details of family circumstances, degree of wealth or poverty, education, interactions with parents, peers, friends and enemies, individual experiences of diseases and accidents, and so on. If these other factors completely determine who we are and what we do, that is “environmental determinism,” and nobody believes in that either.
If genetic and environmental factors together completely determine our thoughts and behavior, that is “strict determinism” pure and simple. Here is the debate: when you take into account all genetic influences and all environmental influences (from the womb up to the present moment), is there anything more? Some say no (there is no such thing as free will, which is an illusion), others say yes (free will does exist; we use it every day in all kinds of decisions).
From studies of similarities and differences between twins, and between children adopted into the same or different families, it has been estimated that maybe at least 90% of the differences between people (their mental processes, emotions, and personality traits) can be explained by genetic differences combined with differences in childhood environments and experiences. That doesn’t leave much room for free will in those areas. There remains the possibility of free will in the decisions of day-to-day life. In the greater maturity of adulthood, however, it is a common experience to look back at one’s childhood, adolescence, and early adult life, and see how many of what looked like free choices at the time were in fact determined by unconscious psychological factors, the social environment, and one’s pre-determined personality.
Recent neurobiological research suggests that many of our supposedly conscious choices are in fact prepared in advance of our being conscious of them. Brain mechanisms are operating unconsciously to evaluate the situation before acting. (Those brain mechanisms are set up by genes in the human embryo that forge the human brain in the first place.)
If free will consists of an ability to make choices independent of one’s basic nature and independent of prior experience and current circumstances, then we are probably don’t really have free will in the usual sense. We are just subtle and complicated machines. In the last analysis, the idea of “free will” may be an illusion, an illusion that is itself one of the brain’s functions. If free will is an illusion, it is a pleasant one, and an indispensible device for greasing the wheels of our lives and our social interactions.
But if one relaxes the definition of “free will” a bit, and defines it as a natural brain process unconstrained by any simple set of genetic or environmental factors, a process that allows us to evaluate both internal and external conditions, to make unconscious calculations, and to act accordingly, then to that extent we have free will. This is enough for daily living.
3. Should human genes be able to be patented? – Answer: There are reasonable arguments both for and against the patenting of human genes.
The basic idea behind granting patent rights is to permit inventors to reap the rewards of the invention for a time (usually 20 years), allowing them to recoup their expenses, continue their work, and keep on contributing to society.
Patents are given both for invented methods and for invented products. The invention must be genuinely new, not just a slight or obvious modification of something already in existence; and it must be immediately practical and useful, not just something that theoretically might be useful some day.
Naturally occurring organisms and normal products of nature – such as a newly discovered species of plant or animal, or the sap from a maple tree – cannot be patented. But organisms that have been made by cross-breeding or genetic engineering – such as a hybrid rose or orchid, a genetically modified bacterium that digests oil spills, or a specific mixture of natural products that in just the right proportions gives medical benefits – can be patented.
It has been argued that isolated human genes should not be patented because (1) they are normal products of nature; (2) there is nothing new or inventive, these days, in the methods used in isolating a gene; (3) their use in genetic testing is an obvious extension of normal practice in medical genetics, so that there is nothing “genuinely new” about them; and (4) granting a patent for a gene subverts the idea of patenting as a means for helping society advance, because the required payment of royalties and licensing fees stifles further research on the gene by other scientists.
The arguments that human genes should be patentable are the following. (1) The gene as isolated does not occur in nature: it is separated from the DNA sequences adjacent to it in human cells, and it often has some DNA sequences removed from it and/or added to it, making it even more different from its natural state; (2) it often has attached to it artificially synthesized DNA segments that make it easier to copy in a test tube and to transfer into another cell, so it is “a new composition of matter,” and therefore patentable; (3) the isolated gene often requires special DNA modifications and special methods before it can be used in genetic testing or in gene therapy, and in those cases is not “an obvious extension of pre-existing methods and compounds”; and (4) royalties and licensing fees paid by users to the “inventor” of an isolated gene can be used to help advance the inventor’s further research on the gene, and after a patent is granted, public disclosure (required by law) allows other researchers to find new uses for the gene; besides, the patent can include a provision that exempts research uses (as opposed to commercial uses) from licensing and royalty requirements.
All these points have been disputed in courts, depending on the details of a given patent application.
Some people worry about the following slippery slope: first, we allow individual genes to be patented; then combinations of genes; then whole new cells; then combinations of cells; then whole new organisms; and eventually we will allow people to be patented.
Genetically modified cells and organisms – either by selective breeding, or by modern methods of genetic engineering – have in fact been afforded patent protection for decades. They are “new compositions of matter” and “human inventions resulting from human ingenuity and research.” However, at least in the U.S., people cannot be patented. In 2011 the “Leahy-Smith America Invents Act” was made federal law. It says, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no patent may issue on a claim directed to or encompassing a human organism” – including human embryos and human fetuses.
4. Are human races just socially constructed? – Answer: “No” and “Yes.”
The “NO” answer: Human races are genetically real, not just socially constructed. Virtually every species that is widespread is composed of populations that differ genetically, to a greater or lesser degree, from one geographic location to another. This is as true of humans as it is of countless numbers of plant and animal species that have been surveyed. The genetic differences are almost always a reflection of evolutionary adaptation to environmental differences from place to place. In the human species, some people have a lactose-tolerance gene where cows were domesticated thousands of years ago (northern and central Europe); some people have genes for dealing with polyunsaturated fats where historically there have been diets high in marine mammals and fish (Greenland and the coast of West Africa); some people have genes allowing them to live where oxygen levels are low (Tibet, the high Andes,); some people have genes that lighten the skin after their prehistoric ancestors migrated northward out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago and needed more sunlight for their skin cells to synthesize adequate amounts of vitamin D (Europe and Asia). Other examples can be found in the article by S. Fan, M.E. Hansen, Y. Lo, & S.A. Tishkoff, “Going global by adapting local: a review of recent human adaptation.” Science, vol. 354, pp. 54-59 (Oct 7, 2016) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5154245/). However, there is no correlation between such “adaptive genes” in a population and other genes affecting other traits, such as personality type and intelligence. Such genetic differences as there are between populations are real, but the boundaries between them are never sharp, and they have become even more blurred with modern travel, intermarriage, and wars of conquest.
Although the concept of “race” is only loosely defined genetically, biologists still find it useful in describing differences among populations of plants and animals. Different human populations differ in the same general way, but biologists tend to refrain from using the word “races” for them because the term plays into people’s prejudices.
The “YES” answer: Human beings tend to construct social meanings around group differences. Such social constructs have little or nothing to do with biological differences that may or may not exist between the groups. Here are a few examples. In 1813 Christoph Meiners wrote that there are two main races of human beings: “beautiful” (intelligent, virtuous, and white-skinned), and “ugly” (intellectually inferior, full of vices, and dark-skinned). (Guess which race Meiners himself happened to belong to.) In recent times, British police classified people into 6 races: White, Mediterranean, African, Indian/Pakistani, Asian, and Arab. In Brazil the basic categories of people are White, Black, Yellow, Brown, and Native. The most recent U.S. Census has more than 20 categories, including White, Black, Amerindian, Korean, Eskimo, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese, Chicano, Cuban, and others. These classification schemes are obviously constructed primarily for social purposes. Note also that “racial” conflicts occur between people that by any objective measure would be considered members of the same race: Palestinians vs. Israelis, English vs. Irish, Pakistanis vs. Indians, Shia vs. Sunni in the Middle East, Hutu vs. Tutsi in Rwanda, North vs. South in the American Civil War, etc., etc. It seems that basic human nature includes loyalty to one’s own group, along with antipathy toward and mistrust of other groups, whose members are excluded by virtue of their religion, language, politics, cultural practices, skin color – whatever differences are most obvious. This tendency is in perpetual tension with the other innate human traits of cooperation, altruism, and recognition of a common humanity.