March 1982 III/7


The first successful transfer of a gene from one animal species to another -- from rabbits to mice and then to their offspring -- has been achieved by biologists. As to applications, successful breeding of animals is forecast within ten years, with medical uses to follow (cf. Science, v.213, 25 Sept.1981, p.1488).

In recent years medical technology has moved from the mere capability of repairing the human body to new capabilities of remodeling the body by genetic reconstruction which would alter not only an individual but also his or her descendants. Some of these new capabilities are already practical, others still futuristic, but if we are to be prepared to introduce these capabilities in any ethical manner, we must consider the principles which should govern this form of activity.

The Ethical Issues

A basic axiom of medicine has always been the Greek dictum, Art perfects nature, which implies that a human person can be healed (or patched up) and developed to maturity, but cannot be essentially remade. Today, however, we must face the questions: Is it right for us to become our own creators? Can we and should we remake human nature? Can we hasten the processes of evolution by eliminating our troublesome wisdom teeth or our appendix by genetic engineering? Might we in the future greatly reduce the complexities of the digestive system by a more effective intravenous method? Might we sterilize all human beings and reproduce artificially? Might we also expand the human senses so as to make it possible for us to see or hear beyond the present or upper range of sight and vision. Might we influence embryological development by drugs so as to mold the development of the phenotype (the actual body) while not changing the genotype (inherited characteristics)? May we employ genetic engineering to produce any gene combination in the fertilized ovum that we desire, thus creating human beings by "recipe?"

The basic ethical issue is the question of the extent of our dominion over nature. This is a classical way of posing the issue. However, the response to this question by many people is frequently influenced by the Greek image of God as a jealous monarch who becomes angry when Prometheus infringes on his prerogatives. Thus they limit human creativity unnecessarily. Others would view attempts to improve on man as either an insult to the work of the creator whose masterpiece is man, or as a fatal temptation of pride, because it is a sign that man is trying to replace God.

Today, however, in considering radical human development, we need to stress two points: (1) God is a generous Creator who in creating us also called us, by the power of intelligence to share in his creative power. Consequently, God does not want the talents he has given us to lay fallow, but encourages us to improve on the universe He has made; (2) Such improvement is possible because we realize that God has made an evolutionary universe in which man has been created through an evolutionary process that is not yet complete. Thus God has called us to join with him in bringing the universe to its completion and in doing this He has not made man merely a workman to execute His orders, or to add trifling original touches to his own, but has made man a genuine co-worker and encourages him to exercise real originality.

Some Limits to Creativity

Granted this view however, it does not follow logically that remaking man's body on new lines is really the appropriate place for man's creativity. We have enough to do remodeling our environment and creating human culture. Moreover, we must realize that our efforts at planning and creating, whether we are planning cities, economies, or human relations, are never very successful. No doubt with greater knowledge we may be able to tidy up some of the business of evolution by removing such vestiges as our wisdom teeth or appendix if indeed (which is not really known for sure) this would be a real improvement. Someday we may also be able to eliminate genetic disease and even advance human health eugenically. However, we must remember that our human creativity depends upon our human brain. Any alteration of man that would injure the brain and hence his very creativity would indeed be a disastrous mutilation, especially if this were to be transmitted genetically, thus further polluting the gene pool with defects which might be hidden and incalculable.

Generally speaking, our knowledge of this wonderful brain is still in its beginnings. The complexity of the brain is beyond any other system which we can imagine, and this complexity is reduced to a relatively very small organ capable of self-development from the embryo and of self-maintenance, but not of self-restoration. Our brain may be near the limit of complexity and integration possible in an organic, living system. In this case any radical improvement may be illusory, while even slight alterations may be very damaging, Thus, to say the least, radical attempts to alter the structure of the human brain must be viewed with the utmost caution, since the risk is very high that we will only produce persons of lowered intelligence.

This is certainly not so true of other organ systems, and it is possible to imagine that someday in other environments it might become necessary, for example, to replace the human lungs with other ways of obtaining oxygen. In principle it would seem that such changes would be ethical (1) if they gave support to human intelligence by helping the life of the brain and (2) if they did not suppress any of the fundamental human functions that integrate the human personality. Thus alterations that would make it impossible for a human being to directly sense the external world at least as effectively as we do no with our "five senses" would be contrary to well-being of persons and the human community. So would alterations which would make it impossible for human beings to experience the basic emotions since emotional life is closely related to human intelligence and creativity, Again, alterations which would make human beings sexless and incapable of parenthood would also be anti-human.


We can draw the following conclusions:

1. Genetic engineering and less radical transformations of the present normal human body would be permissible if they improve rather than mutilate the basic human functions, especially as they relate to supporting human intelligence and creativity. Transformation would be forbidden, however, (a) if human intelligence and creativity are endangered and (b) if the fundamental functions which constitute human integrity are suppressed,

2. Experimental efforts of this radical type must be undertaken with great caution and only on the basis of existing knowledge, not with high risks to the subjects or to the gene pool.

Kevin O'Rourke OP

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.