Are We Headed Toward a Techno-Eugenic Future?

Dr. Stuart A. Newman, Ph.D., is professor of cell biology and anatomy. He has been a visiting professor at the Pasteur Institute, Paris, the Centre à l’Energie Atomique-Saclay, Gif-sur-Yvette, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, the University of Tokyo, and was a Fogarty Senior International Fellow at Monash University, Australia. He was a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Mass. and is a director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, Nixon, NV and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Biosciences (Bangalore). He also writes about social and cultural aspects of biological research and technology.

His areas of expertise are Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Vertebrate Limb Development, Physical Mechanisms of Morphogenesis, Evolution of Developmental Mechanisms, Protein Structure-Function Relationships, Social and Cultural Aspects of Biological Research and Technology.

Dr. Newman has written several articles and books on his research, including with the historian Tina Stevens Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial Bioscience (Routledge, 2019). He also wrote with the physicist Gabor Forgacs Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book Biotech Juggernaut, Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience co-authored with Tina Stevens, you draw attention to the excesses of biotechnology and its ramifications with the world of money. Is biotechnology really at the service of the Man or has it become uncontrollable and dangerous for the human species?

Dr. Stuart Newman: Like all powerful socially implicated tools and methods, biotechnology can bring improvements to people’s lives while simultaneously increasing the advantage of the rich over everyone else or causing unintended damage. To take a well-known example, industrialization of farming has made agricultural products cheaper and eliminated much (although not all) backbreaking labor. But agribusiness has also done away with millions of jobs and placed remaining workers in physical and social danger. It has all but ended the innovative engagement with the natural world by farmers which, beginning in preindustrial times, yielded crops that have been among the greatest products of civilization. Factory farming of animals, moreover, is inexcusably cruel.

More recently, the introduction of gene-based biotechnologies in agriculture has made many of these things even worse. Industry favors uniformity and predictability over variety and quirkiness. Genetic manipulation has led to monocultures suited to resisting chemical pesticides, mechanical harvesting machines, and long-distance transport, with flavor, texture, and other qualitative values becoming objects of nostalgia. Ecosystems such as rainforests have been devastated to make way for finicky gene-customized cash crops.

Patented seeds, pressures by insurance companies and business-friendly regulatory agencies to employ these proprietary resources exclusively, and efforts by lawyers to punish those who might seek to improve these crops (aka patent infringers), have effectively squeezed out alternative modes of cultivation, making more palatable products boutique items consumed only by elites.

Finally, the engineered matching of patented seeds to patented pesticides has led to pervasive, almost universal use of chemicals like glyphosate, or Roundup. This chemical is suspected, with increasing evidence, of drastically reducing populations of Monarch butterflies and honeybees and causing cancer and other illnesses.

How does this relate to human health and biology?

Application of gene-based biotechnologies to humans, the subject of Biotech Juggernaut, presents a very different set of positive and negative features compared with agricultural biotechnologies. While potentially manageable environmental, nutritional and social factors often lead to poor health in our contemporary world, some illnesses have perennially resulted from inherited (often genetic) factors, infectious disease, and unknown causes. It is a reasonable expectation that medicine will attempt to cure those who fall ill-using the best available technologies.

As with agricultural biotechnology, however, medical biotechnology has sometimes made things worse. Overuse of antibiotics, for example, has led to the evolution of resistant microbes and outbreaks of infectious disease that are difficult to control. Antibiotic use in relatively affluent parts of the world is also thought to have deranged the populations of bacteria resident in the human digestive system – the “microbiome” – and led to a whole range of diseases of industrial civilization, including obesity.

Aside from needed policy changes to put the brakes on this, we now have no choice but to use advanced biotechnologies to develop new disease control agents. This can involve use of artificial intelligence-aided chemical synthesis, or identification and modification of antibacterial viruses, to generate novel antimicrobials, strategies that are reversible and therefore relatively benign. But it can also take the form of dispatching hordes of genetically engineered insects or rodents to displace and eradicate offending (e.g., Lyme disease or malaria-causing) indigenous counterparts. It is more than ironic, and probably no accident, that such “gene-drive” technologies and their proposed applications have emerged from the laboratories of young American scientists whose entire lives have been spent in a triumphalist society at war with ethnically other foreigners.

After three decades of hyped promises, false starts (leading in some cases to deaths), and scientifically deceptive marketing campaigns, there are some indications that genetic technologies, including engineered antibodies, stem cells, and actual gene replacements, are capable of curing previously incurable diseases. There are particularly encouraging results with some forms of blindness and cancer. As products of the capitalist system, these treatments currently have exorbitant prices and are therefore unavailable to most prospective patients.

But this is a social, not a scientific or technological problem, and is potentially soluble, by improved technology or better social policies. As a reminder, when computerized artificial limbs were developed in the 1960s there were critics who decried the technology as a waste of resources because few people could ever afford the high-powered processors required. But technological advances eventually mooted this line of argument, and such prostheses are now commonplace. Similarly, there is little doubt that genetic technologies will contribute importantly (and inexpensively) to the medicine of the future.

Medicine has always benefited from scientific advances, but its subject has traditionally been the bodies of existing individuals. Genetic technology applied to the organs and tissues of persons’ bodies is called “somatic” modification. It is very difficult to get functional genes into developed tissues and organs, however, and much simpler to get them into pre-fertilized or fertilized eggs. Despite the fact that how exactly the new gene will function in its new context is poorly understood, the ease and deceptive accuracy of manipulation has led to an initiative by some scientists and their physician-allies for embryo gene modification. With current techniques such egg-stage changes will also be passed on to future generations, leading it to be termed “germline” modification.

But even if germline transmission could be prevented, the act of customizing a prospective person via embryo modification would be a major civilizational step, one that my co-author Tina Stevens and I, along with some other social thinkers and ethicists, feel strongly should not be undertaken. Prospective people are not any doctor’s patient, nor are they any future parent’s property to be made to order. Human modification would be uncontrolled experimentation in light of the fact that even the most precisely characterized gene sequences behave differently against different “genetic backgrounds” (i.e., all the other genes of the modified person).

It’s not simply (as the writer Walter Isaacson asks in a recent essay) “Should the Rich be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes?” but that the whole idea of perfecting humans based on nebulous genetic theories is misconceived. Sometimes it may work, or appear to work, but other times it will fail, producing people with impairments they would otherwise not have had. Sometimes it won’t even be clear what the effect was. Advocates will say that unmanipulated nature can also produce unsatisfactory outcomes. But introducing irreversible experimental errors in pursuit of human biological improvement would be an entirely novel and troubling development in human history.

You are a distinguished scientist and an experienced researcher. What is your opinion on the excesses of certain scientific laboratories and researchers?

Most scientists I know are well-motivated and serious. But the professional ethos of science is one of specialization, and few working scientists take the time to learn about the history of their fields or to think about the social implications of their research. If you learn that a gene is related to bad outcomes if damaged in humans, or in mice, the default impulse is to try to fix it, and it would be easier to do so in embryos than in children or adults.

But analysts who have studied the role of genes more broadly, in human populations or animal embryo development, have concluded that they don’t act straightforwardly. The living systems in which they function use them differently in different contexts, including in different tissues of the same organism, in the same tissues in different species (making mice, for example, from which much information is obtained, bad “models” for human biology), and even in the same tissues in different members of a single species (two different people, for instance). To imagine otherwise, a doctrine called “genetic determinism,” was fashionable after the major discoveries on the structure and function of DNA in the second half of the 20th century. Though increasingly disconfirmed, it still hangs on and informs proposals and expectations. But the interesting thing is that almost no one who is proposing to genetically modify human embryos is a developmental biologist, i.e., a scientist who studies how organisms take form. The advocates are mostly genetic engineers, investigators focused on how to accurately modify individual genes.

Another ideology that pervades biological discourse and policy proposals is eugenics, the idea of improving people via their genes. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is famously a eugenicist. Some ways of implementing eugenics are preventing procreation of or eliminating people with supposedly bad genes. Few scientists openly espouse such policies these days but many find little wrong with embryo gene engineering, “techno-eugenics” in the phrase of the social philosopher Richard Hayes, notwithstanding the fallibility of the technology.

Many biologists are funded by government grants, paid from public coffers, but few will question why a market-dominated political system would dispense money that allows them to pursue their pet ideas. While cures may be part of it, the overall commitment of the U.S. government to the national health (as reflected in clean water and environmental policies, for example) is on the wane. The funding rationale, then, is increasingly turning out to be patents and profits, for their institutions by way of venture capitalists or biotech companies. Most grant recipients feel lucky, and affirmed in the value of their ideas and research to society.

At the upper reaches of the scientific elite things are different. These investigators receive exceptionally large amounts of money not only from governmental agencies, but from corporations and private sources. Some are given forums in prestigious medical journals to recommend which altered genes enlightened parents should hope to equip their offspring with. They recurrently serve as the loudest voices in the room in official policy deliberations, their commercial connections proudly disclosed and thus judged noncompromising.

Many such scientists, cognitive and brain researchers as well as geneticists, at Harvard, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute, for example, benefited enormously from the financial largesse and social networking of the late sexual predator and eugenics advocate Jeffrey Epstein, often having been introduced to each other by a friend of Epstein’s who was also their literary agent. Some of the most prominent among them remained in frequent contact with Epstein, attending nearly all-male (with respect to the scientific principals) conclaves at his various residences, even after his crimes became generally known. There is no indication that participation in this gamer-boy cultural milieu will detract from the sway of these figures in guiding initiatives on the biological future of humanity.

You sounded the alarm in your recent article The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human by describing terrifying experiments aimed at creating chimeras that are part human, part animal. You mention the visionary writer H.G. Wells, and what was once science fiction is now a reality. In your opinion, what is the real purpose of these experiments? Do they have a clear objective?

My interest in embryo chimeras began in the 1980s, when several papers appeared showing that mixtures of cells from goat and sheep embryos could generate viable, healthy animals, which were intermediate between the two types of animals. Chimeras are different from hybrids, which are obtained by crossbreeding, in that their cells arise during development with one or the other species identity: each cell of the goat-sheep chimera (a “geep”) is either goat or sheep. Despite this, the geeps themselves were not of one or the other species, but a composite. Since sheep and goats diverged about 4 million years ago, and their separate evolution was accompanied by much genetic change, the chimera result challenged conventional ideas of the meaning of species boundaries and along with it, the centrality of gene differences in defining organismal identity.

In 1997 the social critic Jeremy Rifkin, who was interested in learning how far biotechnology could go without undermining commonly held values, asked me if I could propose a biological invention that was medically useful, technically feasible, but would be disturbing enough to demonstrate the need for limits. Human-nonhuman (e.g., ape, pig, mouse) chimeras fit the bill, and Jeremy, through his Foundation on Economic Trends funded my efforts to obtain a preemptive patent on them, to place these important questions before the public (but not to actually produce the mixed-species organisms).

The patent was denied after several cycles of review and response, primarily because the U.S. Patent and Technology Office deemed it “inappropriate subject matter.” They never questioned its utility, however, since it was clear that organisms that were part-human and part-animal would be enormously useful in scientific research as experimental subjects and sources of transplantable organs.

Twenty-two years later, some scientists have apparently overcome the qualms (and even the outrage, revulsion, and denial that responsible investigators would ever undertake generation of such chimeras) expressed at the time by the PTO as well as prominent scientists and other commentators. Working transnationally, investigators based in the U.S. but with affiliations and collaborations in Japan and China have managed to negotiate the ambiguous legalities of the technology to produce human-monkey and human-pig chimeras. So far, they have just been permitted to develop to embryonic or perhaps fetal stages, but the scientists have clearly stated their intentions to ultimately produce full-term, independently living chimeras.

As noted above, these part-human chimeric animals would be highly useful for scientific research and medical therapies. Since they are intended to be produced for instrumental purposes, and not as members of the human community, they do not raise the same kinds of ethical issues as the experimental genetic engineering of prospective children. Paradoxically, however, while the usefulness of this technology is only deliverable insofar as the chimeras can be treated as subhuman or less than human, its scientific and medical value increases in proportion to the degree that their biology approaches that of humans.

Aren’t these scientific experiments above all immoral? Hasn’t science been perverted?

Morality usually pertains to behaviors between and among existing individuals. But many people recognize that endowing people of the future, whom we will never know, with an environmentally wrecked planet, is profoundly immoral. In the cases we are discussing, we are dealing with experimental production of prospective persons, or organisms whose human personhood might be partial or ambiguous, and it seems to me that narrowly conceived, practically or commercially motivated decisions to take these irreversible civilizational steps are similarly immoral. With almost no deliberations other than on how efficiently these procedures can be performed, our generation will be bringing human procreation into the realm of industrial-like optimization through experimental gene manipulation of prospective persons. It will also be blurring the boundary between humans and nonhumans while coming as close to the human as socially acceptable (an inevitably sliding standard), by producing chimeras.

No media reports these serious facts that you reveal in your writings. Why do these experiments occur in a total opacity?

Stories on biotechnological “breakthroughs” appear all the time in the popular press but are rarely problematized or contextualized with regard to their social implications. “Values” are a different journalistic beat, left to writers on religion or philosophy. Technology reporters tend to be liberals, and for them and their publishers critiquing research on embryos is essentially taboo, coming uncomfortably close to abortion politics. The rare conservative writers on these technologies, who sometimes do bring in a more inclusive cultural perspective, are unabashed about rejection of abortion being the basis of their critiques, which has kept them out of the mainstream science-friendly discourse. The long-standing engagement by Marxist writers with science and technology seems to have largely steered clear of modern biology.

My view, and that of my co-author of Biotech Juggernaut, Tina Stevens, is that a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy is entirely distinct from a purported “right” of scientists and medical practitioners to use human embryos as experimental materials for producing genetically modified people or quasi-humans. Our position seems to cross too many ideological boundaries to qualify for general consideration by journalists, however.

In addition, genetic determinism is so ingrained among educated elites that the recent successes of CRISPR and related techniques to accurately alter genes has reinforced the idea that modifying embryos in a predictable fashion is just a matter of technical fine-tuning and overcoming hidebound traditions. For journalists to suggest otherwise would incur risks of losing their sources in the scientific and bioentrepreneurial communities. When I announced the filing of my chimera patent application in 1998 my rationale was described and the case followed through its review and response process until its  rejection (which I declined to contest) in 2005, in a series of articles in the Washington Post. My recent attempts, however, as a developmental biologist with a critical position, a history of engagement, and even a book on these issues, at placing op-eds on embryo modification and chimera production in that paper, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and even the Nation, have been unsuccessful. Whether due to fear of seeming anti-entrepreneurship, anti-science, or anti-the-genetic-soundness-of-future- generations, these journalistic venues appear to have boarded the biotech juggernaut.

In your powerful article Our Assembly-Line Future? You reveal the “advances” in genetic engineering in the United Kingdom that allow the manipulation of human embryos in order to favor particular genes. Don’t you think this is the gateway to eugenics? Isn’t all this a completely crazy process in a society that has lost all its reference points and ethical values?

This article described two developments in the U.K. that are indeed gateways to eugenics. The first was the approval early in 2018 of a technique to construct embryos using parts of the eggs of two different women, along with a man’s sperm, to create “three-person embryos.” This was motivated by the understandable desire by women to avoid passing genetically impaired mitochondria, the energy- extraction organelles of cells, to their children. These faulty mitochondria can lead to blindness and other disabilities. But while the technique involves the transfer of a woman’s egg cell nucleus, containing most of her genes, into the egg of another woman containing unimpaired mitochondria (which have just a fraction of a percent of the cell’s genes), it was deceptively promoted as “mitochondrial transfer.” This was a major propaganda victory of for the conductors of the biotech juggernaut during a deliberation process that lasted more than 5 years. The accurate description of the means of constructing these three-person embryos as “nuclear transfer” (similar to cloning) only came into significant use by journalists and science writers after the procedure became legal.

The second development was the approval-in-principle of embryo gene modification, including germline transmission, by the Nuffield Council, the U.K.’s semi-official bioethics agency. This eugenic procedure  has since been endorsed by other blue-ribbon international “summits” and, according to a growing mainstream view should be subject to advice dispensed by an international “observatory.” None of these bodies or planning groups has proscribed it, and the permissive consensus was taken as a go-ahead to genetically engineer twin girls by the scientist He Jiankui, working in China, based on a speculation on making them resistant to AIDS.

The remainder of the article dealt with the highly likely, though not publicly discussed, stem cell dimension of embryo engineering I learned about in a closed session of a policy workshop, attended by principals of the genetic engineering community, in 2017. The rationale is the following: CRISPR modification of established embryos is subject to error and “mosaicism,” alteration of some cells but not others. But it is now possible to produce stem cells from each of the intended parents that can be genetically engineered in bulk, with only those assessed to have been successfully modified retained. These can be induced to generate eggs and sperm, which then can be used to produce appropriately customized, non-mosaic embryos, in vitro. Remarking to the senior scientist who presented this scenario that its application of the quality control protocols of the factory to human reproduction sounded like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World elicited a noncommittal shrug.

When we read your writings, we become aware of what is being done in the field of genetics and biotechnology. You are a whistleblower in what is happening in science. Where do you think we’re going?  Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?

I wish I could find some countervailing impulse, but it seems to me that we are headed for a techno-eugenic future. Human-animal chimeras are already being produced; calibrating their acceptable degree of humanity will just be a matter of social mores. Right now, pigs with human brains are considered a step too far, and the supervising scientists promised to destroy any mixed-species animals that display evidence of human consciousness. However, when business models emerge involving, for example, post-surgical reconstruction, or cognitive enhancement, using tissues from such animals, this will almost certainly change.

Regarding embryo engineering with the intention of producing improved offspring, the technology is certainly not ready for general application. I cannot conceive of a biologist or a knowledgeable affluent person who would consent to have their prospective children tinkered with by these methods. For that reason, Walter Isaacson’s question in his article referred to above of whether the rich should be allowed to buy the best genes, is misleadingly premature. Any given gene, even it can be shown to be the “best” in a given context, is an infinitely replicable resource. The correct question is rather whether (and more realistically, how) the technology can be made suitable for the rich.

In his essay, Isaacson discusses the proposal by James Watson, the eugenicist Nobel laureate, to make genetic engineering “more equitable” (i.e., available to the poor) by diminishing patent protections on the technology. Isaacson takes this as a late-in-life expression of liberal generosity by Watson, but this seems naïve. Given Watson’s track record, we know what sector of society he believes is most in need of genetic cleansing, and who would be most suited to be the first-line experimental subjects before it is ready for prime time.

You are one of a few activists who denounce these misuses of science. In your opinion, what is the most effective way to counter these inhuman and unnatural experiments?

I would like to think that this can be accomplished somewhat by better education of scientists so that they are exposed to ideas about social determinants of science, technology and their uses throughout history.  But unfortunately, this is not just a problem of individual actors. Moreover, the public as a whole has more pressing current issues, the climate, and environment, militarism and war, poverty and inequality, to expect it to mobilize around such future-oriented threats, however important. I don’t believe that the prospect of bringing human procreation and the definition of biological human nature itself into the commodity system can ever be solved within capitalism, but neither can the other problems mentioned.

What is your analysis of the Trump Presidency? Do you not think it will be dangerous for the United States and the rest of the world if he gets re-elected?

The Trump administration is making almost everything worse, and it will certainly be a disaster all around if he is re-elected. But regarding embryo engineering, the conservatives in control of science and medicine policies represent a temporary respite due to their anti-abortion stance. As mentioned above, techno-eugenics is mainly a liberal project, and will probably accelerate if the Democrats come back into power. The Democrats in the House of Representatives were ready to end the U.S. ban on three-person embryo construction during the last budget work-up and were only derailed in the last days because of some technical contraindications that came to light. Undoubtedly their academic and corporate constituents are working hard to dispel these (valid) objections.

Interview by Mohsen Abdelmoumen first appeared in the American Herald Tribune.