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Evolution in Human Hands

The Implications of Biotechnology for Society. New Working Paper by the Research Group on the Global Future

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01.06.2000 · Research Group on the Global Future

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I. The molecular revolution

The advances in molecular biology confront mankind with a fundamental transformation of our conception of nature, the depth of which can only be compared with the birth of the modern natural sciences in the seventeenth century and the revolutions in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the centre of the molecular revolution is the recognition that all carbon-based life forms are based on a self-reproducing sequence of data, whose "programming language" is based on the same "letters" for all organisms.

The universality of the genetic code allows an abundance of recombination possibilities for organic life. If "this century was the century of physics and chemistry", as the American chemist and Nobel Prize winner Robert Curl pronounced four years ago, then "it’s just as clear that the next century will be the century of biology". In the space of just a few decades scientists have discovered how to decipher the code of life and make alterations feasible – through genetic technology. Even allowing for due caution in terms of estimates of the time frame for the thinkable and doable – consider the extraordinary degree of speculation regarding human cloning – it’s certain that the story of the molecular revolution will complete itself in this new century. The nature of this technological quantum leap can be reduced to four elements:

  • The ability to intervene in the raw material of inheritance is the heart of the molecular revolution. The applications of the future, whether in human medicine, agriculture or environmental technology, will be based on the reprogramming of genetic blueprints.
  • Genetic resources will become the raw material and capital of a new, globally active business area, whose diversification will be based on the phalanx of computer technology and genetic research, and which will nourish itself from the potential to process, patent and possess DNA as a company-owned asset.
  • Human beings will eventually become the object of their own creative will through the retooling of the genetic material. The natural history of humans will pass into a new age, where the design of life is possible.
  • The effects of this new ‘editability’ of humans will touch our lives in quite immediate, practical and concrete ways. They will force everybody to come to terms with this and arrive at their own position one way or another.

It is not necessary to call on any creation myths to realise that modern biotechnology touches on our own fundamental understanding of what constitutes life, death and being human. This is exactly what is new about this technology. On the other hand, what was true for previous technological advances is also true for this one: the questions and problems which are bound in with the new opportunities cannot be simply reduced to either/or solutions, or indeed to the black and white view of them in exaggerated emotional terms as blessing or curse, opportunity or peril. The advantages of the potential applications are great, just as their impact on society and individuals will be enormous. Thus the scientific-technical revolution becomes an ethical, political, economic, social and psychological challenge, which demands decisions: concerning values, goals and the way to get there.

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