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Genetic enhancement – boon or boondoggle?


April 08, 2009

Some day, in the not-too-distant future, doctors may be able to reprogram a patient’s DNA so that he or she will never get cancer or Alzheimer’s disease – or, perhaps, find the “Holy Grail” of genetics research – eternal youth.

Genetic enhancement also could provide a “superior” class of people who are smarter, better looking and more athletic than their peers, creating what author and researcher Maxwell J. Mehlman, author of the book “Wondergenes,” calls “the genobility.”

But Mehlman cautions, “The point is that the same technological breakthroughs that make dramatic social benefits possible also threaten to undermine the foundations of our society.

“Ultimately, the social forces unleashed by these wondergenes could unravel the fabric of society itself, plunging the world into a new Dark Age of feudal tyranny and civil unrest.”

Mehlman, who is the Arthur E. Petersilge Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University and director of Case Western’s Law-Medicine Center, will address these issues during a free lecture at 7:30 p.m., April 20, in Armstrong Hall’s Great Hall on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

The lecture, which is part of the Templeton Research Lectures at ASU-- “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science, Technology, is funded by a grant from the Metanexus Institute and John Templeton Foundation and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. The lectures are co-sponsored by a broad array of ASU units, including the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs, the Institute for Humanities Research, the Biodesign Institute, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the departments of history, philosophy, physics, and religious studies, the Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies, and the program in Jewish Studies.

In his book, “Wondergenes: Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Society,” Mehlman discusses the difference between using gene manipulation to treat or cure diseases, and altering DNA for purposes of “enhancement,” such as raising a child’s IQ, helping them grow taller, or making them smarter.

He raises numerous questions, such as what happens if gene therapy proves, many years in the future, that it was harmful, not helpful? At what age should people be able to decide for themselves if they want an “enhancement”? How will society survive if some people are able to afford enhancements – which will be very expensive – and some will not? And what happens if we create creatures with characteristics and abilities that trescend the bounds of homo sapiens?

Mehlman’s April 20 lecture, “Directed Evolution: Human Enhancement and Public Policy,” will propose solutions to these and other questions.
For more information on the lecture, see transhumanism.asu.edu or contact Carolyn Forbes at (480) 965-1096, or carolyn.forbes@asu.edu.