issue 215 - January 1991
Monsters of the
brave new world
Genetic engineers are creating new animals. Should this
concern us? Carol Grunewald investigates.
It's probably no accident that some of the most fearsome monsters invented by the human mind have been composed of body parts of various animal - including human - species.
Ancient and mediaeval mythology teem with 'transgenic' creatures who have served through the ages as powerful symbols and movers of the human subconscious. In Greek mythology the Chimera - a hideous fire-breathing she-monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and a dragon's tail - was darkness incamate and a symbol of the underworld.
At the beginning of the industrial or technological age, the collective consciousness conjured monsters from a new but related fear - the consequences of human interference with nature. Fears of science and technology gone out of control created the stories of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dr Frankenstein.
The contemporary monster is apt to be a real human being, but an amoral, sociopathic one - a Mengele or an Eichmann who imposes his evil will not in the heat of passion, but in cold detachment.
Our nightmares, our mythologies, our movies, our real-life monsters reveal many of our deepest human fears: of the unknown, of the unnatural, of science gone beserk and of the dark side of the human psyche. With such an intense subliminal heritage, no wonder many people are instinctively wary of the new and revolutionary science of genetic engineering - a science born just 15 years ago but which is already creating its own monsters. They have good reason to be afraid.
The goal of genetic engineering is to break the code of life and to re-form and 'improve' the biological world according to human specifications. It is the science of manipulating genes either within or between organisms. Genes are the fundamental and functional units of heredity; they are what make each of us similar to our species but individually different.
There are two astonishing aspects to this new science. For the first time, humankind has the capacity to effect changes in the genetic code of individual organisms which will be passed down to future generations.
Equally startling, humankind now has the ability to join not only various animal species that could never mate in nature but also to cross the fundamental biological barriers between plants and animals that have always existed.
Experiments have already produced a few animal monstrosities. 'Geeps', part goat, part sheep, have been engineered through the process of cell-fusion - mixing cells of goat and sheep embryos. A pig has been produced whose genetic structure was altered by the insertion of a human gene responsible for producing a growth hormone. The unfortunate animal (nicknamed 'super-pig') is so riddled with arthritis she can barely stand, is nearly blind, and prone to developing ulcers and pneumonia. No doubt researchers will create many such debilitated and pain-racked animals until they get it right.
Meanwhile, the world's knowledge of genetic engineering is growing apace. Much of what is now only theoretically possible will almost certainly be realized. With the world's genetic pool at a scientist's disposal, the possibilities are endless. It's just a matter of time.
But two historic events spurred the growth in what is now referred to as the 'biotech industry'. In 1980 the US Supreme Court ruled, in a highly controversial 5-4 vote, that 'man-made' micro-organisms can be patented. Then in April 1987, without any public debate, the US Patent Officer suddenly announced that all forms of life - including animals but excluding human beings - may be considered 'human inventions'. These could qualify as 'patentable subject matter', provided they had been genetically engineered with characteristics not attainable through classical breeding techniques.
The economic incentives were impossible for researchers and corporations to resist. The genetic engineering of animals was a biological gold mine waiting to be exploited. In hope of getting rich off the inventions's scientists have so far 'created' thousands of animals nature could never have made. Now more than 90 patents are pending for transgenic animals, and some 7,000 are pending for genetically engineered plant and animal micro-organisms.
Until now animal rights activists have been the foremost opponents of genetic engineering. The reason: animals are already the worse for it. Because they are powerless, animals have always suffered at the hands of humankind. When a new technology comes along, new ways are devised to exploit them. But genetic engineering represents the most extreme and blatant form of animal exploitation yet.
Genetic engineers do not see animals as they are: inherently valuable, sentient creatures with sensibilities very similar to ours and lives of their own to live. To them, animals are mere biological resources, bits of genetic code that can be manipulated at will and 'improved' to serve human purposes. They can then be patented like a new toaster or tennis ball.
In a recent article, the US Department of Agriculture crows that ' ... the face of animal production in the twenty-first century could be ... broilers blooming to market size 40 per cent quicker, miniature hens cranking out eggs in double time, a computer 'cookbook' of recipes for custom-designed creatures.
The trade journal of the American beef industry boasts that in the year 2014 farmers will be able to order 'from a Sears-type Catalog, specific breeds or mixtures of breeds of (genetically engineered) cattle identified by a model number and name. Just like the 2014's new model pick-up truck, new model animals can be ordered for specific purposes.
A university scientist says, 'I believe it's completely feasible to specifically design an animal for a hamburger'.
A Canadian researcher speaking at a farmers' convention eagerly tells the group that 'at the Animal Research Institute we are trying to breed animals without legs and chickens without feathers'.
Huge profits are to be made from new cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals whose genetic scripts will be written and 'improved' to grow faster and leaner on less food and on new foods such as sawdust, cardboard and industrial and human waste.
Researchers have been straining at the bit to design and patent new animal 'models' of human disease - living, breathing 'tools' who will be experimented to death in the laboratory. Scientists have also created 'medicine factories' out of mice by implanting in them human genes for producing human enzymes, proteins and drugs that can be harvested. Cows, sheep and other milk-producing animals have been targeted for further experimentation in this area.
Animals already suffer abominably in intensive-confinement factory farms and laboratories. Genetic manipulations will result in further subjugation of animals and increase and intensify their stress, pain and mental suffering.
But genetic engineering also imposes risks on wildlife and the environment. Many questions need to be asked. For example, what will happen when genetically-altered animals and plants are released into the environment? Once they're out there we can't get them back. What if they run amok? Carp and salmon are currently engineered to grow twice as large as they do in nature. But will they also consume twice as much food? Will they upset the ecological balance and drive other animal or plant species to extinction?
Indeed, the genetic engineering of animals will almost certainly endanger species and reduce biological diversity. Once researchers develop what is considered to be the 'perfect carp ' or 'perfect chicken' these will be the ones that are reproduced in large numbers. All other 'less desirable' species would fall by the wayside and decrease in number. The 'perfect' animals might even be cloned - reproduced as exact copies - reducing even further the pool of available genes on the planet.
Such fundamental human control over all nature would force us to view it differently. Which leads us to the most important examination of all: our values.
'We need to ask ourselves what are the long term consequences for civilization of reducing all of life to engineering values.' These are the words of Foundation on Economic Trends President Jeremy Rifkin, the leading opponent of genetic engineering in the US. Rifkin warns that the effects of new technologies are pervasive. They reach far beyond the physical, deep into the human psyche and affect the well-being of all life on earth.
In the brave new world of genetic engineering will life be precious? If we could create living beings at will - and even replace a being with an exact clone if it died - would life be valued? The patenting of new forms of life has already destroyed the distinction between living things and inanimate objects. Will nature be just another form of private property?
The intermingling of genes from various species, including the human species, will challenge our view of what it means to be human. If we inject human genes into animals, for example, will they become part human? If animal genes are injected into humans will we become more animal? Will the distinctions be lost? And if so, what will the repercussions be for all life?
And will humans be able to create, patent, and thus own a being that is, by virtue of its genes, part human? In other words, how human would a creature have to be in order to be included in the system of rights and protections that are accorded to 'full humans' today?
We may already know the answer to that question. Chimpanzees share 99 per cent of our human genetic inheritance, yet nowhere in the world is there a law that prevents these nearly 100-percent human beings from being captured, placed in leg- irons, owned, locked in laboratory and zoo cages and dissected in experiments.
The blurring of the lines between humans and animals could have many interesting consequences. All of us (humans and animals) are really made of the same 'stuff' and our genes will be used interchangeably. Since we are already 'improving' animals to serve our needs, why not try and improve ourselves as well? With one small step, we could move from animal eugenics to human eugenics and, by means of genetic engineering, make the plans of the Nazis seem bumbling and inefficient.
Life as property
Finally, who will control life? Genetic technology is already shoring up the mega-multinational corporations and consolidating and centralizing agribusiness. Corporate giants like General Electric, Du Pont, Upjohn, Ciba-Geigy, Monsanto, and Dow Chemical have multi-billion dollar investments in genetic engineering technology. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are placing the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants in the hands of a technological elite. Our scientists, corporations and military are playing with, and may eventually own, our genes.
The arrogance and foolishness of humankind! With everything on the planet existing just to be used and exploited - with nothing existing without a 'reason and a 'use' - where is the joy of life? What is the reason for living? People and animals are inseparable; our fates are inextricably linked.
People are animals. What is good for animals is good for the environment is good for people. What is bad for them is bad for us.
The first line of resistance should be to scrap the patenting of animals. And the release of any genetically altered organisms into the environment should be prohibited.
Finally, we must remember that the mind that views animals as pieces of coded genetic information to be manipulated and exploited at will is the mind that would view human beings in a similar way. People who care about people should listen carefully to what Animals Rights activists and environmentalists have to say about obtaining justice for, and preserving the integrity of all life.
Carol Grunewald is an Animal Rights and environmental activist with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington DC. Formerly she was an editor with The Animal Rights Agenda, the magazine of the international Animal Rights movement, and a Times Mirror newspaper reporter.