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Genetic Engineering: Quo Vadis?
Jan 1, 1994

It was only after Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park had become the most watched movie of all time that we have started to consider how genetic engineering is moving from science fiction to science-fact. Spielberg’s film is Michael Crichton’s adaptation of his own novel and it concerns cloned dinosaurs running wild in a theme park. First the movie and then the novel attracted staggering media attention and the film has been variously described as ‘a movie in love with technology’ and ‘about all the complexities of fabricating entertainment in the microchip age’.

The movie might be a fad, or a nine days’ wonder, simply another Spielberg special, like Jaws or E.T. However, this time the messages that the movie addresses have far-reaching consequences for mankind.

Thanks to Jurassic Park, our attention has been drawn to the recent achievements made in molecular biology and we have the opportunity to ponder how genetic engineering, in the hands of scientists who are apparently unrestrained by moral and ethical values, could threaten the ecological equilibrium of the planet and our very survival.

Let us consider the scientific advantages and ethical disadvantages of the advance of genetic engineering, by taking a look at the various applications of this knowledge in the modern world.

In Jurassic Park, John Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough, inspired by motives of forwarding the causes of science and making a profit, undertakes a scheme to clone living copies of dinosaurs from DNA extracted from fossilised, blood-sucking insects, preserved in amber. The origin of this idea was first proposed by George Poinar and his team at California University, Berkeley. In the last twenty years there have been many scientists working on the extraction of DNA from fossilized remains and the notion of obtaining dinosaur DNA in this way became feasible. Ironically, on the eve of the release of Jurassic Park, Poinar announced that his group had, in fact, extracted the first samples of genetic material from the age of the dinosaur. Using liquid nitrogen to crack open a sample of amber, DNA had been obtained from a weevil trapped 120 million years ago. Using gene-amplifying techniques, scientists are now able to make billions of copies of any piece of DNA.

I would like to draw your attention to two aspects of these scientific endeavors; firstly to the religious dimension and secondly to the wider ethical considerations of genetic engineering.

We must first ponder the notion that if it is possible for mortal human beings to produce synthetic RNA, one of the master-molecules in the nuclei of all cells, or to reproduce extinct animals by the retrieval of their DNA, surely it is possible for God, the All-Mighty, to recreate us from our bones on the Day of the Resurrection.

There are, of course, more secular ethical considerations in the application of genetic engineering. Today, scientists are experimenting with gene sequences and seem to have the ability to switch particular genetic codes on and off. By this means, science is on the brink of producing hybrid organisms in vitro. One recent experiment reported in The Economist (18th September 1993: pp.119-20) described how scientists were able to change the function of developing organs in four-hour-old fly embryos. One claim made recently is that the difference between man and chimpanzees is a few critical genes affecting intelligence. Are we to allow scientists, once these genes have been isolated, to create a hybrid intelligence? Are we ready to have these hybrid creatures living in our midst?

Will the Beast (Dabbah) mentioned in the Qur’an (al Naml, 27.82) be the result of such unrestrained scientific enquiry? What are the moral, ethical and religious implications of these advances?

When recent experiments on human cloning were publicized people seemed to worry, and worry deeply, about the horrific implications of duplicating a human embryo. This experiment is not the Jurassic Park-type cloning many might imagine. The worrying thing is that such technology really could pave the road to embryo factories to selling foetuses, freezing cloned foetuses for ‘spare organs’ that might be needed, or to be giving birth to genetically the same child at intervals, even to ‘maturing’ a twin cloned and stored for later use. According to Time’s survey 63% of people asked said human cloning is against God’s will; 90% of women stated that they would not be interested in cloning an embryo: a 58% said it is morally wrong (Time, 8 November 1993, pp.63-8).

In Jurassic Park, chaos theoretician Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, insists that what God has put asunder, no man should join together. Man should not interfere with the order of nature ordained by God and Malcolm says: ‘God created dinosaurs, God destroyed dinosaurs. God created Man, Man created dinosaurs’. Viewed in this perspective, can we foresee the consequences of interfering with this divine order, created by Allah in perfect balance? (al-Rahman, 55.8).

Today, genetic engineering is becoming a commercial enterprise in the hands of avaricious entrepreneurs and ethical considerations are being subverted by the desire for profit. The same technology is also being investigated to make tailor-made human organs, for transplantation into human patients. The specificity of these engineered organs would, in principle, avoid problems of rejection, as well as the practical and moral problems associated with human donors. This sounds good, but are we allowing ourselves, unhampered by moral considerations, to pave the way to a greater calamity?

Great advances have also been made in the field of agricultural genetics, with scientists trying to find answers to the problems of feeding a spiralling world population and of growing crops and raising cattle on poor soil or in adverse weather conditions. The Malthusian nightmare of populations being decimated by starvation has, to some extent, been averted in this century, although most of the benefits of these advances have been felt in the West where intensive farming of hardy crops and animal breeds have produced huge surpluses of food. For example, bovine growth hormone can be injected into dairy herds to give higher milk-yields and hybridization of crops has been used to produce strains which will grow in areas thought to have been useless for large-scale farming.

Genetic engineering in the field of producing vigorous or hardy varieties and breeds has signalled a new departure. Instead of the long, hit and miss processes of traditional hybridization, scientists are now able to isolate and transfer genetic material to improve the vigor of an organism or to increase its resistance to disease, insect damage or weed killers. Plants have been produced which fix their own nitrogen, as do natural legumes, and strains of bamboo have been reproduced which grow faster than the ‘natural’ varieties. All of this progress seems to suggest that yet another watershed has been reached in the realms of technology and productivity, which might offer benefits to all of mankind.

There is, however, another side to this coin. For example, hogs which have been treated with growth hormone are subject to gastric ulcers, arthritis, dermatitis and other diseases, making their already shortened lives a pain-ridden misery, and producing animals possibly unfit for human consumption. In Arable farming too, the production of herbicide-resistant crops encourages the indiscriminate spraying of chemicals on the land, increasing pollution of land and waterways. The agro-chemical companies are simply creating a ‘treadmill’ whereby new formulas are constantly needed to combat the new mutants of resistant pests.

Another environmental concern is that biotech agriculture will encourage the evasion of fundamental ecological reforms. If crop species can he easily bred to thrive in inhospitable conditions, farmers may fail to see the need to prevent environmental damage and simply wait for the scientists to engineer new crops or beasts to suit the new conditions. Would fish, genetically modified to flourish in acidified lakes, undercut the determination to clean up the air and water? Perhaps scientists should be concentrating more on the fundamental problems of the environment, rather than inventing palliatives to deal with the ravages of mankind. Surely it is better, for example, to find ways of conserving the rain forests than to invent ways of recreating their extinct flora and fauna?

Because of the limitless possibilities offered by the application of gene technology, DNA has become a corporate resource which can be patented and owned, designed in the laboratory and used to replace raw materials. This tendency may lead to the monopolization of genetic resources, placing control in the hands of multi-national giants whose main motive is profit, rather than with the people who need to use the technology to live.

Biotechnology will introduce a new era, greatly changing the way we live and the structure of our national economies. Food production in the laboratory will mean that traditional farming jobs will disappear–the EEC have already issued directives setting strict quotas for this type of production (EC Commission Directives 90/219 and 90/220). Consumers will also be directly affected and there is already a growing ‘grass-roots’ opposition to genetically engineered plants and animals. In the United States, for example, there have been moves to boycott such products and some restaurants have refused to serve genetically engineered foodstuffs. On 3rd October, l993, legislation came into force in Chicago obliging all food outlets to label genetically engineered food.

Studies in genetics are not confined to medicine and food production. In 1986, Professor Alec Jeffreys, of Leicester University in England, discovered that DNA is as individual as a finger-print and his research led to the genetic finger-printing techniques now established in forensic science. Samples of DNA taken from body fluids or tissues can provide an unmistakable ‘identity card’ and so assist in the conviction of offenders, particularly in cases of physical violence or sexual assault. DNA recovered from the victims of such crimes is now regarded by the British judicial system as highly reliable evidence and its use in the conviction of suspects is spreading, very rapidly, worldwide.

Even this seemingly overpoweringly beneficial use of genetic science has its dark side. The possibility of creating global genetic databases, with genetic information on all known criminals would appear to be an ideal solution in these times of escalating crime. However, there are issues of civil liberty to be tackled, and there is public resistance to such information being collated, using much the same arguments as have been used to resist the issuing of identity cards. There is also the problem of information held on these databases finding its way into the wrong hands. Again, mankind is faced with moral and ethical questions concerning the use and the abuse of technology.

Further Reading 

  • BBC2 SERIES Cracking The Code: The Mouse That Laid The Golden Egg.
  • HURREL, M. (1992) ‘Criminals Could Go On To World Blacklist’, The Times, 8 May, p.26.
  • KENNEDY, P. (1993) Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, Harper-Collins Publishers, London, pp.65-8l.
  • NASH, J. M. (1993) ‘How Did Life Begin?’, Time, 11 October, pp.53-9.
  • RICHARD, M. et al. (1993) ‘Archaeology and Genetics: analyzing DNA from skeletal remains’. 25 (1) World Archaeology, pp.18-28
  • TEICHMAN, D. L. (1993) Regulation of Recombinant DNA Research: a comparative study, 6 (1) Loyola Los Angeles International & Comparative Law, pp. l-35.
  • TRUX, J. (1993) ‘A Case of Unmistakable Identity’, Observer, 13 August.
  • WALKER, J. (1990) ‘DNA Profiling and Police Powers’, Criminal Law Review, pp. 479-93.
  • TIME, (November 1993) ‘Cloning: Where Do We Draw The Line?’, pp.63-8.