Think tanks wrap-up V

April 2, 2003 at 5:43 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 2 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the fifth of eight wrap-ups for April 2.

The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Is freedom just another word for random genes? No. Genetic engineering offers greater human freedom, not less.

by Ronald Bailey

Do we want science to re-design human aging?" was the official topic debated last week by the ideological environmentalist Bill McKibben (author of the upcoming "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age") and UCLA bioethicist Gregory Stock (author of "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future") at the SAGE Crossroads series in Washington.

The debates are sponsored by the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. McKibben was in favor of disease and death and Stock was a proponent of extending healthy human life spans. But let's set aside that larger topic for the moment to consider another important issue raised during the debate: designer babies and human freedom.

McKibben believes that the random lottery of genes is central to human freedom, and that using genetic science to overcome the sometimes less-than-desirable effects of that lottery is dangerous and immoral.

"Down that path lies the death of what we call human meaning, the idea that people are in some way their own human beings and are not pre-programmed semi-robots," he declared.

To forestall this future filled with semi-robots, McKibben would not only outlaw not-yet-existing techniques to intervene in human germlines, but would also ban currently available procedures such as sex selection and pre-implantation screening of embryos for non-disease traits. He is far from alone among policy intellectuals in making this argument.

McKibben is asserting that when we don't know exactly what genes we have, we have greater scope for freedom than if our genes had been chosen for us and we knew what they were. Human freedom, McKibben believes, depends in some profound sense on the random inheritance of the genes that are the recipes for our bodies and brains.

During the question and answer period at the debate, I pointed out to McKibben that if he really believed that human freedom depended on inheriting a random selection of genes, his cause was already lost. In another 10 years or so, genetic testing will enable every one of us to know precisely our entire complement of randomly acquired genes. The good news is that we will then know our predisposition to various diseases, enabling us to take steps to delay their onset or even prevent them altogether.

McKibben, though, will not be pleased, even if the rest of us are. To McKibben, it is a blow to our freedom that we will also know a lot more about how our particular sets of genes influence our temperaments, our intelligence, our ability to form memories and our physical capacities -- even though that knowledge may well make it possible for us to intervene by means of pharmaceuticals to change our temperaments, improve our memories, or strengthen our bodies.

McKibben's fears that adding an element of choice to our genes reduces our freedom are misplaced; to the extent that genes "program" us, we are already "pre-programmed" by our randomly conferred genes. And we are ignorant about which ones are doing what programming. That won't be the case in the future.

Greg Stock, after the debate, offered McKibben this thought experiment: suppose his parents sit him down tomorrow and say, "Son, we have something to tell you. We selected you from among 10 different embryos after genetic testing and decided we wanted a boy who would probably be over six feet tall and you were the one that had the qualities we were looking for."

Would that make McKibben's life meaningless? McKibben said that yes, it would have made his life less meaningful. He would feel like more product than gift.

This "product versus gift" notion is bandied about by other opponents of human genetic engineering. What does it mean? Consider the case of children born now via in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

Are they less "gifts" than children conventionally conceived? Considering how much IVF still costs, one might say that IVF children are pretty expensive gifts. But who can doubt that parents of children brought into the world via the miracle of IVF treasure them as "gifts" far more than parents who can produce children with technology no more sophisticated than a bottle of champagne, a dozen roses and a comfortable bed?

Parents in the future who choose to avail themselves of genetic engineering to improve the lives of their children will also regard their children as "gifts." Pre-programming children with such enhanced capacities as good health, stronger bodies, and cleverer brains, far from constraining them, would give them greater freedom and more choices.

All of these traits are by their nature things that any person would want to have, while a poor immune system, a weaker body, or an IQ of 80 could all be regarded as deficiencies that a parent and the prospective child would obviously want to avoid.

I asked McKibben what will happen when a genetic test 10 years from now reveals that he has a complement of genes that predispose him toward a conservative, non-risk-taking temperament that inclines him toward traditionalism and a cautious attitude to technological progress. Would this finding somehow invalidate his thinking and writing about the effects of technology on people and society?

He responded that he was sure that his views came from a complicated interplay among his formal education, his life experiences, his mentors and other factors.

He's right, of course -- but those experiences are also inevitably influenced by his genetic make-up. Does he have a risk-taking temperament? Is he sociable, or shy? Does he have a pious disposition that inspires a reverence for tradition?

His arguments will not rise or fall because we know more about his genetic constitution; we will judge their validity in light of their logical consistency, their historical and scientific accuracy, and their faithfulness to hard-earned ethical principles.

McKibben is indulging in genetic essentialism, the idea that we are just meat puppets dangling from our strands of DNA. He really believes that human beings are robots pre-programmed by our genes, while pretending that adding a layer of ignorance atop our robotic nature somehow equals freedom.

But human freedom cannot and does not rely on ignorance and randomness. Human freedom -- the capacity to make choices based on reasons -- expands with knowledge, not shrinks. If you don't believe it, think about how humanity's greater knowledge of such things as the germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter have radically increased our choices and freedom over the past two centuries compared with the choices available to our ancestors.

Similarly, knowledge about how our genes affect our behavior and how our brains are wired increases rather than limits our freedom. Prozac, for example, does not limit our choices, but gives depressed people the freedom to adjust their emotional state to one they prefer.

In the same manner, safe genetic engineering will not turn people into semi-robots, but will give them capacities such as stronger bodies and smarter brains that will enhance their freedom, their ability to make choices based on reasons. Human freedom is not and cannot be based on ignorance and randomness.

The designer babies of the future will have more knowledge and therefore will have a far greater scope for free choice than we do today. Knowledge is freedom; ignorance is slavery.

(Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent.)

The National Center for Public Policy Research

(NCPPR is a communications and research foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to today's public policy problems, based on the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility. NCPPR was founded to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to late-breaking issues, based on thorough research.)

WASHINGTON -- Overzealous environmental rules impede U.S. military training

by David Almasi

If a Marine landing on Red Beach at Camp Pendleton travels off one of the three authorized roads leaving the beach, he risks a $50,000 fine and other penalties. He's not being disciplined for putting himself or his fellow soldiers at risk. Instead, he damaged the nesting area of the California least tern, a seabird protected by the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

Camp Pendleton is home to 17 plants and animals considered endangered by the federal government. Regulations protecting them and their habitats cripple Marine training. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to label 56 percent of Camp Pendleton and 65 percent of neighboring Miramar Air Station (the home of "Top Gun") as critical endangered species habitat, thereby putting it off-limits to training.

When a compromise was reached to allow training to continue in many areas, environmentalists filed a lawsuit to enforce the original restrictions.

Camp Pendleton and Miramar are not isolated cases:

-- Mechanized units from Ft. Irwin cannot train in the Mojave Desert at night because they might run over a desert tortoise. Combat operations in Iraq are happening mostly at night.

-- At Ft. Lewis, 72 percent of training land is critical habitat for the northern spotted owl even though none are known to live there.

-- Despite studies showing it posed minimal danger to sea life, a court ordered the Navy to work with environmentalists to determine how and when sensor equipment developed to track quiet diesel submarines -- like those owned by North Korea -- could be used for training.

-- Navy SEALs at Coronado Island practice beach landings in specific areas so they don't disturb nesting areas of the western plover and California least tern. For up to seven months a year, practice areas can shrink by 40 percent due to the presence of the snowy plover.

-- Only 17 percent of Ft. Hood isn't restricted by federal regulation. The Clean Water Act makes digging illegal on 70 percent of the post. The Clean Air Act prohibits smoke, flares and other pyrotechnics on 25 percent. Camouflage netting cannot be used on 40 percent because of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and other ESA concerns restrict vehicles to paved roads between March and August.

With our armed forces engaged in combat in the Persian Gulf and at risk in the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the possibility they are without effective training is unsettling. Their commanders aren't intentionally putting them in danger. Our military is quite possibly the best the world has ever seen, but forcing soldiers to use the same fields and roads or scaling back training exercises to comply with environmental regulations can create a familiarity that may betray soldiers in chaotic battlefield situations.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Wayne Arny recently told Congress: "Before our nation sends it most valuable asset -- our men and women, our sons and daughters -- into harm's way, we owe it to them and the American public to prepare them as best as we can to fight, survive and win. That starts with realistic and comprehensive training with the best equipment available."

But, according to Marine Colonel Bennett W. Saylor, quoted last year at Camp Pendleton: "There are certain standards in our training and readiness manuals that we cannot conduct."

In response, the Pentagon wants more leeway. With White House approval, the 2004 defense spending bill includes a reinterpretation of five major environmental regulations -- including the ESA and Clean Air Act.

This doesn't mean soldiers at Ft. Lewis can declare war on the spotted owl or the Navy can intentionally harm whales with sonar. It does mean responsible-yet-realistic battlefield training can resume in areas where it is currently banned.

The fact that endangered species seem to flock to military bases is a testament the Pentagon's stewardship of the land is owns. In 2003, the military allocated over $4 billion for environmental projects.

When it comes of the safety of those who would lay down their lives for our freedoms here in the United States, we can surely make compromises. We owe them no less.

(David Almasi is executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research.)

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