A Few Thoughts On Genetic Engineering (part two)

Types of Genetic Engineering

As you read this, remember, “The best insurance against possible abuse is a well-informed public.”[1] So, with that in mind, let’s look at four types of genetic engineering.

First, and lest controversial, is somatic gene therapy.[2] The way I remember what somatic refers to is by remembering that soma is the Greek word for “body.” Somatic gene therapy involves the manipulation of gene cells within the body that are non-reproductive.[3] So somatic genes that are edited do not get passed on to future generations.

Second, germline gene therapy involves the genetic modification of the germline cells (eggs or sperm). So germline therapy changes the genetic make up of the individual and is thus carried on to future generations. That is one of the reasons that “No aspect of gene therapy is more highly charged than that of germline or germ-cell therapy.”[4] One of the questions that is important to ask regarding germline gene therapy is: “Will a ‘deleterious’ gene of today be considered a ‘deleterious’ gene tomorrow?”[5]

This discussion, I must remind you, is not some sci-fi dream, “Many assure that within our decade, depending upon the family and the circumstances, height, weight and even eye color will become elective.”[6]

It is quite easy to imagine all sorts of negative results of enhancement genetic engineering. That does not, however, exclude the possibility of enhancement genetic engineering being morally ethical. For that we must consider other factors.[7]

One of the objections to this type of genetic engineering is who is to determine what sorts of people are preferable? Who has the right to decide? Scientists? Doctors? Parents? Politicians? Theologians? An oversight committee of different types of people with different specialties? What criteria should be used to determine what should be enhanced? What potential ramifications could enhancement genetic engineering have on society and coming generations?

It is important to note that “different characteristics may turn out to be genetically linked in ways we do not yet realize. In our present state of knowledge, engineering for some improvement might easily bring some unpredicted but genetically linked disadvantage.”[8] For example, those with one sickle gene and one normal hemoglobin gene have an advantage when it comes to malaria.[9] So, this shows that solutions are more complex and interconnected than it may at first appear.

As Jonathan Glover has said: “We may produce unintended results, either because our techniques turn out to be less finely tuned than we thought, or because different characteristics are found to be genetically linked in unexpected ways.”[10] It should also be noted that some people, even influential people, have had some pretty scary utopian views connected with genetic engineering.[11] Can you think of anyone in history from the last hundred years?

Francis Galton said this regarding eugenics: “what Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, and kindly.”[12] What Galton said about eugenics will likely be said about genetic engineering as well so we would be wise to remember all of the grave abuses of eugenics.

Third, enhancement genetic engineering (see “plastic surgery” in the table below) “refers to the transfer of genetic material intended to modify nonpathological human traits. The term commonly is used to describe efforts to make someone not just well, but better than well, by optimizing attributes or capabilities.”[13] Notice that when asked what genetic enhancement is they don’t say “the creation of super soldiers.” It’s not difficult, however, to think of all sorts of applications for the creation of a superhuman army.[14]

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Fourth, is eugenic genetic engineering.[15] When I think of eugenics, Nazi Germany is what first comes to mind. Eugenics, however, did not start with Nazi Germany and various applications of eugenics were practiced in the US.[16] The Oxford dictionary says eugenics is “The science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.” The English polymath, Francis Galton, coined the term eugenics. Eugenics programs in America and elsewhere included both encouraging individuals deemed “fit” to reproduce and discouraging or prohibiting marriage and even forced sterilization for people deemed “unfit” for reproduction.[17]

The grave abuses of eugenics should give us pause as we consider genetic engineering. Scientists were so “sure” about eugenics but now it is vastly debunked. Sadly, many Christians were even eager to jump on the bandwagon. This points us to the importance of caution as we consider genetic engineering.


[1] W. French Anderson, “Human Gene Therapy: Scientific Considerations,” 519 in Contemporary Issues In Bioethics.

[2] One professor I read gave this brief explanation: “Somatic gene therapy entails the transfer of a gene or genes into body cells other than germ (egg or sperm) cells with effect only on the patient. The new genetic material cannot be passed on to offspring.”

[3] “Gene therapy has the potential for producing tremendous good by reducing the suffering and death caused by genetic diseases” (Anderson, “Human Gene Therapy: Scientific Considerations,” 519).

[4] LeRoy Walters, “The Ethics of Human Gene Therapy,” 523 in Contemporary Issues In Bioethics.

[5] Best, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 497.

[6] Edwin Black in his book, War Against the Weak, 442.

[7] “Enhancement genetic engineering should also be possible and its medical and disturbing ethical implications need continuing discussion” (Anderson, “Human Gene Therapy: Scientific Considerations,” 519).

[8] Jonathan Glover, “Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering,” 529 in Contemporary Issues In Bioethics.

[9] So Glover has said, “ If we use genetic engineering to knock out sickle-cell anaemia where malaria is common, we will pay the price of having more malaria” (“Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering,” 530). See also Megan Best, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 497.

[10] Glover, “Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering,” 530-31.

[11] Some have had and have some pretty far-out views. H.J. Muller wrote this in a book that was published in 1937: Humans “will reach down into the secret places of the great universe of its own nature, and by aid of its ever growing intelligence and cooperation, shape itself into an increasingly sublime creation—a being beside which the mythical divinities of the past will seem more and more ridiculous, and which setting its own marvellous inner powers against the brute Goliath of the suns and the planets, challenges them to contest” (Out of the Night published in 1935 as quoted by Jonathan Glover, “Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering,” 529. He says in the endnote that “to find a distinguished geneticist talking like this after the Nazi is not easy” (Ibid., 535n5).

[12] See Adam S. Cohen article “Harvard’s Eugenics Era” in Harvard Magazine.

[13] This is taken from The National Human Genome Research Institute site. “Genetic Enhancement” (https://www.genome.gov/10004767/genetic-enhancement/)

[14] For example, the explanation of genetic enhancement goes on to say: “One of the areas in which genetic enhancement might find initial application is in sports. At the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, a cross-country skier from Finland who won two gold medals was later found to have a genetic mutation that increased the number of red blood cells in his body because he could not switch off erythropoetin (Epo) production. This mutation increased the athlete’s capacity for aerobic exercise. A synthetic version of Epo is currently used to treat anemia, but it has also been abused by athletes to heighten their stamina. For example, in the 1998 Tour de France, a team was thrown out of the race, and two top cyclists admitted taking the drug. Recent efforts to deliver the Epo gene into patients’ cells would eliminate the need for regular injections, but this process could also be abused by athletes” (https://www.genome.gov/10004767/genetic-enhancement/).

[15] See Joe Carter’s helpful overview “9 Things You Should Know About Eugenics.”

[16] “In the early 1930s Nazi Germany adopted American measures to identify and selectively reduce the presence of those deemed to be ‘socially inferior’ through involuntary sterilization” (https://www.britannica.com/science/eugenics-genetics). See also Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement.” Edwin black has said “Using the power of money, prestige and internaltional academic exchanges, American eugenicists exported their philosophy to nations throughout the world, including Germany. Decades after a eugenics campaign of mass sterilization and involonatry incarceration of ‘defectives’ was institutionalized in the United States, the American effort to create a super Nordic race came to the attention of Adolf Hitler” (Edwin black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create A Master Race, 7).

[17] See the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell where the decision was 8-1 to make forced sterilization legal. “Only after the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, and changes in popular views toward marginalized groups, did eugenic sterilization begin to decline more rapidly. But states continued to sterilize the ‘unfit’ until 1981…. As many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized for eugenic reasons” (Cohen, “Harvard’s Eugenics Era” in Harvard Magazine). Cohen goes on to say “Also affected were the many people kept out of the country by the eugentically inspired immigration laws of the 1920s. Among them were a large number of European Jews who desperately sought to escape the impending Holocaust. A few years ago, correspondence was discovered from 1941 in which Otto Frank pleaded with the U.S. State Department of visas for himself, his wife, and his daughters Margot and Anne. It is understood today that Anne Frank died because the Nazis considered her a member of an inferior race, but few appreciate that he death was due, in part, to the fact that many in the U.S. Congress felt the same way” (Cohen, “Harvard’s Eugenics Era”).


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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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