Our Evolutionary Future
An Interview with Gregory Stock
Like human cloning, technologies giving us
control over our genetic destiny will be developed, whether they are banned or not.
Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans and director of the
Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the University of California, Los Angeles,
explains what these new technologies are, how they may be used to prevent disease and
extend our lifespans, and how they may alter our social institutions.
WORLD FUTURE SOCIETY: We'd like to talk
about the concept of germinal choice technology or technologies introduced in your latest
book, Redesigning Humans. Please define what we are talking about here, what these
technologies are and how close we are to achieving them.
The term germinal choice technology is one that I think is useful because right now there
are a whole host of terms that are related to various aspects of interventions in
reproduction. Most discussions often are very technology-centered, rather than looking at
what the person actually is doing and what the consequences are. For instance, germline
engineering is one technology that is mentioned. It comes from the word germ, like
the germination of a seed. Germline engineering is an intervention, altering the genes in
the first cell in the embryo.
The simplest intervention that would be made by
that technology would be to go in and try to correct the genes. It would be exactly the
same effect as would be accomplished by doing a screening test on the embryos, in which
there were no intervention whatsoever, then looking at multiple embryos and picking one
out that had the correct [or desired] genes. In fact, that is what is being done now in
preimplantation genetic diagnosis [PGD].
Germinal choice technology refers to a whole
realm of technologies by which parents influence the genetic constitutions of their
children. That could be done through screening of embryos, or it could be done through
making alterations of particular genes. When that technology comes online, it could be
done by the kind of procedures like in cloning, which is the copying of the embryo.
A number of [these early technologies] are
already in use today. For instance, the screening technologies have been in use for over a
decade, and what can be tested for is going to become increasingly sophisticated in the
next five to 10 years. These technologies will mature, and the kinds of decisions that
parents can make will become much more sophisticated. They will have a larger range. The
germline interventions themselves are being done (alterations of genes) already in animal
systems. The approaches there don't require the safety or reliability that may be required
in human beings.
One possible approach that I think could have
that sort of reliability in humans is the use of an artificial chromosome. That
technology, while it sounds very science fiction, is already in use in animal systems.
Artificial chromosomes have been added to mice and have been passed on for several
generations. They have been used in human tissue culture of human cells and have been
passed ably for hundreds of generations, hundreds of cell divisions. That represents a
stable "platform," as we say, and could be used for the insertion of whole
modules of genes. This would include the requisite control mechanism that would turn those
genes on and off at the appropriate time, just as our normal genes in our 46 chromosomes
are activated or inactivated, [depending on] the type of tissue that they are in or the
conditions that surround them and the variety of influences that they have.
WFS: So there is a possibility of
correcting mistakes, with a regulatory method, and there would be a way of turning
something on or off genetically?
important thing is early intervention. You would want [the interventions--gene
modification--] to be very narrow in focus. You wouldn't want to have a gene that is on in
a whole variety of tissues to go through growth development, because we don't know much
about that process. It is quite likely that there would be secondary effects that would be
undesirable and damaging. So the early intervention that one might make using an
artificial chromosome would be to place those genes in the off position so they are not
being expressed until an adult stage; then at that point they could be turned on in the
The mechanisms for doing that sort of control are
already being used in certain kinds of animal testing where you want to see the effects of
genes in an adult organism. There are of course controls on genes that do just that in the
body all the time. Different sets of genes are turned on and off at different times and
different places in [different] types of tissues, and so the kinds of regulatory
structures that are associated with our existing genes might be copied to control other
genes that have been put in place.
There is one interesting result that is sort of
indicative of these possibilities. Recently it has been shown that children who have Down
syndrome [have] much lower [incidence of] certain types of cancers. They have something
close to 90% reduction in incidence of certain cancers. The thought is that because they
have a third copy of chromosome 21 now--because they have all of the genes on that
chromosome--that means that they have problems with expression levels that are responsible
for the symptoms that are associated with Down syndrome. But probably there are a number
of genes on chromosome 21 that, when their expression is increased by adding an extra
copy, seems to be protective against cancer. And so that is an example of the type of
intervention that one might imagine if one were able to identify which of those genes were
responsible for the reduced incidents of cancer. Then you could imagine taking a set of
those genes and placing them on a artificial chromosome and adding them so it could
greatly reduce the incidence of cancer, which is seen in Down syndrome, without the
untoward consequences of having all the other genes in place. This is an early example of
the way it might work.
WFS: Is that the sort of development that
is going to make the whole concept of germinal choice technology more acceptable to
STOCK: If there are clear examples of interventions that look
like they will be meaningful and that seem to be safe and that are not able to be
accomplished in other easier and safer fashions, then I think that people will want them
and will welcome them. Right now, there is not enough known to imagine making those sort
of interventions. But if one moves forward 20 years, then it seems to me quite plausible
that there will be things of that sort. Right now, we don't know what to do, and we don't
know how to do it very effectively and safely.
The use of artificial chromosomes might work
quite well, particularly because the chromosomes themselves could be tested within the
laboratory environment. They could be tested on animals, they could be validated, and then
they could be used essentially in the same state that they were tested in. When you are
doing gene therapies today, each gene therapy is done anew so that it is impossible to
gain that kind of reliability.
As to what can be done right now, there is really
nothing that anybody would look at as worthwhile enough to make that intervention. But the
example of trisomy [as in Down syndrome's trisomy 21] is an example of the kinds of things
that are going to be coming increasingly rapidly. All sorts of ideas will present
themselves to the gene therapist of the future, that they will then test out and see if it
is possible. But certainly the targets of reducing cancer or reducing the incidents of
heart disease, of retarding aging, those kinds of global enhancements of health are ones
that are going to be very very desirable, I believe.
WFS: Is antiaging one of the biggest
targets for these types of therapies and enhancements?
STOCK: I think that it is, because it is likely, because it is
something that people really would desire so strongly. Now if it turns out that there are
interventions that could, through our unraveling of the underlying process of aging,
[allow us to] develop pharmaceutical and other interventions that are effective in adults,
then that is what everybody would want, because we are a little bit beyond the one-cell
stage [when germline engineering would be logical].
But there are [interventions] that are much
easier to do and can be done much more effectively in an embryo, because if genes are
placed in an embryo they will be copied into every single cell in the body and you can
make highly tissue-specific interventions. You could target specific interventions that
would be very difficult using any [gene-therapy] technology that is known today. How do
you get access to tissues, how do you put in the amount of DNA that is necessary to
control the expression of those genes? It is a very very difficult effort. So it seems to
me it is quite plausible that there would be intervention that could be made in an embryo
that would not be feasible in an adult. And if that is the case then I think that parents
are going to look at it as a chance, their one shot at giving their child some very
significant health advantages.
WFS: That is a very human response, to do
what is best for your child.
STOCK: You are absolutely right. In fact, there have been
international polls that have shown that if you look at enhancing the physical or mental
well-being of your children--and that is enhancements we are talking about, not
what some people would look at as therapy where you are attacking particular diseases, but
actually just improving their beauty, intelligence, strength, altruism, all sorts of
values--there is at least a significant minority in every country polled who were
interested in [doing] that. The low was about a quarter, which occurred in Japan. The high
was about 80% in Thailand and India. There are lots and lots of people who will want to do
these things once they are reliable.
People are rather cautious because it is their
children. They are going to have to suffer the consequences and the guilt that is
associated if it endangers their child. But we want to give advantages and benefits to our
children. It is a very common feeling. When I talk about these issues, in virtually every
audience that I have asked, significant numbers of people say they would want to make
WFS: Does it make a difference to ask the
question in specific terms versus very general, abstract terms? Asked, "Are you for
or against genetic engineering," most people would probably just say no. But, as you
said, when it becomes a personal choice for your own children, your motive changes quite a
STOCK: That happens with all of these pertinent issues. As we
make these issues less abstract and start talking about the challenges that you as an
individual are confronting related to your own family, then you can project yourself into
that situation, then you look at it very differently. It is certainly that way with, for
instance, something as [controversial as cloning]. There is a great deal of fear these
days about cloning, at least in Washington. When is a human going to be cloned?
WFS: But when you see a cute little kitty
being cloned, you are not as scared. Let's talk about some of fears, because when those
fears turn into to protests, does that slow down the movement toward the technologies
STOCK: Certainly the restraints on embryo research have had an
impact on the development of biomedical technologies directed toward an area called
regenerative medicine. Those restraints have definitely slowed that development in the
United States, which is certainly the most aggressive nation in biomedical research. [Now
some of that research] has moved to other countries, such as Britain. And now Singapore is
setting up a huge program.
People's fears are related to the strangeness of
various reproductive possibilities, and certain kinds of knowledge that will become
available through genomics just makes them uncomfortable.
WFS: Certainly genetically modified foods
didn't get any help from the people that started calling it "frankenfood."
"Frankenkid" is somebody that is going to be in our kitchens.
STOCK: When you get a very ideological and often a religious or
theologically based opposition that generalizes these things and abstracts them, making
them symbolic, the effect I believe is not to greatly slow the most controversial
uses of the technology. But what it does do is slow the mainstream research that
translates these technologies into biomedical advances that virtually everyone would
support. Cloning is probably a really good example, because the bans and restrictions on
human cloning will probably have very little impact on the ultimate arrival of cloning. It
will be done in some country; it will be done largely in an obscure and hidden fashion, as
seems to be occurring now. All of the research that is occurring in animal systems is
eventually going to make it feasible to do that in primates, and as soon as it is feasible
it will be done. And probably before it is quite as safe as it should be. And so that will
Now, what the bans do is block what is really
very desirable medical research on embryonic stem cells, which [could] retard the
development of cures for Parkinson's disease or diabetes, or certain kinds of cancer, or
Alzheimer's--the kinds of things that have very very serious consequences for people who
are suffering from these diseases. And there are millions of them. So while [protests and
bans] may slightly delay or at least in some way the arrival of the first human clone (or
at least delay the appearance of it in the media), [a ban on human cloning] has very
little impact in a larger way. The biggest impact is on biomedical advances, and that's
why the church's responses are very, very unfortunate.
WFS: Let's talk about some of the costs
[risks] to companies that are developing [these biomedical advances--genetic engineering
or therapy]. Obviously there are costs in all research and development; if there are
protests, are companies going to pull back from funding these? Should investors invest in
these companies or is it too risky? . . . "Snake oil" is a very real fear.
STOCK: The area where that ["snake oil" effect] has
happened the most is in aging research, where there all sorts of people profiteering on
the desire of the general public to have something that is going to make them healthy and
vital for a longer period and to keep them young. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen.
The real results [from life-extension medical research] come much more slowly.
In more productive biology, such as gene therapy,
the efforts are directed toward somatic therapy at this time. As far as germline gene
therapy is concerned, I would say no one is seriously involved because it is too distant
to be viable commercially. And it would be too dangerous; the path to making a real
business that makes a profit out of this is too long.
The reason that these technologies are inevitable
is that it doesn't really require anybody to be actively pursuing them at this stage. They
are growing out of basic biomedical research. As we get closer to there being real
clinical and practicable developments (by "very close" I mean a matter of being
just five years away from it), then you will begin to get a lot more commercial
involvement. But it doesn't happen at this stage. The only area where that is happening to
some extent is in embryo screening, which is a technology that has already been around for
10 years and it is going to greatly expand as a result of the whole Human Genome Project.
[We'll see] the deciphering of the associations between various genes and various aspects
of who we are and various aspects of our medical risks. That work is going on completely
independently, so the application to embryo screening is a spin-off. We didn't do the
Human Genome Project so that we could selectively screen embryos. But given the power to
understand what genes mean about various aspects of who we are, then we'll use these on
embryos just as we use them on ourselves.
WFS: We were talking about aging and
anti-aging. What steps could be taken to speed up the arrival for a cure for aging? Is
there anything we should be doing to accelerate that?
STOCK: What could accelerate a "cure for aging" would
be an infusion of funds into research on the biology of aging. Right now, that is a rather
underfunded area. Much much more money, for example, is being spent on finding cures for
the diseases of aging rather than trying to understand the underlying process that may be
responsible for a wide variety of age-related diseases, everything from cancer and heart
disease to Alzheimer's, arthritis, and diabetes. So more funding would help a great deal.
Another thing that would [accelerate the arrival
of that "cure for aging"] would be raising the profile of the entire field. This
is beginning to happen, but slowly. The idea would be to attract young researchers and
serious scientists to explore this realm. One of things that I have been trying to do is
raise the funds for a series of high-level prizes in the field of aging research. These
prizes would be for particular advances that are on the path toward the development of
clinical interventions that would retard aspects of aging. I think that that could really
focus the energies of the field.
WFS: Let's talk a bit more about parental
choice. Parents could conceivably be able choose the genes for their children, including
such traits as beauty and strength, and hopefully wisdom in addition to IQ points. Should
parents be allowed to use the genes of an entertainment star?
STOCK: That is a very sensitive issue. People are very resistant
to the notion of stealing somebody's genes and using them, or cloning someone without
their permission. That kind of thing people find objectionable.
When you are trying to ask what are limits of
parental rights as far as making decisions about their children is concerned, we are going
to push up against a number things that make us very uneasy. But it's probably not worth
worrying about at this point, because that is very distant. We are going to go through a
lot of things [before then] that will change our thinking. We will get used to the ideas
of these new technologies before we are called upon to make decisions in that realm.
The things that are more important, it seems to
me, are [decisions on possibilities] that already exist that could happen much sooner.
[For instance,] whether parents could make choices about the sex of their child. It is
legal in the United States, but illegal in some other places. There are quite a few people
who think that it should be illegal. [Another more immediate decision will be] whether
parents can simply screen for broad numbers of genetic diseases, some of which may not be
terribly serious, or whether parents can make choices about the height or IQ of their
children, or other aspects of temperament and personality--very straightforward things
that are probably already present in their own genes. The first wave [of dilemmas for
society] is going to just be making choices based on genetic testing and screening, such
as choosing whether to have one embryo as opposed to another. It will be very difficult
for a lot of people to accept initially; I think it's almost impossible to regulate. But
on the whole these things are not very dangerous. On the whole, they will be beneficial
rather than have adverse consequences.
WFS: What about the role of insurance
companies--would they begin requiring people to screen their embryos?
STOCK: That is a concern I have heard mentioned--the idea that
there will be pressure on parents to avoid certain types of genetic conditions that have
adverse health consequences. I can certainly see that occurring, because as you begin to
be able identify medical risk factors while you can do that at an early stage, it seems
likely that private health insurance will be taking that into consideration. [With] the
arrival genetic diagnostics that really allow us to determine our many health-related
risks, whether we use that information for purposes of screening embryos or not is going
to have huge consequences for both medical and life insurance. Thats most easily
seen in life insurance. If [you have] this information and the insurance company does not,
then you are going to change your behavior and load up on low-cost insurance if you are
high risk of same serious disease. But if the insurance company has that information, they
are [likely to] charge you enormous premiums--or else exclude you entirely. [This will
affect the insurance industry because once-]unknown risks suddenly become known. Insurance
is a way of sharing unknown risks, so when those risks become known, insurance can no
longer function in the way it did before. I think that this is a more fundamental problem.
We as a society are going to have to come up with tools [that will give] people some
feeling of safety in their lives, that they are being taken care of in some way for some
basic level of insurance. You don't want people to be profiteering.
And who should pay if a parent is bringing a
child into the world and specifically selecting an embryo that would intentionally [result
in] a child with very serious health conditions? There is going to be a question as to
whether a parent should be allowed to that at all.
WFS: Why would anyone want to do that?
STOCK: It is rather astonishing, but in the deaf community there
is a whole movement that is very opposed to the use of cochlear implants; they feel this
damages the culture of the deaf community.
WFS: Parents want their children to be
like themselves, only more so?
STOCK:There are deaf parents who have said that they would use
these kinds of technologies to ensure that their children were deaf. That is not to [say
they would] take an embryo and damage it, but [they would] select an embryo that would
develop into a deaf child.
[Will society be] willing to make value judgments
about basic health and say that any individual is equally worthy of life before [it is
born]? [We are] not [talking about] making a decision with an existing person as to
whether to value that person's life or not, but about a yet-to-be-born person. [Will we]
say, well, it doesn't really matter, everyone, [deaf or nondeaf] is equal? Then we are
going to confront the realities of those abstract philosophies. To this point, they have
been abstract, so it is easy to wave one's hand and say, well, there is no reason to value
a healthy individual over a person who has various health challenges and problems. If we
feel that way, then we won't regulate that [sort of choice by parents] at all. [But] if we
really begin to come to grips with it and decide there is a problem there, then we will
have to confront that and how to handle it.
WFS: Governments will certainly play a
role in some oversight over the development of the technologies and their uses.
STOCK: Yes, I think they will. But I will argue that with
fast-moving technology the important thing is not to regulate it in advance. These
technologies are not dangerous in the sense of atomic weapons, where you can have an
accident and suddenly a lot of innocent bystanders are killed. These technologies are
really only dangerous to those who choose to go out and use them voluntarily. You don't
really want to project your hopes and fears into the future and say "such and such a
technology" is going to be too dangerous, and say we must stop cloning, for example,
before it occurs. It is just too awful a possibility.
It seems to me it is much better to allow early
cases of this technology. Probably cloning is the best example. Maybe a better example is
various type of genetic screening that might occur. To try and sort our or hypothesize how
it is going to be used and who's going to do what and what the consequences will be for
the children and for the family. The reality is that no one really knows. We will have
ample time to regulate these things after they begin to play out and after can see what
the challenges really are.
Sex selection is really a better example of that.
People want to regulate sex selection whereas, in my view, it has already been shown in
the United States and in the developed world there is not a problem of large gender
imbalances that arrived. In fact, in the United States, those choices are equally balanced
between boys and girls, with a slight preponderance of girls. That is not the case in the
less-developed world, but we are talking about the United States. People imagined that if
we decide to allow people to have that control that would be a serious problem, that we
are going to have all boys. It is not the case, so that isn't really a danger.
Some people also argue that parents shouldn't
have that power over their children at all. Well, they aren't really clear about what the
reasons are. In my view, if the parents really, really want to have a girl for some
reason, or really want to have a boy, letting them fulfill that desire is probably not
going to be damaging to the child. Just the reverse is true if they have a girl when they
really wanted a boy. Probably a child of the "wrong" gender is going to have a
hard time of it. I would say that there are net benefits to allowing that level of choice
And yet, one could have imagined [scenarios]
beforehand and tried to regulate [gender-selection technology], with all sorts of stories
about the damages that would occur. If it changes in the future and we start to have real
gender imbalances, then you can start to address policies that are very specific about
what they are trying to accomplish--rather than [creating policies] based upon vague fears
and ideological views about what is and is not playing God.
WFS: Let's go way, way out into the
future. I assume we are still not talking about adding gills and wings to human beings,
but we are talking about a vision of humanity that is substantially different from what we
already have. Are we really at risk of losing our humanity in the future?
STOCK:I think it very much depends upon what you mean by our
"humanity." Does it have to do with very narrow aspects of our biology, or does
it have to do with the whole process of engaging the world and with our interactions with
one another? We certainly have changed socially in very many profound ways. Does this make
us "not human" in some sense? The fact is, we would modify ourselves in other
ways. For instance, if our lifespan were to double or more, would that make us "not
human" in some sense? It would certainly change the whole trajectory of human life.
It would change the way we interact with one another, it would change our institutions and
our sense of family, and it would change the way we view education. It would change
everything in a very deep way. But in my opinion we would still be human.
WFS: Humans are very adaptable.
STOCK: Exactly. If the hunter-gathers imagined living in New
York City, they would say that they could no longer be human, that that wouldn't be a
human way of living. Yet, we look at it as not only a human way of living, but [a
better one--]we would not want to go back to a hunter-gather lifestyle. So I think it will
be same way with the types of changes [that will occur] as we begin to be able to alter
WFS: It is certainly reassuring to have
our own evolution in our own hands. Where do we stand right now in the human evolution
timeline? Are we adolescents, babies, or fully matured adults? Where do you think we are
on evolutionary scale?
STOCK: As I look forward, I would say we are just in the very
early stages--early adolescence at most. When future humans look back at this era from a
period of 1,000 years from now, they're going to look at this as a very primitive time, a
difficult and challenging time.
It was an extraordinary moment when we laid down
the foundations for the changes that are going to completely establish the way that [those
future humans] live their lives. It is hard to imagine what life will be like for us even
a hundred years from now.
WFS: People are already implanting
electronic devices--there is [cybernetics professor] Kevin Warwick in Britain, for
example. Is that the wave of the future? Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have been saying we
are going to have more electronics in our bodies.
STOCK:I think that Ray has really got it wrong. In the future,
what is really going to matter to us is our biology, because we are biological creatures.
The notion of having chip implants in our brains sounds a little seductive until you
imagine the realities of going in for brain surgery--a risky operation--and the actual
benefits you'd have to be offered in order to be willing to subject yourself to that kind
of an operation.
Repairing deficits of one sort or another is
something that we will do, and there have been all sorts of implants related to
that. But the idea of going into a person who is healthy to try and expand their ability
to recall tunes or something is very unlikely and not very realistic. We will have the
opportunity to do those sorts of things through close associations that we have
technology. Things that we carry with us, that we wear, that we speak to, we won't need to
penetrate our bodies for that.
It will be the biological developments that are
going to really be important to us because, face it, as wonderful as technology is, you
get old. You lose your mind, you die. No chip implant is going change that. If you are
going to have a chip implant in your brain to expand your intellectual capacity but you're
going to get Alzheimer's at the same time, it doesn't work.
WFS: I want to get back to whose choices
these are and the idea of the wealthy benefiting and the have-nots have yet one more thing
to keep them down. Do you see technologies, germinal choice technologies, as more of a
democratizing force or more of a divisive one?
STOCK:It depends how they are used and what the political
environment is around them. The effort to block these technologies will simply render them
extremely divisive, because that will guarantee that they are only available to the
wealthy who are able to circumvent any kinds of restrictions rather easily, either by
traveling to other locations or simply paying money to get black-market services. But if
you get at their core, they could be very democratizing, because the kinds of
interventions that will be available initially are going to be ones that are able to
compensate for deficits. Those are the easiest things to do. It is always much easier to
[enhance] someone who is not functioning very well in some capacity or another.
WFS: You make up a 90 IQ to 120, for
STOCK: Right, rather than take 150 IQ up to 160, which is going
to be a real challenge. That is going to be hard to do because it is a combination of all
sorts of little factors brought together to create elite performance. We have so many
examples of functioning at normal levels; we have models for how to modify a system so
that it can be average, whereas we don't have many, or any, examples of how to make a
It seems to me that, while people pretend that we
are all created equal and that we are equal under the eyes of the law, [they think] it
means we are all the same. We aren't. The genetic lottery can be very very cruel.
WFS: Ask anybody who is six-feet tall in
STOCK: Yeah, or who is just very slow, or has a genetic disease
of one sort or another. They don't believe in some abstract principal of how wonderful the
genetic lottery is. I think they would like to be healthier or have more talent in one way
or another. And so it seems to me that the broad availability of these technologies would
level the playing field in many ways, because it would give opportunities to those who
otherwise would be disadvantaged genetically.
Another point is that these technologies, as do
any technologies, improve rather rapidly, and so the differences will be not so much
between the wealthy and the poor in one generation (although obviously there will be more
things available to those who have more resources), but between one generation and the
next. Even for a Bill Gates today, with a lot of money, the genetic enhancements or
services that could [be offered] a child today will be primitive compared with what any
middle-class person is going to be able to accomplish 20 or 25 years from now.
WFS: At the bottom line, are you
optimistic, pessimistic, or realistic?
STOCK: I think I am realistic. An important aspect of wisdom is
to know what we have the power to control and what we don't. Many people go around
pretending that we have a choice about whether these sorts of technologies are going to
infuse into our lives. I think that we do not have a choice about that. It's going to
happen. The dynamics of the situation are so strong that we will use these technologies.
We have some level of choice about exactly how we
will use them, how divisive they will be to our society, and how they will serve our
values. And I think that is what the discussion should be about. I am very realistic about
that and I also am very hopeful about these technologies. If you look at them, the chances
for the benefits far outweigh the problems that they are likely to cause us and I think
that future generations are going to look back at these technologies and wonder how we
lived in such a primitive time, when people lived only 70 years and died painful,
difficult deaths at that early age.
WFS: What kinds of questions should
individuals being asking themselves now? What should we be asking our institutions?
STOCK: For now, it would be useful to ask government and policy
makers to not try and block the [research], to consider not only the risks of injuries
that might occur when new technology is wrongfully applied or when accidents occur, but
also to consider the many many people who are injured when technologies that might have
been are delayed. Right now, there is an extraordinary bias toward trying to gain
unreasonable levels of safety to prevent individual accidents from occurring, at the
sacrifice of the safety of large numbers of people who will be affected indirectly. An
example of that is in vaccines. For many years, vaccines were not even developed because
there were too much litigation involved. If any child were injured, there would be huge
consequences. And yet, clearly, it is much safer to the population as a whole to have the
I think you have the same problem with the focus
on cloning, which could affect a handful of people at the most anytime in the near future.
To deny extraordinary possible medical advances that would affect millions of people who
are suffering, and to justify that by saying that it is out of respect for human life--I
don't understand that logic.
WFS: One last question, on a side issue: I
noticed in your book [Redesigning Humans] you refer a great deal to
science-fiction films. Do they help us visualize the possibilities of the future, or are
they just entertainment that distracts us from the real issues?
STOCK: I think good science fiction deals with trying to project
into the future a lot of developments in the present and the possibilities that are
embodied in present technology. It is inspiring to lots of scientists. When you talk to
the scientists, often they were avid readers of science fiction at one point or another in
their careers. It is a way of communicating and thinking about the future and about the
human impacts of developments. So it's part of that conversation of coming to grips with
WFS: I think you mentioned in Star Wars
they have all sorts of strange looking critters that we interact with but basically humans
are still humans.
STOCK: There is some science fiction that has pushed beyond
that, but I think that essentially it is very difficult to make drama that doesn't involve
WFS: But by the same token drama involves
conflict and my feeling about science fiction is that it dramatizes conflict to the
exclusion of cooperation, for instance.
STOCK: That is interesting. It depends. I remember Cult City
in the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. He presents this perfect world and then picks it
apart, the problems that are associated with it. I remember reading that as a child.
Life is conflict, in a way. Not
necessarily war, but there is certainly conflict that is going on. That is certainly what
drama is about. I guess I like science fiction; I haven't read as much of it recently as I
used to. But I think that people are often familiar with some of those [stories and
WFS: Well it is a very useful tool for
futurists, and we have had our share of science-fiction authors in THE FUTURIST.
STOCK: Science-fiction films I don't think are generally useful.
When I think of science fiction I think of novels, where you have a chance to explore
these sorts of things in much fuller ways than films. Films are not very effective tools
for the most part, I would say.
Gregory Stock is director of the Program on
Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLAs School of Medicine, NPI, 760 Westwood
Boulevard, Box 9, Los Angeles, California 90024. Web site http://research.mednet.ucla.edu/pmts/Stock.htm.
His most recent book is Redesigning Humans:
Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), which is available from the
Futurist Bookstore for $24 ($21.95 for Society members), cat. no. B-2410. Click here to order.
For more information and discussion on human
germline engineering, visit http://research.mednet.ucla.edu/pmts/Germline/default.htm.
This interview was conducted March 28,
2002, by Cynthia G. Wagner, managing editor of THE FUTURIST.
Interview posted on 6 June 2002.
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