NOTICE:Comments posted on World Future Society Web Site are the intellectual property of the interviewees, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the interviewee.

Futurist Interviews

Futurist Interviews

Germinal Choice Technology:
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.

GREGORY STOCK: 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?

STOCK: The 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 proper tissue.

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 people?

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 these interventions.

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 bit.

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 being developed?

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 happen somewhere.

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. That’s 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 for parents.

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 our biology.

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 example?

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 superhuman.

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 seventh grade.

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 vaccines.

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 the new.

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 human beings.

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 themes].

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.

DD01004_.WMF (3300 bytes)

Gregory Stock is director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA’s School of Medicine, NPI, 760 Westwood Boulevard, Box 9, Los Angeles, California 90024. Web site

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

This interview was conducted March 28, 2002, by Cynthia G. Wagner, managing editor of THE FUTURIST.

 Interview posted on 6 June 2002.

Return to top      Back to Interviews