Bioethics of a Mammoth Size

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A group of Australian scientists managed to revive a primary component of mammoth blood, revealing, within a research published on Nature Genetics, how the colossal ancestors of modern elephants could survive in the Arctic area.

The researchers of the Australian Centre for Ancient Dna of the Adelaide university, along with the colleagues from the university of Manitoba, Canada, managed to recreate the hemoglobin, the protein which carries oxygen, starting from fossil relics of Siberian animals that lived about thirty thousand years ago. “It is the same protein we could have synthesized if we had gone back in time and withdrawn blood from living mammoths… Now we can measure the functions of the animal as if it were still alive”, writes professor Alan Cooper, who led the project.

The ancestors of nowadays’ elephants developed in the warmth of Africa about 7 million years ago. Mammoths were the branch of the family which successfully migrated northward, towards colder regions in Europe, between 1.2 and 2 million years ago, developing smaller ears and tail, as well as a warm fur.

Cooper explains that human hemoglobin, in freezing conditions, cannot deliver sufficient oxygen, which does not reach the extremities of our body, causing frostbite and gangrene. The research shows that mammoth hemoglobin had a radically different structure, which allowed it to function properly even in extremely freezing environments. This helped these ice-age mammals to survive, because they did not have to burn energy to keep the extremities of the body warm, proboscis included. “Evolution operated in real time to develop such an amusing strategy”, writes the scientists. The same approach might have been adopted with other extinct species, such as our far relative, the Neanderthal. By reconstructing the hemoglobin and studying its structure and properties, it will be possible to cast some light upon several human diseases, he adds.

Researchers managed to convert the DNA sequences from mammoth hemoglobin into ribonucleic acid, by injecting it into some normal bacteria, that allowed to re-grow the authentic protein from mammoths. By adopting some physiological tests and molecular modeling, they discovered how they survived, as they had changed the sequence of the protein in the blood. It is always amazing to discover what kind of achievements our science allows us to conquer. The discussion concerning the genetic manipulation and the artificial procreation in general would always represent, and still represents a boiling issue within the investigation of scientists, theologians and philosophers. On the other hand, the subject called “genetic engineering” never managed to attract such big and remarkable attention and stays still far from such a profound research.

This is shocking: artificial procreation regards just a limited group of people, while genetic engineering can potentially regard everyone. It is one of the main topics of future bioethical life. Whenever we face this kind of topics, though, it is necessary to beware of two attitudes which are both unreasonable, while our first actual duty is to make use of our actual reason.

It is unreasonable to think that scientific research represents a law for itself and that it has to be ruled exclusively by the potential achievement of its goal. The emotional echo of such an attitude is the naive exaltation of any new scientific discovery or technical achievement. On the other hand, it is equally unreasonable to reckon that, by principle, every “innovation” has to be refused: the emotional echo of this other attitude is some sort of fear and unmotivated repudiation. What are we asked to do, then?

We have to “resort to the extreme resources of our moral reason in order to take care of this, which is the most delicate among all the topics in an age where the ethical theory is everyday more insecure” (H. Jonas). What is such a “delicate topic”, born from the fact that the medical profession has to face a constant daily confrontation with and against genetics? I would like to stop a bit to answer this question, not to trigger any of those previously expressed attitudes, but simply to get aware of the issue in its real terms. What is the “ethical knot” of genetic engineering?

While, in the past, technology always had to deal with inanimate substances (usually metals), that it would exploit in order to produce non-human instruments for men’s utility, nowadays the situation has become different. Today people can be the direct object of their own engineering and, in particular, technology can affect men’s hereditary physical constitution. This is where the ethical problem resides. There are many ways to face the topic, though, there are many ways to proceed through it and many solutions are offered: they belong to two different attitudes, a positive and a negative one, which are separated by a “watershed”, which collocates them on two opposite and contrary sides. The turning point is provided when we try to answer the following question: as men can be the object of their own engineering, what fundamental criterion can make us distinguish between an intervention of man on a “good” man and a “non-good” intervention? Today the dominant answer appears to be the following: if the prudently foreseen consequences aim to the achievement of welfare for a bigger amount of people, the research-experimentation-intervention has to be undoubtedly approved and reasonably legitimized. It is a consequentialistic-utilitarian criterion, then.

Consequentialistic: what legitimizes the work of the geneticist are the consequences of the work itself. Utilitarian: the consequences have to be meant in terms of utility-welfare of a bigger amount of people. This criterion is broadly criticized and, as it means to perform as exclusive attitude, it is also completely rejected by those who just look at the ethical side of the issue, the exaltation of the absolute valor of every single human being. Under this value, no human being can actually be used as an instrument to achieve any purpose, even if this has an extraordinary moral importance. The person is exalted above any price: its identity cannot fit any utility computing, not even for a set of other human people. Which means: balancing the utility of a single person against the utility of more people, has got no meaning “in humanis”.

The reason why today we have to face such a deep bioethical controversy is that the Western culture lost its unity in the fundamental choice criterion. We live caught in the middle of the contrast between a utilitarian criterion and a personalist one. The ethical meditation regarding genetics has got the merit of unveiling this basic question. From this statement a vital practical corollary is born. If we accept, as a basis criterion, the personalist one, we have to agree on saying that every intervention must have a therapeutic purpose, in relation, then, with the health or the welfare of the person on which science intervenes, otherwise it has to be considered illegitimate.

We notice how molecular biology is revolutionizing medicine. We have to wish, in this scenario, that these new techniques never prevail on clinical schemes and simply fulfill their task as mere instruments of diagnosis, on a different, lower, level from medicine. If we accept the utilitarian criterion, instead, it will be impossible to accept coherently this exclusiveness of the therapeutic purpose or, which is the same, the subordination of molecular biology in relation with medicine.

Another practical corollary is that the externalization and the “uphold” of the so-called “autonomy principle” is fully coherent with the personalist one, but not with the utilitarian one. The principle of autonomy, which is often defined as “non-directivity principle” means and involves the guarantee of respect of individual freedom. Therefore the ethical problem of genetic engineering, more than any other chapter of bioethics, unveils the actual core of nowadays’ bioethical debate: the choice between a utilitarian or a personalist selection criterion.

There is also another dimension of the ethical issue regarding genetic engineering, closely related to the previous one: it is the ethical observation that has to be made on the human body. The question is serious: is the body an essential constituent of a person, so that they are interchangeable and never separable or is it a mere material array which people are given as a condition for the exercise of superior and non-material skills?

In the first scenario, the body is something that I am; in the second one, it is something that I have. If, in our personal consciousness, in the scientific enterprise, the second perspective results to be more reliable, the fundamental question which clearly externalizes the relationship with the body is the following: what can I do with it? Ideally, the technical possibility cannot coherently undergo any limitation from outer instances, such as the ethical one. The issue of corporeality that western culture, from Plato to modern philosophers, has carried in its womb, mind and cultural identity throughout the years as an unsolved problem, gets back to impose itself strongly. In fact, this copresence of subjectivity and objectivity, having and being represents the fundamental paradox of our being “men”, not reducible to a mere organic apparatus, nor to pure spirit.

Obviously, this is not the moment to face, on a purely theoretical level, the problem of the human body. We only have to check how the approach to the ethical problem of genetic engineering changes in accordance with the different perspectives concerning the identity of human body. The consideration of the body as a material system available to the “user” unavoidably takes to a judgment concerning the actual availability of the instrument, which is ideally unlimited. It leads, or, at least, it is not impossible that it leads to some sort of “total biotechnology”. If, on the contrary, the idea of a body-person prevails, the geneticist would not go beyond the purely negative action of correcting or preserving from hereditary deficiencies. In fact, apart from other deeper ethical considerations, he is aware of his position: he must respond to someone on whom he is directly operating and not just about the operation itself. The responsibility concept is doubled, then.

As noticed by the philosopher Hans Jonas, there is a risk, though: “the moral dilemma of any kind of genetic manipulation on man, which goes beyond the pure preservation or correction of hereditary deficiencies is this: the possible accusation by the descendant against the one who created it might not find anyone who could be able to be responsible and pay the price. This is a field which allows us to commit crimes in a total impunity, whose reliability today’s man – who will be yesterday’s man – is absolutely sure of when facing his victims. This forces them – forces any of us – to keep an extreme, scrupulous, caution in applying on men the growing power of biology. Here it is only allowed to preserve from disgrace, not to experiment a new kind of happiness. Our target is the man, not some sort of uber-man. Even if something bigger and definitely metaphysical is being discussed, the simple convenience ethics are sufficient to forbid, already at the beginning, the manipulation of human genotypes. Yes, even if it can sound absurd to the ears of modern men” (Hans Jonas – “Technique, medicine and ethics”).

In conclusion we can only say that the exaltation of a total liberation project is and forever will be eroded by uncertainty. As described by Goethe by means of the philosophy which permeates his most famous character, doctor Faust, who turns his whole life into a challenge against the unknown, freedom, as well as life, has to be conquered every day. There is always the risk of a failure, no certainty is contemplated in an absolute way. Our ethical life will be permeated by desire, risk, dream, hope and doubt. Who’s going to win this individual and collective challenge for and against our contemporary and future ethics? A legalist and formal state of mind or a progressive and, at the same time, fragile one? History will pronounce the last word. Genetic engineering probably owns only the merit of unveiling the problem concerning the legitimacy of the use of our reason to service a liberation process which is definitely too utopian not to leave us in the desert of a delusion.