16. Can Eugenics 2.0 be Prevented or Controlled?
In Greek mythology Pandora’s box contained the evil of the world. And hope. When the box was opened, the yet unknown evils work, disease and death befell mankind, while the hope remained in the box. Today we use the axiomatic expression “Pandora’s box has been opened”, if some political, societal or technological development has taken a bad trajectory and nothing can be done to undo it. The dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in summer 1945 is sometimes considered as an example of a Pandora’s box opening (126).
Meanwhile science and technology have opened numerous Pandora’s boxes and mankind now has to get along with the consequences. You can invent, but you can not deinvent. Once a certain knowledge is in the world, it is hard to remove it from the world again, especially nowadays in an interconnected world. Theorethically we can eliminate all nuclear weapons, but we can not remove the principle ability of man to construct a nuclear weapon from the world (58).
The biotechnological capabilities achieved also have the potential to become an existential threat to mankind. The application of biotechnology as such with changes of procaryotes and plants has become a widespread technology, that can not be removed from the world anymore. Gene-technological modifications of mammals do also already take place and if the claim of a targeted modification of the CCR5-gene of twin sisters born in China in 2018 are true, targeted modifications of the genome of Homo sapiens (in the germline) have also begun.
In 1990 the first gene-technology law was passed in Germany. This law mainly regulated the controlled application of biotechnological methods for the manipulation of microorganisms, animals and plants. Manipulation of the human genome was not adressed in this law.
In 1991 the embryo protection law went into power in order to regulate in-vitro fertilization. In particular this law forbids the creation of human embryos for other purpose than the emergence of a new human being. Research on human embryos or the creation of human embryos for research purpose was forbidden by this law in Germany. Already the fertilized ovula-cell is an embryo in the sense of the law. The fact that the fertilized ovula-cell is already considered an embryo, brings along challenges to medical research and development in Germany as research on embryos is not only being done for satisfying academic embryological interests. Embryonic stem cells are something very special. Somatic cells are already so far differenciated and specialized that from a liver- cell only another liver-cell can emerge and from a muscle-cell only another muscle-cell, thus the specialization of offspring cells is already defined. Embryonic stem-cells can develop into all kind of somatic cells, for example into neuronal-cells, muscle-cells, liver-cells or blood-cells. Embryonic stem-cells are therefore called “totipotent” (totus = lat. “all”, potential = power, potential).
Embryonic stem-cells, however are only totipotent up to the 3rd division (8-cell stage), when each cell can still give rise to a complete organism. After that we talk about pluripotent stem cells that can still differentiate into many other different somatic cells, but not develop towards a complete organism, anymore. Toti- and pluripotent stem-cells have an enormous potential for repairing damages of our body. In Germany the production of totipotent stem-cells is forbidden, as this would imply the killing of embryos. However, in some cases it is allowed to import embryos from foreign countries, if they were created for the purpose of artificial fertilization.
Has the time come to prohibit gene-technological interventions? After the CCR5 modification in the Chinese twin sisters such voices could be heard. But how and on which level could gene-technologcial eugenics in humans be prohibited? After all this had to be a worldwide ban. The only organizational entity that could proclaim a worldwide ban would be the United Nations Organisation (UNO). However, we know from other UNO-rules that they remain without effect, if they only seem to apply for some UN-member states, while powerful states act as they please and ignore or bend the rules or instrumentalise them to their own benefit, if it seems advantageous.
The UN prohibition on the use of force by states became an essential part of the UN-charta after the Second World War. However, 3 exception rules were anchored, which permitted violence in cases of national self-defence. These 3 violence-legitimizing situations are
Self-defence oft he country in case of an external attack
Support of another country under attack after this country has called for support
War measures with a mandate of the UN-security Council
States with a strong military often violate the UN prohibition on the use of force, in particular the currently strongest imperial power the USA. Again and again the USA have launched illegal wars for securing and appropriation of resources or for sabotaging competing economic developments. (78). If a genetic arms race unfolds, it is hard to imagine the US not making efforts to be at the head of the pack. The emerging main competitor in the 21st century, China, would certainly also not hold back. In Germany, due to the eugenically motivated crimes oft he Nazi-era, genetic modifications would face resistance and reservations and Germany would probably quickly fall behind.
I fear that preventing gene-technological interventions in human beings will not be possible in the long run. Although germ-line interventions are prohibited in many legal texts and will probably remain prohibited, we have to assume that they will take place and that we are at the dawn of a new era of eugenics. In the long run it seems virtually impossible to prevent these developments, so we can only hope that we manage to regulate them in a way that prevents that our living together becomes hell.
Human civilisations change the environment. After exploiting the resource “wood” for centuries, the formerly expanded forests have become rare in the Mediterranean basin and only survived in few places (for example the beautiful forest on the Island of Corsica). Northern Africa had been the breadbasket of the Roman Empire and is now charactericed by dry desserts. During the last 200 years the changes of our biosphere have accelerated through pollution and the burning of fossil fuels for generating energy and have become a global phenomenon. If a city or a region became uninhabitable in the past (e.g. due to lack of water), humans could continue to live in other regions.
In the long history of the earth and life on eart, the biosphere and the athmosphere have repeatedly changed. Around 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous era, the CO2-concentration in the athmosphere was around 800 ppm, double the concentration we can measure today (over 400 ppm) and nearly 3-times higher than 1750 before the start of industrialization (280 ppm). The oxygen-concentration in the Carboniferous era was 35% (today 21%), which favoured a rich plant flora and the development of large insects (dragonflies with 70 cm-wings and 2 metre long millipeds). The carbon stored in the living forms of the Carboniferous era were deposited in the earth, and led to the coal beds that gave the Carboniferous era its name and which we exploit today.
The current changes in the athmosphere seem to be unique, when it comes to the speed of the process. Sometimes the Paleocene-Eocene-Thermal Maximum (PETM) is refered to in order to illustrated the effects of raising greenhouse-gas levels on the climate and the biosphere. During the PETM the CO2-concentration of the athmosphere increased from around 800 ppm to over 2000 ppm in a very short time of around 10,000 years and the temperatures increased by 5-8 degree Celsius.
Certainly, the PETM can not be compared 1:1 to today. The poles were ice free and the whole earth was a very warm and humid place with tropical vegetation or dry desserts. The mix of high carbon supply and tropical climate made plant life on earth virtually explode and turned the landmasses of the earth into a green hell. In the oceans the warming had effects that were rather hostile to life. Many species of zooplankton were simply not made for high water temperatures and increasing CO2-concentrations acidified the water through carbonic acid. This attacked the lime cases of the so-called foraminifera, small plankton, which left many traces in our fossil records. For land mammals and reptiles, the PETM was a good time. Primates, for example, prospered.
What had caused the fast increase of carbon containing greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane? There are several theories, but all have in common that fixed carbon in large amounts was released into the atmosphere. Forest fires in opulent vegetation or burning coal beds would release large amounts of CO2. Raising temperatures could have triggered the release of methane from the methane-hydrat fields in the permfrost and at the continental shelfs thus accelerating the greenhouse-gas effect. In geological time dimensions the PETM persisted not for long. Already after 3 million years, around 53 million years ago, the temperatures fell again and 34 million years ago the poles were covered in ice again. How this happened is also debated. Chlorophyll-containing water plants (Azola), that overgrew the oceans may have fixed CO2 from the air and taken it to the depths after dying off. The lowering CO2-concentrations would then have triggered a cooling of the atmosphere.
In the past there repeatedly were times with high CO2-concentrations and high temperatures. These tended to be year-millions in which life flourished and, for example in the Cambrian, virtually exploded.
Why are we then so concerned about a man-made increase of atmospheric CO2 ? The uniqueness of this CO2-increase is the extreme shortness of time, in which it takes place. Even the CO2-increase of the PETM was slower by some powers of ten compared to the current raise. For an evolutionary adaptation of the human species (and other species), this CO2-increase may be too fast to adapt (127). But maybe we can find (bio-) technological and intelligent solutions to adapt.
Studies from the field of occupational medicine that studied the effect of air quality in office building on human beings, found that already CO2-concentrations below 1000 ppm can affect human fitness and performance and be perceived as uncomfortable (128-130). The current atmospheric CO2-concentration is around 415 ppm and was around 280 ppm before industrialization 300 years ago).
For acute health injuries (vertigue, headache) to occur much higher CO2-concentrations around 40,000 ppm are required, however we do not know, how permanently elevated CO2-concentrations affect the general thriving of Homo sapiens. The worldwide broadly implemented mandate to wear face masks in 2020 increased the CO2-concentrations in the respiratory air of the mask-wearing individual, as exhaled air has a CO2-concentration of around 4% (40,000 ppm) and the air under the mask is a mix between trapped exhaled air and the surroundings. People get tired and the overall well-being is impaired. If regularly wearing such masks over hours leads to long-lasting damages to health is not known.
Even, when leaving aside the potential effects of increasing atmospheric CO2-concentrations on the biosphere (“climate change”), Homo sapiens may have to adapt to living in an atmosphere with higher CO2-concentrations than during the last 800,000 years, during which humans evolved. Speculations, to what extent wearing face masks can support the adaptation of Homo sapiens to elevated CO2-concentrations, are allowed.
From ice core analyses the air composition in former times can be deduced. The CO2-concentration of the atmosphere was stable around 280 ppm for the whole duration of Homo sapiens’ existence until around 1750. Meanwhile the CO2-concentration has surpassed 400 ppm and at the moment there is not only an increase of CO2-concentrations, but an increase of the increase (exponential growth). Before the end of the century, the atmospheric CO2-concentrations will surpass 600 ppm, a concentration that makes people tired when measured in office buildings or schools. Cognitive performances decline and concentration fades. Once the whole atmosphere of the earth has such elevated CO2-concentrations, opening a window won’t help anymore. In the human organism, around 85% of the CO2 are metabolized in the erythrocytes by the enzyme carboanhydrase to water and carbonic acid, which leads to acidosis. Around 8% of the CO2 are getting physically dissolved and the remaining 7% are bound as carbaminohemoglobin to the beta-chains of hemoglobin (131).
Should we start here to look for starting points, when it comes to making the human organism more CO2-tolerant? A human organism that is better adapted to higher CO2-levels may become necessary in a few hundred years. However, this might not even require a gene-technological adaptation as natural adaptation of the humam organism seems plausible. People living in high altitutdes over generations do not only show signs of physiological adaptations to the high altitudes, (with lower pressure and lower oxygen content) but also adaptations on the genome level.
Tibetians have larger vessels allowing to transport more oxygen and reducing the risk of thrombogenesis. Interestingly, the typical sequence of the EPAS1 gene for high altitude adaptations of the Tibetians could also be found in the genome of the Denisovians, the human species that lived until around 60,000 years ago. A small pinky bone found in the South-Siberian Altai mountains permitted the isolation of the DNA of the Denisovians and meanwhile a lower jaw bone of a Denisovian has been found in the highlands of Tibet (39).