Genetic engineering is a hotly-debated topic. On the one hand, giant corporations, ambitious scientists and powerful politicians are pushing forward with projects they claim will benefit mankind, and on the other, public opinion, environmentalists and consumers' associations are concerned that these projects are insufficiently safeguarded and pose irreversible risks to life on this planet. In this paper I will set out the main issues in the debate on genetic engineering. First I will summarise the history of genetic science, and look at the origins of the debate. Then I will discuss the manipulation of plant, animal and human genes in turn, and consider the possible benefits and dangers of each. Finally, I will suggest that, for all its potential dangers, it is better for research to go ahead openly than for governments to try to ban such research altogether.
GE is quite a recent science. DNA, the basic material that determines genes, was discovered in 1953 (the discovery was announced in Nature magazine on April 25th, 1953), and 'It was only in 1956...that
cytogeneticists learned that each human cell contains 46 chromosomes' (Lipkin and Rowley, p. 4). 'Recombinant DNA' - which makes it possible to actually change or modify genes - was not discovered until 1973 (Howard and Rifkin, p. 13).
However, the debate about GE goes back much further. It was first popularised by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World (1932), in which humans are born in bottles ('test tube babies'), and genetically conditioned to think and behave in certain ways.
When GE became a scientific reality in the 1970s, the debate continued to focus largely on the mainulation of human genes, following the trend set by Huxley. (See, for example, Karp, 1976, Howard and Rifkin, 1977, the former in favour of GE, the latter mainly...