"By the early 1970s, as biologists began to decipher the mechanism by which genes were deployed to generate the astounding complexities of organisms, they also confronted the inevitable question of the intentional manipulation of genes in living beings. In April 1971, the US National Institutes of Health organized a conference to determine whether the introduction of deliberate genetic changes in organisms was conceivable in the near future. Provocatively titled Prospects for Designed Genetic Change, the meeting hoped to update the public on the possibility of gene manipulations in humans, and consider the social and political implications of such technologies.
No such method to manipulate genes (even in simple organisms) was available in 1971, the panelists noted—but its development, they felt confident, was only a matter of time. “This is not science fiction,” one geneticist declared. “Science fiction is when you […] can’t do anything experimentally … it is now conceivable that not within 100 years, not within 25 years, but perhaps within the next five to ten years, certain inborn errors … will be treated or cured by the administration of a certain gene that is lacking—and we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare society for this kind of change.” If such technologies were invented, their implications would be immense: the recipe of human instruction might be rewritten. Genetic mutations are selected over millennia, one scientist observed at the meeting, but cultural mutations can be introduced and selected in just a few years.
The capacity to introduce “designed genetic changes” in humans might bring genetic change to the speed of cultural change. Some human diseases might be eliminated, the histories of individuals and families changed forever; the technology would reshape our notions of heredity, identity, illness, and future. As Gordon Tomkins, the biologist from UCSF, noted: “So for the first time, large numbers of people are beginning to ask themselves: What are we doing?”
And thus repeats the cycle of questions... I just hope we keep on asking this, rather than assume to have an answer.