Nobel Prize-winning American geneticist, Hermann J. Muller. Photo by Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Patrick Watson had just been fired from the CBC when he wrote this Observer cover story 50 years ago this month. Citing recent advances in molecular research, Watson imagined it would not be long before scientists could clone babies from a single strand of genetic material. The religious and moral implications were staggering. “Should we refuse the power?” he asked. “Should we consider the use of it tampering — playing God — and shun it?” Fifty years later, creating embryos by in vitro fertilization is commonplace, animals have been cloned and researchers have created a single cell from scratch. The artificial baby Watson envisioned has not yet materialized, but dozens of countries — Canada included — have passed legislation banning human reproductive cloning.

Suppose you were offered the opportunity to determine, with certainty, that your next child would be male, blond, 6’ 2” tall at maturity, have an IQ of 150, a capacity for music, an immunity to cancer, or indeed any other combination of hereditary characteristics you wished to dictate.

Would you accept the offer? Is there a moral problem involved? The question cannot be dismissed as frivolous or fanciful. It is one that our grandchildren may very well face. Scientists believe the gift is almost theirs to offer now. And the moral dilemmas that accompany the issue may be more exquisite and perplexing than they at first appear.

Let’s examine one. Suppose the federal government asks, in a referendum, public support to counteracts the pill-induced birthrate slump with a government corporation operating a factory to produce babies in-vitro, without benefit of mothers: test-tube babies. The government guarantees that all products of the factory will have top intellectual capacity, perfect physical health and excellent emotional stability, etc.

How about you vote? What should the Christian think, say, do?

Like the babies-to-order proposition, the people factory is neither preposterous nor safely ignorable. Both ideas are perfectly logical extrapolations from scientific work that has already been done. They are not my own extrapolations. They are the sober prediction of responsible scientists who have themselves done the underlying work.

This has been an age of explosions. The atomic explosion is spectacular; for 15 years it has occupied our minds with implications of ultimate power, and the possible end of the race.

In the 1960s, we have become aware of a second explosion that may dim the brightness of Hiroshima: the electronic boom. The computer and all its communications brethren promise to make work as we know it obsolete, and totally to transform our environment into a McLuhanesque nightmare that challenges every man to reassess his values, his purposes, and his identity.

But compared to the biological explosion in the amidst of which we now live and reproduce and die, the bomb and the computer dwindle in their import, in their power to transform, in their confrontation of the conscience, wisdom and values of men and of mankind. This is why it is such a critical moment to be a Christian. Having found the key the unlocks the code of life, man stands ready to transform that ultimate environment, his body. Although the practical realization of the people factory and of babies-to-order still its some distance in the future, a review of discoveries that have already been made, and the accelerating rate of discovery, shows that it is by no means too early to ask ourselves questions of purpose: to what end do we wish to transform our body environment? Why? What for?

In 1960 I filmed a conversation with Hermann J. Muller, the American Nobel Prize winner whose work with the chromosomes of fruit flies was an early genetic breakthrough. Muller at that time was proposing a scheme to improve the human race by establishing massive banks of frozen human sperm taken from donors. The donors’ physical and mental characteristics could be watched carefully during their lifetime, and assessed with the most intensive scrutiny after their death. The most outstanding would be selected with the purpose of their siring (posthumously, by artificial insemination in natural mothers), whole generations of brilliant and healthy posterity. Even greater control, Muller thought, could be achieved by fertilizing ova from eugenically desirable mothers, for subsequent implantation and gestation in any woman who desired to bear such a child.

There were those who considered Muller heretical or at least fanciful. yet now, his thought is called classical by the younger biologists, whose laboratory accomplishments of the last few years have made it almost obsolete. When Muller began to develop his ideas, human ova had to be retrieved from the genital tract one at a time, one-per-woman-per-month.

Since then, relatively simple techniques have been found for retrieving thousands of ova surgically, keeping them alive in-vitro (that is, in artificial surroundings) and maturing them to readiness for fertilization. Sperm can now be capacitated, and the American, Howard Jones, has successfully achieved fertilization in-vitro. He has not yet been able to maintain life in the fertilized egg until it begins to divide and multiply and start the fantastic and still mysterious process of specialization into the heart cells, and spleen cells, and brain and skin and bone and blood that will become a human child.

But in Italy, in 1961, Daniel Petrucci claimed success in developing a human embryo to the fourth week in an artificial womb. Petrucci’s work was stopped; he was never able to convince fellow scientist of the truth of this claims. But no one declares his achievement impossible. And rumor in the biological community is that the Russians picked up where Petrucci left off, and that they will this year bring a baby to term.

Fantastic?

Perhaps, but the work of Jones and Petrucci (and the Russians if they are really at it) still involves basically natural processes in an artificial environment. Compared to the possibilities that seem to lie in the work  being done on the basic molecules of life itself, the idea of the test tube baby already seems crude, its techniques seem gross, its possibilities circumscribed.

We knew what DNA was made of. And it was thought that if we could discover its structure, we might find out how it worked, how it conveyed its myriad instructions, how it was possible that a few simple substances could combine to produce the seemingly endless variety of life.

A more careful substance

By the mid-century mark, scientists were reasonably certain that a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), complex in structure but composed of a small number of identifiable substances, is a substance more fateful than uranium. The genes, those tiny instructions written in every living cell to tell the organism what it is and what it must become, are nothing more than single molecules of DNA.

We knew what DNA was made of. And it was thought that if we could discover its structure, we might find out how it worked, how it conveyed its myriad instructions, how it was possible that a few simple substances could combine to produce the seemingly endless variety of life.

That thought proved correct.

In 1953 James Watson, an American, and Francis Crick, an Englishman, conceived a model of DNA, since verified by many scientists. It showed the molecule to be a long spiral chain of four basic nitrogen compounds that act as code components, or letters. The arrangement of these letters on the spiral determines the characteristics the gene will produce. Combinations of letters, called words, encode specific instructions. There is even punctuation, in the form of nonsense groupings of letters that apparently tell the molecule when to stop reproducing itself.

La creation,” said L’Express of Paris, “n’est qu’un immense alphabet.” Life is nothing but a huge alphabet. So close is the correspondence between the work of the nucleic acids and the function of the language that a messenger molecule has been identified that takes instructions encoded in the DNA and introduces them into the replicating process. This communications basis of biology was recognized at York University, Toronto, last winter in an experimental communications seminar that included in it staff a biologist specializing in the DNA code. He was not in the least out of place among the linguists and the media men.

Fortune magazine reporting genetic developments as late as 1960 felt constrained to put quotation marks around words like letter and messenger. The quotation marks have vanished now. We know, as certainly as science can know anything, that life has its language, composed of letters and words, and sentences even; and we are starting to learn how to read the language.

What has all this got to do with test-tube babies?

Well, a baby is nothing more than the expression of the language of DNA. Conceivably, should we ever thoroughly understand, and become fluent in that language, the need for mothers and fathers might disappear. All the inherent characteristics of an individual are recorded in the DNA in each of his body cells. Given one cell from the body of, say, Albert Einstein, if we could read the language of the cell, could we replicate the person?

Last April, a California zoologist, Olaf Carlson, declared that we will certainly be able to reconstruct an exact physical living copy of King Tutankhamen, using the codified protein materials in his mummified body.

“For example, once the genetic code of a great genius is determined, hundreds of thousands of his duplicates can be created for the world’s benefit,” Dr. Carlson said, as reported by Associated Press. These people would have all the physical and mental characteristics of the original, though of course none of his memories or experience. They would be grown from a single cell.

Do they believe it? It may be important if they try.

A few more events should be noted, as components of our exploding biosphere. The nucleic acids not only direct heredity and growth, they are present and active in learning, in mental disease, in emotional changes, probably in all significant aspects of behavior. Already experiments are in process to determine whether the nucleic acids from a simple animal that has learned to run a maze can, if transferred to an untrained animal, speed up his learning rate. The early indications are positive.

A learning pill?

A sanity pill?

And perhaps, for the man whose view of life is determined by faith in his Creator, the most significant achievement of all has been made by Sol Spiegelman of Illinois. Professor Spiegelman was able to announce about one year ago that he and his colleagues had successfully synthesized living virus from non-living material.

True, a virus is a simple form of life; little more than single molecule of acid with a protein coat. True, Professor Spiegelman used, as one essential ingredient, a ribonucleic acid (RNA) primer that was biological origin.

The fact remains that new life was produced from non-living material. It was created in the laboratory from non-living matter, yet it could recreated itself.

It is far more important to consider the effects of the biological explosion on our ability to love one another.

Essential mystery


I have to confess that my personal theology is not likely to be upset by Sol Spiegelman, even if he succeeds in making life from dead scratch. I have never found my sense of the reality or unreality of God strengthened or weakened by consideration of his role as creator of good men and bad, nor by notions of the exact point at which he takes a hand in creation. Like many of my contemporaries, I am not sure how I see God, indeed unsure that I see him at all. But life seems no less miraculous for me when I contemplate the wonder of scientific discovery. Behind the discovery will always lie essential mystery. Although the scientist is sometimes said to be committed to de-mystifying life, he never can. He solves puzzles; behind the grandest puzzle he can ever solve still will lie mystery. Professor Spiegelman’s discovery to me signals not the occasion for despair, but for rejoicing, rejoicing in the participation of all of us in the act of discovery and the richness of knowing.

I would agree that it is important to examine the significance of “Our father who art in Heaven” to a child who is spawned in a bottle, but I think it is far more important to consider the effects of the biological explosion on our ability to love one another.

If the task of the Christian is to help make a community wherein every person can realize his gifts to the maximum (and I think many contemporary Christians so interpret the act of giving glory to God), then he must earnestly and prayerfully consider how to proceed when he is offered the power to control not only the nature of the environment but the nature of the inhabitant.

Should we refuse the power? Should we consider the use of it tampering — playing God — and shun it?

Do we shun medicine? Do we want to tolerate the continuance of schizophrenia, cancer, mongolism, limb deformities, idiocy and any other hereditary defect, if we we can use any tool at all to eliminate them?

But are we wise enough? We don’t manage particularly well the controls we have developed over our external environment. We use power to kill and wealth to pollute. Can we guarantee ourselves we will not use eugenic power to corrupt, to manipulate, to subject human beings?

Who will love the test-tube baby?

How can we pretend that, having manipulated a — person — from the time he was a single cell, or even from the time he was a set of molecular codes in a computer, that we will ever be prepared to stop manipulating him, and let him live an autonomous life?

And who, if we are to breed generations of genius, shall deem himself wise enough to choose the model or dictate the description? Shall we do it by referendum, democratically, like writing a poem by committee?

Or leave it to the computer?

That seems inhuman, doesn’t it?

But if you are prepared to let a computer save your life, in aircraft guidance systems, or medical diagnosis, why should you refuse to use it to help design a human person whose body and mind and capacities we all would aspire to for our children?

Is the use of human invention to bring about human life essentially inhuman? Is it necessarily God-less if its result is in the image of man who is in the image of God?

Clearly the answers are not simple, unless we wish to be absolute and unrealistic? The explosion is on us. It might be wise to start preparing for the day — just in case it ever comes — when we learn that DNA encodes the instructions, not only for life, but for death, and that these rules, too, can be changed.

Patrick Watson is the former host of CBC’s “This Hour Has Seven Days” and lectures at the University of Waterloo.



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