The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
January 2011 – Vol. 13 Issue 11
What makes each living being uniquely itself? “Its DNA,” is a common response. This substance has become tantamount to fundamental identity, with each life seen as the expression of genetic material worked out in an environment. But what about the many organisms that share exactly the same genetic material, and often the same environment? One-celled creatures reproduce by cell division and so are genetically identical to their offspring, barring mutation. Most plants propagate sexually, but may also be produced by methods where offspring have the same DNA as the parent, such as grafting, cuttings, runners, and division. Violets may be grown from a single leaf, yet despite being genetically identical to the parent plant and other siblings, each violet plant is undeniably an individual with its own existence, history and offspring. Having the same DNA insures uniform appearance and other physical qualities, but each plant is a separate and unique entity, despite being clones.
The cloning of mammals captures popular imagination much more strongly because it makes us think what it would mean if applied to humans. Questions arise: Could I be exactly duplicated? What is my “self”? What makes me unique? The fact that identical twins share the same DNA yet are two distinct people with different personal qualities doesn’t seem to reassure people. What might cause this difference when there is no difference in DNA? Environment certainly contributes to uniqueness, and scientists are finding that the way genes express themselves is very involved and environmentally sensitive. Perhaps as complex systems, living beings fall under the principles of chaos theory, where minute variations in initial conditions result in great discrepancies over time.
What other factors might explain uniqueness despite genetic identity? Most scientists explain consciousness as a by-product of the body; older traditions often hold the opposite view. Many religions posit an enduring or evolving soul that expresses itself through the body. Some of these see such souls as eternally separate creations, others believe all souls are fundamentally one with the underlying essence of the cosmos, still others see them as a temporary life force. The relation of soul and body is also an issue. In Christianity and Islam, the body is so basic to people’s self that it accompanies them into the afterlife by physical resurrection. In systems with reincarnation, the soul expresses itself through a different body in each life, though sometimes its physical and psychological bodies are formed of attributes and materials used in the previous life. Or the soul may be thought to embody again and again in one family line.
Perhaps the union of awareness and experience is itself enough to constitute a unique identity. In Buddhism each being is a wave of karmic energy that perpetuates itself into the future. This energy implies no permanent center or self, but remains separate through its illusory sense of selfhood and thirst for existence. Those who transcend the illusion of separateness achieve liberation. In the Daoist view, reality is a flux that the mind is incapable of comprehending. In seeking to label and “know” each being as a permanent identity, the mind moves farther from reality into a rigid world of its own creation. Only by being receptive to what is naturally happening in the present moment do beings conform to reality and thus avoid conflict and find peace.
Mystics may say that fundamentally all is a oneness, yet separate identity is very dear to us. Perhaps the surprising and sometimes alarming possibilities raised by modern biotechnology will force us to think more deeply about the essential individuality of ourselves and all beings. – Sally Dougherty
Interfaith Discussion: Tending Adam’s Garden Study/Dialogue Circle continues Sunday, January 9, with “What Must Humans Do/ Be to Resolve Conflict Peacefully?” It will be from 3:30 - 6 p.m. at St Peter's United Methodist Church, 17222 NE 8th Street, Bellevue. For more information or to RSPV, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. (flier)
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month our topic is DNA and Genetic Engineering. We’ll be discussing such questions as: What are current applications of genetic engineering, their benefits and risks? Who should decide what uses and precautions are appropriate: scientists, corporations, investors, governments, citizens? Should patents be issued for plants, animals, human cells and other entities? Is creating transgenetic creatures wise? What are likely impacts of genetically modified foods on consumers, farmers, and the environment? What use should private companies and governments make of people’s genetic information? Will human genetic engineering lead to eugenic abuses? Does our genetic material contain or explain our entire being or self? What makes an individual unique, particularly in light of cloning? (Quotes on this topic.) We hope to see you there!
February 1: The Bill of Rights: The First Amendment
March: The Subconscious and Unconscious
April: The Atomic Theory
Just what does the coming of a New Year mean? To some, it means parties, whistles, noise and confetti; to others, it means a quiet watch at home. But when the midnight hour rings farewell to the old and welcome to the new, to all there is born a new hope for the year ahead. Those who leave behind a difficult year give a joyous au revoir to their problems, feeling that the New Year will bring better days. Others, to whom the past year has been fruitful and happy, join the celebration with their thoughts looking forward to added joy. Some make resolutions which range from simple abstinences to the high resolve to live for the benefit of others. And so the New Year is born with our attention focused on the 365 days to come, whatever they may bring of weal or woe.
While we must think and work in terms of the present and of the year immediately ahead, we can lose our way if we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the fleeting moment, thereby missing the perspective of the greater passage of time. What happens when we consider the moment, the year, in relation to the larger view? The immediate problems that you and I face decrease in significance in proportion to the distance of the horizon surrounding us. This is true not only for individuals but for nations and the whole of humanity.
A parallel phenomenon occurs as the horizon of our thought is extended: you and I become less and less important; and as we look further, nations individually lose their self-importance. Forms of government, national units, and civilizations come and go, but mankind remains. The constant is the ever flowing life-stream of humanity which inhabits this globe. The men and women who represent this life-stream in our generations will find themselves gaining experience this year which will be added to the sum-total of that of uncounted generations that have gone before.
For what did those countless generations live? For themselves? Perhaps they, like us, thought so. But did they? They lived for us, just as we today are living for the generations to follow, whether we will or no. In the unfoldment of natural evolutionary growth, every individual who has gone before has contributed his or her life that we might live; and as the life-stream of souls continues to seek experience, we contribute our share to the human beings of the future.
There is a destiny that has made all people brothers and sisters, a high destiny that reaches beyond our ken and drives us onward to goals of accomplishment we sense but cannot see. We, the people of today, are living that destiny.
Mankind in the future will survive the fall of nations and civilizations, just as it survived them in the past and as it will survive the difficulties of the present. Its strength and courage are inbuilt – an accumulation of the sacrifices of generations which have gone before, sacrifices that in the aggregate have built into our character the involuntary will to live and work for the future. This will to work for the future can mean but one thing: we are working for others. When we cast off these mortal frames, we leave behind an immortal heritage. However insignificant and lowly it may seem, we bequeath to humanity that which we are. The quality of our lives is not lost. It remains and is absorbed in the reservoir of consciousness that finds expression through future generations.
Thus mankind has progressed for millennia, surviving the decline and fall of each new civilization and building anew to grander heights. Thinking in terms of a few centuries alone, we can lose the thread of the full cycle; but the endless thread reaches around to itself again and again, winding its spiral way toward a new golden era. But that era is made possible only through those sacrifices we each make for the benefit of the whole of mankind. It is not a spectacular thing, not accompanied by fanfare of action and noise. It is as quiet as a thought, and occurs in the silence of the heart of each one of us as we recognize our absolute interdependence; as we strive to understand the other fellow and help him or her to understand us; as we look, however momentarily, with compassion toward those less fortunate than ourselves.
This New Year comes to a world faced with the greatest opportunities that humanity has found before it in many centuries, opportunities offering incalculable promise for the future. Mankind has earned a heritage and a destiny ground from the sacrifices of those who deliberately gave something of themselves for the benefit of the whole. It is our responsibility to add to that heritage and strengthen that destiny, and resolve consciously to sacrifice something of ourselves for the benefit of our fellow humans. The challenge is supreme and requires strong hearts and steady minds. Yet the cosmic Law will never fail us if we, the people of all nations, do our part.
The natural has no special moral status; it merely has a practical pedigree. That which is natural has the advantage of having been show to work, and we should bear that in mind. But no gene ever knew what would work in advance, or applied itself to a greater purpose than its own replication; the choices recorded in the genome are not moral choices. Morality has only now come to the genome, because only now is the genome open to deliberate action by people with foresight and responsibility. We can choose life in ways nature could not. But we should not be bound by it. – Oliver Morton
Many think that it is inherently unfair for some people to have access to technologies that can provide advantages while others, less well-off, are forced to depend on chance alone. I would agree. It is inherently unfair. But once again, American society adheres to the principle that personal liberty and personal fortune are the primary determinants of what individuals are allowed and able to do. Anyone who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an expensive private school education cannot use “unfairness” as a reason for rejecting the use of reprogenetic technologies. – Lee M. Sliver
The new genetic engineering technologies raise one of the most troubling political questions in all of human history. To whom, in this new era, would we entrust the authority to decide what is a good gene that should be added to the gene pool and what is a bad gene that should be eliminated? Should we entrust the federal government with that authority? Corporations? The university scientists? … We appear caught between our instinctual distrust of the institutional forces that are quickly consolidating their power over the new genetic technologies and our desire to increase our own personal choices and options in the biological marketplace. While control of the new genetic technologies is being concentrated in the hands of scientists, transnational companies, government agencies, and other institutions, the products and services are being marketed under the guise of expanding freedom of choice for millions of consumers.
… Many of us will be eager to take advantage of the new gene therapies, both for ourselves and for our offspring, if they deliver on their promise to enhance our physical, emotional, and mental health. After all, part of the essence of being truly human is the desire to alleviate suffering and enhance human potential. …In the decades to come, we humans might well barter ourselves away, one gene at a time, in exchange for some measure of temporary well-being. – Jeremy Rifkin
The patenting of genetically engineered foods and widespread biotech food production threatens to eliminate farming as it has been practiced for 12,000 years. GE patents such as the Terminator Technology will render seeds infertile and force hundreds of millions of farmers who now save and share their seeds to purchase ever more expensive GE seeds and chemical inputs from a handful of global biotech/seed monopolies. If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenic plants and food-producing animals will soon lead to universal “bioserfdom” in which farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomerates such as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds and offspring. Family and indigenous farmers will be driven off the land and consumers’ food choices will be dictated by a cartel of transnational corporations. – Ronnie Cummins (Quotes continued on back) The Bt crops … are programmed to churn out toxin during the entire growing season, regardless of the level of infestation. This sort of prophylactic control greatly increases the likelihood of resistance because it tends to maximize exposure to the toxin – it’s the plant equivalent of treating antibiotics like vitamins. – Brian Halweil
… Should we use biotech for human breeding? Genetic science is more likely to come up with a test that tells which embryos are prone to develop cancer prematurely than it is to come up with a cancer cure. Diagnosing an embryo should prove easier and cheaper than reversing disease in a fully grown adult. Given a choice between fetuses that have perhaps 20 years’ difference in their likely life spans, which would you choose?... Biotech startups have an equally naked drive: They want to show enough profit potential to be bought out by the multinational pharmaceuticals. And these big boys simply want to stimulate consumer demand and control markets, whatever the consequences. In the marketplace that we’ve deified, few moral checks and balances remain. Our great research universities, for example, don’t want ethical considerations to limit their own biotech royalties.
Does the nature of such seekers influence the outcome of the search? Yes. Character is as powerful as DNA in the shaping of destiny. A cure for cancer would be astonishing, but do we really want to experiment with a genetic solution for wrinkles? … Three or four generations from now, elites may have been genetically reshaped through selective breeding. Will these new people be grateful for the characteristics we picked? Or will they feel divorced from us in some undefinable way? Perhaps their longing for old-fashioned connectedness will be tinged with contempt. They may contend that we didn’t transform human nature primarily for their sake, but for our own vanity. – Jeffrey Klein
Can we forecast a connection between genetic discrimination and selective abortion? Yes. A couple in Louisiana had a child with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder leading to chronic lung infections and excruciating discomfort. When the wife became pregnant with the second child, a prenatal genetic test revealed that the fetus carried the mutant gene for cystic fibrosis. The couple’s health maintenance organization demanded that they abort. If they refused to abort, the HMO would withdraw coverage from both the newborn and the first child. Only when the couple threatened to sue did the HMO back down and grant coverage for the second child. … It is not unrealistic to imagine the insurance industry publishing a list of disqualifying genetic predispositions. If one of the predispositions were found in a fetus, the industry would mandate an abortion under penalty of loss of coverage. A social byproduct of selective abortion might be increased discrimination against people living with disabilities. The assumption could grow that to live with a disability is to have a life not worth living. Persons with disabilities fear that the medical establishment and its supportive social policies will seek to prevent “future people like me” from ever being born. … The imputation of dignity to handicapped persons may be quietly withdrawn as they are increasingly viewed as unnecessary and expensive appendages to an otherwise healthy society. – Ted Peters
The European Patent Office, for example, awarded a patent to the U.S. company Biocyte, giving it ownership of all human blood cells which have come from the umbilical cord of a newborn child and are being used for any therapeutic purposes. The patent is so broad that it allows this one company to refuse the use of any blood cells from the umbilical cord to any individual unwilling to pay the patent fee. Blood cells from the umbilical cord are particularly important for marrow transplants, making it a valuable commercial asset. It should be emphasized that this patent was awarded simply because Biocyte was able to isolate the blood cells and deep-freeze them. The company made no change in the blood itself. A similarly broad patent was awarded to Systemix Inc. of Palo Alto, California, by the U.S. Patent Office, covering all human bone marrow stem cells. This extraordinary patent on a human body part was awarded despite the fact that Systemix had done nothing whatsoever to alter or engineer the cells. Dr. Peter Quisenberry, the medical affairs vice chairman of the Leukemia Society of America, quipped, “Where do you draw the line? Can you patent a hand?” – Jeremy Rifkin