The Power and Peril of Genetic Technology: Reflections on Spider-Man

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The recent movie Spider-Man has exceeded all expectations, both from a business standpoint and as an entertaining “comic book movie” filled with lots of action, enjoyable humor, and romance. Although not intended to be a profound movie, Spider-Man raises some interesting issues relevant to bioethics—namely, genetic enhancement and the unrestricted pursuit of scientific advancement. High school “science geek” Peter Parker gains “super spider powers” after he is accidentally bitten by a genetically altered spider during a school trip to a science institute. Millionaire scientist Norman Osborn becomes Spider-Man’s nemesis, the “Green Goblin,” after participating in his own unapproved experiment in order to secure continued military funding of his research. Though a super-hero action movie, Spider-Man introduces viewers to biotech dilemmas, perhaps paving the way for societal acceptance of emerging biotechnologies.

Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man by accident, and (unlike some super heroes) remains one of us. It is not Peter’s fault that the science institute was genetically altering spiders, nor did he have a desire to obtain super powers. By contrast, Norman Osborn unscrupulously pursues human-enhancement experiments for military purposes and in an unanticipated way acquires characteristics other than those he sought to engineer. Though Spider-Man deals with the use of power, it offers a (subtle) warning about the quest for power.

While Spider-Man repeatedly offers the warning that “with great power comes great responsibility,” the movie actually offers the audience a justification for genetic alteration. After all, Peter turns out okay: he gets the girl he desires and defeats the Green Goblin. And (in contrast to Norman Osborn) the science institute that created the genetically altered spider is portrayed as “responsible.” Unlike other super heroes, Spider-Man’s powers stem from genetic alteration, which is increasingly available to us (though we aren’t fast gaining the ability to shoot spider webs).

Medicine and biotechnology have seen rapid advances in recent decades with the emergence of truly incredible capacities to treat disease, save life, and improve the quality of human existence. But why stop at mere treatment? Wouldn’t you also want to be like Spider-Man? With the growing emergence of genetic testing and genetic intervention, the line between therapy and enhancement is likely to become increasingly blurred. (As noted in the cover article of this issue, some have even chosen, astonishingly, to cross the bright line between technologically-mediated therapy and technologically-mediated harm.)

Spider-Man highlights the human temptation to better ourselves, to become “superior” to what we now are. History reveals many attempts to “improve” the human race, many of which required the removal of those deemed “imperfect “ Not that long ago, Supreme Court Justice Holmes stated in his Buck v. Bell ruling that, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Though eugenic sterilization theories have been debunked, once genetic alteration is viewed as a good it will likely be viewed as obligatory. Those who seek to genetically perfect humanity wrongly value people for their abilities, rather than simply because they are human.