In the late 1950s, soon after Watson and Crick had discovered
DNA's structure, scientists began predicting that someday we'd
be able to genetically engineer our children. We'd design them
to be healthy, smart and attractive, with life spans of 200
years, photographic memories, enhanced lung capacity for athletic
endurance, and more. Our children would pass these modifications
to their own children and add new ones as well. Humanity would
take control of its own evolution and kick it into overdrive.
Few people took these speculations very seriously. Could this
sort of genetic engineering really be done? Even if it could,
would anyone really want to do it? If they did, wouldn't society
step in and set limits? In any event, wouldn't it be decades
before we'd have to worry about this?
Now it's 2004, and those decades have passed. The era of genetically
modified humans is close upon us. Almost every day we read of
new breakthroughs: cloning, artificial chromosomes and now high-tech
sex selection. Scientists create genetically modified animals
on an assembly-line basis. Biotech entrepreneurs discuss the
potential market for genetically modified children at investors'
conferences. For the most part, society has not stepped in and
Last year Science magazine reported that a variant of the human
5-HTT gene reduces the risk of depression following stressful
experiences. Depression can be a devastating condition. Would
it be wrong if a couple planning to start a family used in vitro
fertilization procedures to have the 5-HTT gene variant inserted
into the embryos of their prospective children? Taken as an
isolated instance, many people would be hard-pressed to say
that it was.
In 1993, University of California at San Francisco biochemist
Dr. Cynthia Kenyon discovered a variant of the DAF-2 gene that
doubles the two-week life span of nematode worms. The university
filed for patents based on knowledge of the metabolic pathway
regulated by the human version of the DAF-2 gene. In 1999, Kenyon
and others founded Elixir Pharmaceuticals, a biotech firm. In
early 2003, Elixir licensed the university's patent rights to
Kenyon's discoveries and secured $17 million in private financing.
In an earlier interview with ABC News, Kenyon said she saw no
reason humans might not be able to achieve 200-year life spans.
Last June at Yale University, the World Transhumanist Association
held its first national conference. The Transhumanists have
chapters in more than 20 countries and advocate the breeding
of "genetically enriched" forms of "post-human"
beings. Other advocates of the new techno-eugenics, such as
Princeton University professor Lee Silver, predict that by the
end of this century, "All aspects of the economy, the media,
the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry [will
be] controlled by members of the GenRich class... Naturals [will]
work as low-paid service providers or as laborers..."
What happens then? Here's Dr. Richard Lynn, emeritus professor
at the University of Ulster, who, like Silver, supports human
genetic modification: "What is called for here is not genocide,
the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But
we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out'
of such peoples....Evolutionary progress means the extinction
of the less competent."
Notice that I've gone, in just four steps, from reducing susceptibility
to depression, to extending the human life span, to the creation
of a genetic elite, to proposals that genetically inferior people
be "phased out."
When first presented with this scenario, people typically respond
in one of two ways. Some say, "It's impossible." Others
say, "It's inevitable." Notice what these otherwise
diametrically different responses have in common: both counsel
passivity. If the "post-human future" is impossible,
there's no need to try to prevent it. If it's inevitable, such
efforts would be in vain.
Will it actually be possible to genetically engineer our children?
Most scientists who have studied this question conclude that
although the techniques need to be refined, there's no reason
to believe it can't be done. Meanwhile, research on stem cells,
cloning, artificial chromosomes and more continues to refine
Many people believe that to suggest that manipulating genes
can affect behavioral and cognitive traits in humans is to indulge
discredited ideologies of "genetic determinism." It's
true that the crude sociobiology of the 1970's has been discredited,
as have simplistic notions that there exist "I.Q. genes"
or "gay genes" that determine one's intelligence or
sexual orientation. But to say that genes have no influence
over traits is equally simplistic. Some genes have minimal influence,
others have greater influence. Some have influence in the presence
of certain environmental factors but no influence otherwise.
Few genes determine anything; most confer propensities.
Suppose scientists found a gene giving male children a 15 percent
greater chance of growing one inch taller than they would have
grown without that gene, all else equal. If fertility clinics
offered to engineer embryos to include this gene, would there
be customers? Yes. Couples would say, "In this competitive
world, I want to do anything I can that might give my child
Once we allow children to be designed through embryo modification,
where would we stop? If it's acceptable to modify one gene,
why not two? If two, why not 20? Or 200? There are some 30,000
genes in the human genome. Each contributes, in smaller or larger
proportions, to some propensity. Where would we stop? On what
Some suggest we allow embryo modification for certified medical
conditions and prohibit it for cosmetic or enhancement purposes.
It's unlikely that this would succeed. Prozac, Viagra and Botox
were all developed for medical purposes but in the blink of
an eye became hugely profitable cosmetic and enhancement consumer
Will the use of genetic engineering to redesign our children
exacerbate inequality? Amazingly, the neo-eugenic advocates
don't deny that it will. As good libertarians, they celebrate
free markets and social Darwinism, and counsel us to accept
a rising tide of genetically enhanced inequality as the inevitable
result of human ingenuity and desire.
But couldn't this be prevented? Wouldn't society step in? Several
years ago, a team of health policy academics examined a range
of proposals, including systems of national health insurance
making eugenic engineering available to all, or preferentially
to the poor, or by lottery. Despite their best efforts, they
couldn't identify any realistic set of policies that would prevent
the new eugenic technologies, once allowed at all, from generating
And consider the international implications. What happens when
some country announces an aggressive program of eugenic engineering
explicitly intended to create a new, superior, omni-competent
breed of human? What does the rest of the world do then?
We need to take a deep breath and realize what is going on
here. The birth of the first genetically modified child would
be a watershed moment in human history. It would set off a chain
of events that would feed back upon themselves in ways impossible
Everything we experience, everything we know, everything we
do is experienced, known and done by a species—homo sapiens—which
evolved through natural selection over hundreds of thousands
of years. We differ as individuals, but we are a single human
species with a shared biology so fundamental to what we are
that we are not even conscious of it, or of the manifold ways
it unites us. What happens if we begin changing that fundamental
Three hundred years ago the scientific and political leaders
of that era took as a self-evident fact the division of humanity
into "superior" and "inferior" types, designed
by Providence respectively as masters and slaves. Human beings
were bred, bought and sold, like cattle or dogs. After three
hundred years of struggle and bloodshed we are on the verge—barely—of
putting this awful legacy behind us.
Or maybe not. If left uncontrolled, the new human genetic technologies
could set us on a trajectory leading to a new Dark Age in which
people are once again regarded as little better than cattle
or dogs. Here is "bioethicist" Gregory Pence, who
has testified in support of human cloning before the U.S. Congress
"[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions
around children and adults. Could people be chosen in the same
way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim
for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders... try
to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"
The common initial responses to the prospect of the new techno-eugenics—"It's
impossible," and "It's inevitable"—are incorrect
and unhelpful. The response we need to affirm is at once more
realistic and more challenging: the techno-eugenic future certainly
is possible, and is certainly not inevitable.
In 1997, the Council of Europe negotiated an important international
agreement, the Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights. Thus
far, it has been signed by more than two-thirds of the Council's
45 member countries. The Convention draws the lines on human
genetic modification in just the right ways. It allows medical
research, including stem cell research, to continue, and does
not restrict abortion rights, but it bans genetic modifications
that would open the door to high-tech eugenic engineering. Many
countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have likewise begun
to address these issues through legislation.
These efforts are encouraging, but we have a long way to go
before such policies are implemented, as they must be, worldwide.
In some countries, notably the United States, the politics of
the new genetic technologies have become polarized to the point
of gridlock. The religious right insists on total bans on nearly
all human embryo research, while bio-research interests and
the biotech industry insist on nearly total freedom from any
meaningful social oversight and accountability.
In other countries, and at the international level, the challenge
of a new high-tech, free market eugenics, while worrisome, can
seem remote in comparison with the real existing challenges
of warfare, hunger and disease.
What is to be done? More than anything, we need to realize
the unprecedented nature of the challenges that the new human
genetic technologies present. We need to distinguish benign
applications of these technologies from pernicious ones, and
support the former while opposing the latter. Concerned organizations
and individuals need to engage these challenges and make their
voices heard worldwide. National and international leaders in
politics, the sciences and the arts need to declare that humanity
is not going to let itself be split asunder by human genetic
technology. The United Nations and other international bodies
need to give these issues the highest attention. The hour is
late. There is no greater challenge before us.
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