Synthetic Eugenics and Scientific Silence

Posted by Daniel Sharp June 21, 2012
Biopolitical Times
Last week, I flew cross-country to a symposium on synthetic biology organized by the National Academy of Sciences. While much of the symposium was as I expected, I was appalled that a growing number of synthetic biologists seem to support re-engineering future generations of human beings in fundamental and radical ways.

Using synthetic biology techniques to redesign the human germline came up a number of times, with little recognition of the serious ethical problems it would pose. For example, Peter Leadlay, a biologist at the University of Cambridge, remarked:
I’m really interested in nature, but I do not see any problem, and I’m struggling to understand why other people have a problem, with changing the genetic makeup of a human if it is done reflectively, thoughtfully, we have good reason to believe it might work, and it alleviates human suffering.  So, I think that it is perfectly proper to do that, and it is just part of what we’ve been doing already for the same reasons.
Jaydee Hanson of the International Center for Technology Assessment reminded the speaker that there’s an old name for this practice: eugenics. But no one from the synthetic biology community took Leadlay to task.  In fact, quite the opposite: The twittersphere buzzed with hostility at Hanson’s suggestion that using synthetic biology for eugenic purposes should be prohibited, and with the repeated claim that this would undermine key research.

Remarks like Leadlay’s wouldn’t be so disturbing if they were isolated incidents.  But a number of leading synthetic biologists seem to share his view that modifying fundamental aspects of human biology in irreversible ways is “perfectly proper.” Here’s a list of similar statements: 
•    Drew Endy: “What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?”
•    Craig Venter: “Not too many things excite my imagination as trying to design organisms – even people – for long term space flight, and perhaps colonization of other worlds.”
•    George Church: “I wouldn't mind being virus-free,” he says with equal parts mirth and earnestness. It may be too late to reengineer all of his own cells to prevent viral infections, but Church doesn't rule out the possibility of rewiring the genome of a human embryo to be virus-proof.
•    Andrew Hessel: “[P]erhaps it's time to consider a new grand challenge for genetics, one that captures the public interest. I can think of none grander than an international effort to write a human genome. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm talking only about the task of writing a complete 3 billion basepair human genome, correctly organized into 23 chromosomes, and packaged into a nucleus. A technical challenge, validated by showing the synthetic genome is functional if microinjected into a cultured cell. What I'm definitely not suggesting is growing a baby from a synthetic genome. Before we can fly, we need to be able to walk”
•    JohnJoe McFadden:  “But why stop with microbes? It will soon be possible to make entirely novel forms of plants or animals (including man).”

Surely not all synthetic biology researchers share these techno-eugenic dreams. An article by one critic, New York Medical College Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy Stuart Newman, can be found here. But with only a few exceptions, the eugenic fantasies of leading synthetic biologists have been met so far by a disturbing silence in the scientific community. Here’s hoping that more of their colleagues will speak up to challenge them.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: