Weak Arguments For Modifying the Human Germline

Biopolitical Times
Portrait of John Harris holding his glasses ready to speak.

At last week’s International Summit on Human Gene Editing, philosopher John Harris made the case for heritable human genetic modification. According to three reliable sources with previous experience of the Manchester-based Harris, he did so in a significantly more understated manner than usual.

One is compelled to conclude that in mid-season form, his act lacks only a red nose and a dancing bear to qualify for an old-fashioned circus (which the Summit was not). Straw men blazed under the withering scorn of his sarcastic ridicule (unlike Monty Python's Doug Piranha, litotes seems not to be part of his arsenal). Some of his gags are so old and trite that I remember them from my own childhood, and at least one particularly sexist poke has been rolling around for 90-odd years. Talking points that should long have been left to rot in peace were exhumed and animated as if by Dr. Frankenstein himself.

OK, enough. A little comedy is fine, but it should be a seasoning, not the main dish.

Video of his performance can be found here (Day 1, Part 3). (Deaf activists pushed for captioning but there’s none on the archived version.) There seems to be no official transcript, but I had access to an audio recording. Much of the talk was included in two preprints he handed out, and also in this peer-reviewed article and this Op-Ed. The italicized numbered headings are accurate paraphrases of Harris’ comments, and all quotations have been checked.

Attempting to Rebut the Objections

Harris began by listing, and attempting to counter, what he understands to be three principal objections to human germline interventions that are “very obvious and obviously fallacious and dogmatic.” In brief, they are: these affect future generations; the risks to future generations are unacceptable; and consent from future generations cannot be obtained. On all three, his characterizations and counter-arguments are, to put it politely, seriously flawed.

1. Gene editing may affect future generations; this “is sometimes known as the argument that the human germline is sacred and mustn’t be interfered with.”

Harris sets this up and rejects it on the grounds that it is absurd. Really, that’s it. That’s his whole argument. He specifically asserts that the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights,

rushed through in 1997 in an attempt to stop the wicked prospect of human cloning, absurdly endorses, and I quote “the preservation of the human genome as the common heritage of humanity.”

That quote is not in the Declaration. The closest assertion is that

The human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity. In a symbolic sense, it is the heritage of humanity.

Google suggests that Harris may have been misled by the phrasing in a book by Justine Burley.

Likewise he dismisses the Council of Europe’s Oviedo Declaration as “nonsense.” He approves of Germany’s failure to sign, as well as the UK and US, without apparently understanding that the German objection was that the Declaration was too permissive. After their country's experiences in the mid-twentieth century, Germans are notoriously wary of anything that even hints at eugenics.

Harris’ was, in my recollection, the only use of the term sacred in the entire three-day event. Certainly there are people who use this argument, which is toxic to a certain brand of atheist, but many others express qualms on the subject without appeals to religion. The Harris claim of absurdity is, in a word, absurd.

2. Gene editing constitutes an unacceptable risk to future generations.

Nicholas Evans has taken Harris’ argument against this to the woodshed, extremely politely and at greater length than I have here. I refer you to his piece at Impact Ethics.

One further comment: Harris claimed that “so-called normal” sexual reproduction is “a very dangerous activity indeed, and one often described as a genetic lottery,” adding that, as a novel technology, it “would never have been permitted or licensed … it’s far too dangerous.” He did get a laugh with this, which I suppose was the point, but ridicule of a naturally evolved and not entirely understood function is not much of an argument in favor of adopting a technological replacement — unless of course Harris is really advocating an end to reproductive sexual activity, in which case he may be, so to speak, shooting himself in the foot.

3. The alleged inability to obtain the consent of those future generations to the ways in which they might be affected.

Harris quoted the NIH statement by Francis Collins, accurately, so he is at least correct that this is one of the arguments made. His response:

But consent is simply irrelevant in these cases for the simple and sufficient reason that there are no relevant people in existence capable of either giving or withholding their consent to these sorts of changes in their own germline.

He calls the argument “an absurdity” and adds that “all parents decide for their present and future children until such children are capable of consenting for themselves.”

Harris is a trained philosopher and a good logic-chopper but here he’s pretending to be a fool. He is taking a metaphor and slicing it as if it were an axiom. We shall not see time-travelers affixing signatures to documents and no one pretends we shall. There are, however, legitimate concerns about parental expectations, and about the relationship of society as a whole to its future members. We do not allow child abuse, we do insist on education. At the margins, some of these questions are difficult — what curriculum? how many hours on, say, music lessons? — but it is at least a legitimate position to insist that parents not try to specify what kind of child they will accept or reject on genetic grounds.

Positively, Harris asserts that parents have a right, and arguably a duty, to produce the “best” children. His point might be more persuasive were it to include some definition of the “best” or even of the “better.” But he made no attempt to do so, probably because he is not a fool. Here I refer the reader to Daniel Kevles, who spoke earlier in the meeting, and other experts on eugenics. Down that road lie many problems.

On Controlling Evolution and GMOs

It might be entertaining to annotate Harris’ entire speech, but I shall restrict myself to a couple of the more obnoxious statements.

“Our sun will die,” he asserted, and we’d better fix ourselves up to survive elsewhere. He’s panicking a bit, I’d say, given that the end of the planet is probably further away than its beginnings, and certainly orders of magnitude further than the existence thus far of our species. Or perhaps, as Stephen Hawkins recently suggested, the Earth will be uninhabitable within a mere thousand years. Either way, we’d better get on it.

His suggestion that opposition to so-called "Golden Rice" has put the blood of millions on the hands of supposedly irrational opponents of GMOs is not only hyperbolic but uninformed.

On Cloning and IVF

Harris likes to link Dolly the sheep and Louise Brown the person. In a paper to be published in January (Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Vol. 25, No. 1), he refers to the “common factors between Louise Brown and the, family name deficient, Dolly.” Similarly: “Louise Brown and Dolly are related also by the unfortunate prejudice against them from those who objected and continue to object to the birth of each.”

It's not necessary to be highly religious and/or a human essentialist to find this comparison tasteless. Harris evidently thinks it not only amusing but important. Essentially, he claims that the arguments about heritable human genetic modification closely match — one might grope for a metaphor here — the arguments about animal cloning.

He considerably exaggerates the negative reaction to Ms Brown’s birth, and at least by implication misrepresents the Opinion Poll data both on animal cloning (generally opposed by close to a 2–1 margin) and the use of IVF (generally supported by about 7–1).

He also relies heavily on the hoary old claim that twins are clones. No, they are not. There is a significant difference between attempting to combine two damaged cells and coax them into embryonic differentiation, and the splitting of a fertilized ovum. Natural twins do encounter higher rates of premature birth, for example, than singletons but rarely if ever such strange ailments as Large Offspring Syndrome, which is not uncommon in animal clones. As for genetic identity, our eyes see the different results even in identical twins, and it’s entirely likely that in the future genetic analysis will too.

In Conclusion

Harris ended with a plea for continuing research, and finally noted that we are not yet sufficiently informed to make a decision about human germline intervention. He also — appropriately — lamented the omission of any discussion of epigenetic effects. On that we can agree.

The style Harris used at the DC gene editing meeting seems well adapted to the insult culture of modern social media. Considered as a comedy act, he was a modest hit, it seems, with those who already agreed with his point of view. The rest of us may consider ourselves fortunate in our adversaries.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via National Academies webcast