Starting yesterday, and running through to tomorrow, a group of scientists from around the world are meeting in Washington, DC to discuss the future of genome editing — more specifically, its ethics.
There are some legitimate concerns being raised about the imperfection of the technology and the potential for harm — as a recent Chinese study on nonviable human embryos proved, the technology isn’t ready to be used on humans, as it could lead to some pretty immediate and unfortunate side-effects. The last thing anyone wants is for doctors and scientists to fix the genetic instigator of one disease while accidentally creating another. These things will get ironed out in time, but managing how we arrive there is the main scope of the talks.
But it seems that you can’t have this conversation without someone, somewhere, using the words “designer babies.” Like anti-GMO activists, I find that a lot of people who use the term are too caught up in rhetoric (“playing God,” anyone?) to stop and ask the actual question: assuming the technology does eventually advance to the point where we can safely make specific changes with understood and predictable outcomes, what exactly is wrong with “designing” our children?
Writing over at Scientific American, Professor Jonathan D. Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, brings up a few salient points while trying to determine “where to draw the line on gene-editing technology,” which I will respond to as a way of working things out. I invite you to follow along.
The first point I’d like to discuss is about humanity’s relationship to the natural world: “are we prepared,” Moreno asks, “to modify our genetic heritage with all the implications for humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world?”
In response, I would offer that genetic engineering engenders no substantive difference to our relationship with the natural world that isn’t already in place. That is to say, even if we thought it were a moral good to maintain a “natural” relationship with the world — something I don’t plan to argue for or against just now — we are already so far beyond that point that we cannot go back without serious repercussions (or perhaps at all). Technology has been our means of self-guided evolution: we have expanded our brains through the technologies of reading and writing and computing, we have expanded our physical abilities with tools and machines and chemistry. A single process, Haber-Bosch, has allowed humanity’s ranks to swell billions over and above what the “natural” world can support. If you dropped an average western suburbanite into “nature” and expected him or her to survive unaided, he or she would very likely die. In the event of some awful calamity it would be humanity’s ability to alter nature — not its “natural” relationship with it — that would save it.
On the other hand, genetic editing of humans could be used to improve our relationship with the “natural” world (as natural as it remains, anyway), at least insofar as it might allow us to live more healthily and more efficiently. Imagine a human that builds more muscle with less dietary protein (an ecologically expensive to produce commodity with or without livestock). Imagine a human that requires less water to maintain its biological functions. Imagine a human that could gain a portion of its daily energy requirements through photosynthesis. Never mind that we may need to engineer a special kind of human that can survive prolonged periods of exposure to ionizing radiation and low gravity if we are to become a truly multi-planet species.
Another point he brings up is the line between “therapy” and “enhancement,” a line which I believe is largely imaginary: “Especially in the case of the human germline,” he writes, referring to changes which can be passed on through normal reproduction, “one principle worth defending is that between therapy and enhancement. Even if population-wide disease prevention is sometimes acceptable, attempts to otherwise “improve” the human race should be banned.
He gives no rationale for this, so I can only guess at the reasoning behind it. I doubt it’s because of the immaturity of the science; the reference to “population-wide disease prevention” hints at a future where the technology is indeed that accurate and predictable in its outcomes. It could be due to the idea of the so-called “law” of unintended consequences, or perhaps the precautionary principle that leads Dr. Nafeez Ahmed and analysts like him to overstate the risks of GM crops — these posit scenarios in which monolithic genetic modifications at some point become single points of catastrophic failure (Ahmed’s “ruin”) for the entire human species.
However (the unlikelihood of altering the human genome across all populations in such a similar way as to introduce a massive single point of failure aside), if we are imagining a world in which this technology is so advanced as to end diseases in an entire population, it isn’t hard to also imagine a world in which this same technology can be reversed. Accidentally introduce a genetic trait that leads to a new disease? Undo that work and undo the disease.
I’m certainly not advocating rushing into trials of human modification, but I can certainly imagine a day when the weight of scientific evidence will shift in favour of its application, as it has in GM food production, and we will be left with nothing but this imaginary line between therapy and enhancement which vanishes under close scrutiny.
Because what is the difference between the two? Surely you can come up with examples of each that you are certain of — perhaps like pornography you just “know it when you see it” — but what about the middle cases? Humans get cancer, some more than others — is editing someone’s genome to reduce that chance therapy or enhancement, especially if it reduces their chances of cancer below some global average? Humans get old and become less able to perform tasks which maintain their quality of life — is editing someone’s genome to maintain their quality of life in old age therapy or enhancement, especially if it enhances their age beyond some kind of global mean? We require humans to perform dangerous tasks, like work with radioactive materials — is editing someone’s genome to increase their resilience to ionizing radiation therapy or enhancement, especially if it’s a job that requires doing?
What counts as an “improvement” and what counts as “disease prevention” in the future may very well have to do with your socioeconomic status, employment sector, and, more likely than either of those, your particular cultural mores. I think any “lines over which we must not cross” are inevitably doomed to either fail or create injustice.
But would you ban genetic cancer prevention because one day someone might discriminate against someone else?
The movie Gattaca addresses some of the potential problems with elective genetic alterations — namely the potential for discrimination against those who have not elected (for possibly non-elective reasons) to have changes made, though like all good dystopian fiction, it overstates things to make a point. Employers might indeed discriminate against potential long-term employees with a high genetic risk of illness; this, of course, as the movie predicts, would be illegal, but perhaps some employers would skirt the laws the way they skirt non-discrimination laws in existence today. Perhaps they would try, as in the movie, to use genetics as a predictor of success. But, given the inability of genetics to accurately predict effectiveness at one’s job, I fail to see the difference between this kind of discrimination and any other.
(And before you start talking more about the movie, remember that the reason he wasn’t allowed to fly was because they either (a) illogically used his genetic data to determine his health instead of the fact that he could meet all the physical requirements, or (b) had good scientific reason not to let him go on a space mission to the outer solar system and he did it anyway putting everyone else on the crew at risk. I like the movie, too, but as I said, it overstates things to make a point.)
At this point I realize I have neglected to make mention of purely “cosmetic” changes — those so often associated with the “designer baby” straw-man. But even in this case I must admit to finding little reason to ban them. Assuming it is a safe, targeted procedure, which will only make the intended changes — hair, eye, or skin colour, for instance — I fail to see a potential harm that is not already present in society. While it is true that social pressures could force people into making changes, the same is already true: breast augmentation, hair replacement, tummy tucks, pseudo-science diet pills, and more all exist today. Cynical though it may seem, humans will either continue to find reasons to form in-groups and out-groups, to band together to oppress each other, or they’ll find a way to get past each others’ differences; if the goal is to reduce social injustice by reducing difference among humans, I’m afraid that ship has long since sailed.
Thankfully, we’re a long, long way from elective eye colour alteration being a safe and routine procedure. For many years yet, even the most unambiguously positive alterations — fixing a person’s genetic propensity for breast cancer, for instance — will be out of reach of a reasonable risk-to-benefit ratio. If you ask me, the “line” should, for now, be simply drawn just short of editing the germ line of viable embryos — at least until we can do so while knowing that the actual consequences precisely match the intended ones.
The technology will advance in fits and starts, and cultural mores will either advance or arrest its progress. It’s a good thing they’re meeting to talk about it, but they’re going to be on much more solid ground if they limit their conversations (and conclusions) to what will or won’t cause medical harm, at least for now.
Because in the end, I’m predicting that “designer babies” won’t be that scary at all.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.