Related to the impact of brain stimulation techniques on the traits we value as a society, which I discussed in my last column, is the not-so-distant prospect of genetically handpicked children. Often referred to as “designer” or “commodity” babies, such children are selected through genetic screening or genetic engineering to exhibit certain traits.
Historically, genetic screening processes such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) were used primarily to identify life-threatening genetic diseases. Within the past decade, however, PGD has begun to be used for gender selection – an illegal application in many countries, but legally permissible in the U.S. In 2009, a Los Angeles fertility institute announced that it hoped to one day offer customers the opportunity to use PGD for cosmetic purposes. And in 2013, 23andMe, a Mountain View-based company, patented a process that could match patients’ genetic profiles to genetic profiles of egg and sperm donors in order to maximize the likelihood that children express certain characteristics.
The prospect of screening humans to filter out ones that don’t look how we want them to is horrifying. Turning people into custom-order products is equally appalling – not least because of what message that sends them about who they ought to be. Regardless, genetically engineered children will become the societal norm step by step. As that happens, we must understand the implications of what we’re trying to do.
“Make them better” is the easy answer with a not-so-easy caveat: How do you define “better?”
I propose a Darwinian definition: more fit to survive. I don’t mean to say we should ruthlessly outcompete other living beings; instead I refer to survival in a universal societal sense. Humanity has a greater chance of dealing successfully with upcoming crises if the “superorganism” of society as a whole is adaptable. Harmonious social functioning and the ability to develop solutions to new problems are necessary for long-term endurance. Open to interpretation are what qualities promote these abilities; I would argue for scientific understanding, creativity, compassion and motivation, among others.
The Darwinian definition, like any other definition, suffers from ethical uncertainties in terms of implementation, if indeed it’s even possible to implement. If we assume for the moment that genetically engineering children begins with companies such as 23andMe providing services to customers, a host of individual concerns arise. Will parents love a made-to-order child that, by chance, doesn’t possess the qualities they ordered? Will a child deliberately endowed with enhanced musical abilities feel unable to pursue a career in something other than music? Will a new form of discrimination arise against “natural-born” children, à la Gattaca?
Another concern is that genetic engineering will give people a way to enact their prejudices. If enough parents want children with certain traits – say a specific eye color or height – children without those traits might be singled out and could internalize feelings of unwantedness or, depending on the trait in question, inadequacy. Related repercussions could include a decrease in genetic diversity and other side effects similar to, for example, the current projected surplus of males in China, India and South Korea due to gender selection.
Availability poses another problem. If not everyone can afford to genetically modify their children, we might end up exacerbating existing social inequalities. In a dystopic view, an upper class of genetically modified superhumans one day rules over a lower class of natural-born humans.
While it might be prematurely pessimistic to conclude that genetic engineering will result in widespread populational homogenization or a new conception of the Master Race, it would be naive to claim the existence of genetically engineered humans will not alter social thinking or societal structure.
Yet those changes wouldn’t necessarily have to be negative. One Oxford professor argues that we have a moral obligation to genetically select our offspring in order to filter dangerous personality traits. He believes the result will be a more peaceful, intelligent society.
His viewpoint touches the heart of the issue: Is it morally wrong to try to improve the human race? Objections to the prospect often hinge on the process: “breeding programs” violate reproductive rights, infanticide is murder, genetic experiments generate suffering when they fail. But if we had a reliable method of modifying the genome to produce more capable humans and we could guarantee a just and peaceful transition from a “natural-born” population to a “better” genetically engineered one, would we be wrong to do so?
If the answer is no – if we do decide there is a morally defensible ultimate goal for genetic engineering – the path there will be fraught with ethical pitfalls. I do not subscribe to the belief that the ends justify the means, especially given that the traits we decide to propagate to the next generation will literally change humanity. The steps we take should be considered both individually and in context. We should be worthy children to our parents and worthy parents to our children, however they – or we – may be.
Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu.