The New Humanist has an article on genetic modification of human beings, addressing some of the reservations of critics. John Harris is primarily taking on Jurgen Habermas, who seems to think genetic engineering is yucky.
Habermas has two objections to letting prospective parents tinker with their child’s genes:
The child doesn’t have the opportunity to give consent — “the power of those living today over those coming after them, who will be the defenceless objects of prior choices made by the planners of today”. I don’t see the objection, myself. Every parent makes lots of choices in which the child has no say, and even the choice to have a kid is a major one (I suppose teenagers will, at some point, complain that they didn’t ask to be born, but that’s the kind of choice it was physically impossible for them to make.) This is an utterly useless complaint. I’d much rather have a child come back to me years later and get cranky that I had that genetic error predisposing her to cancer excised without her permission, than to have her wondering why I didn’t have that gene corrected after she’s diagnosed with cancer.
The second problem seems to be a narrower version of the first: “Eugenic interventions aiming at enhancement reduce ethical freedom in so far as they tie down the person concerned to rejected, but irreversible intentions of third parties, barring him from the spontaneous self perception of being the undivided author of his own life.” Having your genes modified before birth deprives one of moral autonomy, somehow. This argument both overrates the importance of genetic variation in ethics and behavior, and again ignores the fact that these differences are normal consequences of reproduction without technological intervention. Does the fact that the role of chance is being replaced with choice somehow change the conscious state of the child?
Anyway, Harris wallops on those two arguments in his short article, and also has a book on the subject: Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which I may have to pick up. I agree that there is an interesting future ahead of us in which at least the wealthy will be able to be able to sculpt the genetics of their offspring, and I’m not dead-set against it — in fact, I’m probably fairly radical in considering rather extreme consensual (by the parents, obviously) genetic modification to be an important experiment for humanity to carry out — I look forward to our genetically enhanced post-human future, frightening as the possibility of profound biological change may be.
However, pounding on Habermas’s arguments isn’t very challenging. Going into an embryo to fix genetic errors that will strongly impair post-natal life is a no-brainer to me. Who wouldn’t want to be able to excise the possibility of Huntington’s disease from their kids, for instance? I hope the book has more to say on the challenging issues, though. What if a modification to reduce the risk of schizophrenia also reduces the risk of creativity? What if paring away a gene that puts them at risk of early heart disease also makes them impotent at an early age? Most phenotypes are the product of multiple genes, and the diversity of possible allelic interactions may make it impossible to predict the outcome of a modification to one with any certainty — genetic manipulation may be very much a gamble, and those in favor of modification may be right back to playing games of chance, just like those of us who reproduced the old-fashioned way.
These are also experiments on our children that will take multiple generations to resolve any unexpected side effects. That’s not an argument against doing them, but does emphasize the importance of informed, aware participation in the process. Unfortunately, given human shallowness, I expect the more likely process for testing the wild possibilities will be more like a mad stampede by the over-privileged to give their daughter’s Paris’s nose in utero, and similar fashionable trifles.