I am done with this discussion at last. Now I have to get cracking on my genetics lecture for tomorrow. It never ends! (No, it does sort of end. I get a four day weekend, beginning at 12:50pm tomorrow, so I will catch up.)
Anyway, I include my part of the panel below. I kept it mostly cool, except at the end I blew up a little — the article we were given to prompt the discussion was crap from Areo, AKA Quillette Junior, and I was furious. Why? There were two philosophers on the panel. They could have suggested any of a number of serious philosophy articles by reputable bioethicists, and instead we got an article by a known eugenicist/HBD wackaloon/racist. So I called them out at the end. It’s that so many people were completely oblivious to the rancid eugenic thought permeating the whole article.
Not that it mattered. One of them continued to reference Jonathan Anomaly throughout. Ugh. We should have higher standards than that.
As the biologist on this panel of philosophers, I thought I’d leave them to the tricky job of discussing the ethical concerns of designer babies, and instead focus on the practical aspects. Gene editing is a far more difficult endeavour than you might imagine, because many people have a very naive idea of how genetics, and the relationship between genotype and phenotype, works. So I’ll just bring up a couple of biological concerns that would mean I’d never consider having a gene-edited child.
- Very few genes act alone; they’re part of a network of other genes that work together to assemble the organism. How big and complex is that network? According to the omnigenic model, every gene influences and is influenced by every other gene, which means the background genetics of 20,000 genes has to be considered when you manipulate any one gene.
You might wonder, then, how this could work for all those research scientists who are busily doing experimental analyses of genes edited in their lab mice, or fruit flies. The answer: lab research animals are highly inbred, with relatively little genetic variation between individuals. That means you can tinker with the genetic makeup of one individual, and get replicable results in another animal of the same strain.
Humans are much messier than that. You should know this from all the pharmaceutical ads thrown at us: there are all kinds of side effects and unpredictable variations in medications. One pill might work great for you, be terrible for your friend at work, and do nothing at all for your Uncle Ralph.
Now imagine the same range of side-effects that you might inflict on a baby, and realise that there’s no way to “stop taking” the gene editing pill, and they will have to live with it their entire life.
- What gene modification do you want? Because we honestly don’t know what most genes do, at least at the level of knowing all of their effects. There are a few disease genes of large effect we can dream of eradicating, such as the genes for phenylketonuria, or sickle cell anaemia, or cystic fibrosis. Those are problems so severe that the choice is between a certainty of a short, sick life, or the risks of experimental gene modification.
But what about, for example, if someone wants their son to be destined to become a world-class football player. What genes would you want modified? It’s going to require a lot, and we don’t know what all they are. You can’t just simply switch on a big muscle gene — we do know how to do that! It’s been done in a cattle breed, the Belgian Blue, by a natural mutation in the myostatin gene, which normally keeps muscle growth under control. But there’s more to being a great athlete than having giant muscles! These cows also have serious side-effects: larger calves and smaller birth canals mean most have to be delivered by caesarian, and the adults have cardiovascular and joint issues.
Gene-editing for athleticism is worse than a gamble, because you’re guaranteed to fail to modify necessary complementary genes, you don’t know what all genes are needed for great athletic performance, you’ve just added a poorly understood variable to the poorly understood recipe for athleticism, and you’ve also added the potential for deleterious effects due to the manipulation required.
There’s already a better solution: you want a great football player, then practice, practice, practice. Raise them in an environment where football is important and they learn to love the game, and you’ve got a better chance of raising a football player than randomly mucking around in their genome. This is also true of other traits, like if you want a smart kid. We already know how to maximise that — it’s called an education.
- There is a lot of misplaced confidence in genetic engineering. Sure, we can edit out a defective gene in a mouse embryo — with some sloppiness. Sometimes the wrong bit of DNA is spliced out. Sometimes the insertion leaves little molecular scars around the site. Sometimes it fails in some of the embryonic cells, so some have the modification and others don’t. Sometimes the scientist doesn’t actually know what they’re doing.
For example, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui thought he’d engineer HIV resistance into the embryos of parents with HIV. Sounds like a good idea, right? Except that his idea was to mimic a known natural mutation called CCR-delta-32, which is carried in some people, especially Northern Europeans, who have reduced incidence of HIV in homozygous carriers.
The problem: it involves deleting some of the immune system machinery, which HIV uses to recognise immune system cells. We don’t know what else about the immune system is affected by the change. The resistance requires that both copies of the CCR-delta-32 gene be removed, but He’s changes only knocked out one copy, so it would be effectively ineffectual. The children modified by his procedure were also mosaic, so only some of their cells were affected.
The only thing his experiment accomplished was to make him notorious. And put him in prison, apparently.
- One other significant concern is the motivation behind gene-editing embryos, and here I’m segueing into the moral concerns, which I’ll leave to the philosophers. Beyond editing out known, serious single gene defects, why do people want this? Too often we’re drifting neatly into eugenics, in which certain properties of people are valued more than certain others, but rather than executing the unfit, we’re going to selectively promote other people with properties we consider “better”. For instance, there are people who want to make sure none of their children are gay, so if we could zap the gay gene (which doesn’t exist, by the way), we could make sure that everyone is suitably heterosexual. To which I have to say three things:
- What’s wrong with being gay?
- What if deleting gayness also deleted other properties of the person?
- And hey, you do know nobody knows how to do that, even if they had a flawless CRISPR/Cas9 protocol, right?
Before I shut up, I have one more thing to say. Just today, I looked at the recommended article at the Briggs Library site — I guess it’s a good thing I looked after I had committed to this event, because it is contemptible bullshit from the right-wing, racist website called Areo, written by a known eugenicist, “Human Biodiversity” proponent, and “race realist”, better known more plainly as a racist. IT IS A BAD ARTICLE. It is unbelievable that it is being suggested by a university. The assumptions in that piece of trash…for instance, that students get into Princeton and Yale “because they have high levels of heritable traits like intelligence and self-control”. Let me tell you, students get into Princeton and Yale because they generally come from wealthy, well-connected families, and their intelligence has nothing to do with it. And no, genetic engineering will not ever make you smart enough to qualify for Princeton, because that’s not the primary criterion for acceptance.
I mean, there is no shortage of thoughtful articles on the ethics of bioengineering by people like Daniel Callahan or Arthur Caplan, and instead we get this bullshit from a right wing racist hack? What the fuck is wrong with this setup?
If I’d known a few weeks ago that this event was going to be justified by reference to an article written by an unqualified racist creep, I wouldn’t be here right now.