Yeah, uhh, could I get a baby with red hair, blue eyes, and an intense dedication to basketball?

As I stumbled across the internet on a cold spring evening, I found quite an interesting article. The link to the article can be found at the bottom of the blog; I can’t figure out how to embed it. The article was an opinion piece in the Washington Herald, written by Richard Hayes, the executive director of the “Center for Genetics and Society.” He was responding to an article written a couple of weeks earlier by Ronald Green, an ethics professor at Dartmouth. Professor Green wrote an article that outlined the possibility of “designer babies,” where parents could literally pick from a laundry list of genetic traits to implant in their child. Mr. Hayes essentially refutes Green’s claims about these designer babies. He argues that the number of genetic advances that we are going to see in the coming years will never be used for such activities. It would not only undermine the status and importance of the individual in society, but it would be dangerous on an international level. Mr. Hayes argues that if we are already dealing with problems of rogue nations regarding militarism and ethnocentrism, imagine the problems that could arise from a “techno-eugenic rat race.” Suddenly, countries might begin building new genetically “clean” citizens, systematically wiping out the impure.

I didn’t want to blog about this article because of the argument contained within it. The argument is one I have seen before, and is not that interesting to me. What really caught my eye were the two people who were involved in this interchange. Green, an ethics professor at an Ivy League University, and Hayes, the executive director for the Center for Genetics and Society. To me, it seems logical that their roles might be reversed. The ethical academic, trained in the classical and philosophical, should have foreseen the problems that Hayes discussed. Is that not the point of being an ethical adviser? Shouldn’t the professor be learning from mistakes of the past, applying them to the future? The moral and ethical problem of “designer babies” is not complicated. Nearly anybody can understand the implications on not only humanity, but on the economic system as a whole. I can buy the argument that Hayes is making. As the executive director for a committee that is involved with the application of genetics and society, he certainly must be able to see both sides of the argument. Whatever stance Hayes took on the subject would not be very surprising to me. But still, the fact that this professor took such a blind stance is very interesting. It made me question my own ethical development. What if I had attended Dartmouth instead of Vanderbilt? Obviously I wouldn’t be as happy, the girls not as attractive, my friends not as entertaining. But I may have attended a lecture by this professor when he was discussing the possibility of designer babies. Would I be more inclined to agree with him? Would my personal stance on genetic experimentation have changed?

Our whole realm of understanding the social genetic implications comes from how the information is relayed to us. If we had a more conservative Professor who thought the economic gains of creating designer babies might outweigh the moral implications, I might side with Green in his argument. But because of my liberal schooling, I cannot agree. Sorry if it seems like I’m running on in this blog. This article just really made me think about how information is relayed to me, and how I have come to absorb information.

~ by benmones on April 16, 2008.

4 Responses to “Yeah, uhh, could I get a baby with red hair, blue eyes, and an intense dedication to basketball?”

  1. Green, in his book ‘Babies by Design’, looks at the social and economic impacts of genetic enhancement, especially in Chapter 6 titled ‘Will We Create a “Genobility”?’. He is a philosopher, not a political scientist or economist, but he does provide convincing (in my opinion) arguments that genetic enhancement won’t be ‘doom and gloom’.

    Hayes is a political activist (with a doctorate in resource management, I think) and has obviously not read the book, because he asks for evidence as to how genetic enhancements could reduce the class divide. Green argues that genetic enhancements may be seen like health care and schooling – an essential tool to be given to all human beings.

    Hayes also brings up the idea of a eugenic rat-race. Green thinks this will be unlikely, as he believes most people are not particularly interested in having super-babies, as shown by their preferences in choosing sperm donors – most seek a child similar to themselves, perhaps only better in terms of health.

    In the end, having read Green’s book and most of Hayes’ blog posts, I side completely with Green. Hayes rests most of his argument on inequality, slippery slopes and public opinion – all of which I find either lacking in evidence or just bad logic.

  2. While there is a possibility that genetic enhancements could be seen as rights to be given freely to everyone, I consider the odds of such a thing happening to be exceedingly low (potential profit, feasibility of implementing a program to modify EVERY baby born, fees for cancelled servies due to late-term abortions, consideration of miscarriages, etc.) However, I’ll ignore that stuff and bite on the universal rights bit. The issue, and correct me if I’m wrong, benmones, is more likely to be the extent to which these babies will be ‘super.’ This issue of class division goes beyond simple schooling; the movie Gattaca gives some idea of what might happen. Granted, it’s a movie. I don’t ususally give much credibility to things that come out of Hollywood, but I make a rare exception for this one. The following is a less extreme example of the divide in Gattaca.

    Genetic screening would determine who you are. “Oh? Not 20/10 eyesight, just 20/15? Oooh… our apologies, we’ll keep your genetic resume on file just in case we have a plague or somesuch.”

    The difference between the 20/10 and the 20/15 candidate here? About 20k your parents might not have. Too extreme, you say? Alright, three to six inches of height. Still not enough? Photographic memory or any other enhanced brain function. Double jointed thumbs. Larger heart size for increased endurance. The list is endless, for any conceivable purpose. As I said, it goes beyond schooling. One can overcome things like a poor school system, poor parents, insert your favorite disadvantage here, and attend a top university. Places like Vanderbilt take pride in it, in fact. The difference there is ability. There’s a relatively level playing field at the moment, and ability is the largest factor in the end. No matter how much money the person with sub-par test scores and a crappy high school GPA at the best private high school has, they’re not getting in ahead of the poor genius or the bright/genius middle class kid, with the possible exception of an applicant who was already on the fringe. As for the fringe candidate who doesn’t get in? I’d certainly agree with the assertation that it’s unfair, but greed and the need for a new engineering/english/residence hall must be accounted for to some degree.

    Back to ability. What is the big deal there? Doesn’t everyone have differing amounts of ability already? So what’s the big deal if that continues, just in a different form? The argument is obvious. It’s no longer random. The affluent now have a stranglehold on top jobs, and there is no longer any opportunity to rise from the huddled masses. i.e. capitalism is out the door. There’s no more American dream, no more success stories, with the possible exception of the select few who somehow are born on par with or better than the best genetic engineering can do.

    HOWEVER. Whether this is even truly an issue is dependent on how much of us is really controlled by our genes. Random factors and processes in the womb and things of that nature also affect development, not to mention that whole ‘nurture’ thing that says nature’s not totally or necessarily even mostly responsible for the current occurrence of ‘super’ babies that grow up to be your favorite musician, mathematician, athlete, what have you.

    If I haven’t sufficiently addressed the argument that it will be a universal tool, allow me to say ‘look around.’ How much is really equal in our world in any location or demographic, short of perhaps the Amish? Who is going to supply this supposedly universal tool to people in India who bathe in polluted rivers that double as sewer systems because they don’t have running water? For that matter, who will give modifications to the people of Africa who lack food, water, and medication, much less universal health care? This goes even beyond the question of class differences in a capitalist society. Where does this leave the two groups, the haves and the have nots, after the dust has settled? I can’t say. Probably not two different species, but almost certainly two different breeds, not unlike dogs bred for certain characteristics. For my part, I propose that everyone has food and water before we can give everyone designer babies.

  3. Two more things.

    In retrospect the two different breeds comments seems a bit harsh in its unjustified state, so I should qualify it by stating that it is equivalent to dogs picking up enhanced characteristics as a result of selective breeding in order to emphasize certain traits.

    In addition, I agree with Ben’s thoughts on how perspective and how information is presented to us shapes our view of issues. It seems that the narration style of the information that reaches us (type of university, influences of teachers, parents, etc.) is completely analogous to the way in which information is presented in a novel, whether through an omniscient, detached narrator or a fictional personal account.

  4. barrinmb, if ability is so important in life, why should we stand back and allow chance/fate/God to decide who gets to “rise from the huddled masses” and who gets to fall from riches to rags? Surely life is far more ‘unfair’ with this random assignment of gifts than it would be if parent’s were allowed to give their children the best abilities they could afford.

    On the distribution of resources, we currently have no laws against buying fourteen cars, three-course meals and a gold-gilded computer. Why is it that in this one debate – about genetic enhancement – we must make an exception and prevent the rich from spending their money until the poor can catch up? We are still spending money on trying to cure diseases like diabetes in the First World, even though most people in the Third world don’t even have enough food to become insulin-resistant in the first place. How would you like it if somebody said to your loved one ‘Sorry, we would be able to alleviate your symptoms, but people in the Third World are suffering more than you, so we are denying your health care until they are as healthy as you are”.

    Besides, what’s so wrong about their being a ‘new breed’ of human?

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