Earlier this semester, I struggled to understand why we would spend so much time on Darwin for a class on genetics and literature. Of course Darwin is a very important figure in the history of biology explaining evolution in his book The Origin of Species, but not exactly what you think of for cutting edge science. However, as I sat down to write this about genetic engineering, it just hit me that Darwin has important things to say about genetics that are extremely relevant to what we’re doing today. Darwin had no idea about how heritability worked, but he could see that species were adapting and changing to their environments, creating new species and old ones died out. Genetic engineering is something that earthlings have been doing for thousands of years, not necessarily only a high tech thing of a scary future where people pick out all the traits for their children. No. Genetic engineering is what you do when you select a mate.
Consciously or unconsciously, there are things about your mate that make him or her attractive to you. Whether it be physical similarity (body type, skin coloration, hair color, eye color) or status (success in social strata) or fertility (waist to hip ratio, symmetry), all are factors that initially attract mates. We select mates that are similar to ourselves (so our kids look like us) are able to have children (fertility indicators) and have plenty of resources to give the kids the “best possible start” as they would say in Gattaca . (Note I recognize this is an oversimplification. For couples (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual) who do not want and do not have children I imagine that mate selection works similarly, but reproduction is not the aim. But I am no expert).
This is the way mate selection has been done. Sometimes not all of these factors are used in determining mates. For hundreds of years, aristocracy married into aristocracy, to preserve the flow of resources. Fathers married daughters to husbands that were not of their choosing for protection or resources. Only recently have humans been able to choose their mates for themselves.
Contraception method is a kind of genetic engineering in itself. Not producing a child at a particular time or with a particular person is just as selective as choosing to have a child with the right person. As contraceptive methods have improved and are becoming more widely accessible, we have gained further control over who we choose to have children with.
We’ve taken another stem deeper into engineering with sperm donors. Now single women who have enough resources to support themselves can choose a donor who matches the traits they want. They can select from a whole database of donors at once, skip the dating process, and have a child of their very own. These children would probably have more selected traits that are desirable in the child because the profiles are so very thorough and there are so many options.
Realistically, we’ve been doing genetic engineering for thousands of years. We’ve taken baby steps toward more individual control over reproduction and natural selection by allowing individuals to choose their own mates and if they want to have children. Whether we find ways to enhance our natural abilities to select traits remains to be seen, but it would be not more “unnatural” than what we’re already doing.