In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, (2003) Bill McKibben elegantly contends that human genetic engineering, nanotech and robotics will demoralize individuals and derail societies. He writes, for example, of futuristic highly-skilled classical pianists or athletes who know that their parents purchased strong musical or athletic genes for them, and of the existential crisis caused regarding the source of, and credit for, their respective accomplishments. He says democracy will become untenable if some use these technologies to create a master race. McKibben asserts that we can stop these developments by saying, “Enough” and urges an immediate international dialogue because genetic manipulation is just around the corner. His warning is, at once, an exaggeration and an understatement.
It’s an exaggeration because we are still a while (vagueness deliberate) away from having a clearer sense of which genes influence many traits. It’s also an exaggeration because many, including New York Times science writer Natalie Angier and the biophysicist/editor of Redesigning Life, Brian Tokar have observed that, to date, gene manipulation efforts reveal that genes can’t often be simply cut and pasted, one for another, especially without causing weird side effects.
It’s an untimely understatement because McKibben scarcely addresses genetic screening-- and its companion, eugenic abortion-- or in vitro fertilization-- and its companion, embryo selection-- or gamete (egg and sperm) shopping. These are not futuristic practices, which may never become available; they occur every day and are subsidized by scarce health insurance resources.
Thus, even if genetic manipulation never becomes possible, the eugenic age has already begun and is widely accepted by our consumerist society. If prospective parents don’t like their unborn’s genes, they can-- and often do-- end the life tested. In California, for example, 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Not in some futuristic hell, but today, we are ending disability through a medically-mediated rendering of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, by purging the disabled.
In a society that (rightly, I submit) does not want to execute even murderers, it seems wrong to effectively impose capital punishment/genocide on the disabled. Consider further the effects of genetic screening on the self-perception of the able-bodied. How does it feel to know you were born because you met a quality control inspector’s-- and your parents’-- standards? What happened to unconditional love?
Moreover, McKibben says nothing about how reprotech already affects the perception of other beings and basic kinship or solidarity. Despite vast demographic, ideological and personality differences, until thirty years ago, humans shared a common, mysterious origin in the union of a woman and a man. This is no longer universally the case. As life is increasingly manufactured, has it become less awesome, more just another of someone else’s possessions?
With its multi-embryo production, IVF already enables parents to select between embryos for a number of traits, including sex and disability. And, despite their backgrounds, sperm and egg shoppers display distinct preferences for gametes from tall, conventionally attractive gamete sellers with much formal education. This sounds like design to me.
McKibben tersely suggests that eugenic abortion (he avoids that label) or embryo selection could be legislatively limited to those with genes for “life-or-death” diseases. That proposal does not inspire support.
First, who can say that a disabled or a relatively brief life-- even one with considerable suffering– is not worth living? And, as Bryan Appleyard pointed out in his work of eerily similar title, Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in a Genetic Future, (1998), by seeing-- and maybe even helping--those with disabilities, the rest of us become more appreciative and more “human” ourselves.
Further, the short life standard won’t be nearly broad enough for our society. Most parents will abort fetuses or de-select embryos whose genes suggest they’ll someday have MS, ALS or Huntington’s. These conditions seldom kill, or even afflict, the young. Besides, as McKibben observes, the lines between disease and trait or cure and enhancement are quite blurry. What will be the legislative status of embryos that have genes for schizophrenia or obesity? Depression? Slow-wittedness? Near-sightedness? Even limiting either genetic manipulation or embryo selection for seemingly esthetic purposes seems impossible, given society’s strong support for reproductive choice. Abortion and fertility treatments are provided without limitation-- and seemingly supported by McKibben and the PC audience for which he writes-- because these practices give adults what they want. If we support a woman’s choice to abort a child because it would keep her from finishing college on schedule, from where will we draw the moral capital to say she must carry to term a child destined to have Down’s, cerebral palsy, or even big ears? The vast majority of parents allowed to choose between having a fully capable (or perhaps, ultracapable) child, on the one hand, or casting a diffuse vote for an already attenuated democracy on the other, will serve themselves, not the larger group. As embryo selection increases, the pressure to have “perfect” kids will only intensify.
So, to the future. While breakthroughs in genomic interpretation may not be imminent, it seems likely that a few decades and a few billion dollars worth of computer-aided research will yield many more linkages between genotype and phenotype. The number of features for which a parent can select will increase commensurately. While allowing, per Neil Holtzman, author of Genohype: The Overselling of Genetics, for some incorrect predictions in individual cases, on a population-wide basis, genetic screening will cause the social stratification and personal alienation that Mr. McKibben fears, even without the genetic manipulation he foresees. All we have to do to advance this dystopia is more of the same: screen embryos and gametes and implant/use those with the traits the parents want. A society that exalts individualism and privacy won’t prohibit embryo and gamete selection.
This dim future, rooted in the present, is more likely than McKibben allows. We are making it happen. That’s not a compliment.