The Dirty Details Behind Genetically Engineering Kids

Opinion   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Sep 27, 2011   |   6:00PM   |   Washington, DC

What always fascinates me about the transhumanist, is that they are so blinded by their love of technology and their desire to change humanity that they always skip over the dirty details. 

In case you are unfamiliar with transhumansim, it is a philosophy that wants to use technology to surpass treating or preventing disease and use it to enhance otherwise healthy humans beyond natural capabilities.  They envision a world where you can genetically enhancing your offspring to be smarter, faster, bigger and maybe even to glow-in-the-dark.  They speak of this perfect world where man is no longer human, but “posthuman.”  And yet the details about how to achieve this technological utopia always seem to escape their notice.  They assume that whatever genetic enhancement is inflicted on the next generation can be as easily removed as it was to introduce.

In fact, I have argued repeatedly with transhumanists about their lack of attention to the mechanics of genetic engineering and their reply is almost invariably, “Well if we can put in genetic enhancements, we can take them out! Duh!”

Except that anyone who knows anything about genetics and genetic engineering knows this is not true.  Any genetic enhancement of offspring will likely be accomplished as it is done in animals now, by adding DNA to egg or sperm before fertilization or to a somatic cell before it is used in cloning a new embryo.  The genetic engineering is accomplished so early in development that it will be incorporated into every cell in the body.

Now fast forward that genetically enhanced embryo’s life and she does not like her enhancement.  She wants to get rid of it, except it is in everyone of her 50 trillion cells.  Good luck trying to rid of that genetic enhancement.  And that unfortunate former embryo will have no choice but to pass her enhancement onto her children and grandchildren.

In reality, genetically altering any human embryos will have unintended consequences.  Consequences we will be unable to just “take back.”  At least not until the whole process is perfected over many generations.  To achieve that perfection many lives will have to be used as science experiments. Experiments to achieve not treatments or cures, but someone else’s idea of a technological nirvana.

I think this passage from Alex Knapp’s Is Ethical Human Genetic Enhancement Possible? in Forbes relays the dirty details of genetic enhancement better than I ever could:

The bottom line being, if we’re talking about significant genetic changes to human beings, whether it’s making people smarter or stronger or able to fly or whatever, we’re talking about making changes to extraordinarily complex systems – all at once. Those changes will almost certainly have to be made on the embryonic level, and those embryos will grow into babies. And only once they’re born will we even know if the “enhancement” actually worked as planned. Of course, as any engineer will tell you, the more complex the system, the more testing is required. The more testing required, the more prototypes are made. Most of them failures.

Only in the case of human genetic enhancement, the tests are performed on people. The “failed prototypes” are people. People who have to grow up and live with the consequences of the inevitable mistakes that will be made in the process of experimenting. Assuming, of course, they can physically live with those consequences at all.

And there’s the problem. When you get right down to it, I do not see any way to perform experiments involving significant genetic enhancements that don’t end in the suffering of a human being. A human being whose DNA was altered without consent, who is participating in a scientific experiment without consent, and is, basically, being born into slavery, with their sole purpose in life being a stepping stone to making other people “better.”

And yet with these hard realities staring transhumanists in the face, they continue to gloss over the details and insist that they have every right to genetically enhance their offspring as they see fit and people who try to stop them are imposing their beliefs on others.  Ronald Bailey sums up the transhumanist mantra in Reason Magazine:

Biotechnology is one of a suite of new intimate technologies which are well on the way to empowering people to enhance themselves and their progeny by giving them stronger bodies, longer and healthier lives, and smarter brains. Certainly technologies dealing with birth, death, and the meaning and purpose of life need protection from meddling by others who, however democratically, would force their visions of the good on the rest of us.

And yet, it is the transhumanist that would force their visions of good on future generations without their consent all the while calling it “progress.”

If you think that there is no way genetic enhancement will happen in the United States you would be wrong.  While many other countries have laws preventing inheritable genetic modification, America is woefully behind.  In fact, indications are that the United States scientific community does not want to make genetic enhancements illegal.  Our own National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, $773,000 to develop standards for tests on human subjects in genetic enhancement research.  Research that would take otherwise normal healthy humans and make them smarter, stronger, or better-looking. If the existing standards cannot meet the ethical conditions needed for genetic enhancement research, Mehlman has been asked to recommend changes.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I have been screaming about on transhumanism without so much as a breath between posts.  But I hope you can see why it is so important to stop the enhancement train before it leaves the station and gains momentum.  Because if it does, like any train traveling at lightning speed, genetic enhancement maybe impossible to stop.  And in the case of transhumanism, the Devil is quite literally in the details. Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).