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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, July 02, 2012

Genetically engineered children

Interesting article in the UK's Daily Mail. Much moral panic over something that seems quite beneficial - assuming it works and all. Here's a quote:

Geneticists fear that one day this method could be used to create new races of humans with extra, desired characteristics such as strength or high intelligence.
I realise, of course, that there are arguments why, paradoxically, that might be a scenario to fear. But "paradoxically" is an important word here. On the face of it, you'd think that it benefits children if they are given greater (potential for) strength and intelligence (in the sorts of environments in which their genes are likely to be expressed). Furthermore, on the face of it you might think that greater intelligence possessed by some people might be socially beneficial , or at least likely to be. So why word things as if it's just obvious that this would be a bad outcome?

I'll be exploring these sorts of things in my forthcoming book, Humanity Enhanced.


Grania said...

Then again, the Daily Mail gets itself into a moral panic about almost anything on a daily basis: coffee, women who dress slutty, women who don't dress slutty, how much the royals cost, how English "republicans" are just spoilsports. It's a wonder the poor dears can cope with the stress ;)

Russell Blackford said...

Fair enough, Grania.

I've added some new material folks!

Mathew Varidel said...

You would've thought it'd be easy for the Daily Mail to get the other side of the story when a number of prominent ethicists on this very topic live in their country - Bostrom, Savulescu, John Harris. Very silly.

Lee said...

As potentially callous as this may sound, I am helplessly drawn towards the view that the (imo survival-enhancing) process of natural selection is being thwarted. By helping infertile individuals pass along their genes, do we not risk that, instead of an occasional helping hand, it becomes necessary for some significant portion of the population receive this treatment? Obviously I don't suggest denying reproductive rights on a cultural or social basis, but we don't (and, I would argue, shouldn't if we could)make a lot of effort to allow still-borns to have children.

Perhaps, though, you address this in your upcoming book! I'll have to wait and see.

David Evans said...

I think there are two things to worry about:

that some unsavory society (Nazi Germany being the obvious example) would create a race of super-warriors and defeat the rest of us,


that within our society the rich would have more access to these techniques, leading to greatly increased inequality.

Obviously if the techniques were freely available worldwide there would be less to worry about. But how likely is that?

Russell Blackford said...

The second one is the more obvious concern, I think. The race of super-soldiers one sounds far-fetched to me for all sorts of reasons, but the "One more marginal advantage to the children of the rich" one sounds, at least on the face of it, to be a plausible concern.

Svlad Cjelli said...

The fear is that chldren might eventually suffer less. Great.

Yes, I'm simplifying.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure a race of super-soldiers is the least likely thing, ever, to happen.

I can't conceive of any advantage it would actually give to a fighting force. Pretty much all of our technology is moving away from humans, we're replacing piloted craft with drones (increasingly autonomous drones at that), creating smart ammunition that corrects problems with aiming, vehicles that drive themselves etc, etc.

The person is beginning to matter less and less. Building super soldiers at this point is like building super-swords, great, you'll beat a regular sword, but I'm still gonna drop you from 100m with my rifle.

What worries me is the converse proposition; the better we get at repairing the human body the better we get at destroying it. Virus-bombs as envisioned in science fiction, that kill 100% of a cities population while leaving behind 100% of its infrastructure, or that kill only certain narrow categories of humanity... those are what scare me.

I'm also less worried about about the rich gene-hancing themselves at the expense of the poor. Its certainly going to happen to a certain degree, but, like vaccinations, I see it trickling down fairly rapidly. What's better is that it trickles down permanently. If you vaccinate a mother against polio you still have to vaccinate all her children, grandchildren etc. If you use gene-therapy to change her germline (in the words of the article) to be immune to polio it will be passed down to every child she has.

Will the rich have an advantage? Sure.

Will it be ANY different from the ridiculous advantage they already posses? I don't really see how. It's not like people on the bottom rungs of societies ladder can fulfill all their potential anyways. What's the use in having the genetic potential to be Mozart if you'll have be able to afford an instrument?

Greg Camp said...

Curing disease is appealing and a worthy endeavor, but then comes the discussion about making humans "better." Are we wise enough to know what is better?

Consider parents making choices about what their children will be. My father always wanted me to be an accountant, but the thought of that as a career gives me the shivers. What if the parents of a child decide that they want the next winner of the Boston marathon and introduce genes for the ability to run, but the child ends up having no interest in the sport? The possibilities here are many.

March Hare said...

If intelligence were to increase who would buy The Daily Mail?

The actual problem is that things are not "gene X is for Y" but a lot more complicated and interconnected and we might get some interesting side effects...

March Hare said...

Another issue (for some people) is how much can you alter someone's genes and still think that they're 'your' child?

Anonymous said...

"What if the parents of a child decide that they want the next winner of the Boston marathon and introduce genes for the ability to run, but the child ends up having no interest in the sport?"

Well, perhaps the geneticists can add a gene for that, too...

Greg Camp said...

March Hare, adoption has that characteristic in common with genetic engineering, no? And yes, not being genetically related does influence some people's attitudes about adoption.

Anonymous, this raises the question of where personal liberty begins. If genetic engineering could have prevented all disease while I was in utero, I'd have been glad to have been given it, but I'm glad that I wasn't manipulated to be a particular kind of person. Perhaps it's more confortable to think about preventing bad characteristics than creating good characteristics.

David Evans said...

Does anyone remember Robert Heinlein's "Beyond This Horizon" - published as a serial in 1942 and as a novel in 1948? It described a society in which it was common for couples to visit a genetic counselor who would help them select the best combination of their own genes for a future child. That seems to me an excellent idea, which would avoid a number of objections to genetic engineering.