April 23, 2003


Supertots And Frankenkids: On the Rights of Those Not Yet Designed (Erik Baard, April 23 - 29, 2003, Village Voice)
The personal decisions that would accompany genetic enhancement are frightening. How would you feel about your first child when the second one comes bundled with upgrades? Could the younger sibling ever enjoy a sense of real achievement, or would the kid forever wonder if that three-minute mile had been written in before birth? "I suppose if I were the only one enhanced, I'd feel a bit of a cheat," Watson admits. Where do you draw the line between risks and rewards? Changing the germ line—those genes that will be passed onto future generations--must be done ahead of the fetus's development, and so carries tremendous potential for cascades of disaster. Somatic therapies--delivering genes to a living person--have loosed cancers in test subjects.

Even in best-case scenarios, the questions are endless. Will genetically enhanced people be held back by society, just as gifted students are now woefully underserved? Should you have to pay insurance premiums inflated by others whose parents lacked the foresight to eliminate disease genes? How much privacy protection should such people have? Pity the presidential candidate who must reveal that she's been enhanced by a lab instead of a blue-blood pedigree.

Why should the DNA-boosted have to follow our usual strictures at all? "The minimum time you must invest to do a Ph.D. these days is something like three years," says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. "But why force someone to do it in three years when it can be done in three months?" Need a person with faster reaction times be stuck driving 55 miles per hour?

Social pressure may end up curbing wild-eyed genetic hubris, says Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver. "Parents want kids like themselves, except maybe a little smarter," he says. "Not beyond the curve, but on the leading edge of the curve. I think this is all going to happen very slowly, step by step. That's much more insidious, of course."

The means to achieve GM babies are spreading, and if the practice ever catches on, it'll be because parents are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Douglas Osheroff, a Nobelist for physics, opposes genetic enhancement on principle. Instead of molecular manipulation, he favors providing a stimulating environment, which as a Stanford professor, he could provide in spades. But even he concedes, "If it appeared that [my children] would not be competitive unless they were engineered, I suppose I would seriously consider this process."

So once created, what kind of reception would those kids get? Most visions of genetic engineering--Gattaca, Brave New World--focus on the danger of having a genetic uber-class. These dystopian renderings overlook one crucial fact: Time and again, mob rule has eliminated elites, real or perceived. "This could be another way privilege is concentrated and the underclass will be angry," Watson says. "The underclass has always been angry, sometimes with good reason."

Mr. Baard, of course, also overlooks one crucial fact: since these new beings will in fact be superior there's even less reason to believe that the underclass will be able to do anything with their anger than they've been able to do in the past, when their inferiority was, at least arguably, artificially imposed by social structures.

Meanwhile, we highly recommend Gattaca. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2003 10:52 AM
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