If you could, would you design your next baby with enhanced intellectual, sporting and artistic abilities?
It took thirteen years, and the efforts of of scientists from six countries, to sequence the first human genome, the biological basis of heredity. Today, we have services that let you sequence your personal DNA at the drop of a hat — and scientists are fast moving to the next step: not just reading your DNA but editing it.
Scientists have already performed mild edits, removing genes responsible for deadly genetic diseases or adding genes that confer resistance to them. But that is far from what may be scientifically possible. Just a few years ago, biophysics researcher Dr. He Jiankui edited the genes of three human embryos in order to confer resistance to HIV. Announcement of the successful births caused a scandal in China and the rest of the world.
Yet, the time may come when gene editing in human embryos is offered commercially, to enhance intelligence or sporting or artistic ability.
In such case, children whose parents have not done this for them may be left behind.
Gene editing used to be a very hit-and-miss procedure.
All that changed with the advent of CRISPR. The technique is based on the defense mechanism mounted by certain bacteria to destroy an invading virus. The researchers mimic a virus so that, instead of cutting up a virus, these surgically precise defenses end up cutting and pasting DNA into exactly the configuration required.
With CRISPR, scientists can mark where they want a gene inserted, removed, or replaced along the DNA double helix strand. With this veritable biological scissors, they can now edit a genome as movie editors would a film clip.
While genetic modification of animals and crops has been around for some time, the procedures are becoming sufficiently precise that they can now be tried on humans to improve health. Would it be such a big ethical step from there to designing babies with enhanced intellectual, sporting and artistic abilities?
You may feel revulsion about the idea of designer babies, and for various reasons. If you are a person of faith, you may believe that God meant humans to be as they are today — faults and all — and that it is sacrilege to meddle with God’s handiwork. Even if you’re a non-believer, you may be unsettled by the prospect that your descendants may be biologically different to you and to what nature crafted through trial and error over 200,000 years of natural selection.
Using CRISPR to gene edit your babies means that you, and others like you, would be taking a direct hand in human evolution, rather than leaving it to God or nature.
The “babies resistant to HIV” experiment took place in China, a leader in gene editing and a largely secular society. But even there, authorities took a dim view of Dr. Jiankui, the researcher behind it. He was eventually jailed for three years, under a law which applies to practicing medicine without a license. The court found that his experiment constituted an illegal medical practice, and he was accused of evading medical regulations.
Does this mean gene editing may continue in China, provided it is done under suitable regulations? Perhaps so. However, the practice of gene-editing babies is obviously still a long way from acceptance by the Government, the law and the medical community — not to mention the man and woman in the street.
Yet, if the past is any guide, when new technologies have offered improvements in peoples’ lives, they have eventually been universally adopted. Computers, the Internet, smartphones, social media and artificial intelligence are only the latest examples.
Such technologies came with ethical concerns about lack of regulation and oversight on their platforms to prevent abuse (and in some cases these concerns have been borne out.). However, use of these technologies has still grown exponentially, because they offered a service that people wanted; and this has been commercially beneficial for providers.
What’s more, research that has enhanced the military power of nation states, such as the development of nuclear weapons, has proceeded despite misgivings of some eminent scientists and humanitarians. These misgivings are rooted in concerns that such weapons pose an existential threat to humankind.
Does that mean gene-edited humans are inevitable? Well, if you count the lucky ones for whom genetic disorders have been eliminated through CRISPR, there are a few mildly edited humans already walking among us.
Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where gene editors can identify specific genes for intelligence, or sporting or artistic ability. In any event, it is likely that these attributes are developed in us through a combination of many genes in concert with our family, cultural and social experiences — there are probably no single “intelligence genes” or “artistic genes” so to speak.
However, the time may come when the scientific understanding of such complex interactions enables commercial entities to offer you these kinds of enhancements in designer baby services. Choose what properties and abilities you want your baby to have, and the experts will come up with a gene combination that increases the likelihood of it happening.
Some countries may ban this on ethical grounds — but who is to say that it won’t be offered in others where ethics are a bit lax? In an interconnected world where medical tourism abounds, the service may well be made available to all of us who can afford it, no matter where we reside.
In such case, what would be the likely long-term consequences for our descendants and humankind as a whole? In effect, if everything went according to plan, our modified babies would grow up to be more gifted and thus more successful than the rest. We would expect that they would pass these genetic gifts on to their offspring…leaving behind the unfortunate families who didn’t manage to get a gene upgrade.
Inequality aside, what would the likely effect be on the human gene pool, over the long term, if such a practice becomes widespread?
Gene editing could have three possible outcomes: it could fail to produce any effect; it could succeed and enhance the abilities and hence success of your children and grandchildren; or it could fail catastrophically and produce detrimental effects which may be inherited by future generations. This is the risk that you as an early mover (and humanity) would assume if you and others took up this technology.
For the first case, there is nothing to worry about except a waste of time and resources and your disappointment. This is the neutral case.
In the second case, our designer babies would survive, succeed in life and reproduce. In this way the successful genes would be passed on to the next generation, enriching the human gene pool accordingly, and ultimately spreading throughout the whole human population — perhaps at the cost of some diversity. This is the upside case.
In the third case, outcomes could include the unintentional production of sickly or troubled or sociopathic children. Apart from the personal pain of child and parent and societal problems this would cause, the question for humanity is whether these genetic mistakes would be passed on to future generations and change humanity for the worse.
If not quickly corrected, they could impede the human race for generations.
Humans have been evolving for 200,000 years through natural selection. Genes whose hosts were able to live long enough to successfully mate and raise healthy offspring were more likely to survive; the less successful ones died off. In this way, natural mutations, good and bad, which were occurring in every generation, were either taken up or discarded — depending on the success they conferred on the host in terms of surviving and reproducing. Uncompetitive mutations did not make the cut into the next generation.
However, along with all the good mutations came a latent propensity to violence, as the plethora of human wars attest. In effect, a tendency to hostility towards outsiders, along with co-operation within groups, may have been naturally selected in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, where inter-tribal wars were endemic. Civilization has since merely papered over this propensity.
The question for the future of humanity is whether natural selection will act on the results of gene editing to improve the gene pool or to degrade it.
The hope of gene editors is that science will have a much better chance of targeting successful mutations than the purely random efforts of nature. The few mistakes that do get through will, it is hoped, not make it to the next generation due to the hosts struggles in life and failure to reproduce.
While this may have worked in prehistoric times, it is a questionable assumption in a modern world, where universal healthcare is available, and in which most people live to reproductive age. More often than not, even unhealthy people cling on to life long enough to pass on their genes.
The problem with this is of course that, if there are any gene editing mistakes, they’re likely to accumulate into successive generations.
One can envisage even more serious problems. Imagine if gene editing has mistakenly — or deliberately, in the case of national military programs — conferred a propensity to violence on the host; a violent trait that is naturally selected in future generations. Humanity has enough of a tendency in this direction already, without adding to it.
On the other hand, if an inclination towards violence could actually be reduced in future generations through gene editing, this could have existential benefits for humanity in a nuclear-armed world.
Turning to the question of equity, it’s likely that the rich and well-connected and the risk-takers will have the first bite of the cherry. The moment a designer baby service becomes available, they will be the first to utilize it — for better or for worse. Such precedence has always been the case throughout humanity’s long history: even in so-called egalitarian communist countries, it was the elite which got ahead of the rest.
Maybe we should let the elite be the guinea pigs in this case, taking the risk of early mistakes in the procedures. Then, if the technology is successful and society decides to proceed with it, costs will come down and it will become available to us all, like smart phones and social media.
If humanity continues along its present course and behaves as it has historically towards emergent technology, then designer babies are more likely than not to be in our future. We’d better be aware of the consequences.