The knowledge of our genetic code and the technical tools to use it to our own advantage may inspire fear; it threatens the human race’s natural evolution. The consequences of these new technologies are extremely relevant, but are mostly not threatening if regulated. However, the changing science and society will need the moral tools to navigate this uncharted territory.
Nothing new under the sun: Natural Selection
In a way, humans have been genetically designed for a long time; what we see as beauty in male and female — such as beautiful hair or a smooth skin — are indicators of health, and when we have the choice, we tend to choose our partner with properties we want to see in our children.
Traditionally nature had the biggest impact on selection: with a blunt axe, it weeded young children for genetic fitness, but also for simple bad luck — like falling out of a tree without a doctor around. Selection for resistance against child death, pestilence, and disease is strong in the environment. Congenital diseases that show up after 40 are of little relevance in an environment where people rarely live long, and those genes are not eliminated — they accumulate in the gene-pool.
The kind of snapshot product from this evolution is the current homo sapiens. The variation of traits is important, since different pressures in changing cocktails of selection and preference depend on place, environment, and time.
From puck to pit bull
Would humans, when facing the possibility to select their offspring according to their whims, follow the route of the peacock, and go for all kinds of quirks? The choice of dog breeds for pets could make us fear for the worst. The selection of dogs for physical attributes is only marginally limited by nature, and we can see that humans choose for a wide range of forms and properties, apparently with scarce regard for practical needs. Dogs are selected for cute floppy ears — this leads to regular ear infections — or a deformed nose — which can lead to breathing problems. They can be big and hairy or small and hairless, or even the other way round.
However, when looking at the list of the most common dogs in the US (American Kennel Club), common sense prevails: in the first place, the friendly family dog, the Labrador Retriever; in the second place the space-conscious Yorkshire Terrier, and thirdly the trainable guard dog, the German Shepherd. When given a choice on how to chose their best friend, most people apparently choose quite reasonably, yet, there are still 158 different breeds on the list. Still, most dogs are mutts and the healthier for it.
What would the new potential for choice mean in humans? Would we create designer babies with floppy, big ears, cute wide eyes and a snout? Or would we go for a race of Nobel prize-winners, with a brain double of what we have now? A moral code seems to be necessary to protect children from the imagination of their parents or creators.
Health and clones
The blunt ax, killing children with disease and pestilence, has all but disappeared in many nations. Meanwhile, the knowledge of hereditary diseases and how to identify them even before conception, could lead to their elimination within a few generations. Health is more widely defined than what natural selection does; we want our children to live way beyond the age of fertility. This selection is even more stringent in bona fide sperm and egg donor banks. Regulation is needed to guarantee the physical and psychological potential of the genetic material.
It seems like the resistance against childhood illness will probably diminish, as the broad “natural” selection disappears, but the acute genetic problems might also disappear. And as parents choose more than only health factors from sperm or egg donors, we could possibly come closer to selecting our dream partners than the drive to breed a superior race.
However, when we go on selecting against genes for congenital diseases, will we start eliminating genes for for bad looks or stupidity? To what degree can we tamper with the gene composition of our offspring? What is decent, what is unethical, and what is criminal? Our humanity, gene pool, and cultural diversity, is created by the lottery of random processes during the meiosis — the forming of sexual cells. Turning off this process and choosing for uniformity, even for only some people, is a very fundamental choice to limit the by-nature imposed variability. This seems to be one of those moments where it would be better to be safe than sorry.
As far as health concerns go, it will be everyone’s responsibility to choose the outcome, but stronger regulation will definitely be needed. Finally, it isn’t too strong a statement to say that human genes should never be subject to the forces of the market.
Nothing new under the sun: the need to protect the child
Designer babies are already amongst us in their most basic form — by controlled genetic selection. Our impact on the genes of our offspring will grow fast. Terrible abuse is possible, and will probably happen. But as is the case with most scientific progress, if it is timely and properly regulated to protect the weakest from abuse and neglect and the megalomaniacs from themselves, the future seems rather bright.