Hello, everyone. For this post, I decided to take a look at genetic engineering. This is an area I would be professionally interested in, so I wanted to flesh out my own views on one of the more controversial aspects of genetic engineering: the potential for genetic enhancement of humans. As the title suggests, I come down in favor of this possibility. The rest of this post is the paper I wrote, which should hopefully explain why I came to this conclusion. If you disagree after reading my paper, or think I missed something important, this is a topic I enjoy learning about, and I would like to hear what you have to say, so be sure to leave a reply.
At this point in human history, technology touches nearly every aspect of our lives, and its reach expands with every new development. Soon enough, even human enhancement could be within our grasp, allowing us to change ourselves more fundamentally than ever before. Enhancement can take many forms, but one of the more controversial ones is genetic enhancement (GE), the alteration of the human genome. All new technologies invite discussion, and GE is no different. As we develop techniques to make GE a reality, the question shifts from how to do it to should we do it. Is it ethical? What do we stand to gain? What might we lose? By looking at some of the consequences, we can begin to make a judgement. But while we examine the consequences, it is necessary to separate the myth of genetic determinism, a common pitfall for anyone considering GE, from reality. By acknowledging that our genes are only a part of what makes us who we are, it becomes clear that the drawbacks of GE are necessarily limited.
In separating myth and reality with regards to GE, the first step is to establish the reality. We need to understand what GE can actually do. To do this, a good place to start is with the current state of the technology. The Hinxton Group, which is made up of scholars in various disciplines “interested in ethical and well-regulated science,” recently released a consensus statement on human genetic modification (Chan et al 42). In it, they give a brief description of modern techniques, like CRISPR/Cas9, that make up the state of the art; these techniques work by directing a DNA cutting enzyme to specific genetic sequences, allowing for “very precise… easy, inexpensive, and, critically, very efficient” editing of a genome (Ibid. 43). However, the Hinxton Group also reached consensus on the fact that even these techniques are “not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing” (Ibid. 43). The Hinxton Group ultimately suggests that further research into genome editing techniques be pursued, and that the possibility of human application of these technologies not be dismissed out of hand as unethical, instead encouraging discussion on the topic (Ibid. 42). This is a good starting point for the consideration of GE as well: being open to discussion in general, and looking at research in particular.
One area of research to examine is ageing. A phenomenon affecting everyone, the prospect of prolonging life and delaying ageing is tempting. And there is the potential to genetically impact how humans age. Research into the metabolic pathways of ageing has revealed a genetic component. A “physiological shift towards cell protection and maintenance… extends lifespan” (Kenyon 504). And genes are heavily involved in this shift; mutations which inhibit certain ageing pathways have already been identified in humans and linked with exceptional longevity (Ibid. 505). This suggests that using GE to select these genes could lead to longer human lifespans. Opponents of GE might suggest that this increase in lifespan comes with consequences. But according to Kenyon, this increase in longevity could come “without debilitating tradeoffs,” as evidenced by other species exhibiting both good health and long life in research studies (510). So, there is a clear potential in the future for GE to improve longevity without other losses, a definite benefit for anyone desirous of longer life. While longer-lived humans could have other consequences, these are less certain. There could be an increase in population growth (assuming no change in birth rate – by no means a sure thing), but this is not inherently a bad thing; it is only a problem if the additional population cannot be supported. To make this argument necessitates the assumption that we are at or very near the Earth’s carrying capacity for human life – which is also by no means a sure thing. For the most part, improved longevity is a clear gain made possible by GE.
Other research suggests there is potential for enhanced muscle development. In a study published in Cell, Yamamoto et al found that muscle-specific deletion of a gene lead to “increased muscle mass, associated with a strikingly improved exercise capacity” and “an improved intrinsic quality of the muscles” (835). This gene produced NCoR1, a biological regulator of muscle mass (Ibid. 837). This demonstrates that genes can produce compounds that inhibit muscle development, which in turn means that deletion of certain genes can improve muscle development. In other words, GE has the potential to allow improved muscle development. While muscle is not the only measure of athleticism and fitness, it can help contribute to both of these positive qualities and increase what an individual is capable of. It would be necessary to determine other potential impacts of genetic alterations, but it is clearly feasible to genetically manipulate muscle growth and performance.
A third area of research where GE shows promise is memory and learning. A study published in Nature ultimately found that “genetic enhancement of mental and cognitive attributes such as intelligence and memory in mammals is feasible” (Tang et al 64). In the study, mice were genetically modified to overexpress a gene responsible for detecting the co-firing of brain synapses, which lead to greater learning ability and memory (Ibid. 63). Tang et al demonstrated that with knowledge of how the brain works to form new connections and associations, could come the knowledge of how to genetically impact that process, thereby improving it. Intelligence is one of humanity’s greatest strengths, and improving it would allow for greater knowledge and innovation. With GE, this improvement is possible. And while there may be concern about unequal access to these various improvements, there is an important distinction to be made. As Sandel states in his article “The Case against Perfection”, which will be further considered later, “the fundamental question is not how to ensure equal access to enhancement but whether we should aspire to it in the first place” (52). We need to focus on the value of the technology itself, without getting lost in the mire of implementation.
So far we have seen some of the many possibilities presented by GE, supported by actual research. But what if there is something just as real, if less tangible, that we may lose? Next we must consider what the opponents of GE say we have to lose.
Perhaps the most worrying prospect of GE is the loss of our humanity. To determine if this is something we truly will lose, we first need to define what we mean by human. This may seem to be an easy task, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Many scholars faced with this question argue for flexibility. For instance, Harriet Ritvo, an MIT professor of history whose areas of study include human-animal relations, argues that humanity ought to include the great apes, as detailed study has revealed the barriers between human and ape are not quite so high as we once imagined; indeed, she says the similarities have “destabilized the assumptions on which the dictionary definitions of human and humanist have been based” (74-5).
Maybe we could consider an extension of humanity in the other direction as well. José Cordeiro, a member of several major futurist and transhumanist organizations, makes this argument. Cordeiro states that humanity “can no longer be regarded as a stable category… On the contrary, humans must be understood as a tenuous entity” (236). Even as we continue to change, these changes will not make us anything less than human. As Cordeiro puts it, we will still be “corporal, cognitive, and agency-laden,” seeking answers to “the ultimate scientific and philosophical queries” (Ibid. 236, 237). Humanity has already undergone major changes, and as these changes continue, we need to recognize that what we are and what we will become are not two different things, but different versions of the same thing.
Significantly, both Ritvo and Cordeiro, while arguing very different things, agree that we need to accept flexibility in our definition of human and humanity. The things that make us human do not have hard lines, but gentle spectrums. The question of whether GE will make us lose our humanity is an important one, but in answering it we need to recognize that it can only take away our humanity if we let it, both in terms of definition and in terms of identity. After all, we are already genetically different from one another, but the idea that these differences make some of us inhuman would be vehemently rejected by most.
So, if GE will not necessarily make us lose our humanity, the next thing to consider is if it will lead to other losses. One potential worry is the loss of autonomy; societies with genetic engineering are popularly portrayed as dystopias where everyone has an assigned role, dictated by their genetic design. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that this dystopia is more a product of social structures than of genetic engineering itself. If people are still free to decide what they would like to do with their lives, there would be no issue of assigned roles. Opponents of GE may still argue that if we are allowed to genetically design children before they are born, they will have no true choice in what they do with their lives. But such arguments discount the fact that we already have no choice in our genetic makeup; if we will be slaves to our genetic destiny in the future, then we are already enslaved by it now. Furthermore, it is possible and even likely that parents could choose better genetic traits than chance would otherwise bestow. But an even more fundamental issue with this argument is the genetic determinism it displays; the idea that virtually everything about us is determined by our genes. This philosophy discounts the role that nurturing plays in our development. We are a product of our environment, as well as our genes. Genetically identical twins are not both the same person; clearly, there are other factors at play, influencing our desires and choices. And if GE choices can be made personally, where is the loss of autonomy? Clearly, our autonomy is not at stake due to GE.
Next we should consider the argument that there are certain valuable human qualities at stake with the advent of GE. This is the argument Michael Sandel, a political philosophy professor at Harvard and bioethicist makes. This is the argument against GE at its core, focusing on the technology itself and not the way it is used. Sandel argues that enhancement leads to the loss of “openness to the unbidden” (57) and the “triumph of willfulness over giftedness, dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding” (60). Essentially, it will take away our ability to deal with and appreciate our lack of control over certain things, and to accept some things as they are. At first glance this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument, but there is a problem with one of its key assumptions: that these losses are the natural consequence of genetic engineering. Sandel, too, falls into the trap of genetic determinism that catches so many considering GE. The fact is that random genetics is not the only source of these qualities. Genetic design does not lead to control over every aspect of life, so accepting things that are beyond our control would still be a human quality. The ability to choose our genes would not change the fact that there are other gifts in our life, nor eliminate our reverence for people who put their genes to good use, nor even remove the need to simply behold things as what they are. Genes are only one source of many for these qualities. Recognizing the influence of other factors on human nature makes it clear that GE cannot completely eliminate valuable human qualities.
The ethics of genetic enhancement are complex, but must be discussed as we pursue technology and research to make it possible. Perhaps there is no way to sway those whose opposition to it is founded on strongly held beliefs and values; but if we are instead willing to consider the consequences of the technology, we may be able to find common ground. Even current research shows that there are plausible and considerable benefits achievable through GE, in the areas of longevity, muscle development, cognition, and beyond. And it may be possible to achieve these changes without major drawbacks. The benefits of GE are clear. Yet the drawbacks are often less concrete: the loss of humanity, autonomy, or advantageous qualities. But all of these problems rely on an inflated view of the role of genes in our lives. Our genes are not all that make us human; they do not govern all of our choices; they and their randomness are not the only source of good human traits. By acknowledging that genes play a role in our lives, but are not the deciding factor in them, it is clear that genetic enhancement has more to offer us than it might take away.
Chan, Sarah et al. “Genome Editing Technologies and Human Germline Genetic Modification: The Hinxton Group Consensus Statement.” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 15, no. 12, Dec 2015, pp. 42-7.
Cordeiro, José. “The Boundaries of the Human: From Humanism to Transhumanism.” World Future Review, vol. 6, no. 3, Sept 2014, pp. 231-9.
Kenyon, Cynthia. “The Genetics of Ageing.” Nature, vol. 464, no. 7288, Mar 2010, pp. 504-512.
Ritvo, Harriet. “Humans and Humanists.” Daedalus, vol. 138, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 68-78.
Sandel, Michael. “The Case Against Perfection.” Atlantic, vol. 293, no. 3, Apr 2004, pp. 50-62.
Tang, Ya-Ping et al. “Genetic Enhancement of Learning and Memory in Mice.” Nature, vol. 401, no. 6748, Sep 1999, pp. 63-69.
Yamamoto, Hiroyasu et al. “NCoR1 Is a Conserved Physiological Modulator of Muscle Mass and Oxidative Function.” Cell, vol. 147, no. 4, Nov 2011, pp. 827-839.
Image Credit: The featured image was taken from another article posted by the Columbia University Medical Center. I take no credit for it, and there is no relation to the other article. I simply thought it looked cool and relevant. The other article is available here.