The other night, I spent an enjoyable hour watching Gattaca, a 1997 sci-fi film I haven’t seen in probably ten years. Not all of it aged well: Ethan Hawke’s dialogue is cornier than I remember, and it has one of the silliest love scenes ever committed to film. But the core conceit remains compelling: a near future in which parents can pre-screen, and select, the genetic makeup of their children. The resulting society, in which the genetically random are considered inferior, is both chilling and plausible. It got me thinking about the many risks of genetically enhancing our offspring. Here are 5 of the biggest ways this is dangerous, and one reason it could be a good thing anyway.
1. Unequal access
I’ve talked about this recently (here) so I’ll be brief. Wealthier people (and nations) have earlier and easier access to emerging technologies. In this case, their children will have extreme genetic advantages, in addition to the usual perks of money, education and connections. The world’s plenty unfair as it is, I rather think.
2. Unintended consequences
Even if we can pick out the genes we like, that doesn’t mean we understand every letter of the genome. Genes we select (or avoid) could have multiple effects. We might eliminate a mutation that gives us all night vision, just because no one’s catalogued it yet. Or we might amplify some unrecognized disorder that causes us all to go blind at 30.
3. People make weird decisions
So far I’ve been writing as though it’s obvious which traits would be selected as “superior.” But it’s not strictly defined. Different people will make different choices. For example, a culture that prizes artistic inclination over physical strength will select creativity-linked genes for their next generation. This implies that people’s values – be they cultural, political, or personal – will be reflected in the very bodies and minds of their children.
I find this incredibly creepy! Ideas can spread and minds can change, but your genes are forever. It’s strange enough that the possibility of your existence depends on someone else. It’d be far weirder to know that your DNA had been custom-designed by your parents. What if they were in a bad mood at the time, or giggling drunk? What if they were crazy? Are there any circumstances where you’d take away someone’s ability to customize their children?
4. Clones are boring
On the other hand, if lots of people in a particular culture end up choosing similar traits, then each successive generation could grow more homogenous. Not only is this unappealing, it increases the risk of a recessive disorder taking root.
5. Discrimination is justified
Finally, I bring us back around to the Gattaca problem. In the movie, Ethan Hawke’s character is considered so inferior that he assumes a false genetic identity, rather than face a lifetime of cleaning toilets. In real life, as of 2008, it’s illegal for employers or insurance companies in the US to discriminate based on your genetic information. But such laws can be circumvented, repealed or ignored, and don’t always apply. The greater the advantages of enhancement, the more tempting it is to discriminate. Suppose I run an elite private school, for example. I could require a genetic test for admission, denying any applications from the unenhanced. After all, many similar forms of discrimination exist today, and survive even in the face of widespread condemnation.
In fact, this is much more complicated than the racism and sexism we wrestle with today. That’s because those types of discrimination are based on demonstrable falsehoods (stereotypes), so can be alleviated through dialogue. But all else being equal, an Olympic athlete who has been genetically selected for strength really will outperform one who hasn’t. That’s right, choosing the genetically enhanced competitor would actually be justified. This bears repeating: In many cases, genetic discrimination will be indistinguishable from merit-based selections! There’s no way around it.
Why it’s a good thing in the (very) long run:
If any of this comes to pass, there will likely come a day when everyone is genetically enhanced, and these problems will fade into history. On a global level, this would actually represent a great leap forward for the human race. Future generations might consider the problems above to be merely the birthing pains of a glorious new civilization. But on an individual level, the transition would be difficult. Those last few “version 1.0” people would live in the shadows of a society that’s universally faster, smarter, and healthier than they are. It’d be like being the disposable wood scaffolding upon which a gleaming marble tower was erected. Surely, a bittersweet experience.
Would you customize your children if you could? What do you think of a genetically enhanced future? Tell us in the box below, and ask your friends using these sharing buttons. (Special thanks to RBF for lending her insight to this post.)