Designer Genes

One scientist’s flawed argument for flawless humans.

In a 1958 editorial, C.S. Lewis commented on the questions: “Is man progressing today?” and “Is progress even possible?” Lewis feared the prospect of a “planned state”—a “technocracy” in which the government “must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets.” With his characteristic frankness and common sense, Lewis articulated the grounds of his fear thus:

I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But . . . questions about the good for man, about justice, and what things are worth having at what price . . . on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.

Whether western liberal democracies have “progressed” in the direction of the “welfare state” that Lewis envisioned in his 1958 essay is a matter of on-going political debate. What is, perhaps, undisputed is that in addition to telling us about science, a new scientific priesthood speaks ex cathedra on the whole range of “questions about the good for man, about justice, and what things are worth having at what price.”

As a recent example of this trend, consider Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man, a new book by Dr. Steven Potter, professor of pediatrics in the Division of Developmental Biology at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. In his book, Potter not only provides a highly accessible, winsome tour of current genetic biology, he also (as one endorsement puts it) “ventures into morality and religious issues and does this with great capability and sensitivity.” Potter’s credentials in genetic research and developmental biology are noteworthy. In addition to his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, Potter has published in such journals as Nature, Cell, and Science. However, a careful reading of Designer Genes suggests a healthy measure of skepticism is in order about the credibility of Potter’s priestly pronouncements on how we ought to harness the potential of genetic science.

Designer Genes is a panegyric for eugenics. At times, the tone of Potter’s praise for a genetically orchestrated future is almost ebullient. Potter writes:

But if we know our complete DNA sequences then we can be on our guard for this eventuality [genetically inherited disease], perhaps by restricting who we marry, or perhaps more likely by screening embryos through DNA sequencing when the danger of severe genetic disease is present. And in time, as such genetic screens become more common, it might be possible to completely remove such harmful versions of genes from the human population.

Recognizing the tragic history of past eugenic efforts, Potter is cautious to distance himself from the worst abuses of eugenic programs. He makes a distinction between “positive” and “negative” eugenics. The former consisting of “efforts to promote the passage of the best genes from one generation to the next, by positive means” (emphasis added). The latter “is devoted to preventing the reproduction of people with perceived inferior genes,” By “positive means,” Potter seems to have in mind a kind of free-market eugenics based on consumer choice since “we need to be vigilant and avoid state-dictated genetic programming of populations.” After all, he muses, “who wouldn’t want to be the parent of another Michael Jordan? . . . If the technology to produce super-athlete children is available, there will be people who will use it.” And Potter’s proposed positive eugenics would seek to make all of the technological resources available to those parents seeking to avail themselves of it.

To his credit, Potter recognizes that his enthusiasm for future genetic perfection is a source of moral discomfort for some. He candidly acknowledges that the “genetic manipulations described in this book for the creation of babies with desired gene combinations would result in the destruction of human embryos.” Hence, he raises the question of whether such technology is “morally unacceptable” since we might be “committing the murder of some human beings to improve the genetic makeup of others.” However, in keeping with the free-market stance of his “positive” eugenic proposal, Potter asserts that there “are no certain answers to these [moral] questions, only different points of view.” Consequently, we, individual consumers “will reach our own conclusion” about how we ought to proceed in re-engineering future human beings in conformity with our desires.

Potter’s own attempt to wrestle with the morality of destroying human embryos is philosophically, if not biologically, confused from the start. He begins by claiming that “each egg and sperm has the potential to make a person.” Biologically, this is simply false. Gametes, by themselves, have no intrinsic developmental potential for human personhood. Of course, Potter knows this. So his use of “potential” is likely more latitudinarian. Still, three pages later, Potter describes the zygote as having “remarkable potential.” “It can,” he explains, “turn itself into a person.” Ironically, Potter fails to recognize that this potentialist understanding of human personhood is at odds with his rather surprising admission of the embryological facts. Potter writes, “Of course we all began as a zygote. Everyone does.” What is shocking about this concession is what it so obviously entails—an entailment that seems lost on Potter. If I, the human being I am today, “began as a zygote,” then the zygote that began the-human-being-I-am-today was me—i.e., it was a human person. It was not merely a cell with “remarkable potential” to become me. It was me.

Undoubtedly, if pressed on this logical inconsistency, Potter would retreat to his potentialist position, a view that allows for a range of perspectives consistent with the overall thrust of a consumer-oriented ethic. Thus, while Potter is willing to go on record as believing that a late third trimester baby is “clearly” and “indeed a human being and deserving of the right to live,” he conveniently remains non-committal about the point at which a potential person becomes an actual one. The skepticism about this point—“somewhere after conception and before birth”—enables the consumers to decide. Either way, Potter thinks that the potentialist viewpoint absolves those involved in the genetic manipulation of human beings of the charge of complicity in the destruction of human persons.

From the standpoint of rational consistency, Potter’s insistence that a late third trimester baby “clearly” deserves a “right to live” is odd. If the so-called moral status of unborn human beings is something that is conferred, as it seems to be in Potter’s consumer-oriented ethic, then what reason does one have for believing that a human being “clearly” possesses such moral dignity at any point in its development? Though barbaric, the views of Peter Singer have the admittedly small virtue of being logically consistent on this point. Reasonable though it is given his underlying assumptions, Potter, unlike Singer, can’t seem to swallow the infanticide pill.

Of course, this is ultimately because the position upon which Potter’s positive eugenics is based is a-rational. The maximization of consumer choice requires a full range of options over which deliberation is guided by emotion and desire. From this standpoint, Potter’s reticence to sacrifice late third trimester infants in the name of genetic advance makes perfect sense. His moral reluctance is not grounded in a rationally defensible, principled position. It is simply an expression of how he feels.

It is precisely this aspect of the new scientific priesthood that is most disconcerting. It wants science unencumbered by the rigorous demands of rational moral discourse. At the same time, this priestly class recognizes that they serve a populace still very much enthralled by a moral universe they have long since rejected. Consequently, the scientific priests must provide a substitute mythology for traditional, rational moral discourse—one that affords therapeutic solace for the vacuum created by the elimination of the latter. This is achieved perfectly when morality is reduced to emotive preference and science becomes an instrument in the satisfaction of consumer desire.

That Designer Genes aims at a popular audience is telling. It tells a story of the exciting and uncertain future of genetic enhancement in the tradition of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket. However, what guidance it provides comes not from conscience, but from technological possibilities offered in the interest of consumer demand. What passes for moral counsel is mere reassurance that the customer is king. If C.S. Lewis is right to fear scientists who speak as though their technical training as scientists provides grounds for moral authority, one ought to be more fearful of scientists who, speaking out of their scientific expertise, assure us with full moral authority that there is no moral authority. Just relax while the anesthetic takes effect.

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