Monkeying Around with the Self

Why support for biotech shouldn't foreclose the debate over its moral issues.


By now, the script is predictable. A new breakthrough in biotechnology, actual or only planned, is announced and breathlessly hyped in the media; pundits left and right respond with variations on the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it theme; libertarians blast those who would restrict progress in the name of authoritarian moralism and fear. But perhaps no one is entirely right. The shrill, mindless alarmism could inhibit important scientific advances; yet there is danger, too, in cavalier dismissal of moral concerns about how the quest to control our genetic destiny may affect humanity's basic view of itself.

The latest round in this debate was set off by two stories in the first month of 2001: the revelation that scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center had bred the first genetically altered primate—ANDi ("inserted DNA" spelled backwards), a rhesus monkey with an added jellyfish gene—and the news that an American physiologist and an Italian fertility expert would attempt to clone a human being. "Creeping toward us…is perhaps the gravest imaginable crisis, one that could result in the end of history as a distinctively human, and humane, story," prophesied George Will in a January 21 column. Once genetic engineering is perfected in simians, he warned, human designer babies are next—and ultimately nothing less than "the abolition of humanity."

Just a few years ago, it was the sheep that could mean the end—Dolly the First Cloned Mammal, whose arrival sparked a hysteria-tinged debate riddled with misconceptions about cloning. Some scenarios came straight out of third-rate sci-fi movies: for instance, tyrants with armies of obedient clones. Actually, as psychologist Terrence Hines pointed out in The Skeptical Inquirer, clones are not drones, and cloning "would be an astonishingly costly and inefficient way of getting an army." It would make much more sense to grab children born the old-fashioned way and start instilling mindless obedience at an early age, as some real-life tyrants have done.

Fantastic visions of clone armies and clone slaves were invoked not only on conspiracy Web sites but in Time and U.S. News & World Report. In The New Republic, University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass wrote that "it is not at all clear to what extent a clone will truly be a moral agent," since his autonomy would be subverted by "the very fact of cloning, and of rearing him as a clone"—whatever that means.

If some egomaniac set out to have his cloned child reared so as to reproduce his own personality, or if bereaved parents had their dead child cloned (apparently not an uncommon aspiration, according to an article by Margaret Talbot in the February 4 New York Times Magazine) and tried to raise the new child as a copy of the one they lost, it would be a terrible infringement on the child's autonomy. Yet plenty of parents have treated their "natural" offspring as younger versions of themselves or replacements for deceased children; at worst, the fact that the child shares someone else's genetic code might provide an added incentive for the adults to ignore her individual uniqueness.

Of course, as cooler heads like Hines have pointed out, the cloned child would not only have different formative experiences than the "original" but would not even be an exact physiological replica. The donor egg into which the genetic material is inserted still contains its own mitochondrial DNA in its outer membranes; this genetic material will affect the development of the embryo, as will the womb environment. Even identical twins, who do share the same genetic makeup and the same womb, can have very different traits and personalities.

The real ethical problem of cloning, as REASON Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey argues, is that at present, mammals cloned from adult cells appear to be at high risk for congenital abnormalities. It would be immoral to expose a human infant to such risks. But if the procedure is perfected in nonhuman mammals to the point of being safe, cloning won't change the basic character of human beings.

"Designer babies" genetically altered for specific traits—the promise of ANDi, the monkey with the jellyfish gene—may pose a different dilemma.

For now, mammalian genetic engineering is at, well, an embryonic stage. The ANDi experiment involved 40 monkey embryos injected with the green fluorescent protein gene, which makes the jellyfish glow in the dark. Only three monkeys were born, and only one of them has the gene in its tissues—but it appears to be inactive, since ANDi doesn't glow. (Rodents implanted with the same gene do, faintly.) Although the human genome has been mapped, scientists are very far from exact knowledge of which genes affect which traits, under what circumstances, and in what combination.

But suppose that at some future point, science did acquire the ability to "customize" a human baby—to produce not only the desired height or eye color but such characteristics as reserve or extroversion, sensitivity or competitiveness, artistic or mathematical gifts. It seems to me that when one considers such a scenario, panic-mongering about the damage to our sense of humanity is harder to dismiss. There is no reason to think that a cloned person will not be a moral agent, but can the same be said of a designer person?

What happens to our notions of self-determination if people become, as the Bolsheviks used to say in a very different context, "human material"? What happens to the belief in individual freedom if individuality can be reduced to a software program written by other people, if an "engineer of human souls" is not just Stalin's chilling term for a writer but an actual job description? What happens if we lose any notion of the human soul, not as a theistic concept but as a notion of some inviolable core of self?

One could argue that genetic engineering would not diminish freedom; human behavior and personality would be shaped by DNA just as it ever was, only more visibly. But it does make a difference whether these characteristics are produced by chance or by human design far more precise than ordinary sexual selection—just as there is a fundamental difference between teaching your child to be friendly and giving him an extra dose of niceness genes.

There are other disturbing implications. One need not be a radical egalitarian to be troubled by the prospect of a society in which the affluent can add genetic enhancement to their children's advantages while the have-nots fall further behind. Americans accept inequality of outcomes (to the chagrin of intellectuals) because they believe in merit and equality of opportunity. If these concepts become obsolete, a groundswell of resentment won't be long in coming, as well as a major push for the federal government to foot the bill for "Head Start" before birth.

The libertarian argument for genetic enhancement is that parents should be free to choose what's best for the children. Rarely considered is the possibility that some might define "best" in ways that are not only peculiar but ostensibly harmful. I'm not even talking about true weirdos who want Junior to glow in the dark or have pointy Vulcan ears. What about religious fundamentalists who set out to breed submissive females or provide early reparative therapy to embryos carrying the "gay gene"? Or radical feminists who decide to produce sons genetically purged of competitiveness, aggressiveness, and all that other nasty macho stuff?

What's more, we are hardly assured of the triumph of total liberty by the time human genetic engineering techniques are perfected. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the government and not the parents determines each child's genetic programming, does not seem likely. But even in a mostly free society like our own, people may be in for a great deal of coercion to make the "right" decisions about their children's DNA. Suppose genetic intervention can minimize the chances of antisocial behavior, and some parents refused to take advantage of it. If their child goes on to commit a crime, could they be charged with negligence?

None of this is to suggest that research on human genetic engineering ought to be banned or restricted by law, unless it endangers research subjects. For one, gene therapy targeting various diseases could alleviate much human suffering. If it can make significant inroads against Alzheimer's, for instance, then millions will be saved from the cruelest loss of individuality and identity. This is a potential that biotechnology foes brush aside in a high-handed manner that borders on offensive. Columnist George Will mocks the "desiccated utilitarianism" which holds that "if something reduces an individual's suffering or improves an individual's well-being, it should be done." Going much further, in a Slate exchange last year, GreenMagazine.com editor Ken Kurson derided the human genome project as "a despicable profit grab based on a demonstrably false premise (that there are too few people, and that people should live longer)."

But those who argue the other side sometimes have their own blind spots: In their optimism, they tend to forget that even beneficial changes can have a downside and that life can confront us with tragic paradox. Moreover, opposition to government bans on morally problematic uses of biotechnology should not foreclose a vigorous debate about moral issues—or a voluntary decision by scientists not to go down certain paths. The abdication of moral judgment invites intrusive laws. There should be, at least, a stigma against any genetic alteration that amounts to monkeying around with the self.

It may well be, of course, that science may well never gain the knowledge and skill required to truly engineer the soul—that, as University of Delaware particle physicist Stephen Barr writes in First Things, the interaction of various genes that may produce a particular trait is too complex ever to master. Perhaps genetic manipulation will at most increase the chances that a child will possess a desired characteristic, and fears about the "abolition of humanity" will prove groundless. But then, those who stress the perils of the unfettered pursuit of knowledge may have something of a last laugh. The grounds for optimism, after all, are in the hope that there are limits to this Promethean quest.