Bill McKibben's Incoherence on Genetic Science


Perennial eco-alarmist Bill McKibben (author of the apocalyptic and ethically obtuse, The End of Nature) takes the occasion of the Raelian cloning claims to oppose future progress in medical biotechnology. Why? Because he claims that cloning research is a threat to "our coherent human future." However, what is "incoherent" about a future in which parents could use genetic science to protect their children against disease and give them a better chance at fuller richer lives by providing them with stronger immune systems, more physical stamina and cleverer brains? McKibben and other political ecologists are joining up with conservatives like Leon Kass and Bill Kristol in a growing Neo-Luddite movement that wants to "stand athwart history, yelling stop."

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  1. You said – what is “incoherent” about a future in which parents could use genetic science to protect their children against disease and give them a better chance at fuller richer lives by providing them with stronger immune systems, more physical stamina and cleverer brains?

    A race of supermen, eh Ronald? Perhaps we could raise these children in a central compound run by the government. They could be trained for military service. No, that was a movie, wasn’t it?

    I hope you aren’t serious believing that tinkering with the human gnome is a good thing. And that it won’t lead to perversity? I’m with Bill and the ‘political ecologists’ when it comes to standing firm against this explosive issue.

  2. Rick: “tinkering with the human gnome” has got to be the funniest typo I’ve seen all year. Granted, it’s only January 6.

  3. Rick: What part about “PARENTS could use genetic science” did you not understand? Of course, government mandated eugenics is totally out of the question.

  4. Yes, what is “incoherent” about using genetic technology to improve human health? What is so special about modulating the genome? It is very coherent to use genomic medicine and cloned stem cells in the future considering that now we use vaccines, antibiotics, vitamins, contact lens and consmetic surgery. The only difference is the technology. The only thing we really should worry about is who controls the technology. If individuals are allowed to freely decide for themselves how, when and if to use the technology, no problem. If the state is allowed to decide for you, that’s scary. Unfortunately, the state trying to control the technology for you is not only seen in movies.

  5. Ronald: the point is, parents using genetic science is arguably an early step down the slippery slope to government mandated eugenics. That’s the scary part of the whole cloning issue. Government has a long and storied history of seeking to eventually control and use for its own purposes that which is initially used for general good in private hands.

  6. Brad: Of course, you’re right to be concerned about potential abuse of genetic science by governments. But the same can be said for nearly any technology, e.g., it looks like the Feds may be willing to abuse computer technology in their Total Information Awareness program to keep tabs on us all. Banning technology is not the solution: eternal vigilance against government usurpation of liberty is.

  7. Let’s be clear whose side Ron is on. He’s on the side of the man who said this:

    “The answer is clearly to limit new entrants to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.”

    Hand in hand, working for liberty?

  8. Let’s be clear whose side Ron is on. He’s on the side of the man who said this:

    “The answer is clearly to limit new entrants to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.”

    Hand in hand, working for liberty?

  9. Thomas: Have you actually read my articles? I am neither for limiting new entrants nor promoting death.

  10. I’ve read all of your articles. They are without fail interesting and well written.

    I happen to think that the future you can’t wait to arrive is a dystopian nightmare. You think it’s a libertarian’s dream. That’s where we disagree.

    As this quote shows, lots of people in your camp–the future can’t arrive quickly enough camp–aren’t friends of liberty at all. I think that’s relevant. Don’t you? After all, it’s relevant when you discuss the opponents…

    There’s more to it, in any event. In my view, the world you would create is a world where those of us who emphatically reject your values would be coerced into conforming. Take an important example: in one article you say that “[i]t is simply immoral to decide in advance to limit a child’s potential.” It is, you say, child abuse. It seems clear to me that parents who reject genetic engineering (in a world where genetic engineering is widespread and effective) are making a decision in advance to limit a child’s potential. Ergo, child abuse.

    Tell me I’m wrong. Show me where you’ve spent time worrying about those of us who dissent. I haven’t seen it.

  11. The standards of what one considers ‘child abuse’ have changed over time, and it may be no different in this case. It used to be considered OK to let kids ride in cars unbelted, to let children play with toys made of lead, to ride bikes without helmets, to be left unattended at fairly young ages (I sure know I was left home alone before the legally allowed age of 13). This type of thing has been and will continue to be the case with or without genetic engineering.

    The important consideration here, is whether these things are legally mandated or not. Sure, some things like laws requiring children to be in child safety seats are a legal coersion into a particular direction, but one can argue convincingly that the social trends were in place before this became law.

    As I understand it (I could be wrong), people with religious objections to medical treatment are still allowed to restrict their children from receiving such treatment, even though many of us would consider that ‘abuse’. It is important as a matter of principle to defend legal freedom of choice, but that does not mean that the net sum of society’s choices will not result in ‘peer pressure’ to adopt certain choices. However there is an important distinction to be made between feeling pressure to genetically enhance your offspring, and being legally mandated to do so.

  12. Thomas: “As this quote shows, lots of people in your camp–the future can’t arrive quickly enough camp–aren’t friends of liberty at all. I think that’s relevant. Don’t you? After all, it’s relevant when you discuss the opponents…”

    A lot of people who were in favor of abolishing slavery were not friends of liberty, does that mean that slavery’s OK? A more contemporary example would be the war of drugs, a lot of anti-globalists and leftists are against the Drug War, and so are a lot of libertarians. Just because some people who agree with Ron’s views have other views or motives that are undesireable doesn’t mean they’re wrong in this instance. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

  13. I’m more concerned with legal mandates. “Child abuse” can, I guess, be used loosely to mean noncriminal treatment, but that’s not what I meant.

  14. The rhetorical device is Ron’s. I do think it is relevant in this case. Ron is promising a utopian future. So are some others. But do they share a common vision, other than genetic engineering?

  15. Jim: “There is an important distinction to be made between feeling peer pressure to genetically enhance your offspring, and being legally mandated to do so.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Thomas: See Jim above. With regard to technological progress, I think you’d have to agree technology has given us far more freedom than our ancestors had. Of course, past performance is no guarantee future results, but I think those who argue that technological progress is dangerous to liberty have a very hard case to make.

  16. Some of those who you believe are opposed to progress in this case are concerned precisely about freedom, as I said. I’m most concerned with protecting the right of parents to reproduce the old-fashioned way, which I believe is the only morally appropriate way. I don’t want to argue the morality–that’s well trod ground. I want to know how those who agree with me are protected in your utopia. After all, the logic of the proponents is that failing to offer genetic enhancement is a form of abuse. You’re not the only one who’s used this line of argument. Virginia Postrel has as well. I think that is reveals a real lack of reflection, or, alternatively, a real lack of dedication to liberty. Which is it?

    (I think the problem could be that you want to have it both ways–you want to prohibit parents from intentionally engineering a deaf child, which you must if you want political support, while making a philosophical argument that generally doesn’t support such prohibitions. Am I wrong?)

  17. Thomas: How can allowing someone else to clone a child endanger your right to procreate by gettin’ busy with a member of the opposite sex? How can someone else’s ability to ensure their child doesn’t get sickle-cell anaemia damage your ability (or, let’s be specific, the female of the pair of you’s ability) to exercise selection only by choosing a particular male’s genes over someone else’s?

    Even if someone else abuses their child by making a comprachino of them, it won’t affect your ability to litter the planet with offspring with whomever will agree to roll the dice with you.

  18. I guess I would have to agree that defining child abuse by ‘limiting potential’ or by even the ‘reasonable person’s consent’ logic is anti-freedom based even on current technology. After all, it could be argued that those with specific genetic traits (a predispostion toward blindness, deafness, early death from cancer, etc.) shouldn’t reproduce at all if there’s a chance it could inflict these harms on their children. From there it is a slippery slope to Eugenics (stupid and ugly people shouldn’t breed and inflict these undesirable qualities on their children). However we have thus far resisted that temptation, at least in the ‘Free’ world.

    This is not to say that all childmaking activities are a crap shoot and that we have no moral obligation to think about what impact our choices have on our children. After all, even with the traditional method of reproduction, we all try to find a suitable mate and a lot of what criteria we use, consciously or unconsciously, to judge that is based on the likelyhood of the person providing a good set of genes to pass on to our offspring. Genetic engineering is just one more tool available to us to reduce the likelyhood of our children inheriting less desirable traits, by whatever definition you would choose for such things.

    Given the diversity of opinion on this, and the fact that even our current reproduction methods present us with moral challenges, the best approach is to defend freedom of choice on all matters of reproduction.

  19. Jim, thanks for the thoughtful response. Two things to note: We’ve resisted the temptation so far in part because a lot of people have views that Bailey would find retrograde–they have a belief that reproduction must fit ‘natural’ forms, and so when reproduction does fit that form, there is no limitation. So it won’t do to rely on that sentiment while undermining it. Second, note that Bailey does think that there is a moral challenge to engineering–those who engineer children who have traits we don’t believe they’d want, without their consent. Surely the question of consent is important. Bailey suggests opponents duck it, but the better view is that they don’t think it’s important, because of their comprehensive view (it’s not a wrong to the child). Bailey rejects comprehensive views, so he’s left just with the liberty principle, but, I think, with a contradition in it.

  20. Excuse me, but how can someone give or refuse “consent” to whatever happens to them pre-birth? A person may have regrets about the manner or condition in which they were born when they have self-consciousness enough to do so, but the whole idea that something was “done to” someone who does not yet exist is a ridiculous notion on its face. Children of those who took thalidomide before it was found to encourage severe birth defects, for example, have, as far as I know, not sued their parents in great numbers, and they would be wrong to do so, in my opinion. I have a scoliosis of the spine and poor eyesight. If genetic science had the capacity to prevent these minor maladies 41 years ago, would I be justified in suing my parents now? I think not. I was also circumsized shortly after my birth – again without my “consent.” I don’t know that it was either a benefit or a handicap. It’s just the way I am now. If I happened to have any negative feelings about it, what legal recourse would or should I have?

  21. Thomas,

    I do think many people probably do think as you suggest, but that is not necessarily a sufficient justification for something (i.e. that people have the opinion that it’s ‘natural’). Until fairly recently (up to the 1960’s) we used to sterilize the mentally incompetent to keep them from breeding. This practice is now no longer acceptable, even though there’s nothing ‘unnatural’ about reproduction of the insane and mentally retarded. My point is that there exists even now the opportunity and historical precedent for the state or other coersive bodies (i.e. psychiatrists with the state granted power over their patients)to limit people’s reproductive decisions in the interests of the children they may sire. And I also think that most people of good conscience would question the right of people to have children who know they have a high likelyhood of passing a serious handicap onto those children. Even if they would not outlaw such actions, many would question the wisdom and morality of such ‘natural’ reproduction.

    The technology of genetic engineering would allow some potential parents out of this moral connundrum, by providing them the opportunity to prevent such defects from being passed on to their children.


    It is true we have no obligation to people who do not exist. However if we are participating in the creation of a person who will exist (regardless of method), we do have an obligation to the person who will be. This is analogous to an engineer designing a product that may pose a safety risk to its users. If the engineer finds a safety fault in the design, but corrects it or scraps the design, no one has been harmed. However if he knowingly lets it go to market, harm will occur to people in the future that he is now partly responsible for.

    Like engineering, or any other human pursuit, no process is perfect. Just as current medical procedures are not 100% effective, not every genetically engineered child will turn out as planned; there will probably be mistakes and malpractice suits and such just as occurs today when physicians make mistakes during conventional child birth, even if overall the process is very safe. Coversely the vast majority of naturally born children do not have serious birth defects so just because they may not all be beautiful, athletic super geniuses would not be sufficient justificaton for the state to mandate that everyone ‘engineer’ their offspring.

  22. Jim,

    >>>>It is true we have no obligation to people who do not exist. However if we are participating in the creation of a person who will exist (regardless of method), we do have an obligation to the person who will be.

  23. Jeff–

    I think you’re disagreeing with both Ron and with me on this point. Ron, after all, was the one who suggested, in the quotes I’ve provided, that certain choices in the reproductive process could properly be termed “child abuse.”


    In a world where there are no disabling genetic-based diseases, and in a world where people are substantially stronger/smarter than they are now, due to engineering, are you sure about what the state might or might not do? Ron seems to think that the state will step in to prevent choices that result in sub-optimal living for the offspring. Why wouldn’t that include the choice, in the scenario I described, to reproduce without engineering? It seems to me that we’d be in the situation you think exists for those who today reproduce despite a likelihood of passing on genetic abnormalities.

  24. Objection to any technological innovation tends to come from two camps: Those who do not or cannot understand the new technology itself, and those who infer implications and consequences which may or may not develop from the technology. Of the two, the former should be dismissed with prejudice. Members of the second group have a responsibility to elucidate their logic clearly and suggest remedies.

    I would suggest that banning or delaying a technology by law is never a remedy, as it virtually guarantees that the least responsible people will co-opt and use that technology for the least constructive purposes. While we in the US wring our hands in a moral muddle characterized mainly by unconnected, unprincipled sentiments, it is just barely possible that a nut cult has stolen a march on responsible science and done that which we all seem to fear. What good has all our mindless moralizing done besides making the ignorant a little more comfortable?

  25. Sandy: That’s just not true. Read Ron’s articles! The standard for reproduction he proposes is, would a reasonable person consent to having particular genetic traits or not? If not, then that act of reproduction was a wrong, and can be stopped, in the name of child abuse. As Bailey says, “It is simply immoral to decide in advance to limit a child’s potential. We already forbid such activities; we call them child abuse and punish those who harm children (or anybody else) on purpose.” In a world where everyone practices genetic engineering, why wouldn’t most people think that all reasonable people do? Why wouldn’t they think–as perhaps Ron already does–that refusal to use the latest technologies is a form of child abuse, punishable by law?

  26. Jeff –

    I agree with you that this concept could (like many) be taken to ridiculous extremes. Another analogy I thought of along these lines was choosing to marry someone who is less intelligent, successful or healthy than you could have. Have you ‘harmed’ your offspring with this decision? And if so, was your choice motivated by your own personal need to pursue happiness with the person you love? What is that worth as a trade off on a lower quality of life for your offspring? Is it really even a trade off, since stable marriages are better for the kids? If we reject this line of reasoning altogether as you propose, do you really think there is no moral dimension to decisions by pregnant women to drink, smoke, use drugs, or engage in other behaviors that have been shown to increase risk for the fetus? These are hard questions to come up with a reasonable answer to, especially one that would apply to everyone’s circumstance. This illustrates precisely why the government should be kept out of decisions along these lines.


    If I may be allowed to speculate, I think Ron’s choice of words may simply be a rhetorical device to counter those who view genertic tinkering as ‘child abuse’ or his own personal moral view of the right choice. He has made it clear he does not advocate government mandated eugenics.

    As for what future governments may choose to do with technology regulation, no one knows that for sure. However some reasonable guesses can be made. We currently know of many behaviors that can negatively impact a fetus (the aforementioned drinking and smoking, for example), and although discouraged, no one has outlawed them for pregnant women or suggested they can be sued for this activity harming their fetus. Same for high-risk pregnancies.

    Also, one must consider the mechanism for genetic engineering and on how feasible it is for it to become a common procedure. Invitro fertilization is a ‘common’ procedure and it costs tens of thousands of dollars. Given that something as important as genetic engineering of humans will require highly trained personel, specialized drugs and facilities, and the recoup of millions of dollars in research money, I doubt it will become so cost effective as to become routine – not when the alternative is free! Also, like in-vitro it will have to be done before the egg is fertilized and starts dividing. It cannot be done after the fact, and if the technology becomes available to alter people’s genes after the fact this whole discussion will become moot, as the person in question can wait until adulthood & make an informed choice on their own. Trying to ban people from reproducing the old fashioned way would be a practical impossibility orders of magnitude beyond the hugely unsuccessful attempts to ban drinking and drug use. People even get pregnant by accident, we must remember!

    My prediction for the future of genetic engineering regulation is that conventional reproduction between healthy adults will be allowed (as is current practice), and engineering to produce disabilities (like deaf or blind children) or ‘monstrocities’ (ever wish you had a third hand? We can accomodate that!) will probably be outlawed. The areas that will be debated and probably result in questionable legal intepretations will be the ‘gray’ areas where reasonable people disagree, such as maybe the case of a couple with a greater than 50% chance of passing a serious genetic defect on to their children wants to reproduce without the benefit of genetic tinkering due to their religious convictions.

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