Science & Technology

Is Freedom Just Another Word for Random Genes?

No. Genetic Engineering Offers Greater Human Freedom, Not Less.


"Do we want science to re-design human aging?" was the official topic debated last week by the ideological environmentalist Bill McKibben (author of the upcoming Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age) and UCLA bioethicist Gregory Stock (author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future) at the SAGE Crossroads series in Washington, D.C. The debates are sponsored by the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. McKibben was in favor of disease and death and Stock was a proponent of extending healthy human life spans. But let's set aside that larger topic for the moment to consider another important issue raised during the debate: designer babies and human freedom.

McKibben believes that the random lottery of genes is central to human freedom, and that using genetic science to overcome the sometimes less-than-desirable effects of that lottery is dangerous and immoral. "Down that path lies the death of what we call human meaning, the idea that people are in some way their own human beings and are not pre-programmed semi-robots," he declared.

To forestall this future filled with semi-robots, McKibben would not only outlaw not-yet-existing techniques to intervene in human germlines, but would also ban currently available procedures such as sex selection and pre-implantation screening of embryos for non-disease traits. He is far from alone among policy intellectuals in making this argument.

McKibben is asserting that when we don't know exactly what genes we have, we have greater scope for freedom than if our genes had been chosen for us and we knew what they were. Human freedom, McKibben believes, depends in some profound sense on the random inheritance of the genes that are the recipes for our bodies and brains.

During the question and answer period at the debate, I pointed out to McKibben that if he really believed that human freedom depended on inheriting a random selection of genes, his cause was already lost. In another 10 years or so genetic testing will enable every one of us to know precisely our entire complement of randomly acquired genes. The good news is that we will then know our predispositions to various diseases, enabling us to take steps to delay their onset or even prevent them altogether.

McKibben, though, will not be pleased, even if the rest of us are. To McKibben, it is a blow to our freedom that we will also know a lot more about how our particular sets of genes influence our temperaments, our intelligence, our abilities to form memories, and our physical capacities—even though that knowledge may well make it possible for us to intervene by means of pharmaceuticals to change our temperaments, improve our memories, or strengthen our bodies. McKibben's fears that adding an element of choice to our genes reduces our freedom are misplaced; to the extent that genes "program" us, we are already "pre-programmed" by our randomly conferred genes. And we are ignorant about which ones are doing what programming. That won't be the case in the future.

Greg Stock, after the debate, offered McKibben this thought experiment: suppose his parents sit him down tomorrow and say, "Son, we have something to tell you. We selected you from among 10 different embryos after genetic testing and decided we wanted a boy who would probably be over six feet tall and you were the one that had the qualities we were looking for." Would that make McKibben's life meaningless? McKibben said that yes, it would have made his life less meaningful. He would feel like more product than gift.

This "product versus gift" notion is bandied about by other opponents of human genetic engineering. What does it mean? Consider the case of children born today via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Are they less "gifts" than children conventionally conceived? Considering how much IVF still costs, one might say that IVF children are pretty expensive gifts. But who can doubt that parents of children brought into the world via the miracle of IVF treasure them as "gifts" far more than parents who can produce children with technology no more sophisticated than a bottle of champagne, a dozen roses, and a comfortable bed?

Parents in the future who choose to avail themselves of genetic engineering to improve the lives of their children will also regard their children as "gifts." Pre-programming children with such enhanced capacities as good health, stronger bodies, and cleverer brains, far from constraining them, would give them greater freedom and more choices. All of these traits are by their nature things that any person would want to have, while a poor immune system, a weaker body, or an 80 IQ could all be regarded as deficiencies that a parent and the prospective child would obviously want to avoid.

I asked McKibben what will happen when a genetic test 10 years from now reveals that he has a complement of genes that predispose him toward a conservative, non-risk-taking temperament that inclines him toward traditionalism and a cautious attitude to technological progress. Would this finding somehow invalidate his thinking and writing about the effects of technology on people and society? He responded that he was sure that his views came from a complicated interplay between his formal education, his life experiences, his mentors, and other factors.

He's right, of course—but those experiences are also inevitably influenced by his genetic make-up. Does he have a risk-taking temperament? Is he sociable, or shy? Does he have a pious disposition that inspires a reverence for tradition? His arguments will not rise or fall because we know more about his genetic constitution; we will judge their validity in the light of their logical consistency, their historical and scientific accuracy, and their faithfulness to hard-earned ethical principles.

McKibben is indulging in genetic essentialism, the idea that we are just meat puppets dangling from our strands of DNA. He really believes that human beings are robots pre-programmed by our genes, while pretending that adding a layer of ignorance atop our robotic nature somehow equals freedom.

But human freedom cannot and does not rely on ignorance and randomness. Human freedom—the capacity to make choices based on reasons—expands with knowledge, not shrinks. If you don't believe it, think about how humanity's greater knowledge of such things as the germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter have radically increased our choices and freedom over the past two centuries compared with the choices available to our ancestors. Similarly, knowledge about how our genes affect our behavior and how our brains are wired increases rather than limits our freedom. Prozac, for example, does not limit our choices, but gives depressed people the freedom to adjust their emotional state to one they prefer.

In the same manner, safe genetic engineering will not turn people into semi-robots, but will give them capacities such as stronger bodies and smarter brains that will enhance their freedom, their ability to make choices based on reasons. Human freedom is not and cannot be based on ignorance and randomness. The designer babies of the future will have more knowledge and therefore will have a far greater scope for free choice than we do today. Knowledge is freedom; ignorance is slavery.