Random Genes vs. Designer Kids

Opposing views from Bill McKibben and Ronald Bailey


McKibben on germline genetic engineering

Ronald Bailey covered my recent debate with genetic engineering proponent Gregory Stock with his customary combination of pugnacity and wit. I am grateful for his review because I think he raises issues of the deepest importance, which I try to address in my recently published Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.

Although I am not a libertarian, I have long admired the movement for its devotion to consistency. Hence I am convinced that libertarians will eventually decide to oppose germline genetic engineering as the most grievous infringement on human liberty yet proposed. My reasoning is as follows:

Germline genetic engineering, or the creation of "designer babies," involves altering the DNA of an embryo in order to produce certain characteristics in the resulting offspring. (Experiments with animals are now common; the technique has yet to be tried on humans). As Bailey says, scientists envision "pre-programming children with such enhanced capacities as good health, stronger bodies, and cleverer brains." In fact, James Watson, the most important geneticist in history, has as recently as this winter called for germline engineering to eliminate "stupid people," and to combat traits such as shyness and "ugliness." The chief of gene structure at the National Cancer Institute has written that parents may soon be able to "tweak the emotional makeup" of their child, a prospect that seems plausible as we understand more clearly those stretches of the genome linked to the production of, say, dopamine. Stock, the UCLA researcher Bailey champions, says in his very frank book Redesigning Humans that "optimistic" parents may soon be able to instill that trait more firmly in their children, and that "a devout individual may want his child to be even more religious."

So what should a libertarian think? To me the answer is obvious. These technologies literally define paternalism (and maternalism). Never before has one individual tried to exercise such power over another human being. The parents, and their corporate collaborators, will be picking what proteins each cell of their offspring will produce for their entire lives. (Indeed, they will be designing their grandchildren, and all of their descendants, as well).

Bailey's argument is that these changes will be good for the child—that with their "cleverer brains," for instance, they will have more choices. This sounds an awful lot like the liberal outcome-based reasoning that libertarians usually suspect, and it seems to suppose that parents will make only those choices leading to more choice for their kids. (That they won't, say, devote themselves, as Stock suggests, to trying to turn out more "devout" offspring).

To understand the problem, consider one of the examples that Bailey uses. "Prozac, for example, does not limit our choices, but gives depressed people the freedom to adjust their emotional state to one they prefer." Fair enough—Prozac is a blessing. But as everyone knows, within months of its appearance many people were also questioning its effect on human meaning. "Is this me, or is it the drug?" they asked in best-selling books and widely-read magazine articles; for many people, it nagged at their sense of identity, which in some sense is our most important possession—even more important than our clever brains. That's why some people take regular Prozac "vacations."

Now imagine, as some geneticists have already imagined, duplicating the effects of Prozac but permanently, by altering the serotonin balance in the brain with DNA alteration. In effect, we would be allowing parents to give their child a Prozac tablet every day of their lives. (And the grandkids too). This might be pleasant, but it wouldn't be freedom. Some researchers, recognizing this dilemma, have imagined incorporating on-off switches in the artificial chromosomes they imagine implanting. But as the researcher Leroy Hood told a conference organized by Gregory Stock, "it's quite clear that if we get into engineering more complicated traits, it's not going to be possible to simply make them all reversible."

It is true, as Bailey suggests, that we already try to influence our kids. We pick our mates, and we raise our kids by our particular values. But of course that degree of genetic control is far from perfect, and in our society growing up means that kids can eventually react against that upbringing—that is the story of coming to age. By contrast, no one can rebel against the proteins their cells produce. That's why, in the words of Princeton geneticist Lee Silver, this technology offers parents "complete control" over their child's destiny. In the deepest sense, this technology is about power.

Libertarians have often served as useful sentinels against infringements on individual freedom. In the end, I am sure they will take that role in this debate.

Bill McKibben

Bailey replies to McKibben

Bill McKibben is clearly sincere in his concerns, but he has failed once again to understand my earlier arguments for how safe genetic engineering can enlarge human freedom and enhance human flourishing.

First, keep firmly in mind that none of us gave our consent to be born, much less to be born with the specific complement of genes that we bear. In that respect, future genetically enhanced children are no different than non-genetically engineered children today. So what standard can guide us in determining what germline genetic engineering would be morally acceptable? I suggest the reasonable person standard. Would a reasonable person consent to being endowed with this or that particular genetic trait or not?

Let's say a parent could choose genes that would guarantee her kid a 20-point IQ boost. It is reasonable to presume that the kid would be happy to consent to this enhancement of his capacities. How about plugging in genes that would boost his immune system and guarantee that he would never get colon cancer, Alzheimer's, AIDS, or the common cold? Again, it seems reasonable to assume consent. These enhancements are general capacities that any human would reasonably want to have. In fact, many children already do have these capacities naturally, so it's hard to see that there is any moral justification for outlawing access to them for others.

The mechanism for genetic tyranny, according to McKibben, is cells pumping out proteins specified by the genes selected by a child's parents. As an example, he asks us to imagine "duplicating the effects of Prozac but permanently, by altering the serotonin balance in the brain with DNA alteration." Does a person who is "naturally" serotonin deficient choose to be depressed? Does a high-serotonin person choose to be happy?

Given that all human brains have some level of serotonin that influences their moods and outlook on life, the question is what balance a reasonable child would want. Applying our reasonable person standard, would a child consent to being endowed with a gene that prevents her from becoming morbidly depressed? I think yes. This is no more tyrannical than a randomly conferred gene that boosts the production of serotonin, giving a person a naturally sunny outlook on life. Again, freedom cannot consist of random genes.

McKibben's deepest misunderstanding arises from the fact that he has accepted a notion of hard genetic determinism that is simply not warranted by biology. A gene that enhances one's capacity for music doesn't mean that its possessor must become another Scott Joplin or Keith Jarrett; genes simply don't work that way. A genetically enhanced person's cells might pump out the proteins for perfect pitch, but she is as free to ignore them as any person who got the same genes naturally.

Consider that McKibben, like all of us, has many capacities stemming from his specific genetic endowment. He could, for example, have become a professional track star or a computer engineer, but he chose not to develop those particular abilities despite the fact that his specific complement of genes could have allowed him to do so. The good news is that would-be tyrannical parents who accept McKibben's erroneous notions of hard genetic determinism will be disappointed. Their children will have minds and inclinations all distinctly their own, albeit genetically enhanced.

Giving children such enhanced capacities as good health, stronger bodies, and cleverer brains, far from constraining them, would in fact give them greater freedom and more choices. It's a strange kind of despotism that enlarges a person's abilities and options in life. Genetic enhancements to prevent ills that nature so liberally deals out would not violate a child's liberty or autonomy, and certainly do not constitute tyranny.

Finally, it is true for genetic engineering, as for all other technologies, that some people will misuse it; tragedies will occur. Given the sorry history of government-sponsored eugenics, control over genetic engineering must never be given to any government agency. But to use genetic engineering is not, by definition, to abuse it. This technology offers the prospect of ever greater freedom for individual human beings, and should be welcomed by everyone who cares about human life.