Cosmic Designer Out, Designer Babies In

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Last week, Ron Bailey hipped us to pre-implantation genetic halotyping (PGH), a technology that allows parents to test embryos for thousands of genetic diseases. The sorting of embryos is controversial, and PGH opponents warn that scientists are 'playing God.' Writing in the Sunday Times, Minette Marrin says she's happy to stick with the substitute version:

It will be easier and better in every way to get rid of a tiny collection of cells. This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn't seem to be doing it.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Is an architect playing God? What about a gardner? Doctor’s play God, too.

  2. These zealots would have put Mendel’s head on a metal spike, kohlrabi.

  3. The “playing god” metaphor is such a clich?.
    I propose one of the following in its stead:
    Playing Trump
    Playing Steinbrenner
    Playing Joe

  4. I love technology. However, I absolutely despise the times when said technology inevitably falls into state hands. We’ll probably be having a rather interesting debate about this in a few years. God might even be mentioned.

  5. Other animals maintain a healthy gene pool by being exposed to the full rigors of natural selection, a process we humans try our best to avoid. As a result we have accumulated a whole host of deleterious additions to the human gene pool, and as medical science progresses this process will only accelerate. At some point in the future if this continues almost everyone will need to receive an assortment of drugs and other therapies to overcome their inherited disorders.
    In the long run we will need to rid ourselves of unhealthy mutations or face inevitable genetic deterioration. The process of embryonic selection directed by the prospective parents themselves seems to me the ideal solution to this problem.

  6. I?ll never forget the night I met my wife. She was sitting at the bar next to this putrid, weak looking, fat, disease ridden girl. I told my friend I was going to go talk to the good looking blonde. He said ?Who do you think you are? God??. I said ?What choo talkin bout willis?? (this was the eighties). He said ?If you don?t leave absolutely everything to chance, then you are playing God?.

    So we flipped a coin, it landed on heads, and I got to talk to the good looking blonde.

    Thank God.

  7. Haven’t they figured out that God is looking for a successor?

  8. Haven’t they figured out that God is looking for a successor?

  9. Other animals maintain a healthy gene pool by being exposed to the full rigors of natural selection
    I have no idea what a healthy gene pool is.
    In my limited knowledge about evolution, the whole point is that there is no such thing as a healthy or an unhealthy gene per se, only genes that are successful in propagating copies of themselves or not.

    Thus, as the playing field of evolution changes, the definition of a “healthy” gene must also change.

    For example, it’s much more “healthy” nowadays to have a “fast reading skills” gene, than a gene that protects against malnutrition (propositions for a better example are welcome).

    Evolution does not reward the healthy and the strong, it just propagates the survivors.

  10. I won’t have doctors playing Spaghetti Monster on my watch!

  11. We are god, so we might as well start acting like it.

  12. To Amateur Biologist:

    One could perhaps in general define a healthy gene pool as one in which the phenotypic expression of the genotype does not lead to debilitating, or life threatening disorders. It is always an ideal since deleterious mutations continually pop up.
    You might say that DNA, being the most complex molecule in the known universe must fight a continual war with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If a counter process did not exist DNA would eventually lose the necessary order needed to function. Natural selection is this counter process which has preserved life over the eons of its existence.
    Over very long periods of time natural selection leads to evolution as organisms adapt to changing environmental conditions, but in my prior comment I was referring to natural selection as the process for maintaining the healthy, functional genetic structure of any given species.

  13. Evolution does not reward the healthy and the strong, it just propagates the survivors

    Excellent rebuttal to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Biologist.

    What is “healthy” anyway, Jack? If you’re talking in terms of being able to survive without modern conveniences a la 10,000 years ago, I doubt 99% of our current gene pool would make the first cut.

    Back then it was healthy to have genes that allowed you to rapidly accumulate fat reserves. Today, that would be disastrous.

    If you’re going to state that we’re a “diseased” population, you need to also state what your idea of “healthy” is. While you’re doing that, keep in mind that in order to meet your “natural” standard of perfection, most humans would have to die.

  14. One could perhaps in general define a healthy gene pool as one in which the phenotypic expression of the genotype does not lead to debilitating, or life threatening disorders
    For the environment in which modern human beings live, having poor eye-sight, weak bones or whatever else that is usually associated with weakness is neither debilitating nor life threatening.
    Just because more people will have these traits in the future does not mean that the gene pool becomes more unhealthy, it just means that the environment changes and these things become unimportant.

    To give an extreme example, it is like saying that polar bears are weak and unhealthy because the would die in the desert from heat exhaustion.
    But this doesn’t matter, since polar bears don’t live in the desert.

    In the same way, the environment of humans changes (whether this is because of their own actions or not doesn’t matter, the change is just as real) so some of our initial strengths become obsolete, and in extreme cases (fat accumulation) even dangerous.
    The fact that people are worried by this is just a remnant of the olden times, when having poor eyesight or whatnot was actually dangerous.

  15. ed,
    “The “playing god” metaphor is such a clich?.
    I propose one of the following in its stead:
    Playing Trump
    Playing Steinbrenner
    Playing Joe”

    You forgot Bruce Almighty

  16. TF,
    LOL!!

  17. Concerning what Stephens, Holly and Amateur Biologist have been discussing: on occasion I have wondered about the long-term wisdom of technologies that enable women who would otherwise be sterile to have children. You know how with wheat and corn, we started out with wild grasses but over hundreds of generations of selection we’ve ended up with plants that give us far more food than their wild ancestors, but cannot propagate without our help? If every human being on earth dropped dead tomorrow, our corn and wheat would soon go extinct too.

    It’s theoretically possible that in a few thousand years no woman will be able to have kids without all kinds of medical help. And then if that medical help becomes unavailable we’re screwed.

    Of course, I am willing to admit that my thoughts in this regard have been influenced by my reading FAR more science fiction than the average person.

  18. Just to clarify my last post: I recall reading about some woman who could easily get pregnant, but kept having spontaneous abortions around her third month, for whatever reason. But thanks to some drug therapy, she was able to have kids. Good for her, but now her spontaneous-abortion gene that ordinarily would have died out with her has now been carried into the next generation. Now she will have children and grandchildren who are also incapable of reproducing without special drugs to prevent spontaneous abortions.

    Mind you: I am NOT saying that such drug therapy should be illegal. I’m just saying it’s something to think about.

  19. To Captain Holly

    We do share more than 99% of our genes with folks of 10,000 years ago, but many of them have suffered some deterioration, such as those determining eyesight and dental structure. Perhaps the only area of genetic superiority we would have is in the area of immune response.
    In case you have not noticed we still accumulate fat rather easily.
    Nothing in the practice of embryonic selection necessitates the mass elimination of the population.
    Sorry, I cannot answer any more fan mail.

  20. It’s theoretically possible that in a few thousand years no woman will be able to have kids without all kinds of medical help. And then if that medical help becomes unavailable we’re screwed.

    To overuse my extreme example, polar bears are screwed too if they end up living in a desert.
    We don’t think of them as weak only because our brains are wired to associate weakness and strength with characteristics that were deleterious or helpful respectively in our natural habitat.

    We no longer live in our natural habitat though, and our new environment is just as real.

    I would only be worried about this if I had proof that suddenly losing our technology has a substantial chance of occurring.

  21. Who cares?

    By the end of the century, computers will replace human beings as the dominand intelligent life form on this planet and in the Solar system.

    In 200 years, there will be no specimens of homo sapiens left. They will no longer be necessary.

  22. Shouldn’t let kids get braces. It would be playing God

  23. I would only be worried about this if I had proof that suddenly losing our technology has a substantial chance of occurring.

    Even if there is no such chance, and we know that our (Western technological) civilization will buck history and be the first one to never collapse, why the hell would we want a situation where we are incapable of keeping the species going without the aid of medication? Like that woman I mentioned before–her DNA makes it impossible to have children without extensive medical help, and now her descendants will have the same problem. I wish that woman had gone the adoption route if she was so desperate to hear little feet pattering through her house.

  24. Jennifer,

    What about people who don’t want to reproduce at all? Why the hell would “we” want a situation where some people don’t pull their weight (for the good of the species)?

    I’m glad she had kids if that’s what she wanted. I’m also glad that you’re not having kids if you don’t want them. What business of mine would it be to wish that you had kids against your will?

  25. Never played “Populus” or “Black and White”?

    What about playing Bob?

    What’s wrong with flipping back the genetic switches that would cause congenial defects?

    The same kind of people at arms about this are raving about IV-fetilization. This too will pass.

    Who’s to say God didn’t intend for us to use our intellect to improve ourselves? Was man “perfect” to begin with? (Please include Book and chapter if citing the Bible)

  26. Why the hell would “we” want a situation where some people don’t pull their weight (for the good of the species)?

    Where did I say anything about that? I merely said–in addition to the standard “this should not be illegal” disclaimer–that far, far down the road there might be problems if too many people have inherited the “I am not capable of having babies without a lot of medical help” gene.

  27. Perhaps the only area of genetic superiority we would have (over our ancestors of 10,000 years ago) is in the area of immune response.

    And alcohol tolerance.

  28. Jennifer,

    You said:

    “I wish that woman had gone the adoption route if she was so desperate to hear little feet pattering through her house.”

    Someone could just as easily say”I wish Jennifer had kids even if she didn’t want them since she is so concerned for the species.” If the woman who had kids dies, she leaves behind living DNA that can further the species, albeit possibly requiring medical help. If you die, you don’t leave behind DNA that can further the species.

    I realize you didn’t actually say or imply that your position with respect to childbearing was inappropriate for the species. I was pointing out that her position is no worse for the species than yours.

    1. In pre-human times individuals with poor eyesight were eliminated from the gene pool when they failed to detect an approaching predator. Therefore the survivors passed on good eyes.
    2. In hunter-gatherer times individuals with poor eyesight had a disadvantage and were eliminated from the gene pool when they failed to successfully hunt and gather.
    3. In agrarian times society became well enough organized and settled down to the point that people with poor eyesight could be tolerated. They were allowed to pass on the genes for poor eyes.
    4. In industrial times we dealt with the effects of poor eyesight genes by inventing glasses.
    5. In information age times we improved glasses to the point they could be worn in the eye instead of in front of it, then invented surgical techniques to correct the eye lens itself.
    6. In the near future we’ll be able to go back to the source and correct the genes themselves, which will again eliminate poor eyesight from the gene pool.

    Which of these is “playing God” any more than the others?

  29. If the woman who had kids dies, she leaves behind living DNA that can further the species, albeit possibly requiring medical help.

    This is a semantic detail, I know, but living DNA that cannot reproduce without extensive medical help strikes me as not “furthering” the species, but “retarding” it.

    I just don’t want humans to end up like our corn or wheat crops–completely incapable of reproducing naturally. Not that I’ll care one way or another–I’ll be dead long ere that.

  30. Mr. Stephens has a point in the sense that modern technology has allowed millions, if not billions, of persons to survive and reproduce who otherwise would not have been able to do so just 500 years ago.

    However, he is wrong in asserting that the “deleterious” genes — bad eyesight, dental structure — have recently started to “corrupt” the gene pool. Those genes have always been present, it’s just that the individuals who expressed them didn’t survive long enough to reproduce. But their siblings did, which is why the traits continued to this day.

    But why is the genetic makeup of persons of past centuries the most desirable? Considering the eyesight of the stereotypical nerd, in our modern, technology-drenched world, perhaps bad eyesight would be a very desireable trait because it would be associated with higher intelligence.

    As Mr. Biologist pointed out, the “best” genetic makeup is the one that allows the individual to best adapt to his environment. While being unintelligent and strong as an ox with 20/20 vision and perfect teeth might have been highly advantageous some 200 years ago, it’s not very helpful now unless you’re hoping to play pro football.

  31. “Extensive” is in the eye of the beholder, but even if there were an agreed upon definition, as time goes on, the cost of the intervention is likely to decrease and the chance that science can eradicate the particular issue that might affect her kids goes up.

    After a generation or two of difficulty it’s quite possible that the one particular issue her genes may carry can be corrected, leaving the rest of her genes alone (although if she’s not reproducing by cloning, the genes are getting mixed anyway).

    Her decision is no more likely to cause long term trauma to the human race than is your decision to not procreate; your “… so desperate to hear little feet pattering through her house” was mean-spirited or ignorant.

  32. This is a semantic detail, I know, but living DNA that cannot reproduce without extensive medical help strikes me as not “furthering” the species, but “retarding” it.

    It depends on how many children she has. Her only daughter might inherit the genetic traits for ovaries/uterus from her father’s side of the family, thus eliminating the “bad” genes from her background.

    Your basic point is correct — those individuals who reproduce are ultimately the ones who determine the future of the species — but since such reproduction is both expensive and difficult (at least with modern technology) the deleterious effect of the gene will be washed out by the millions of others who successfully breed.

    In other words, there’s plenty of natural reproduction going on. The species will be fine; it’s individuals who have to worry about going extinct.

  33. your “… so desperate to hear little feet pattering through her house” was mean-spirited or ignorant.

    Would you feel better if I had merely said “so desperate to raise a child?” Or changed “little feet pattering” to “big feet stomping?” I find it interesting, your thinking my suggestion that a woman who can’t reproduce normally should adopt a child who’s already here is mean-spirited.

  34. since such reproduction is both expensive and difficult (at least with modern technology) the deleterious effect of the gene will be washed out by the millions of others who successfully breed.

    If this woman were the only such instance I would agree with you. But it’s not just her–there are a lot of women who cannot normally reproduce, but are doing so thanks to various medical procedures. This won’t be a problem in our lifetimes, or even the lifetimes of your great-great-grandchildren, but eventually it could cause problems for the species.

    I understand that for a lot of women the desire to have a child is very strong indeed, but I wish such women would adopt some of the unwanted children who are already here, rather than spend a lot of time, money and effort to put their defective DNA into another generation. But let me repeat: I do not think such things should be illegal.

  35. The woman wanted to have a child that had her genes. She got one. Neither she nor you apparently want to adopt a child who is already here.

    Perhaps she will later; perhaps you will later.

    No matter how you look at it, you still said “I wish …” she had reproduced the way you wanted her to rather than the way she wanted to, even though there will be no net effect on the species from her doing it her way.

    I’d never say “I wish Jennifer would reproduce the way I want her to rather than the way she doesn’t want to”, nor would I mock your desire to avoid procreation, even if your desire to not procreate did lessen the chance for the species to survive.

    What’s so hard to understand about reproductive choice?

  36. What’s so hard to understand about reproductive choice?

    Apparently, the same thing that’s hard to understand about expressing thoughts and opinions. Like the way that me saying “I wish you’d get a clue” is quite different from saying “the government should require you to have one.”

  37. I never once suggested that you were advocating a law.

    I was just pointing out that your sarcasm was mean-spirited if you knew that the ladie’s actions had absolutely no bearing on the future of the human race (or at least no more bearing than your decision to not procreate

    or

    ignorant if you thought her reproductive choice was endangering the species more than yours.

    If you don’t think your words were mean-spirited, try saying them to a woman who is in the situation you were describing.

    If you think that her choice imperils the species more than yours, try asking someone whose answer you might respect.

    Yes, you have a right to your thoughts and your opinions, but that doesn’t mean that your thoughts are inherently free of mean-spiritedness or ignorance.

  38. Woozle,

    Exactly. The genetic engineering will hang around about 30 years. Our grandchildren will be artificial constructs.

  39. Jennifer,

    While I also worry a bit about the future of the species, I think your particular argument isn’t strong. It’s quite possible that this woman’s genes are “good” ones. Spontaneous abortions are often do to the fact that the embryo or fetus is defective in some way. The defect may or may not be caused by a genetic flaw; it might be caused by an infection of some sort. It is good to spontaneously abort defective embryos and fetuses. This woman may have simply needed antibiotics, or less stress, more fresh air, rest, and healthy food. I know of one particular case where a woman had an infection that caused her to miscarry three times in here twenties. Later, the infection was cured, and she became very fertile. She had her third and final child in her forties.

  40. Jeez… people play god every time they have children. Your creating something in your own image right? Has anyone remembered that were in the middle of… the biggest overpopulation crisis in history? Please consider adoption.
    Not to stray to far off track either but humans act like god all the time… anyone remember george bush’s divine ruling comment? Apparently divine love and charity rules the world except when it disagrees with your view and/or pocketbook.

  41. Should scientists “play God” in the sense of being serious while the briefest of looks around us show that God is the one “playing,” as in goofing off. And some of His practical jokes just ain’t funny.

    Mr. Feinman may have been ahead of his time by really playing God by goofing off.

  42. ignorant if you thought her reproductive choice was endangering the species more than yours

    My childlessness only endangers the species if our population is dropping to dangerously low levels. With the US alone slated to hit the 300 million mark this year, I doubt that will be an issue.

    However, if a flu pandemic hits and knocks our population down to a six-digit number, I’ll do my bit for the future and have some kids. Even though my misanthrope genes will be propagated into the next generation.

  43. While it might be true that we share a large percentage of our DNA with other apes, we actually share almost 100% of our DNA with pirates. The conclusion here is obvious.

  44. A die-hard music fan dies and goes to Heaven.

    When he gets there, he asks to meet some of the great legends of rock-n-roll.

    The angel giving him the tour take him around to see Jimi Hendrix, Janic Joplin, Jim Morrison, etc. Then, he spots Bono admiring himself in front of a mirror.

    “What’s Bono doing here? I didn’t know he was dead.”

    “Oh,” said the angel. “That’s not Bono. That’s God. He just thinks he’s Bono.”

  45. “the biggest overpopulation crisis in history”
    “My childlessness only endangers the species if our population is dropping to dangerously low levels. With the US alone slated to hit the 300 million mark this year, I doubt that will be an issue”

    like most people, these quotes demonstrate the complete lack of comprehension regarding the population and arithmetic. yes, our population is increasing, but the key statistic is the birth rate, not gross population. birth rates in the western world have been falling precipitously since women started getting educated and having careers. this must stop. many nations in europe (italy, france) have birth rates below the replacement rate birth rate

  46. almost forgot to say i was jk about women and education. also these shifting demographics foreshadow the collapse of the welfare state, and the insurgent influx of immigrants into w.europe and n. america.

  47. Plalying God…
    What philosophical morons.
    They will always be apart from God as that is how they believe.
    What do they think rational faculty is for anyhow?

  48. Isn’t the ‘natural’/’man-made’ division merely an ideological stance? Human actions, whatever they may be are as natural as those of any other organism on this planet. Isn’t genetic manipulation is as ‘natural’ as traditional childbirth? The conceit that we are somehow ‘outside nature’ is surely just that.

  49. btw, Kerry, it is “haplotyping”, not “halotyping” (sic)

  50. like most people, these quotes demonstrate the complete lack of comprehension regarding the population and arithmetic. yes, our population is increasing, but the key statistic is the birth rate, not gross population. birth rates in the western world have been falling precipitously since women started getting educated and having careers. this must stop. many nations in europe (italy, france) have birth rates below the replacement rate birth rate

    What a pity, your complete lack of comprehension regarding population and geography. I don’t live in Italy or France, but in America, where our birth rate is high enough to reach replacement levels. Hooray for large-familied immigrants! (Though personally, I don’t see how having the world population drop–via low birth rates, not wars or epidemics–to half what it is now would be a bad thing. Except in regards to Ponzi-scheme social benefit programs that need to be scrapped anyway.)

  51. I?ll never forget the night I met my wife. She was sitting at the bar next to this putrid, weak looking, fat, disease ridden girl…
    So we flipped a coin, it landed on heads, and I got to talk to the good looking blonde.

    Thank God.

    That was most entertaining, TF.

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