Genetics

Down with Gene Tyranny!

Freeing ourselves from our genes

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The idea of using genetic engineering to enhance human beings scares a lot of people. For example, at a 2006 meeting called by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Richard Hayes, the executive director of the left-leaning Center for Bioethics and Society, testified that "enhancement technologies would quickly be adopted by the most privileged, with the clear intent of widening the divisions that separate them and their progeny from the rest of the human species." Deploying such enhancement technologies would "deepen genetic and biological inequality among individuals," exacerbating "tendencies towards xenophobia, racism and warfare." Hayes concluded that allowing people to use genetic engineering for enhancement "could be a mistake of world-historical proportions."

Meanwhile intellectuals with a more right-wing bent such as Nigel Cameron, president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, worry that "one of the greatest ethical concerns about the potential uses of germline interventions to enhance normal human functions is that their availability will widen the existing inequalities between the rich and the poor." 

Even proponents of genetic enhancement, such as Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, have argued that genetic engineering will lead to a class of genetically enhanced people that he calls the GenRich who will occupy the heights of the economy while unenhanced Naturals provide whatever grunt labor the future needs. Silver suggested that eventually "the GenRich class and the Natural class will become…entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

A more optimistic view is that the ability to install whatever genes one might want will become so cheap and routine that everybody would have access to the technology, dissipating the fears of growing inequality, even speciation, between groups of people. Underlying all this moral handwringing over genetic engineering is the concern that genes really matter—that one's life chances are largely determined by the genes one carries. Good genes equal a bright future; bad genes entail a blighted future. Recent genetic research is showing that this view is wrong.

How so? By using outside interventions that regulate and enhance the performance of the genes that people already have. Such interventions will include new, precisely targeted pharmaceuticals that will change the activity of various genes and gene combinations in desired ways. For example, back in 1999 brain researcher Joe Tsien genetically engineered smart mice by giving them extra copies of the NR2B gene that encodes the receptor for NMDA that plays a role in laying down memories in the brain. The enhanced mice exposed to aversive stimuli learned to avoid them much faster than unenhanced mice.

Fast forward 10 years, and Tsien and his colleagues report that their further research on genetically engineered rodents has strengthened their finding that increasing the dose of NR2B gene improves memory. In a 2009 study in the journal PLoS One, they speculate, "Conceivably, our demonstration of genetic enhancement in both mice and rats via NR2B overexpression greatly strengthens the notion that the NR2B gene is a valid drug target for improving memory function in both normal brains and patients with Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment." So what intervention might enhance memory in normal brains? Tsien and his colleagues note that other research suggests that increasing the amount of magnesium in the brain boosts the effect of NR2B on memory.   

In addition, a January 2010 report in the journal Biological Psychiatry by European researchers found [PDF] that administering the antibiotic D-cycloserine offers a "promising pharmacological mechanism for facilitating declarative learning [the aspect of human memory that stores facts] in healthy people." Of course, magnesium and D-cycloserine may not ultimately work, but the prospects are good that interventions that will successfully enhance human memory will be uncovered. Other researchers are working on a neural prosthesis using microchips to mimic the memory-consolidation activities of the hippocampus. The point is that these enhancements will not require genetic engineering and can benefit and be administered to anyone.

Reversing aging is the killer app of biomedical research. Aging correlates with all kinds of nasty outcomes, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart attacks, weaker muscles, strokes, thinner bones, lower libido, and the depressing list goes on until it ends in death. Researchers are studying the genetics of people who live to be 100 years old to uncover the genetic variants associated with longer life. The goal of the research is not to isolate the genes so that they can be installed as a way to boost life expectancy, but to identify the biochemical pathways [PDF] they modulate so that interventions can be devised for people who don't have the good fortune to carry these genes for extended longevity.

What sort of interventions? A 2009 study in the journal Nature found that dosing old mice with the immunosuppressant drug rapamycin extended their lifespans by about 10 percent. As the researchers suggested, "Rapamycin may extend lifespan by postponing death from cancer, by retarding mechanisms of aging, or both." The ends of the 46 chromosomes that bear the genes inside our cells are protected by caps called telomeres. As our cells divide the telomeres get shorter. Our cells stop dividing and become senescent when the telomeres have eroded away.

An article published this past January in Nature reported that reactivating the enzyme telomerase so that it lengthened the telomeres reversed aging in mice. But what about humans? Also this past January, researchers at the biotech company Sierra Sciences reported work [PDF] in the journal Rejuvenation Research showing that the nutraceutical TA-65 is the "first compound ever discovered that activates the enzyme telomerase in the human body." The Sierra Sciences press release notes, "Although TA-65 is probably too weak to completely arrest the aging process, it is the first telomerase activator recognized as safe for human use." Again, rapamycin and TA-65 may not work out, but they point the way toward postponing, if not overcoming, the fatal destiny that our genes naturally have in store for us. 

Genetically engineered inequality is a bioethical phantom. The truth is that biotechnological interventions will eventually enable nearly everyone to enhance their bodies and their brains. The good news is that as researchers learn more about the good and bad effects of our genes, the more we will be liberated from whatever tyranny they do exercise.

Disclosure: Sierra Sciences CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta is a member of the board of trustees of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

Reason's Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).

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  1. I can’t even get into my jeans anymore…

    1. Gene Tyranny…pretty great actress.

      1. Sexiest overbite ever!

  2. New at Reason: Ronald Bailey on Freeing Ourselves from Our Genes

    I particularly find those genes that regulate the number of limbs and their position to be pretty oppressive… yeah.

    The truth is that biotechnological interventions will eventually enable nearly everyone to enhance their bodies and their brains.

    But… but… but then we won’t have victimology, Ron! Why do you hate the progressive opportunists so much?

    1. It’s important to remember to always use short term thinking and invoke the fear response with regard to anything new. (just make that anything at all).

      If something has the potential to ever cause one person, even in theory, anyplace in the world to be “unequal” in any way at all for any length of time, then we must regulate it and run scare stories.

  3. Even proponents of genetic enhancement, such as Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, have argued that genetic engineering will lead to a class of genetically enhanced people that he calls the GenRich who will occupy the heights of the economy while unenhanced Naturals provide whatever grunt labor the future needs.

    Aldous Huxley was only a fiction writer…
    Aldous Huxley was only a fiction writer…
    Aldous Huxley was only a fiction writer…
    Aldous Huxley was only a fiction writer…

    1. You can always move to Iceland.

  4. I see a distopian future where 8 foot tall, 400 pound muscular hulks with horse dicks compete for 33 pound women with 58 D breasts.

    1. Not if I have anything to say about it.

      Proportions. It’s all about proportions.

    2. THE URKOBOLD BELIEVES YOU INCLUDED A SUPERFLUOUS DIS- IN YOUR COMMENT. PLEASE RECTIFY WITH DELIBERBATE SPEED.

    3. Why the small cup size? That’s odd.

      1. I mean, D isn’t small, but with these 33 pound women with chest measurements of 58″–something ain’t right there.

        1. They’re just a very large ribcage with boobs.

          1. I don’t think there’s any ribcage there to speak of…just boobs

  5. A more optimistic view is that the ability to install whatever genes one might want will become so cheap and routine that everybody would have access to the technology, dissipating the fears of growing inequality, even speciation, between groups of people.

    “What? Gene therapy, cheap??? Pshaw! Never! Why, we’ll have the FDA impose an incredibly large amount of useless testing so gene therapy is only available to us, the very rich [politicians that receive tax-paid health care]!”

    1. and insurance companies will figure out a way to deny it for the rest of us!

  6. How will this affect the kwisatz haderach?

    1. Not at all. He’s still tens of thousands of years of breeding programs away.

  7. You’ll change your mind about this when you find out the only way to get a good job is to walk around with Jude Law’s pee strapped to your leg.

  8. “They fear that the rich will get the good genes and the poor will be left with the bad.”

    This sounds vaguely like the plot of Metal Gear Solid.

    1. I thought it was about censorship.

    2. So the rich will get the good genes and the poor will get the bad genes, but the bad genes will still be far better than the good genes are today.

  9. Disclosure: Sierra Sciences CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta is a member of the board of trustees of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

    So the Kochtopus is trying to get Ron Bailey to calm the masses as they breed their army of mutant GenRich supermen.

    Cool.

    1. At last I’ve found the reason why they fund NOVA. Better world domination through science.

      1. +1

        Hoping big time I got the foxy FOXO gene – gonna live forever.

  10. I do not understand how genetic engineering will create more racism or xenophobia as Hayes fears. I see it doing the opposite. With very advanced genetics people could possibly one day change colour, hair type, bone structures etc. There will be no racism as people will not know what others race is anymore. People could look like those green female aliens for all we know in the future.

    1. Green female aliens depicted in Star Trek I meant to say.

    2. With very advanced genetics people could possibly one day change colour, hair type, bone structures etc. There will be no racism as people will not know what others race is anymore.

      There would be other ways to socially stratify the population, which would occur either naturally or by design. I would suspect a rigid caste system would make a comeback, as would geographical tribalism.

      As my father was fond of saying, “If everyone was the same, who’d take out the trash?”

      1. “If everyone was the same, who’d take out the trash?”
        Our robot servants cum overlords.

        1. Robot servants are controlled by cum? Whose cum is it?

  11. What’s Bailey got against Gene Tyranny?
    She’s one of my favorite actresses. I loved her in “Laura”.

  12. So, basically what they’re saying is, if chimpanzee’s ran the world and they learned how to alter their DNA to create a new species called humans they shouldn’t do it because it would make them look bad…

    1. Eugenics have been taboo since Hitler.

  13. I wonder about the economics of these technologies. When an effective cure for aging is discovered and administered as a one-time therapy, I imagine it would be prohibitively expensive for most people, but still very much desired. Expensive, unless amortized over the course of 30 to 50 years in the form of mortgage.

  14. The genes you have now will determine the wisdom of the genes you pick!

    1. You blew my mind.

  15. Why doesn’t someone explain to them, letting the rich try gene treatments first, and they will fund new research while lining up their children to be guinea pigs. Maybe they will be more for it if they think rich people will be risking their lives.

  16. God, schmod! I want my monkey man!

  17. Down with Gene Tierney??

    That’s rather mean. What did she ever do to you?

  18. Well… there’s always rape.

  19. Speaking as someone who comes from a long line of bald heads and bum tickers, I say BRING IT ON!!!

  20. Oh, and enough already about “Brave New World”; it’s an unreadable tract enjoyed by no one except Luddites and Zager and Evans, who were inspired by it to write one of the worst songs ever…

  21. Even proponents of genetic enhancement, such as Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, have argued that genetic engineering will lead to a class of genetically enhanced people that he calls the GenRich who will occupy the heights of the economy while unenhanced Naturals provide whatever grunt labor the future needs. Silver suggested that eventually “the GenRich class and the Natural class will become?entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.”

    After reading such a foolish quote from a Princeton Professor of Biology, I’m glad that Princeton University rejected me. Genetic engineering would not lead to speciation unless the engineers targeted genes related to reproduction with the intent of making cross breeding impossible.

  22. I can see why scholars panic over the prospect of parents making their children superior and giving them a bright future. A scholar’s status and livelihood depends on parents believing that only schools can do that. It’s a classic case of bashing the competition.

    1. jtuf: Very nice.

  23. I’m still trying to figure out how a star exploding created life on earth… way behind… gotta catch up. Something about RNA replicating itself *lost*

  24. Half of our GDP should go to R&D concerning anti-aging medicines and NEA exploitation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(6178)_1986_DA

    Bootstraps lol

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