Biotechnology

Nobel Laureates Call For Halting Scientific and Ethical Progress

Permissionless innovation works best for both scientific and moral progress.

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Test tube babies
PBS

Two brilliant biologists, Paul Berg and David Baltimore, are calling for a moratorium on using the fantastic new and very precise CRISPR gene-editing technology to change the human germ-line. Basically, they don't want researchers to use the technology now to change the genes of human sperm, eggs, or embryos. They do agree that it would arguably be ethical to use the technology to fix genes in embryos that cause inheritable maladies such as Huntington's Disease. However, they counter that other methods can now generally be used to achieve that end, e.g., in vitro pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and selection of embryos.

What they want especially to forestall (at least for now) are attempts to use the CRISPR to give embryos and thus ultimately children new genetic characteristics that they would otherwise not inherit. From their op-ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

The other, more unsettling kind of germ-line modification would involve attempts to modify inheritance for the purpose of enhancing an offspring's physical characteristics or intellectual capability. We can call this voluntary modification in that there is no compelling medical need. Choosing to transmit voluntary changes to future generations involves a value judgment on the part of parents, a judgment that future generations might view differently.

This can be seen as eugenics, thought by earlier generations to be desirable but now generally considered abhorrent. Also, we often do not know well enough the total range of consequences of a given gene alteration, potentially creating unexpected physiological alterations that would extend down through generations to come. For these reasons and others, voluntary genome alteration might well be outlawed, at least at the present stage of knowledge.

One huge problem with this op-ed is that Baltimore and Berg are not making the ethically crucial distinction between state-imposed eugenics, in which governments try to eliminate "undesirable" characteristics by involuntarily sterilizing people, versus parents who would be practicing eugenics by voluntarily trying to endow their progeny with desirable characteristics.

Superbabe
Evening News

In addition, the two are worried that genetic alternations will "extend down through generations to come"—as though future generations will not be able to use even better and safer technologies to alter the genetic choices made by earlier generations.

Berg and Baltimore are calling for an international meeting to discuss what limits should be put on this new technology, explicitly citing the example of the Asilomar Conference in the 1970s that ended up imposing generally useless but neverthelss onerous restrictions on early gene-splicing experiments. The two argue:

We need to ensure that we have widespread agreement about what is desirable.

Let parents decide what is desirable, not a committee, not even one composed of well-meaning and brilliant biologists.

Asilomar is the wrong model; the pusuit of in vitro fertilization is the right model. Calls for a ban on in vitro fertilization research were widespread in the 1960s and 1970s, yet Bob Edwards and Patrick Steptoe doggedly worked on. Opposition to in vitro fertilization quickly melted away with the birth of Joy Louise Brown in 1978. At least 4 million babies have since been born via artificial reproduction and Bob Edwards finally got his well-deserved Nobel Prize in 2010.

Permissionless innovation works best for promoting both scientific and moral progress.

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  1. Choosing to transmit voluntary changes to future generations involves a value judgment on the part of parents, a judgment that future generations might view differently.

    Because parents totally aren’t already doing that by deciding whether or not to have kids at all.

    1. But.. but they’re not even ivy-league graduates!

      1. Choosing Ivy League graduates to mate with would be a value judgment. All mating henceforth shall be based on a random number generator.

        1. Shouldn’t attractive people get paired with uggos? You know, to spread out the desirable genes and stuff.

          1. No, because no one knows which genes are actually desirable. Unless we ALL agree.

            Consensus-based fucking!

            1. Consensus-based fucking!

              Well if we all get to watch…

              1. Congratulations. This thread has now re-created the Rainbow Family.

                Dirty hippies!

    2. Or choosing mates based on desirable characteristics.

    3. Because parents totally aren’t already doing that by deciding whether or not to have kids at all.

      Or by deciding to have kids with their baby daddy/mama.

    4. That’s what I thought. When Bailey writes:

      One huge problem with this op-ed is that Baltimore and Berg are not making the ethically crucial distinction between state-imposed eugenics, in which governments try to eliminate “undesirable” characteristics by involuntarily sterilizing people, versus parents who would be practicing eugenics by voluntarily trying to endow their progeny with desirable characteristics.

      he seems to imply that this is a mere oversight on the part of the researchers. I don’t think that figured into their thinking at all. Rather, they’re reticent about the ability of one generation to systematically, consciously affect the genome of succeeding ones.

      1. BTW, I met Paul Berg almost 40 yrs. ago. He gave a talk to a few of us students & scientists around a table at the U. of Ill. Med Ctr. Very nice guy. David Baltimore I saw only in a big room about a decade later.

  2. One huge problem with this op/ed is that Baltimore and Berg are not making the ethically crucial distinction between state-imposed eugenics in which governments try to eliminate “undesirable” characteristics by involuntarily sterilizing people versus parents who would be practicing eugenics by voluntarily trying to endow their progeny with desirable characteristics.

    As if people don’t choose sex partners for their desirable inheritable characteristics. This is the same poor thinking that makes people think GMOs and selective breeding are somehow different.

    1. I have been told by an Anti-GMO friend the difference is: “They are different because you’re not selectively breeding humans with a different species”

      1. you’re not selectively breeding humans with a different species

        Well, not as far as you know, anyway.

    2. They do, but they’re not looking at the molecular level, where it is possible that the phenotypic results they seek aren’t reproduced by the particular genotypic choices they make.

      I think I understand the problem Baltimore & Berg pose, although I’m not paying to read the article. Recall that individual hunters decided that dead individuals of certain species were more valuable to them than leaving them alive & wild, but that the collective result of those individual decisions caused extinctions & endangerment of species. Suppose parents overwhelmingly chose certain characteristics that looked good at the time, but the result of all their choices changed the popul’n into one of utter assholes.

  3. I, for one, welcome the inevitable influx of blonde, blue-eyed infants. It makes us brown-eyed folks finally a little bit special.

    1. just an observation, but blonde is a distinct minority nowadays. Or I’m looking in the wrong spots though my wife is one.

      1. Well, seeing as how blond is a recessive gene, it world be awfully hard for it to not be a minority absent some cockamamie government mandated racial purity bullshit…

      2. They all became bottle redheads and statement brunettes.

  4. This can be seen as eugenics, thought by earlier generations to be desirable but now generally considered abhorrent

    Did we? I thought we decided that trying to use force to eliminate or favor one race over another was bad. Making people healthier and more physically adept? I dunno, that doesn’t sound so horrible.

    1. That’s just like, your personal value judgment, man.

  5. Ron Bailey discusses bioethics. Cute. As if his conception of bioethics is anything more than this:

    http://smbc-comics.tumblr.com/…../bioethics

    1. ‘batin’ Pete critiques Ron Bailey’s piece on bioethics. Cute. As if his conception of Bailey’s thoughts on bioethics is anything more than this.

  6. They do agree that it would arguably be ethical to use the technology to fix genes in embryos that cause inheritable maladies such as Huntington’s Disease. However, they counter that other methods can now generally be used to achieve that end, e.g., in vitro pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and selection of embryos.

    How much do you want to be these guys are also really worried about the rich having access to all this great technology while the poor suffer?

    And yet they want to eliminate competing technologies, which will ultimately hurt the poor by removing incentives to bring down costs.

    1. Which guys, Baltimore & Berg? Not likely!

  7. It’s all fun and games until some idiot sparks a war between the enhanced humans and the “naturals” a la Gundam Seed.

    Though I will be accepting of this future if we get giant robots out of it.

    1. Well, either we prepare our progeny for the alien invasion or we sign them over as slaves in exchange for the preservation of Earth.

      1. They’ll never develop their own lightsabers if they aren’t honed on the whetstone of suffering.

  8. However, they counter that other methods can now generally be used to achieve that end, e.g., in vitro pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and selection of embryos.

    How the fuck is this NOT eugenics by their definition?

    1. Good point.

      People already do genetic testing of embryos and select the ones without genetic defects. This can be anything from just picking the ones with normal numbers of chromosomes to detailed testing and discarding those with specific genetic disorders.

      Most of the chromosomal anormalities are non-viable and would result in miscarriages (except for the down-syndrome babies) , but the others would be otherwise normal babies, with a genetic disorder.

      Technically it’s even possile to eliminate the one’s with genetic risk-factors or recessive carriers. Although I’m not sure if this actually practiced.

    2. Better to kill the baby with a mental disorder, and just have a new kid to replace him, than to fix the disorder, right?

      1. I don’t know if Down’s Syndrome would be fixable with CRISPR – it’s caused by having an extra 21st chromosome.

        But Huntington’s disease might.

  9. “This can be seen as eugenics, thought by earlier generations to be desirable but now generally considered abhorrent.”

    I think there’s a mild difference between eugenics which is implemented by the government and consists primarily of sterilizing retarded people and murdering Jews and this sort of ‘eugenics’ which consists of parents freely choosing to use genetic engineering to improve the well-being of their own offspring.

    “Choosing to transmit voluntary changes to future generations involves a value judgment on the part of parents, a judgment that future generations might view differently.”

    Clearly you should never be allowed to make any value judgment if in the future they may disagree with this judgment. Brilliant.

    1. To people with no concept of the difference between government and society there’s no difference

    2. “Clearly you should never be allowed to make any value judgment if in the future they may disagree with this judgment. Brilliant.”

      Well once they figure out how to stop the aging process,the people in the future will be the same people who are making value judgements no.

      Oh, wait – those guys don’t want to allow that either.

  10. The other, more unsettling kind of germ-line modification would involve attempts to modify inheritance for the purpose of enhancing an offspring’s physical characteristics or intellectual capability

    I must caution you: such men dare take what they want.

  11. For anyone afraid that such improvements would result in a separate race of rich super-men, consider this: All of these genetic modifications are likely to spread throughout the population anyway, because rich people don’t exclusively fuck other rich people. The rich guys with the genetic alterations are going to fuck all sorts of women, including lower class women, who are going to have babies that inherit the trait and spread it throughout the population. The chances of this causing some sort of genetic class devision is extremely unlikely.

  12. One huge problem with this op/ed is that Baltimore and Berg are not making the ethically crucial distinction between state-imposed eugenics in which governments try to eliminate “undesirable” characteristics by involuntarily sterilizing people versus parents who would be practicing eugenics by voluntarily trying to endow their progeny with desirable characteristics

    This distinction is not salient for the type of objections raised by Berg and Baltimore. They argue that eugenics per se is wrong, because it values certain human characteristics above others in such a way as to OK experimenting with human beings (without that human’s consent, I might add) in order to develop these characteristics.

    There is nothing illibertarian about this argument — and I wonder how many of us as adults would submit ourselves for modification to our significant others, our friends, our bosses, our priests, or our governments. If the answer is “none of us” (and I’m pretty sure it is), then it hardly seems like an act of conscience to allow such tampering on children, merely because we don’t wish to seem “anti-science”.

    1. They argue that eugenics per se is wrong, because it values certain human characteristics above others in such a way as to OK experimenting with human beings

      I guess that is in the original article, because I didn’t get that level of subtlety from the quote.

      without that human’s consent, I might add

      That’s an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. But then, a child never consents to being conceived and born in the first place, nor to they consent to who their parents are and what types of genetic traits their parents have and selected for when choosing a mate.

      I wonder how many of us as adults would submit ourselves for modification to our significant others, our friends, our bosses, our priests, or our governments

      What do you mean by “submit ourselves”? Would I give those entities free reign to do whatever they wanted to me? No.

      But if my wife really had a thing for blue instead of green eyes, then I’d consider it. Or if I was in the military and they were looking for volunteers to enhance speed, strength, etc., I’d likewise consider it.

      1. I’d consider enhanced speed and strength if I thought it would keep me out of Warty’s dungeon.

        1. Bad news…

      2. TMT & LP: Consent in this context is a red herring. Not one of us gave our consent to be born, much less to be born with the complement of genes that we each have. Genetically enhanced children will stand in the exact same ethical relationship with their parents.

    2. I wonder how many of us as adults would submit ourselves for modification to our significant others, our friends, our bosses, our priests, or our governments…

      Generally we use plastic surgeons, tattoo artists, piercing technicians, orthodontists, Lasik surgeons, personal trainers, diet experts, various bodybuilding drugs, beauticians, shelves of makeup products, bodyshaping undergarments, artificial hair, and a host of other methods.

    3. They argue that eugenics per se is wrong, because it values certain human characteristics above others in such a way as to OK experimenting with human beings

      Men and women do that all the time, through mate selection, it’s a standard part of biology. It’s a key part of how species evolve. Everything from your dick size to your hair color, intelligence, muscle mass, and height has been determined that way.

      Valuing certain characteristics over others isn’t the problem. The problem is when government makes these decisions for the people. 1930’s California or Nazi Germany preferring tall blond people over little dark people is eugenics.

      But it is also eugenics when people like Berg, Baltimore, or the Pope try to impose their reproductive choices on men and women, because “you must have children you wouldn’t want” is as much government interference in genetic choice as “you can’t have children you would want”.

    4. and I wonder how many of us as adults would submit ourselves for modification to our significant others, our friends, our bosses, our priests, or our governments. If the answer is “none of us” (and I’m pretty sure it is)

      Well, see, adults have consciousness and free will, while a fetus doesn’t. A fetus is not an adult or even a person. If you confuse the two, that’s where you end up with these conundrums.

  13. You know who else had a consensus of Nobel laureates?

  14. You know who else had a consensus of Nobel laureates?

    1. My true love, who then gave them to me on the 13th day of Xmas?

  15. Trivial Trivia for today!

    Louise Brown and I were born on the same day, IIRC. That same day is also the due date for Rosemary’s Baby.

  16. GATTACA! GATTACA!

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    ????????????????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  18. One would think the progeny of desire would embody desired characteristics .

    OTOH who wants to be a member of the WSJ Ed Board?

  19. Eugenics is the imposition of reproductive choices by government.Far from opposing eugenics, by denying parents access to new reproductive and genetic techniques, Paul Berg and David Baltimore are continuing a long history of eugenics by progressives.

    When will these Nobel laureates and government experts learn that it is none of their business how people reproduce? Ditto for clergy and churches. Of course, anybody, whether on the left or right, is free to pontificate about what people should do, but limit it to speech. When you try to impose your preferences on others, it becomes totalitarian.

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