Bioethics

Is It Ethical to Synthesize an Entire Human Genome? Yes!

Genomes are not "sacred" entities needing some kind of special moral consideration.

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HumaneGenomeDreamstimeAndreus
Dreamstime: Andreus

Stanford bioetech researcher Drew Endy and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth ask this week, "Should We Synthesize a Human Genome?" They say go slow. My short answer is, yes.

Their question was provoked by their alarm over the fact that a group of 150 biotech researchers from academia and entrepreneurs from industry met behind closed doors in an invitation-only conference earlier this week to discuss, among other things, the possibility of creating a complete human genome from scratch. Back in 2010, a team led by biotech pioneer and provocateur Craig Venter created the first lifeform whose genome was entirely synthesized. Basically the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides was constructed from off-the-shelf chemicals.

According to Endy and Zoloth, the group convened earlier this week at Harvard University. The two object that "such an enormous moral gesture should not be discussed behind closed doors." They acknowledge that "such a synthetic genome could then be tested in a laboratory by replacing the existing genome within a human cell. All this would still be far removed from making a synthetic human." Well, yes. A human cell is not a human being.

Nevertheless, Endy and Zoloth argue that "the possibility of making a human cell, whose genome is realised from only digital information and raw materials, should trigger broader considerations." To highlight their concerns they speculate:

Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesise Einstein's genome?  If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them? 

Taking a step back, just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?

Given that human genome synthesis is a technology that can completely redefine the core of what now joins all of humanity together as a species, we argue that discussions of making such capacities real, like today's Harvard conference, should not take place without open and advance consideration of whether it is morally right to proceed.

This is sloppy ethical thinking. Genomes are not some kind of special "sacred" entities. If it is morally all right to synthesize the genome of a bacterium or even of a mammoth, then it is OK to do the same with the human genome. If is morally OK to know what each and every base pair of a human genome is, there is no ethical reason not to reverse engineer it. It's the same entity.

The skills and knowledge developed through efforts to synthesize the entire human genome could clearly be put to many therapeutic uses including fixes to genetic disease variants. And yes, it's pretty clear that the fear lurking behind the article by Endy and Zoloth is that the techniques developed could be used to enable parents in the future to give their children enhanced qualities such as stronger bodies and nimbler brains. What a moral disaster that would be!

Endy and Zoloth assert:

The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists from a variety of traditions should be sought out from the very beginning.

Critical voices representing civil society, who have long been sceptical of synthetic biology's claims, should also be included.  

First and most importantly, promiscuously handing out moral vetoes in advance to technological reactionaries is itself unethical. Human progress does not proceed by committee votes.

Second, not everybody has got to be in every meeting. Endy and Zoloth want a societal conversation (whatever that means) about this prospect. Fine, so just think of the Harvard conference as the preliminary meeting aimed at organizing it. There's plenty of time for anti-technology activists to jump in and try to stifle progress.

Finally, yes, it is OK for someone to synthesize Einstein's genome. It's just one DNA base after another.

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  1. “The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists from a variety of traditions should be sought out from the very beginning.”

    Isn’t a ‘self-identified theologian’ just some random asshole? To my knowledge, there’s no actual requirements to self-identify as a theologian, a philosopher, or an ethicist.

    I knew plenty of potheads in college who self-identified as philosophers every Saturday afternoon.

    1. But Bailey needs someone to morally justify his pet homunculus.

      1. That’s the opposite of what Ron said.

    2. Isn’t a ‘self-identified theologian’ just some random asshole?

      Not entirely random, as it is a self selected group. And a group that would include all actual theologians (whatever that is) as well as armchair philosophers.

      Anyway, why would you care about what someone else’s religion says about science that you want to do?

      Is it likely to cause harm to anyone? If the answer is “no”, then do what you will.

      1. Because some of those religions direct people to punish you through politics.

    3. Getting perspectives doesn’t mean taking orders. I don’t see why getting perspectives from a wide array of people is a bad thing. It’s being obligated to follow through on specific “suggestions” that’s the problem.

      1. In government-speak, right or left, “getting perspectives” means “we will spin out the approval process until you give up and go away”.

  2. Bioethicists only seem to think up reasons why we should be alarmed by something, or extrapolate the harms out to 2nd or 3rd or 4th order effects, or just give up on all of that and push the precautionary principle–the FYTW of Luddism.

    Wouldn’t these Gloomy Guses and Debby Downers be better utilized in a societal sense by bringing this sort of fear of change to Congressional bills?

    1. Many of the greatest benefits of technology are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th order effects.

      Eg: The Gutenberg press and subsequent developments in printing allowed books to be produced more rapidly, but the dissemination of ideas that spread from that and things built on those ideas were the ultimate benefits.

    2. Most of the time, so-called ethicists are making justifications for things that normal humans find morally repulsive.

  3. Someone sure is keen on offering the world order.

  4. This weird science is too dangerous to be left unregulated.

    1. This scientific regulation is too dangerous to be left weird.

    2. Yeah, otherwise next thing you know High School kids will be creating Kelly LeBrock in their bedrooms and then where will we be?

      1. Chips, dips, chains, and whips.

      2. I’M SHITTING IN MY PAAAAANTS!

  5. “The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists from a variety of traditions should be sought out from the very beginning.”

    “self-identified” = every Youtuber gets a veto.

    “theologians” = the Grand Mufti of Mecca, the Pope, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, every Guru in India.

    “philosophers and ethicists” = every PETA activist, Greenpeacer, Michael Moore, etc

  6. Societal conversation: Y U EGHEAD FAGITS WANNA MAEK MAH CHIRRLENS GET SYENSE IN THEM

    1. These Trumpalo impressions are bordering on the incomprehensible.

      1. Is…is that a masturbation euphemism?

        1. It can be…

  7. The skills and knowledge developed through efforts to synthesize the entire human genome could clearly be put to many therapeutic uses including fixes to genetic disease variants.

    So are you arguing that government should issue a patent for that? Or allow it be protected as ‘exclusive individual property’ in court too?

  8. “And yes, it’s pretty clear that the fear lurking behind the article by Endy and Zoloth is that the techniques developed could be used to enable parents in the future to give their children enhanced qualities such as stronger bodies and nimbler brains.”

    That isn’t my moral concern.

    What about self-ownership?

    Will we someday be able to manufacture people who don’t own their own genome? What are the ethical complications of that?

    1. Well presumably they wouldn’t be allowed to procreate without paying a licensing fee

    2. What gives people ownership of their genome currently?

      1. Ultimately, we’re talking about the essence of agency.

        If people have a right to make choices for themselves, then they have a right to make choices about their own genome.

        Just because it wasn’t possible to make choices about your own genome in the past, doesn’t mean it you didn’t have a right to make choices for yourself.

        You might think this is complicated by parents making choices for their children about such things for 100,000 years, but even then, someone might say that their right to make choices for their own children is tied to making choices for themselves about their own genome, with whose genome to mix it, etc. Men and women have been taking various genetically based characteristics into consideration when choosing mates since forever.

        1. Well we’ve already established that a fetus isn’t a person, so really who’s to say that a synthetically crafted human isn’t just a really huge fetus? I.E It may have human cells, but we’ve established that isn’t the requirement to be considered a human, a person, or have rights. They are owned by their ‘mother’ corporation until they reach a politically defined moment.

          Obviously I don’t agree with that assessment, but in such an eventually it wouldn’t be surprising to see the same arguments trotted out. They’re more alike than they are different.

    3. That is the interesting question. In a way it goes back to the 19th century arguments about how chemical patents/property rights should work. Should the patent/protection be only for a specified process used to synthesize the chemical (the approach Germany took until it changed in the 1970’s)? Or should the resulting chemical itself be the object of the property right (the approach of the US/pharmaceuticals which is now the prevalent model worldwide)?

      And the same arguments can apply re the attempts to synthesize ‘natural chemicals’ (like the stuff re ayurvedic/traditional medicine or the tropical rainforest ‘discoveries v inventions’ stuff)

      We humans are now nothing more than a specific arrangement of chemicals. It does seem a bit presumptuous for those chemicals to claim ‘self-ownership’ if that’s all we are

    4. Hopefully it will be the final nail in the coffin for self-ownership.

    5. I think you’re looking at this from the wrong perspective Ken.

      Just breed them with an inborn ‘follow the leader’ complex and make sure they’re sterile. Also, you should probably make sure they have some sort of severe allergy to something fairly uncommon that will kill them in moments. You know, just in case.

      Boom! Morals.

    1. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannh?user Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die.

      1. Bladerunner or Agile Cyborg?

  9. “First and most importantly, promiscuously handing out moral vetoes in advance to technological reactionaries is itself unethical. Human progress does not proceed by committee votes.”

    And morality isn’t a popularity contest.

    My morality is agency centered. Rights are people making choices. I want the law to protect people’s right to make choices for themselves–regardless of committee votes or popularity contests, too.

    I don’t think I can say that without also claiming a moral veto in advance on things that violate people’s right to make choices for themselves.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that moral veto came into existence by way of committees or popularity contests either. I think it’s a function of reason and a proper understanding of natural law. When people’s right to make choices for themselves are violated in specific ways, the results are predictable, repeatable, and the conclusions I draw from that are falsifiable. Meanwhile, the qualitative factors can only be optimized when individuals are free to make qualitative judgements for themselves, too.

    As long as people are free to make choices for themselves, I’m ethically okay with it*–but that is an advanced directive.

    *Almost certainly. Can people be genetically predisposed to servitude? If so, do they really have a choice? I.e., I’m not claiming to resolve every moral ambiguity with this one post.

    1. KS: “resolve every moral ambiguity” – I already have done that for you!

      But seriously, I would argue (and have) that it would be immoral to use the technology to diminish the capacities of future individuals. See my article, “What Is Too Human?” for some discussion.

      1. Thanks!

      2. Isn’t that a subjective judgment? My idea of diminished capacity may be different from yours. What if I think artistic impulses are a waste of time? Or what if I think an overemphasis on logical reasoning is limiting?

        1. CMW: Well, yes. The kind of immoral diminishment of capacities that I have in mind would be the creation of something like the equivalent of an Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron.

          1. OK, first off, I am filing that away as a great insult to throw at some commenter in the future: Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron.

            Second, it seems to me that that could easily become a blurred line and an exercise in moving the goal post. First, let us genetically engineer out any anti-social violent tendencies. Who would be opposed to that? Once that is socially acceptable, let us get rid of rebelliousness, etc, etc. It would be hard to draw a line in the sand that would not eventually be crossed.

      3. Diminish the capacities is the immorality? I would think stretching the boundaries of what is and isn’t slavery is a bigger problem. We don’t currently have any problem at all with slavery itself. We just define it as OK if it involves ‘animals’. Now we’re just talking about changing the definition so it crosses more into what we call ‘humans’. And someone thinks that some technologically-based idea of an ethical red line will hold? Get real.

    2. I should have written that as, “Can people be genetically predisposed to [choose] servitude?”

    3. How about genetically designed clones that absolutely love to serve others?

  10. Let’s be realistic for a moment.

    The prospect of synthetic Einsteins is really exciting, but do you think that’s *all* they’ll make?

    If governments finally had the chance to literally create a New Soviet Man, why assume they’d want to create independent-minded geniuses?

    No, their priority would be in creating soldier-slaves with unconditional loyalty to the regime and a willingness to do whatever it takes to suppress dissent against the government.

    Maybe they’ll create some super-scientists, but they would probably be obedient Werner von Brauns rather than independent Einsteins.

    1. I am not so sure about Einstein’s genome leading to a genius. That is the fallacy of preformation. I won’t deny that Einstein had smart genes, but without all the choices he made in his life, those genes don’t guarantee anything.

    2. Yeah Ed, there is a severe shortage of people doing what some strongman tells them to do. That’s why no ethnic cleansings have even happened.

      1. I don’t know how you got that from what I was saying. I agree with what Notorious said. I was merely pointing out that geniuses are not genetically guaranteed.

  11. NUGCC: Dictators have never had much of a problem finding the moral equivalent of soldier-slaves with unconditional loyalty. Why bother with the time and expense of biotechnology? Old-fashioned and cheap recruitment methods still work fine.

    1. I sure hope that’s right.

      1. Of course, leaders in some of the “democracies” will probably be toying with this idea, too, if they don’t think their volunteers are intelligent and loyal enough.

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  13. Ain’t no evolution like forced evolution.

    I don’t care about smart or subservient, how about night vision or wings?

    1. wings?

      Enjoy your hollow bones and beak.

      1. $park? just wants to shit on everybody’s car.

        1. He wants to spread the gospel of the Chicago sunroof.

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  16. I predict the first synthetic human will be Hitler 2.0: Hilter Harder!

    1. And his name will be Mustapha Mond.

  17. This is sloppy ethical thinking. Genomes are not some kind of special “sacred” entities. If it is morally all right to synthesize the genome of a bacterium or even of a mammoth, then it is OK to do the same with the human genome

    This is why Reason should not ethics. It’s cute and all that you want to be some kind of positivist given that no human knowledge (or knowledge of any kind that we are aware of) is actually acquired or processed in this way, but please don’t push your broken epistemology on the rest of us like some low-rent Jehovah’s Witness. The fact of the matter is that, at least as far as human knowledge is concerned, we are special and different from the other species on our planet. Ethics are, if nothing else, an emergent property of this realization and it is a denial of human ethical knowledge as it is to suggest an equivalence with these other species. It’s also a denial of libertarianism or other ideologies which hold to a special place for human choice; It’s hard to think of a greater imposition on the agency and autonomy of another human being than altering their personality without their consent or creating one out of whole cloth.

    promiscuously handing out moral vetoes in advance to technological reactionaries is itself unethical. Human progress does not proceed by committee votes

    And the Sounds Most Like A Sci-Fi Villian Award goes to…

    1. I believe words very similar to these came out of the mouth of the main villain in CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

    2. The fact of the matter is that, at least as far as human knowledge is concerned, we are special and different from the other species on our planet.

      Well John Gray (see Straw Dogs) for one would certainly disagree with that assertion. And he makes a very good case (eg here –
      http://www.newstatesman.com/node/156832

      that even the modern secular notion that humans are different is nothing more than a repressed juvenile and unthinking version of the Biblical Genesis story that humans are indeed different cuz God told us so.

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  19. Someone above aptly mentioned the notion of the New Soviet Man. Mankind cannot be “perfected” and the notion that it can led to the apocalyptic shitshow that was the twentieth century. There is literally zero chance that such technology won’t be employed by government for nefarious ends. Just because I don’t want to relive the totalitarian eugenicist nightmare doesn’t make me a luddite or a pantshitter.

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