More MS news articles for March 2001

Our Biotech Future

An exchange.

By Ronald Bailey and Dinesh D’Souza

Ronald Bailey
Mr. Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine.

Enabling parents to genetically enhance their children is not going to be as easy as some of us might hope, nor will it happen as soon as we might wish, but Dinesh D'Souza is right when he claims in his article "Staying Human" (National Review, Jan. 22) that one day it will be possible. This prospect frightens him. Why?

First, let's note that D'Souza is not against using genetic technology to cure genetic diseases, or using germline interventions to eliminate genetic diseases in future generations, or even using human cloning to overcome infertility; what he opposes is the use of "enhancement technologies to shape the destiny of others, and especially their children." D'Souza denounces such parents as "totalitarians" engaging in "des potism" and "tyranny."

But his opposition to this practice is fundamentally misconceived. First of all, he asserts that those of us who see no moral objection to genetic enhancements "speak about freedom and choice, although what [they] advocate is despotism and human bondage." This is nonsense. D'Souza has evidently adopted 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. D'Souza, like all of us, has many capacities stemming from his specific genetic endowment. He could, for example, have become a professional rugby player 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.

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.

But D'Souza is wrong even on his own terms. He has no objection to fixing genetic diseases and disabilities, because one can assume that the beneficiary-the not-yet-born, possibly even not-yet-conceived child-would happily have chosen to have those flaws corrected. 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, lots of 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.

Instead of submitting to the tyranny of random chance, which cruelly deals out futures blighted with ill health, stunted mental abilities, and early death, parents would be able to open more possibilities for their children to have fulfilling lives. Genetic enhancements to prevent these ills would not violate a child's liberty or autonomy, and certainly do not constitute the slavery depicted in D'Souza's overwrought analogy.

"The power they seek to exercise is not over 'nature,' but over other human beings," claims D'Souza. Actually, most of those who want access to genetic technologies for their children are motivated by exactly the opposite desire: What they seek is the power to defend their children against the manifold cruelties and indignities that "nature" so liberally dispenses, and thus make it possible for their children to have fulfilling lives. The good news is that would-be tyrannical parents who buy into D'Souza's erroneous notions of hard genetic determinism will be disappointed. Their children will have minds and inclinations all distinctly their own, albeit genetically enhanced.

Let's look briefly at some of D'Souza's other objections. He asserts with apparent alarm that "people living today can determine the genetic destiny of all future generations." This is true, but trivial: Our ancestors, too — through their mating and breeding choices — determined for us the complement of genes that we all bear today. They just didn't know which specific genes they were picking. The future will not be populated by robots who may look human but who are unable to choose for themselves their own destinies — genetic or otherwise.

D'Souza also has egalitarian worries that the "availability of enhancement technologies will create two classes in society": "Democratic societies can live with inequalities conferred by the lottery of nature, but can they countenance the deliberate introduction of biological alterations that give some citizens a better chance to succeed than others?" But D'Souza agrees that the type of genetic interventions contemplated here will likely become available to everyone as their prices go down. This seems to me to be a recipe for eliminating genetic inequalities rather than perpetuating them. Once inserting genes becomes routine and cheap, everyone will have access to it in fairly short order. As to whether our democratic society will be endangered by genetic engineering, I maintain that democracy and political equality are sustained chiefly by the principle that people are responsible moral agents who can distinguish between right and wrong, and deserve equal consideration before the law and a respected place in our political community. Having some citizens who take advantage of genetic technologies, and others who do not, will not change that.

D'Souza then accuses those who would allow access to genetic enhancements of not being "worried about diminishing the sanctity of human life." But who has a higher regard for the sanctity of life — those who fatalistically counsel us to live with the often bum hands that nature deals us, or those who want to use genetic technologies to ameliorate the ills that have afflicted humanity since time immemorial? Re specting the sanctity of life doesn't require that we take whatever random horrors nature dishes out.

Setting aside D'Souza's confusion over the philosophical issues surrounding consciousness, it is certain that it is our brains (conscious or not, awake or not), and not our genes, that make us individual human beings. The case of identical twins proves the point: They have precisely the same genes, but they are different, sometimes very different, people. That's why, in recent years, our society has legally defined death as brain death. Once our brains are gone, we are gone, even though our bodies — with all their genes — may live on. The fact is that we respect people, not their genes.

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.

Dinesh D'Souza
Mr. D'Souza, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence.

The basic difference between Ron Bailey and me is that we have different views of human nature and human dignity. Bailey's argument, however, fails not only by my principles but by his own. He is so enamored of techno-utopian schemes that he is willing to sacrifice the core libertarian principle of individual autonomy to give children the "enhanced capacities" he is confident they will come to appreciate.

My wife and I are blessed to have a 6-year-old daughter. Had she suffered from a serious disease or disability, we would not have hesitated to take the necessary steps, including gene therapy, to cure her. Fortunately, our daughter is a normal child who doesn't suffer from any serious physical or mental disease. In our view, she is a gift, with her own distinctive potential and personality. Our job as parents is to help her develop her abilities and fulfill her promise. So we give her chess lessons and music lessons and so forth. But, like most parents, we would regard with horror the notion of redesigning her genetic structure.

Why? Because our children are not our property. We are entrusted with them, but we do not have the right to subject their distinctive nature to our will. It's strange that Bailey sees no problem in invoking a libertarian principle — the freedom to shape oneown life — in order to justify parents using scientific manipulation to regulate the genetic makeup of other people. What greater violation of individual autonomy is even conceivable? If I were to capture Bailey forcibly, take him to a lab in the Bahamas, and alter his brain to make him (let us say) more musical and give him ten extra IQ points, wouldn't he regard it as a profound violation of his autonomy and dignity? I suspect that Bailey would not be persuaded by my insistence that I was merely trying to expand his range of choices.

Bailey insists, however, that genetic engineering is benign because we can trust parents to look out for the welfare of their offspring. In general, this is true, but this presumption of the wisdom of paternalism is typically restricted to a child's years of dependence. My parents may give me piano lessons, but when I am older I can choose to give up the piano. My parents may want me to become a doctor, and thus force me to take biology — but I can choose to become a writer. By contrast, if parents are able to remake a child's genetic makeup, they are in a sense writing the genetic instructions that shape his entire life. If my parents give me blue eyes instead of brown eyes, if they make me tall instead of medium height, if they choose a passive over an aggressive personality, their choices will have a direct, lifelong effect on me. One need not be a genetic determinist to suggest that people lack the wisdom to "play God" in this sense. Would Bailey have wanted his parents to have designed him on a computer, selecting traits that they found desirable and eliminating those they didn't care for?

The greatest danger of genetic engineering is that we might become arrogant enough to believe that we can not only remedy nature's defects but also improve on human nature itself. We should not have the right to try such experiments out on other people, even our own offspring. The children are human persons, and to tamper with their structure in the absence of a clear need — such as to avoid a specific disease — is a fundamental and impermissible violation of their integrity.

The ultimate goal of the techno-utopians is to straighten out the crooked timber of our humanity. This project is likely to fail, but its success would be even worse: It would mean that we will have ceased, in any meaningful sense, to be human.

Feb 26 - US researchers have produced laboratory mice with human brain cells, marking a potential step toward developing treatments for neurologic conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, but promising to fuel fresh debate over the evolving ethics of bioengineering.

The research at California biotechnology company StemCells Inc. breaks new ground by demonstrating that human brain stem cells can be induced to grow within a mouse's skull, scientists said on Friday.

"We are not recreating a human brain. We're really just trying to understand how these stem cells can function, and how they can be used in the treatment of specific diseases," said Ann Tsukamoto, vice president of scientific operations at StemCells Inc.

Irving Weissman, a Stanford university professor involved in the 2-year research project, said the next step could be to produce mice with brains made up almost entirely of human cells. However, he added there would have to be a thorough ethical review before this step is taken.

"You would want to ask the ethicist what percentage of the brain would be human cells before you start worrying, and if you start worrying, what would you start worrying about," Weissman said.

In the California study, human stem cells were isolated in the laboratory and when introduced into mice. As the mice matured, the human stem cells differentiated into a full range of specialized cells throughout each mouse brain.

"It looks like human cells can follow the developmental instructions put in by the mouse brain. They are making human components in what is clearly a mouse brain," Weissman said.

The researchers believe these mice could be used to test treatments for disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, although these tests have not yet been undertaken.

Tsukamoto added that the experiment also demonstrated that StemCell Inc's process for isolating and developing human stem cells was viable, and that cell banks could be established for future transplantation into humans.

"We're of course moving this into the development phase, and looking at which disease indications these cells would be best used for in preclinical trials," she said.

Both scientists stressed that their research, while marking a new breakthrough in the controversial world of stem cell research, was in no way aimed at blurring the lines between human and animal.

But Weissman added that he had already requested a review panel to look at the research to determine if there may be ethical problems in taking the work further. The objective is not "to make mice with human brains," Weissman said. And "it is in the domain of the ethicists, not the experimenters, to figure out what our limits are."

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