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The Weapons of Mass Creation

Commentary

Are we ready for genetically enhanced 'designer people'? If so, who will make the titanic decisions involved?

February 13, 2003|Caroline S. Wagner

Without providing a shred of evidence, the Raelian cult made headlines with sensational claims of creating cloned babies. Far less attention is being paid to well-documented advances that will soon give us the power to create people with chosen genetic qualities, thus altering the course of human evolution.

Although human genetic manipulation, which focuses on altering select genes -- sometimes called reprogenetics -- is still in early stages of research, scientists report few obstacles to eventual success.

"I am absolutely convinced that we will have both an expansion of pre-embryo genetic diagnosis as well as genetic enhancement of embryos," Lee Silver, a Princeton University biologist and genetic expert and author of "Remaking Eden," says. "We have already perfected this in animals."

The power to change the future of the human race is, in some ways, more frightening than the weapons of mass destruction we hear so much about today.

It is a weapon of mass creation.

For now, gene alteration is focusing on genetic therapy, which has the laudable goal of stopping deadly genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington's. This research has growing support because it can save children from enormous suffering and early death.

But success here will lead to the ability not only to eliminate disease but also to alter genes that determine other human traits. Many loving parents, desiring only the best for their children, will want to use genetic manipulation to make them smarter, more creative, more attractive or more ath- letic.

But should scientists and parents, no matter how well intentioned, be allowed to manipulate genes as they see fit? Or should the power to alter the genetic heritage of the human race be the subject of oversight by our elected leaders, by citizen councils or by international institutions such as the United Nations?

Altering the random genetic combinations that make us who we are might seem worthwhile to individual families, but it could be disastrous for society. For example, many couples in Asia believe having a son is a justifiable family goal, in part because sons will do more to support them in old age.

Some achieve this by using genetic testing and selective abortions to produce boys. The Global Health Council reports that this has resulted in significant gender imbalances in many nations: China has 118 boys per 100 girls under age 5, South Korea has 117 to 100 and Taiwan has 110 to 100.

Growing numbers of what demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, in a December Foreign Affairs article, calls "unmarriageable males" have little hope of finding wives, leading to a range of social problems.

Now fast-forward several decades. Imagine your neighbors genetically enhancing their children's physical attractiveness and brainpower.

Wouldn't it be hard to resist the opportunity to offer your children the same competitive advantages -- or at least a level playing field?

The option to alter the genes that enhance desirable characteristics will almost surely be available, at least initially, only to the wealthy, creating what Silver calls the "GenRich." They will use technology to ensure that their children have significantly more advantages than the random mix of the gene pool, widening the gap between rich and poor.

What then becomes of the notion that we are all created equal? The temptation of the genetically enhanced to anoint themselves leaders and protectors of their "less equal" fellow citizens could prove to be overwhelming.

And if scientists in one nation are genetically altering unborn children, wouldn't it be hard for other nations to resist joining in a "genetic arms race" to develop a new generation better able to compete in the global economy -- or in war?

Might some future dictator even try to genetically alter some people to become particularly obedient and compliant or especially aggressive and warlike?

This is not impossible. Remember that many medical procedures that are routine today -- in vitro fertilization or "test tube babies," for example -- were considered science fiction just a few decades ago.

We are standing at the gateway of a brave new world of genetic manipulation that could, in this century, create designer people.

Before we step through, we should look ahead, determine the consequences of the paths we can take and ask who gets to decide.

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Caroline S. Wagner holds research positions at Rand Europe and the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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