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Unnatural Selection: The Consequences of Genetically Enhancing Our Children for Perfection

jen1We are at an unprecedented point in history. With the time and cost required for full genome sequencing rapidly declining and the Human Genome Project completed in 2001, the power of genetic engineering has already been, and will continue to be revolutionary [1]. Rosalind Franklin’s X-Ray Diffraction image articulating the structure of DNA was created 65 years ago, and progress in understanding and manipulating DNA has since then exploded [2].  It is curious exactly where the capabilities of DNA technology will be in another 65 years.  Designer babies are one such possibility.  This essay follows the premise of a hypothetical future in which gene editing grants people the ability to determine traits for their children.

With the ability to tinker with genes, humans may have the ability to eradicate genetic illnesses and also choose enhanced traits for their children.  If the relevant genes are identified, parents could determine their child to have particular physical traits such as specific height, hair color, or eye color [3]. Parents could also potentially meddle with IQ, or the ability for certain talents. If these designer babies can reach unnaturally high levels of performance, then society as a whole may benefit from violin protégés, computer geniuses, or mathematic marvels of an ability unfamiliar to the year 2017. This technology has the power to produce a healthier and more innovative population. However, to understand the possible implications of human gene editing in the future, not only must the possible benefits, but also the potential costs be considered.

For first time, scientists can specifically alter, rearrange, and delete DNA in nearly any living organism [4]. In 2013 researches reported that they had implemented a new technology called CRISPR–Cas9 to edit the genome in human cells at locations of their choice. Since then, biologists have been eager to understand and study the mechanisms and applications of the technique. CRISPR–Cas9 has the potential to revolutionize gene therapy. In 2015, researchers in China reported that they had attempted to modify a gene in human embryos linked to a blood disease using CRISPR–Cas9. Although the attempt failed and these scientists used inviable embryos, this report fueled global debate over the ethics of editing the DNA of embryos [5].

Understandably, parents only want the best opportunities for their children. From choosing a sexual partner to avoiding unhealthy foods during pregnancy, people constantly try to impact how their offspring will develop. Genetic enhancements will surely give children an edge over others in competition, and allow them to reach achievements unknown by today’s standards. However, the promises of gene editing for genetic determinism is inherently flawed, and does not account for the role of grit in achieving one’s potential and the truth that even for the genetically “superior” eminence is not guaranteed.

If many parents are choosing to enhance their children, the required levels of performance and achievement for success are so high that they nearly mirror perfection. When a child does not perform perfectly, she and her parents may grow displeased and frustrated.  Parents may believe that since they paid for technology to improve certain abilities of their daughter, there should never be an excuse to make a mistake or to not perform to the best of her ability. The more one becomes genetically endowed, the greater the burden she carries for the level at which she must perform. What will be the role of hard work and perseverance if people believe that certain abilities and potentials are predestined?

The psychologist Angela Duckworth has done extensive research on the quality of grit – which is a combination of passion and perseverance, and allows one to achieve their goals and potential. She argues that someone who has the greatest degree of persistence and a strong ability (but not the highest ability) can achieve greater eminence than someone with the highest degree of an ability but with less persistence [6].  Are the promises of genetic determinism to produce a destiny of perfection even realistic? In the 1997 film, Gattaca, many people have aspects of their genome determined by their parents. The protagonist, Vincent, is conceived in vivo.  Vincent is deemed an “in-valid” – a person who is viewed by society as impaired.  He can only reach his dream of becoming an astronaut by impersonating a “valid” named Jerome with a “superior” genetic profile. In Gattaca, people believe that one’s potential is completely predetermined by one’s genome. There is no interview for Vincent to apply to become an astronaut. Genetic evaluation precedes personal evaluation.  The sequence is all that is judged, and that is believed to be a valid indicator of his potential [7].

Jerome embodies the failed ideal of genetic determinism. Jerome is crippled after being hit by a car in a suicide attempt.  He is in despair that he is unable to live up to his scientifically predicted potential. Jerome’s spirit is destroyed from not always being number one. He keeps the silver medal he received during a swimming competition as a representation of his failure. He mopes that “Jerome Morrow was never meant to be one step down on the podium” [7]. Jerome does not employ grit to attain superior results. He does not work harder and assumes that there is no potential for improvement if he employs more effort. A “superior” genetic profile alone does not guarantee attaining his goals. Jerome realizes that Vincent has perseverance, which he lacks. It allows Vincent to achieve his ambitions despite his “inferior” genetic makeup. Additionally, Jerome represents the failed promise of genetic determinism since there are many genetically “superior” individuals, and each cannot always be the best.  Therefore, the notion that genetic determinism can ensure perfection in inherently flawed. With gene editing, competition is elevated astronomically, which only increases the pressure for more genetic enhancement. This produces a rapidly altered mean in abilities, yet there will always be people at the average despite how enhanced members of a population may be.

Historically, eugenics has accompanied the preoccupation of creating a biologically superior population. A eugenics program can be prevented if genetic determinism is not accepted as the true consequence of gene editing. However, in Gattaca, law enforcement attempts to catch Vincent, as to not upset the illusion that an in-valid is unable to succeed at the level of the genetically enhanced [7]. Also, Vincent never publically reveals his true identity [8]. In Nazi Germany (and in the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century), there was a movement to cleanse itself, and the world, of people considered genetically handicapped or inferior.  This movement was motivated by eugenics – the concept of biologically improving a group on the basis of alleged genetic worth.  People deemed the “hereditarily sick”, who suffered from schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, grave body malformations, and hereditary blindness and deafness, were surgically sterilized without consent.  410,000 citizens of Germany were part of the preliminary sterilization plans in 1933. Some people even supported sterilizing those with only mild signs of a disease or those who may be carriers for various illnesses.  People that fell into these categories accounted for 20% of the German population.  What will be the prospects of a eugenics movement and discrimination based on one’s genetic profile if genetic engineering is permitted [9]?

In 2015, the US National Academy of Sciences declared that it intended to create a set of recommendations and guidelines for scientists and policymakers on the permissibility of embryonic engineering. Many scientists and bioethicists, including Jennifer Doudna, one of the researchers who developed CRISPR–Cas9, called for a moratorium on using this technology to edit the human genome, at least until after more research and discussion on its ethical ramifications [10]. Although these specific postulations may not develop as described above, there is no question that this technology will continue to raise various ethical considerations [11].  Providing time to consider the implications of such powerful technology is essential for its responsible use.

References:

  1. Taber, Katherine; Dickenson, Barry; Wilson, Modena. “The Promise and Challenges of Next-Generation Genome Sequencing for Clinical Care” in JAMA Internal Medicine 174, no. 2: 173 – 312.
  2. Rapoport, Sarah. “Rosalind Franklin: Unsung Hero of the DNA Revolution” in The History Teacher 36 no. 1 (Long Beach, Calif; 2002), 116 – 127.
  3. Sandel, Michael, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (The United States of America: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  4. Sander, Jeffry D.  “CRISPR-Cas Systems for Editing, Regulating and Targeting Genomes” in Nature Biotechnology 32 no. 4 (2014), 347 – 355.
  5. Cyranoski, David.  “Ethics of Embryo Editing Divides Scientists in Nature (London, 2015), 272.
  6. Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 78.
  7. Gattaca, DVD, directed by Andrew Niccol (1997; USA: Jersey Films).
  8. Kirby, David A. “The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in Gattaca” in Science Fiction Studies 27, no. 2 (2000): 193-215.
  9. Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1986).
  10. Moreno, Jonathan. “Where to Draw the Line of Gene-Editing Technology” in Scientific American (2015). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/where-to-draw-the-line-on-gene-editing-technology/.
  11. Chin, Alfred. “CRISPR-Cas9 Therapeutics: A Technology Overview” in Biostars, Oxford UK (2015). http://biostars.co/blog/2016/3/31/crispr-cas9-therapeutics-a-technology-overview

Image References:

  1. https://www.flickr.com/photos/askpang/9251502638/sizes/c/in/photostream/

Jen Romanello is the president and founder of the Triple Helix at the George Washington University. She is a senior who will be graduating in May with a BS in Biological Sciences and a minor in Applied Ethics. 

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  • meriwether7456

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