Eugenics, re-framed

1 08 2007

Perhaps the most anticipated book of this past summer (other than the conclusion of the Harry Potter series) was Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution, which was universally panned by reputable scientists and didn’t seem to make much of a splash at all. I didn’t expect there to be anything especially groundbreaking or novel in Behe’s work, and although I’m sure ID folk will be citing it for some time, it hardly succeeds in it’s task of demoting evolution. It was much to my surprise, then, to find out that there’s another book full of potential woo dressed up as science coming out in a few weeks, John Harris’ Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People.

As much as I would like to withhold judgment until I actually get a chance to read the book, I have to say that the synopsis and early supporting reviews scream “EUGENICS!” at me, even though I’m sure the author and his supporters are careful not to use the “e” word. According to the inside cover, the book is based off of a set of lectures given by Harris (“the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law”) at Oxford last year. Here’s the summary currently available via the amazon.com page;

Decisive biotechnological interventions in the lottery of human life–to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic makeup–have been widely rejected as unethical and undesirable, and have often met with extreme hostility. But in Enhancing Evolution, leading bioethicist John Harris dismantles objections to genetic engineering, stem-cell research, designer babies, and cloning to make a forthright, sweeping, and rigorous ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life.

Human enhancement, Harris argues, is a good thin–good morally, good for individuals, good as social policy, and good for a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement. Enhancing Evolution defends biotechnological interventions that could allow us to live longer, healthier, and even happier lives by, for example, providing us with immunity from cancer and HIV/AIDS. But the book advocates far more than therapies designed to free us from sickness and disability. Harris champions the possibility of influencing the very course of evolution to give us increased mental and physical powers–from reasoning, concentration, and memory to strength, stamina, and reaction speed. Indeed, he supports enhancing ourselves in almost any way we desire. And it’s not only morally defensible to enhance ourselves, Harris says. In some cases, it’s morally obligatory.

Whether one looks upon biotechnology with hope, fear, or a little of both, Enhancing Evolution makes a case for it that no one can ignore.

As Jeff Goldblum (as Ian Malcolm) said in Jurassic Park, “The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.” The phrase “a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement” especially set off warning claxons in my head, and even if Harris himself doesn’t fully commit to eugenics in this area, it seems that the grounds would become ripe for it. Also note how it isn’t stated who, exactly, would be receiving all these beneficial treatments or how such “improvements” would be extended to the majority of the world’s population that cannot even afford simple medicines, much less eugenic treatment regimens.

The idea that we can somehow improve humankind through our understanding of science (“better living through [bio]chemistry,” if you like) is hardly new, and even in such works as G.G. Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution the author hints at a time when we may be able to guide our own evolution, though the means during the time the book was written and revised (early 1950’s) were lacking. Even though we have come a long way since that time, I sometimes have to wonder if we even really understand what we’re messing with when we consider cloning. I don’t know how scientific this new book is going to be, but the synopsis makes it sound like through eugenic breeding or medical innovation we can reach some sort of Platonic ideal where everyone is beautiful, healthy, and intelligent, living a long and happy life. HIV/AIDS and cancer are mentioned as two diseases that we may be able to eliminate, but somehow I doubt that all disease would just disappear because we engineered ourselves a different way, and if there were lots of human clones, lack of genetic diversity could make populations more susceptible to disease.

While Harris may be able to tackle some of the superficial ethical objections in the book, I doubt that he fully considered or deconstructed the more functional objections, mostly being that it seems that trying to improve ourselves would probably make the human species weaker, not stronger, as well as leading to some unsavory (and dangerous) social/political consequences. I probably won’t be able to check this book out immediately when it is released on the 17th, but I’ll be interested to see the reviews of any other science bloggers if they get the chance to read it.


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10 responses

1 08 2007
Julia

Ah yes, sooner or later evolution and the engineering of the human race collides… Herbert Spencerannoyed no end of working-class Victorians when he came out with his interesting theories. I also have a proper pre-WWII scientific textbook on eugenics (must get up the courage to read it sometime). And this latest book (while it will probably be dismissed in time like all those before it) sounds pretty scary.

While it would be wonderful to have disease-free humans, unfortunately decisions will always rest with extremely subjective, naturally bigoted humans – to quote Avenue Q: “everyone’s a little bit racist”, and sexist, and ageist, and whatever-else-ist. And it’s only a few incremental steps from “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate disease” to “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate black people”. Which makes me think maybe we shouldn’t even try to eliminate disease.

1 08 2007
laelaps

Precisely, Julia, and even if there’s no direct “elimination” of other groups of people, help or assistance could be withheld from them, essentially doing the same thing over a longer period of time. Often times I feel this debate hinges too much on what we “can” do rather than what we probably “should” (or should not) do, the endless march of progress being more important than thoughtful considerations of our actions. Given that we’re really just only cracked a few human genomes, I think it’s a little hasty to start planning to manipulate our own DNA, too.

1 08 2007
Will Baird

fah. I have to take a slightly contrarian POV. There are genetically tied diseases that run in my family and my wife’s family. If we could eliminate them, why not?

Near sightedness? Poof gone. Wait, you say, that’s easily correctable. Sure, at a cost. I cannot guarantee my descendants economic position. What if they couldn’t afford it? I could, possibly, eliminate the problem for them such they never need drop a single cent on glasses or corrective surgery. Diabetes? taken care of. This one helped kill my grandmother. Alzheimer’s? wipe. *shudders* This one runs in my wife’s family. It frightens me more than any of the others. Truly and deeply so.

Now, my life’s noted for being long lived despite of all the nasty things they do to themselves (two men in the patrilineal line lived past 100 in the last 400 years while not getting age related dementia and one trying for it now); however, it seems to be a male tied trait, none of the women have had it. What-if I could have given this, in-born, to my daughter.

I have to say, I disagree with you guys. I’m not asking or wanting us to create a single ideal of perfection for humanity, just to be allowed to eliminate the things that lurk waiting to express themselves in nasty fashions within my on family’s genome. I am not asking anyone else to do it, just that my family be allowed to.

1 08 2007
laelaps

Will; thank you for your thoughts, and I’m sorry your family has such a lineage of medical problems. I lost most of my extended relatives at an early age to various illnesses, although some of them were smoking-related. Nevertheless, what Julia and I were talking about wasn’t “We shouldn’t do this just because” but rather that “improving” humans in whatever way might not be a good thing overall. It might benefit some, but how far will it be extended? It may be all-too-easy to abuse the power, and I’m not even entirely sure that at this point people will even really know what they’re doing (like I said, we only recently coded a handful of human genomes, as well as experimented with cloning in other animals). If such procedures bring us closer to better health in some ways but make us vulnerable in others, is it really an advancement? The book summary lists “cancer” as one of the illnesses that might be eliminated, but there are many different kinds of cancer caused by different things; is it even possible to eliminate cancers that are caused by environmental factors such as diet or inhalation of chemicals?

I wouldn’t necessarily having a problem with possible therapies that would reduce the risk of illness within a family, as you describe Will, but its some of the other premises (like making people smarter, faster, stronger, more attractive, and happier through genomic tinkering) that I object to. If the medical side is developed and regulated, that’s one thing, but what I (and I assume Julia) were objecting to is the potential of eugenic programs that might be harmful in any number of ways through abuse of power, racism, etc. If this is to proceed, it will have to be highly regulated and watched carefully, but I think there’s a distinct difference in lessening the risk of a disease that’s hereditary in a family and causing someone to have “designer genes” just because it’s a “step forward” for the human race.

1 08 2007
Julia

Yup – my problem is not with the technology existing at all. I’m very concerned that our medical and technical prowess is moving at such a pace that our ethics can’t keep up. Even now I don’t know that our society as a whole is mature enough to be able to draw the line in the right place. Very few people would have a problem with engineering an increased resistance to Alzheimer’s, or eliminating cystic fibrosis entirely.

But it’s not such a great leap from fatal diseases to chronic non-life-threatening conditions like arthritis and IBS. Wouldn’t it be great to not have to deal with those? And if you’re going to eliminate IBS, then why not engineer 20-20 vision? A lifetime prescription of Colofac versus a lifetime of glasses and contact lenses with the headaches, impairment and scratched corneas that they incur – it’s a no-brainer. And if you’re going to remove the need for glasses, why not engineer perfect teeth too? No more braces. And if you remove that source of bullying and teen misery, then you may as well isolate and remove the gene for red hair, because it just wouldn’t be fair on the child to be bullied for their hair colour when his or her classmates’ parents have avoided bullying by engineering their children’s perfect teeth and eyes. And because we are a cruel species, with the flatulent, the bespectacled, the goofy and the ginger removed from the gene pool, we would simply revert to the mockery of the next smallest minority.

Long though my comment is, I am confident that a good lawyer could make a convincing and much longer argument for advancing each of the steps that I have mentioned. And it’s because there are only a few well-argued steps between the very noble aim of eliminating horrible illnesses and engineering an Aryan race that I have serious issues with the revival of eugenics, and not that I think it’s bad to fiddle with the gene pool (I am happy to leave the geneticists to work out whether it’s safe for the individual concerned). And we have to have a very thick uncrossable line drawn between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable before we start trying out our medical knowledge.

My husband has just pointed out that there’s one hell of a lot of “dud” DNA in each gene – there’s the whole other half of the double helix that doesn’t get fed through the rough endoplasmic reticulum, and we don’t know what that bit might or might not influence. But I think that’s another argument.

1 08 2007
Nitron

It’s not eugenics, it’s eugenenics!

2 08 2007
ChrisR

My concern is that although the justification for this will be eliminating disease and misery and lots of other happy shiny things, the reality will be pretty far removed from this. Just look at GM crops – it’s not so much ‘feed the world’ as ‘tie poor farmers into continually buying our seed and pesticides’.

2 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks Chris, and good point about the GM foods. I had to take a course in Human Ecology and that was the first time I ever heard of “Franken-foods,” and I was definitely shocked that scientists were allowed the swap genes between kingdoms of organisms. I especially wondered why genes that make fireflies glow were inserted into monkeys and some other plants, making them glow at night; what exactly is the point of that other than “See what we can do now?”

Maybe it’s a scientific bias because I’m more fond of anatomy/paleo/ecology (i.e. studying nature as it is, past & present), but I am a bit unsettled by some of the medical and bigenetic research that goes on today, especially when primates are used as test subjects. Still, as medical and biogenetic science proceeds (or attempts to) I think debates like this one will increase, and I fear that economic incentives will compromise morals (i.e. if I can’t get funded in this country, I’ll go somewhere else and do it). Even beyond “improvement” for the Western world, I imagine that the majority of the world’s population will be left out as the treatments/procedures will be too expensive or unavailable for them, so it was certainly be an unnatural selection for people who are born into richer societies.

3 08 2007
Zach Miller

I’m actually…*prepares to be shunned*…a fan of eugenics IN THEORY. I’m also sort of a fan of CULTURAL Darwinism. That is, when an Alaskan Native language up here dies or is down to a single speaker, I’m really not disappointed. Cultural barriers, I feel, actually inhibit cultural exchange and influence racism. We will not be “one people” as long as everyone is a cultural die-hard. Integration is key, and in any society, some ideas will survive and others will die off. We shouldn’t be sad when, say, an old language dies,* we should see that as progress towards a greater unification of our species.

*Except for Latin. To this day, I wish Latin was taught in Alaska colleges, because I would take every class until I knew every word and could speak it fluently. It’s a beautiful language that’s infinately more expressive and descriptive than any modern language that I’ve heard. But that’s just me.

Anyway, as for eugenics itself. I have cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic malady which shortens my life and can fairly easily be passed on to my offspring (although I’m sterile, many CF patients are NOT). CF costs me, my family, and the government lots and lots of money. Money that could go toward curing cancer or feeding the hungry. But instead it’s being blown on me, and I’m going to die no matter how good the treatments are. If scientists could somehow “phase out” via, perhaps, sterilization and genetic manipulation, cystic fibrosis, then I’m all for it.

Think of all the genetic diseases that could be cured that way. But again, cultural barriers get in the way. The racism card is always played, the cultural Darwinism card is always played. “We’re special! We’re distinct! We want to stay that way!” But I’m positive that as long as those old ideas of artificial distinction and separation are there, humanity cannot truly progress.

3 08 2007
laelaps

No worries Zach, no one’s going to shun you.🙂 Like I said above, if what we’re talking about is helping people with genetic dispositions to certain diseases, that’s one thing. It’s another thing entirely if we’re “improving” people to be smarter/faster/more attractive, etc. Medicial treatments to help people is one thing, but I’m dubious about the concept of human “progress”; what does that even mean, and is it something that can be objectively qualified/quantified?

My biggest worry with genetic manipulation and cloning (which the author of the book in question seems to endorse, in large capacity) is the lack of diversity that will become apparent in the genome. You never know what you’re going to need to survive the next pandemic, and in reality, some diseases are actually GOOD for us. A disease that keeps iron locked away in the body, away from white blood cells and invasive bacteria alike, actually helped people survive the black plague because if they came in contact with the disease, the plague didn’t have the fuel it needed (in terms of iron) to strike them hard. Granted, the disease might contribute to alzheimer’s or other late-onset diseases, but that doesn’t matter much evolutionarily as long as you get old enough to reproduce.

If we’re to proceed with genetic manipulation, I think it needs to be watched carefull and not extend to subjective “improvements” of some societies over others. These concerns don’t come out of humans being “special” or “untouchable”, but merely that we’re not quite as wise or smart as we think we are, and I don’t think we really know what we’re messing with when it comes to genetic manipulation. Sure, you might get some sort of benefit in the short term, but will it really be progress to have everyone look like a supermodel but be vulnerable to various diseases because of the results of cloning/genetic manipulation for certain traits? In some ways, eugenics (or too much genetic manipulation, if you prefer) is just another way of subduing nature, just in the individual rather than in the environment, and given our ignorance of global ecology, I don’t think we’re smart enough to manipulate the “ecology” of individuals without opening ourselves up to some nasty repurcussions.

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