The complete accounting of the human genome, a de facto guide for building a person, met with predictable fanfare last week. Its celebration marked 50 years since Francis Crick and James Watson published their Nobel Prize-winning description of that iconic spiral staircase, the double helix of DNA.
“After three billion years of evolution, we have before us the instruction set that carries each of us from the one-cell egg through adulthood to the grave,” Dr. Robert Waterston, of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, told a crowd at the National Institutes of Health.
With this new knowledge comes new power, the ability to shape our fundamental form—and, one day, to better it. Within our lifetime, scientists say, we will see the advent of genetically enhanced human beings, babies who might look like all the others in the nursery but will grow up to jump higher, learn faster, live longer. Powerful and privileged, they could also become a vulnerable minority, as much subject to prejudice as primed for success.
On January 3, during the final, furious effort to sequence those 3.1 billion units of DNA, a federal court in Lower Manhattan handed down a ruling that by some bizarre twist could serve as precedent for a third-millennium Dred Scott decision. Judge Judith Barzilay of the U.S. Court of International Trade decreed that intelligent characters with “extraordinary and unnatural powers,” beings with “tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs,” “highly exaggerated muscle tone,” or “exaggerated troll-like features,” are “nonhuman creatures.” Really.
That ruling, regarding a tax on comic-book toys, revealed a mindset that doesn’t bode well for the souped-up variants of human who could be living shoulder-to-shoulder with your grandkids, or could be your grandkids. They could very well be augmented with better genes and robotic prosthetics or implanted chips, by choice or necessity. Will they face an angry mob of normals when they start filling the roster at Harvard? When they go to vote, will they be recognized as citizens? The law has gone a lot further in banning their birth than in protecting their rights.
Months before that court decision, Olympic officials and scientists meeting in New York City resolved to bar genetically engineered athletes from future competitions. And preferring phrasing that sounds protective, the Council of Europe stated as far back as 1982 that “Human Rights imply the right to inherit a genetic pattern which has not been artificially changed.”
Watson, founding director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, isn’t part of that consensus. “It’s strange to say we’ve come to a point where we don’t want to improve things,” he told the Voice. “It’s against the main thrust of civilization’s work.”
Before we swallow an overweening sense of preciousness about the human being, we should be mindful that our Constitution never defined what one was. Rather than narrowing our sense of perfection to Leonardo da Vinci’s precisely proportioned Vitruvian Man, we might define ourselves, for ourselves, according to values and qualities like intelligence, empathy, compassion—regardless of outward form or inner tinkering.
The grand-père terrible of genetic research, Watson argues that “nature knows best” is a delusional quagmire. Evolution, after all, is a messy set of continual compromises designed to make do for the moment. There’s the wondrous human hand and the horrible human knee. In his new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson advocates genetic modification not just to protect us from disease, but to make us smarter, too.
Other scientists foresee new, superior offshoots of our species spawned by genetic blending with various flora and fauna. Leading lights in these fields gathered at Boston University this month to sort it all out in a symposium called simply “The Future of Human Nature.”
“Enough,” says environmentalist author Bill McKibben in his new book of that name, a jeremiad against such supposed technological sins. But should fine-tuned babies and transgenic beings pop up among us anyway, he says, “I am certain the better angels of our nature will prevail and we will treat them as we would anybody else.”
His assessment, that we can hate the sin but love the product of it, seems glib given our planet’s track record of prejudice. Even children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, so-called Amerasians, faced severe discrimination in the land of their birth because the circumstances of their conception carried a stigma of colonialism. And the organic farming movement has denounced genetically modified “Frankenfoods.” How much of a stretch is it to imagine that metaphor coming full circle, demonizing people enhanced by those same technologies?
The transgenic revolution is already here—fish genes have been spliced into tomatoes to make them frost resistant, and jellyfish genes have been used to make a fluorescent rabbit. Now imagine if the problem of world hunger were eased by creating an even hybrid of human and plant, people who could feed off sunshine. We’d all benefit from the reduced demand for food, but “would those individuals be protected by the Constitution?” asks Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and author of Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics.
“These issues are already on the table. We’re going to have to expand the definition of man,” she says. The pithiest conclusion to the dilemma she cites came from an exchange between her students: “If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes like a man, then it’s a man.”
It may sound like science fiction, but biotech’s progress continues to defy prediction. The HIV genome took years to sequence; SARS was done in weeks. Human genetic enhancement is drawing closer—we’ve already identified more than a thousand genetic markers for outcomes like Down’s syndrome.
The day is approaching when wealthy parents can pay to have markers tweaked or added to bolster qualities like intelligence and athleticism. But the rights of such unusual progeny are being curtailed before the people even exist. The situation is one the X-Men, conceived as a comic-book response to the civil rights movement in 1963 and returning to movie theaters on May 2 with a plot centered on a repressive Mutant Registration Act, could easily appreciate. “Born with strange powers, the mutants known as the X-Men use their awesome abilities to protect a world that hates and fears them!” reads their Marvel Comics tagline. In the end, the X-Men were sold out by that very company. It was Marvel subsidiary Toy Biz that persuaded Judge Barzilay of the heroes’ “other than human” status so it could reap reimbursements on taxes paid to import action figures from China—the levy was higher on dolls, which depict humans, than on other toys.
That might seem a trivial and unlikely basis for the question of what makes us human, but as Andrews notes, “Science looks forward, law looks backward. Computer cases rest on what happened with books, and space shuttle cases will look back to what was decided for horses and buggies.”
The personal decisions that would accompany genetic enhancement are frightening. How would you feel about your first child when the second one comes bundled with upgrades? Could the younger sibling ever enjoy a sense of real achievement, or would the kid forever wonder if that three-minute mile had been written in before birth? “I suppose if I were the only one enhanced, I’d feel a bit of a cheat,” Watson admits. Where do you draw the line between risks and rewards? Changing the germ line—those genes that will be passed onto future generations—must be done ahead of the fetus’s development, and so carries tremendous potential for cascades of disaster. Somatic therapies—delivering genes to a living person—have loosed cancers in test subjects.
Even in best-case scenarios, the questions are endless. Will genetically enhanced people be held back by society, just as gifted students are now woefully underserved? Should you have to pay insurance premiums inflated by others whose parents lacked the foresight to eliminate disease genes? How much privacy protection should such people have? Pity the presidential candidate who must reveal that she’s been enhanced by a lab instead of a blue-blood pedigree.
Why should the DNA-boosted have to follow our usual strictures at all? “The minimum time you must invest to do a Ph.D. these days is something like three years,” says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. “But why force someone to do it in three years when it can be done in three months?” Need a person with faster reaction times be stuck driving 55 miles per hour?
Social pressure may end up curbing wild-eyed genetic hubris, says Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver. “Parents want kids like themselves, except maybe a little smarter,” he says. “Not beyond the curve, but on the leading edge of the curve. I think this is all going to happen very slowly, step by step. That’s much more insidious, of course.”
The means to achieve GM babies are spreading, and if the practice ever catches on, it’ll be because parents are trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Douglas Osheroff, a Nobelist for physics, opposes genetic enhancement on principle. Instead of molecular manipulation, he favors providing a stimulating environment, which as a Stanford professor, he could provide in spades. But even he concedes, “If it appeared that [my children] would not be competitive unless they were engineered, I suppose I would seriously consider this process.”
So once created, what kind of reception would those kids get? Most visions of genetic engineering—Gattaca, Brave New World—focus on the danger of having a genetic über-class. These dystopian renderings overlook one crucial fact: Time and again, mob rule has eliminated elites, real or perceived. “This could be another way privilege is concentrated and the underclass will be angry,” Watson says. “The underclass has always been angry, sometimes with good reason.”
The raw meritocracy of the Olympics will segregate against GM humans, even an athlete with a single GM grandparent, according to World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound. “They can go and compete with people who’ve had genetic enhancements,” he says. But the Olympics have always been a proving ground for genetics. Jesse Owens demolished Nazi claims of a superior race in the Berlin games of 1936. And as Silver notes, bicyclist Lance Armstrong has a heart 33 percent larger than average. “That’s not just training,” the biologist says. “That’s genetics.”
Pound freely acknowledges that these people didn’t earn their genes any more than would a person whose parents had them tweaked in a lab. “No matter what you do with a five-one Indonesian or Malaysian, you’re never going to make him a star NBA player. You’re also not going to turn a seven-two basketball player into a great badminton player,” he says. “Just like athletes from developing nations with poor nutrition, those were the cards they were dealt by chance. I don’t look to sport to resolve all of the inequities of the world.”
Those sitting at the highest echelons of intellectual life say they’ll be more welcoming. Osheroff judged the most recent round of what’s widely regarded as the junior Nobels, the Intel Science Talent Search. “I believe that mental power is far more important than athletic talent to humanity, and don’t think that we would be likely to exclude genetically engineered humans from such competitions as the STS,” he says, adding that he’d put his money where his mouth is. “As far as my not getting a Nobel Prize because an engineered human won one, I think the issue is who has done work which is more deserving. The prizes should be considered as drawing attention to major advances in science, not something that confers instant genius on the recipients.”
But in the shorthand of our culture, getting into Harvard does. “There’s no dearth of quality, of brain power. Kids with 1600 SATs are a dime a dozen now, thanks to prolonged coaching since eighth grade or seventh grade,” says Dwight Miller, senior admissions officer at the university. The school looks for other intangibles to round out its classes, a practice that could thwart a genetic pecking order. “There are plenty of arrogant people here already. We don’t try to compound it. All of this is diametrically opposed to genetic engineering.”
Yet Harvard wouldn’t limit the number of GM students it accepted. “I don’t think it’s written into the Constitution that one is guaranteed the right to attend the college of one’s choice. The last thing you’re ever going to hear Harvard say is there are quotas,” Miller says.
The trade-offs and ethical conundrums are enough to tie an anti-quota Republican parent like Steve Sanford in knots. He’s a successful commercial artist and credits genetics for much of his ability, tracing his lineage through talented artists and draftsmen directly back to George Washington’s portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale. His daughter, Emily, recently won admission to two prestigious New York City institutions, Stuyvesant High School and the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But what if she couldn’t get into Harvard because its ranks were filling with the offspring of parents who could afford million-dollar enhancements?
“I’d say that’s definitely not fair—it’s like being able to buy your way out of conscription in the Civil War,” her father says. “There could be riots, I think. Things could get out of control.”
Then again, if he were having a new child in an era when designer babies were common, he’d opt for enhancement if he knew it was safe and a competitive necessity. But for the same reasons he wouldn’t want her to have bat wings genetically grafted on, he wouldn’t want her to be so intelligent as to be “a freak, someone who can’t socially relate to other people. Being smart has its own rewards, but if you go too far the kid will probably be lonely and maybe ostracized.”
Sanford intuitively locks onto Lee Silver’s powerful brake—that need to connect.
Society has always been cruel to the unusually gifted. “We know our members tend to be more introverted than the general public,” says Jean Becker, president of the American chapter of the genius society Mensa. “They’ve had unpleasant experiences as children, when they were made fun of because they liked to read or were intellectual. They learned to hide who they were, and a lot of our members still hide their intelligence in daily life. Some are even secretive about their membership.”
When asked what enhancement she’d give a child, her answer isn’t immunity to AIDS or cancer. It isn’t intelligence. “Sure, I’d want my child to have at least an average IQ, but if I had the opportunity to pick one thing to enhance for a child I would probably pick physical attractiveness,” Becker says. “It opens doors to you. People like physically attractive people. It’s one thing that has been linked to higher wages and an easier emotional life, and I don’t know of any research like that in terms of intelligence. I’m sorry to say that and ashamed that in our culture it’s true.”
And maybe that’ll be the end to which the free market drives biotech: the quest for classic beauty under a microscope instead of a knife. Hey, at least it would spare a few slots at Harvard.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2003