They didn't sign on for this

5 minute read

I got pointed to this Ronald Bailey article in Reason, which describes the approaches of some ethicists to the prospect of "genetic enhancement" of humanity. I'm pasting this passage for the links, and for the sheer magnitude of efforts already underway to limit alterations to the genome:

Far from there being a "right" to enhance oneself and one's progeny, some institutions and activists currently aim to outlaw various biotech interventions. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine prohibits the introduction of "any modification in the genome of any descendants." While it does not have the force of law, UNESCO's Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights urges nations to ban "practices which are contrary to human dignity" and specifically points to reproductive cloning. Bioethicist George Annas wants to go further and have the United Nations adopt a a Convention of the Preservation of the Human Species that would make efforts to enhance human beings by making heritable changes in people's genomes a crime against humanity.

Who knew they had time? I can't help but think that all this regulating and forbidding won't come to anything. There will be little sense that these are really negotiated political solutions. It's like a gold rush of regulation, and the people in a position to actually make changes to genomes haven't gotten off the line yet.

Anyway, I thought there was a certain amount of silliness in this description of ethical vs. unethical genetic changes:

Philosopher Fritz Allhoff from the University of Western Michigan speaking on a conference panel about "Democratizing the Genome" grappled with the issue of consent. Allhoff offers a principle derived from the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative that "genetic intervention would be morally permissible only if every future generation would rationally consent to the genetic alterations made in the germ-line."

The article goes into some detail about what kinds of genetic alterations might fit this criterion.

My comment is this: The notion that genetic changes require consent of future generations presupposes the wrong baseline. The alternative to intentional changes is not no change, or stasis. Stasis is not an option, regardless of what we do. The genetics of our species have been changing for some time, and they continue to change even now. Many of those changes have been (or will be) direct consequences of cultural traditions.

Further, our genetic nature today is not one that past generations of humanity could have possibly predicted. Consider a well-known genetic adaptation of our species, like the sickle-cell trait, which confers resistance to malaria in heterozygotes but is deadly to homozygotes. Clearly on the basis of survival and reproduction, that trait has survived and proliferated in malarial West Africa over the last several thousand years. It certainly benefited the first people who carried it. But today its benefit has been eliminated in many of the descendants of those first carriers -- in malarial Africa, it causes as many deaths from the sickle-cell trait as it saves from malaria, and in African-Americans very few people are saved from malaria, so it only has costs.

Now, suppose we asked prehistoric Africans whether future generations would consent to the sickle cell allele. What would they say? The genetic situation is very clear -- the first few generations that carried the allele had huge advantages in survival and faced few costs, because it was unlikely to mate with another carrier and have children with the sickle-cell trait. Over time, as the allele became common, the costs rose to match the benefits. But also over time, the relatedness of further generations to the original carriers declines. After 20 or 30 generations, the original carriers have certainly won out -- they have become ancestral to a much higher proportion of the population than they would have otherwise, but the

What is the primary good here? Giving people the chance to live longer in the face of malaria? On that basis, the sickle-cell allele had an early initial success and a long-run failure. Giving people the chance to have more children? Again, that worked incredibly well early on for carriers -- but its benefit ultimately disappeared. And it came at the cost of the reproduction of all the initial population that lacked the allele.

Or maybe the primary good is allowing the population to exist at all. It is far from clear that human occupation of high-malaria regions would even have been possible without genetic adaptations to resist malaria. The sickle-cell allele is not the only one of those, but it is an important one.

So it is nonsensical to pose the question of whether future generations would consent to our changes. For most changes, we can predict pretty surely that if the change has a short-term positive effect, the competitive advantage given by that effect will disappear once everyone has it. Now maybe you could argue that some such changes would be good on their own merits in any context -- like genetic changes that make people live longer but don't kill children in the process. But not everybody wants to live longer today, and if those effects are viewed as good in the future, it will be in terms of cultural values that we today are ill-equipped to predict.

And the entire question removes our relevance as actors. The only way that our actions can have lasting importance is by virtue of their effects on the future. If we take away our own possibility of action, then we eliminate our relevance. If we refuse to take actions that we believe will be good for our children, then we leave them to the genetic changes that will occur without us.

Well, anyway, some philosophers construe the rules to allow some kinds of genetic alterations:

Philosopher Martin Gunderson from Macalester College offered the notion that perhaps permissible genetic interventions might be limited to those which enhance a person's moral capacities including the ability to reason based on principles, conform to moral rules, be morally perceptive, and have a certain kind of moral empathy.

In other words, if they were more likely to major in philosophy....