The New Eugenics: The Case Against Genetically Modified Humans

Marcy Darnovsky


the cusp of dot-com frenzy and the biotech century, a group of influential

scientists and pundits has begun zealously promoting a new bio-engineered

utopia. In the world of their visionary fervor, parents will strive to afford

the latest genetic "improvements" for their children. According to the

advocates of this human future (or, as some term it, "post-human"

future), the exercise of consumer preferences for offspring options will be the

prelude to a grand achievement: the technological control of human evolution.


first close encounter with this techno-eugenic enthusiasm was in a 1997 book

written for an unconverted lay audience by Princeton geneticist Lee M. Silver.

In Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World


York: Avon Books), Silver spins out scenarios of a future in which affluent

parents are as likely to arrange genetic enhancements for their children as to

send them to private school.


confidently predicts that upscale baby-making will soon take place in fertility

clinics, where prospective parents will undergo an IVF procedure to create an

embryo, then select the physical, cognitive, and behavioral traits they desire

for their child-to-be. Technicians will insert the genes said to produce those

traits into the embryo, and implant the embryo in the mother’s womb. Nine months

later, a designer baby will be born. After a few centuries of these practices,

Silver believes, humanity will bifurcate into genetic ubermenschen and

untermenschen–and not long thereafter into different species. Here is Silver’s

prediction for the year 2350:


GenRich–who account for 10 percent of the American population–all carry

synthetic genes. Genes that were created in the laboratory….The GenRich are a

modern-day hereditary class of genetic aristocrats….All aspects of the

economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are

controlled by members of the GenRich class."


do the other 90 percent live? Silver is quite blunt on this point as well:

"Naturals work as low-paid service providers or as laborers."


rich and poor already live in biologically disparate worlds can be argued on the

basis of any number of statistical measures: life expectancy, infant mortality,

access to health care. Of course, medical resources and social priorities could

be assigned to narrowing those gaps. But if Silver and his cohort of

designer-baby advocates have their way, precious medical talent and funds will

be devoted instead to a technically dubious project whose success will be

measured by the extent to which it can inscribe inequality onto the human

genome. Silver pushes his vision still further:


time passes,…the GenRich class and the Natural class will become the GenRich

humans and the Natural humans–entirely separate species with no ability to

cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human

would have for a chimpanzee."


understands that such scenarios are disconcerting. He counsels realism. In other

words, he celebrates the free reign of the market and perpetuates the myth that

private choices have no public consequences:


who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an

expensive private school education cannot use `unfairness’ as a reason for

rejecting the use of reprogenetic technologies….There is no doubt about

it…whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme."


I first read Silver’s book, I imagined that these sorts of bizarre

prognostications must be the musings of a lab researcher indulging in

mad-scientist mode. I soon learned differently. They are not ravings from the

margins of modern science, but emanations from its prestigious and respected

core. Silver vividly and accurately represents a technical and political agenda

for the human future that is shared by a disturbing number of Nobel laureate

scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, social theorists, bioethicists, and



the late 1990s, this loose alliance has been publicly and energetically

promoting the genetic technology known as "human germline

engineering"– modifying the genes passed to our children by manipulating

embryos at their earliest stages of development. Such genetic modifications

would be replicated in all subsequent generations, providing supporters with the

basis to claim that "we" are on the brink of "seizing control of

human evolution." Frank about their commitments to control and

"enhancement," advocates of human germline engineering claim that the

voluntary parental participation they foresee refutes any characterization of

their project as "eugenic." With public conferences, popular books,

scholarly articles, websites, and mainstream media appearances, they are waging

an all-out campaign to win public acceptance of their techno-eugenic vision.


promoters of a designer-baby future believe that the new human genetic and

reproductive technologies are both inevitable and a boon to humanity. They

exuberantly describe near-term genetic manipulations–within a generation–that

may increase resistance to diseases, "optimize" height and weight, and

boost intelligence. Further off, but within the lifetimes of today’s children,

they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new body forms, extend

life expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some even predict splicing traits

from other species into children: In late 1999, for example, an ABC Nightline

special on human cloning speculated that genetic engineers would learn to design

children with "night vision from an owl" and "supersensitive

hearing cloned from a dog."


plausible are such scenarios? Because human beings are far more than the product

of genes–because DNA is one of many factors in human development–the feats of

genetic manipulation eventually accomplished will almost certainly turn out to

be much more modest than what the designer-baby advocates predict. But we cannot

dismiss the possibility that scientists will achieve enough mastery over the

human genome to wreak enormous damage–biologically




a future of genetically engineered inequality legitimizes the vast existing

injustices that are socially arranged and enforced. Marketing the ability to

specify our children’s appearance and abilities encourages a grotesque

consumerist mentality toward children and all human life. Fostering the notion

that only a "perfect baby" is worthy of life threatens our solidarity

with and support for people with disabilities, and perpetuates standards of

perfection set by a market system that caters to political, economic, and

cultural elites. Channeling hopes for human betterment into preoccupation with

genetic fixes shrinks our already withered commitments to improving social

conditions and enriching cultural and community life.


engineering is now common in laboratory animals, though it remains at best an

imprecise technology, requiring hundreds of attempts before a viable engineered

animal is produced. Human germline manipulation has not been attempted: The only

kind of human genetic procedures currently practiced involve efforts to

"fix" or substitute for the genes of somatic (body) cells in people

with health problems that in some way reflect the functions of genes.


about five hundred "gene therapy" clinical trials since the early

1990s, doctors have tried to introduce genetic modifications to patients’ lungs,

nerves, muscles, and other tissues. These efforts have been largely

unsuccessful. In late 1999, their safety was also called starkly into question

by the death of an 18-year-old enrolled in a clinical trial, and by ensuing

revelations of almost 700 other "serious adverse effects" that

researchers and doctors had somehow failed to report to the proper regulatory

authorities. Some observers have commented that gene therapy would more

accurately be called "genetic experiments on human subjects."


people are reluctant to oppose human germline engineering because they believe

that "genetics" will deliver medical cures or treatments. But there is

no reason that we cannot forgo germline engineering and still support other

genetic technologies that do in fact hold promising medical potential. In fact,

the medical justifications for human germline engineering are strained, while

its ethical and political risks are profound.


the distinction between human germline engineering and other genetic

technologies (including somatic genetic engineering) is a reasonably clear

technical demarcation. In many countries, this demarcation is being drawn as

law. Legislation that would ban human germline engineering and reproductive

cloning is making its way through the Canadian parliament. Germany’s Embryo

Protection Act of 1990 makes human cloning and germline engineering criminal

acts, and the Japanese legislature is considering establishing prison terms for

human cloning. A number of other European countries forbid cloning and germline

engineering indirectly by outlawing non-therapeutic research on human embryos.

Twenty-two European countries have signed a Council of Europe bioethics

convention that includes similar restrictions. In the United States, however,

neither federal law nor policy forbids human germline engineering or cloning,

though federal funds cannot be used for any kinds of human cloning experiments.


order to bring the new human genetic technologies under social governance,

strong political pressure and a broad social movement will be necessary. Though

no such movement currently exists, efforts to alert and engage a variety of

constituencies are getting underway.


movement that this work aims to catalyze will need to draw in a wide range of

constituencies, and encompass a variety of motivations. Some participants will

base their opposition to a techno-eugenic future on their commitments to

equality and justice, and to human improvement through social change rather than

technical fix. Others will be moved by the threats to human dignity and human

rights, and the horror of treating children as custom-made commodities, that

germline engineering and cloning entail. Still others will find their primary

inspiration in the precautionary principle, or their wariness of

techno-scientific hubris and a reductionist world view, or their objections to

corporate ownership of life at the molecular level, or their skepticism about

the drastic technological manipulation of the natural world.


will be far easier to prevent a techno-eugenic future if we act before human

germline manipulation develops further, either as technology or ideology. This

is a crucial juncture: a window that the campaign for human germline engineering

is trying to slam shut. Your participation is urgently needed.




article is appearing as a Different Takes issue paper from the Hampshire College

Population and Development Program. A longer version is forthcoming as "The

Case Against Designer Babies: The Politics of Genetic Enhancement," in

Brian Tokar, ed. Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic

Engineering, Zed Books.)




Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies (466 Green

Street, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA, phone: 415-434-1403) is working to

oppose genetic technologies especially human germline engineering and

reproductive cloning, that foster eugenic ideologies and objectify and

commodify human life. To subscribe to its free on-line newsletter, or for

other inquiries about becoming involved, please e-mail Marcy Darnovsky at <[email protected]>.


opposing techno-eugenics


Lori. The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology.

New York: Henry Holt, 1999. 

Appleyard, Bryan. Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in the Genetic Future. New

York: Viking, 1998. 

Hubbard, Ruth and Elijah Wald. Exploding the Gene Myth. Boston: Beacon Press,

1997. Kimbrell, Andrew. The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of

Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. 

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the

World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 1998.


supporting techno-eugenics:


Gregory E. Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning? Lanham, MD: Rowman &

Littlefield, 1998. Silver, Lee. Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave

New World. New York: Avon, 1997.


sites opposing techno-eugenics:


for Responsible Genetics <> Campaign Against

Human Genetic Engineering <>

Genetic Engineering and its Dangers <>


sites supporting techno-eugenics:


Program on Medicine, Technology and Society (Gregory Stock, director)

<> Extropy Institute



Darnovsky works with the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic

Technologies, and teaches courses in the politics of science, technology, and

the environment in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State

University, California.




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