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]>.
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.
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 <http://www.gene-watch.org> Campaign Against
Human Genetic Engineering <http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~cahge>
Genetic Engineering and its Dangers <http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/gedanger.htm>
sites supporting techno-eugenics:
Program on Medicine, Technology and Society (Gregory Stock, director)
<http://research.mednet.ucla.edu/pmts/germline> 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