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Sex and Society: Design fault

Bryan Appleyard says that the attempt to transcend human nature by tinkering with embryonic genes is doomed to failure

4 March 2006

12:00 AM

4 March 2006

12:00 AM

‘Designer babies’ is headline shorthand for a weird new world of genetic enhancement. Thanks to several generations of science-fiction imagery, it evokes an unnatural and evil world of blond, staring, probably homicidal children, which scares ordinary people.

Headlines create a cartoon world that subverts understanding and wisdom, but there is some truth in them. Human ‘enhancement’ is now being pursued in many ways, through life extension, psychoactive drugs like Ritalin and Prozac, information technology and, most obviously, through control of reproduction. The decoding of the human genome in 2000 signalled the start of an era in which we could hope to cure hitherto intractable diseases. But it also offers the chance to improve ourselves, to go for what the American techno-prophet Ray Kurzweil calls ‘Human Body Version 2.0’.

The first steps towards a programme of human enhancement will be taken — are being taken — through control of reproduction. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) already allows us to weed out potentially diseased embryos. As our genome-reading tools become more accurate, it will also allow us to detect undesirable traits and select desirable ones. Further advances may well give us the option of manipulating the DNA of foetuses or, indeed, children.

Many detailed debates arise. For example, what is a cure and what is an enhancement? Is being short a condition that requires a cure? Is having below-average intelligence? In practice, however, these are distractions, for the simple reason that it will be impossible to draw a clear line between medical interventions and enhancements.

A great deal of disease is culturally (not scientifically) defined. The history of multiple personality disorder — superbly documented in Ian Hacking’s book Rewriting the Soul — demonstrates that people’s disquiet will manifest itself in the symptoms offered by the age. Furthermore, we now go to great lengths to console ourselves that conditions like alcoholism are diseases. This is not a clinical finding; it is an expansion of the definition of disease. Any such expansion is obviously limitless (I can think of many shortcomings of my own which it would be nice to regard as diseases) and, therefore, any attempt to hold an ethical line against enhancement is doomed to failure.

In fact, the real debate is much simpler, as a recent Demos essay collection — Better Humans? The Politics of Human Enhancement and Life Extension — makes clear. Essentially, this is the debate between those who think we can and/or must fundamentally improve the human condition and those who think we can’t and/or shouldn’t.

The concept of human nature is the issue. Genetic conservatives like Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass argue that there is such a thing as human nature and that these new technologies threaten to change it. This would be disastrous as human nature is all we have and it has taken us this far. Fukuyama’s celebrated ‘end of history’ argument — that the world is moving towards a final political condition of liberal democracy — is clearly dependent on the belief that this final condition is in accord with human nature. Radicals like Kurzweil, the bioethicist Arthur Caplan and the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom believe in the transcendence of the merely human, and that if there is such a thing as human nature, then its essence is precisely to pursue such transcendence, to become better than nature intended.

Two points need to be made about this confrontation. First, it depends on the conviction that these new technologies, notably of reproductive control, do represent a fundamental change in our capabilities. They are quite different from, say, antibiotics and surgery in that they appear to intervene in our innermost being, in what we usually call our souls. Some radicals deny this, arguing that there is an unbroken continuity between conventional medicine — and, indeed, public health measures and education — and the kind of enhancements now on offer. Furthermore, have not parents always wanted the best for their children? Are we now to tell them they cannot have it? But, of course, merely to argue that there is such a continuity cannot be to argue that it should be pursued at any cost. The continuity argument is, therefore, immaterial, rhetorical rather than rational. Continuity or not, there is what physicists would call a ‘phase transition’ happening in our capabilities, and that is what is being addressed.

Second, both conservatives and radicals are arguing from faith-based positions. The genetically conservative faith is in human nature, that it is real and, ultimately, benign. The radical faith is in progress and the future, that technological progress can be pursued into the depths of the human realm, that we can solve our inner problems as successfully as we have solved our outer ones. There is no real evidence for either of these positions; none, at least, strong enough to sway an honest sceptic.

There is, however, evidence for human failure. The benignity of human nature is, in the light of our continuing propensity for war, genocide and mutual loathing, a dubious proposition. Equally dubious is the belief in progress in the light of our newly rediscovered enthusiasm for torture and for the continuing ingenuity with which we deploy new technologies to kill each other. Ethical progress plainly does not occur and, given the reality of anthropogenic global warming, material progress may soon prove to be catastrophic.

Ah, but, say the radicals, we can fix that by meddling with our DNA or whatever, we can design nice babies. But how? The idea of human enhancement is irrational for the simple reason that we cannot know what an enhancement would be. Crudely put, is it better to have a child who is Bill Gates or Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein or Albert Schweitzer? Though I don’t doubt that it is better for the me that I have become that I was not born blind, does that make me better than a blind person?

We have no standard by which to judge humans apart from other humans. The true metaphysic of the radical position is the absolutely unanalysed faith in the superhuman. Of course, there are many ideas of what a superhuman would be, but they don’t all converge on the model of the Silicon Valley geeks who seem to be the most avid of transhumanist dreamers. All superhumanisms are tribal. A Palestinian superhuman would be very different from an Israeli. The geeks are, in the words of the sociologist Dan Sarewitz, suffering from ‘conceptual cluelessness’, because they don’t see that tinkering with human qualities does not — cannot — lead to a transcendence of the human, only an amplification. Designing babies to be ‘better’ means designing them to be more, not less, like us.

The rational, evidence-based position is, therefore, pessimistic genetic conservatism. Technology amplifies human vices as surely as it does their virtues. Yet technology just seems to go on regardless. Whatever qualms we might have are crushed by its persuasive powers. We will, therefore, design our babies. They will certainly be no better than us and, with luck, no worse. The best we can hope for is that, having designed them, we can still find it in our hearts to love them. But that, I think, may turn out to be the real problem.

Bryan Appleyard is writing a book on immortality. His website is

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