Bryan Appleyard

Sex and Society: Design fault

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

‘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.

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