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Designing Superhumans

Designing Superhumans : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

Stashed in: Darwin, CRISPR

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The ethical and political implications of such technologies bring to life the specter of an extreme form of eugenics. It allows individuals to decide how to enhance their descendants — essentially eliminating chance from the generational transmission of genetic traits — and for countries to improve their population by imposing programs that encourage not just the selective choice of intelligence and athleticism of its subjects but also, in dictatorial regimes, their obedience, conformity and risk aversion. The possibilities are as promising as nightmarish.

Eugenics is a sociology paper from 1904 about Designer Genes that is very Brave New World:

EUGENICS is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage. The improvement of the inborn qualities, or stock, of some one human population will alone be discussed here.

What is meant by improvement ? What by the syllable eu in "eugenics," whose English equivalent is "good"? There is considerable difference between goodness in the several qualities and in that of the character as a whole. The character depends largely on the proportion between qualities, whose balance may be much influenced by education. We must therefore leave morals as far as possible out of the discussion, not entangling ourselves with the almost hopeless difficulties they raise as to whether a character as a whole is good or bad. Moreover, the goodness or badness of character is not absolute, but relative to the current form of civilization. A fable will best explain what is meant. Let the scene be the zoological gardens in the quiet hours of the night, and suppose that, as in old fables, the animals are able to converse, and that some very wise creature who had easy access to all the cages, say a philosophic sparrow or rat, was engaged in collecting the opinions of all sorts of animals with a view of elaborating a system of absolute morality. It is needless to enlarge on the contrariety of ideals between the beasts that prey and those they prey upon, between those of the animals that have to work hard for their food and the sedentary parasites that cling to their bodies and suck their blood, and so forth. A large number of suffrages in favor of maternal affection would be obtained, but most species of fish would repudiate it, while among the voices of birds would be heard the musical protest of the cuckoo. Though no agreement could be reached as to absolute morality, the essentials of eugenics may be easily defined. All creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life; in short, that it was better to be good rather than bad specimens of their kind, whatever that kind might be. So with men. There are a vast number of conflicting ideals, of alternative characters, of incompatible civilizations; but they are wanted to give fullness and interest to life. Society would be very dull if every man resembled the highly estimable Marcus Aurelius or Adam Bede. The aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their common civilization in their own way.

That said, the age of Designer Genes is here.

It is now possible to edit genes of diverse organisms — almost like we edit a string of text — by cutting and pasting (splicing) genes at desired locations. A recent technology known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) allows for the targeted control over cellular organization, regulation and behavior. CRISPR has its origins in the immune systems of bacteria, using short RNA sequences to disrupt the genetic structure of foreign attackers.

Last month, Chinese scientists led by Junjiu Huang, from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, used the technology to edit the genome of human embryos. The team used non-viable embryos for their research in order to avoid ethical debates about the use of a living human embryo for basic research. Their goal was the modification of the gene associated with a potentially fatal blood disorder. This would be a noble goal for the new technology, as it could potentially eradicate devastating genetic diseases before birth.

The problem is that such modifications, being made at the genetic level, are inheritable by future generations. As such, it could in principle cure genetic diseases but it also could be used to essentially redesign a family line — not just by curing diseases, but by adding desirable aspects (athleticism, intelligence, good looks) while erasing undesirable ones (you can come up with your own list).

In March, a team of prominent researchers published a comment in Natureadmonishing against the ethical implications of this kind of research. The title says it all: Don't Edit the Human Germ-Line. From the comment:

"In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications. We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development, namely making genetic changes that cannot be inherited."

Meanwhile, Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom and others have argued that a path toward greater-than-current human intelligence and other traits is to use selective breeding. The technique starts with the selection of embryos with high genetic desirability, and proceeds by extracting stem cells from these embryos, converting them to sperms and ova, which mature in six months or less. Cross the new sperm and ova to produce embryos and repeat until large genetic changes have been accumulated. This procedure would allow breeders to bypass ten or more generation selections in just a few years, as opposed to centuries.

Add this technique to CRISPR, and we have the possibility of redesigning the human race.

I love this line from Nick Bostrom:

Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization.

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