Techno sapiens?

There is by now an extensive literature on current and prospective developments in genetic engineering aimed at altering our children. One group of commentators finds these developments deeply troubling. This group claims that genetic engineering violates nature and expresses a demand for mastery and control that is at odds with compassionate parenting. Another group finds such criticism unpersuasive. Though in favor of greater public oversight and regulation of current reproductive practices, this group is generally optimistic about a future of increasing control over genetics and reproduction. Then there is a third group, this one made up of unabashed enthusiasts, some of whom call themselves “transhumanists.” They seek to end what they call the “genetic roulette” of ordinary conception. They want us to use reproductive technologies to remake ourselves, apparently quite literally, into a new species—techno sapiens.

Ronald M. Green, the Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College, belongs to the second of these groups. The eight chapters of his latest book, Babies by Design, range from concerns about the potential effects of genetic enhancement on sports and parenting to fears about playing God. Green, who has a distinguished record as both a bioethics scholar and an adviser to governmental and industry panels on issues of embryo research and reproductive medicine, says he has sought in this book to be evenhanded. He offers his take on where things currently stand (we’re moving quickly—on an escalator rather than a stairway); on where we’re likely to be going (the enthusiasts may not be as Trekkie-like as they seem); and, most important, on how we as a society and as parents should evaluate efforts to enhance our progeny genetically.

Green doesn’t think that the language of “the natural” can do the moral work that many critical perspectives on babymaking require it to do. The inconsistencies of arguments about the “unnaturalness” of genetic interventions, especially those of ecologists, are notorious. It is characteristically human—that is, natural for us—to change things. So what’s the problem, Green asks, with our seeking to improve ourselves not only through culture and education but also, when it’s possible and safe, by tweaking the human genome itself? Why should we balk at genetically improving the “normal baseline” of memory and longevity, or at genetically correcting our predisposition toward tribalism and violence? Simply appealing to “nature” in such controversies doesn’t tell us why genetic (as opposed to other) forms of enhancement are out of bounds.

Having pointed out the problem with invoking the “natural” human genome as normative, Green explores the arguments against moving from a therapeutic model to one of enhancement. Roman Catholicism has long relied on a theory of natural law as the foundation of its moral theology, but at its best natural-law theory has never involved an outright rejection of technologies that correct or redirect nature. Recent papal statements have rejected genetic interventions that involve the destruction of embryos, but they have also affirmed in principle the morality of genetic therapy while expressing serious reservations about genetic enhancements. The same caution is reflected in the statements of other religious communities: yes to therapy, no to enhancement. Green looks at the theological convictions that underlie such judgments, and his observations on the matter are interesting. He suggests that, for “later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought,” disease, suffering, and death are the results of sin; many Jews, Christians, and Muslims therefore conclude that “we have a limited authority to reverse the corruption of the created order” (therapy) but no warrant to make “fundamental changes or ‘improvements.’” Green considers this argument inadequate, since it would preclude not only genetic enhancement, but all sorts of cultural and technological “enhancements” to which no one objects.

Green thinks much of the resistance to the genetic enhancement of our offspring is driven by “status-quo bias”; that is, “human beings resist change, even when there is no good reason to do so.” But he is too quick to call any argument against enhancement an instance of status-quo bias. Recent papal documents such as Dignitas personae have raised issues that Green tends to downplay—concerns about what it means to “produce” children according to a blueprint selected by their parents, or about the likelihood that enhancements may only increase the gap between the rich and the poor. It is a familiar tactic in bioethics debates: to accuse critics of inertia while downplaying the importance of the values they seek to protect. Green has long been a critic of religious perspectives in bioethics debates. Unless these perspectives are explained in entirely secular terms, he is prone to disregard them. His is a Rawlsian model of public rationality, one in which we all agree to check our worldviews at the door and address one another in conceptually neutral language—a kind of Esperanto for ethics. On an issue like the moral status of embryos, which Green largely ignores, such Rawlsian requirements would seem to reflect a status-quo bias of their own (for Green, Roe v. Wade reigns and need not be revisited). Whenever necessary, Green appeals to the status quo to buttress his own arguments in favor of genetic enhancement. In response to those who worry that family life may be undermined if parents view their children as design products, Green observes that “hyperparenting” is already a reality, and is “not confined to the world of prenatal genetic interventions.” This seems a curious retort. If attachment to the status quo is an irrational prejudice, then it won’t do to defend new clinical interventions simply by saying that they aren’t so different from old nonclinical ones. Maybe the old ones are questionable, too.

Despite its shortcomings, Babies by Design is worth reading. Green is well versed in the findings of recent genetics and reproductive medicine. His ethical analysis reflects an expertise not only in bioethics, but in religious studies and political theory as well. And this book is remarkably inviting: Green has written for a broad readership of nonspecialists (though specialists will also find his book worthwhile). Green’s writing reminds me of Daniel Callahan’s: both are accessible and engaging—qualities that are rare in the bioethics literature.

Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: 
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