Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Playing God, Ungodly?

How would it be if it were possible to ‘order’ the birth of a baby girl who would grow to be as beautiful as Venus and as intelligent as Marie Curie? Or the birth of a baby boy who would grow to be as handsome as Adonis and as intelligent as Einstein? How would it be if it were possible to choose the colour of the eyes, hair and skin tone? Does the idea sound outré, utopian? Recent scientific advances indicate that the idea of ‘designer babies’ is neither all that outré nor all that utopian. It is a possibility in the not too distant future. It is the ethics of the issue that should worry mankind. Is genetic engineering ethical or even desirable?

Man ‘created’ angels, gods and goddesses in his own image. It is for this reason they are referred to as anthropomorphic gods. In his ‘creation’ man made gods and goddesses the most beautiful creatures; again beauty being a product of his own imagination. The creation of anthropomorphic gods is but an expression of man’s endless quest to replicate nature or improving upon it. It was an enticing subject that drew artistes and scientists alike. In general the artistes were wary of the dangers of replicating or improving upon nature. Here are a few examples. Mary Shelly’s 1918 Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus’ described the horrors that would result in tinkering with nature. So did Aldous Huxley’s dystopian ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and Ken Follett’s science-fiction ‘The Third Twin’ (1996), but to a less horrific degree.

But the scientists would not be deterred. For as long as the history of science could be traced, maverick – for want of a better word – ‘scientists’ in many nations conducted experiments with the objective of transmuting base metals into gold, to find a universal solvent and to find a potion that would extend longevity. The ‘scientists’ were collectively known as alchemists. Although for long they were dismissed as charlatans and although they did not achieve the objectives they set out to do, their work had advanced science as far as the purification of metals.

In recent times genetic engineering has been focusing on four areas of human development. They are muscle enhancement to improve athletic performance; memory enhancement to improve intellectual performance; growth hormone treatment to improve physical stature and selection of sex and genetic traits of children. The selection of sex is already a reality. It must be noted that gender screening tests are illegal in India. There are several companies in the USA which already offer ‘sex selection’ with certain pre-conditions that would preclude its possible misuse. The process/product is offered to only those couples who have one child and who desire to have a child of the opposite sex to ‘balance their families’.

The theory of eugenics is as old as Aristotle. It appears the fourth century BCE philosopher had suggested that ‘men should tie their left testicles prior to intercourse if they wanted a male child’! In ‘The case against perfection: ethics in the age of genetic engineering’ (2007), Michael J. Sandel discussed both the pros and cons of genetic engineering. As societies evolve, old mores give way to new norms. Sandel cites a character from the 1981 British historical film, Chariots of Fire’. It was the story of two athletes, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Prior to 1924, employing professional coaches for training to compete in amateur sport was scoffed at. It was considered ‘ungentlemanly’. Abrahams defied the custom as he felt that it was just a cover for anti-Semitism. The point being made is that today employing coaches is an accepted norm. In fact it is unimaginable for any athlete to go into high level competitions without a personal trainer.

Much of the opposition to genetic engineering stems from the negative connotations associated with eugenics. The objective of eugenics was to increase the proportion of healthy and intelligent individuals in the general population. Conversely the poor and unhealthy were prevented from conceiving by forced sterilisation. It is generally assumed that forced sterilisations as a measure of eugenics were practised only in Nazi Germany. According to a report published in the website PsychCentral.com, by the 1930s thirty states in the USA had sterilisation laws. Between 1927 when Carrie Buck, the first victim of the Virginia sterilisation law was sterilised and the 1970s, 65,000 Americans with ‘mental illness or developmental disabilities’ were sterilised. When the Buck case reached the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (See Tartakovsky, Margarita. ‘Eugenics & The Story of Carrie Buck’. July 8, 2018. Accessible from http://bit.ly/2mZHs8Q).

To forestall genetic engineering for ethical considerations amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Scientists believe that the key to finding remedies for diseases like thalassemia and cancer is in genetic engineering.

When the banking industry introduced information technology tools in the 1980s doomsday predictors hollered that it would lead to thousands going out of employment. We live in a world of over the counter (OTC) remedies and food supplements for growth and beauty enhancement. Not an hour passes when we don’t see bamboozling advertisements about them on television. Bariatric surgery and cosmetic surgery for beauty enhancement are fairly common with only the cost being the limiting factor. Would it be the only limiting factor for ‘made to order babies’ too? Or are ethics involved?

Should we in the end accept and live with advances in genetic engineering or heed the warning of Mary Shelly and Aldous Huxley about ‘Promethean hubris’? The last word in the debate is yet to be pronounced!

The article first appeared in TheTimes Of India Blogs 

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