HSV Lecture 2019 – Yesterday’s Child: Gene Editing, Enhancement and Obsolescence

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Photo of Robert Sparrow

Humanists Victoria Public Lecture by Professor Robert Sparrow, Monash University, at Balwyn Library on 24 October 2019

Within the broad scope of Professor Robert Sparrow’s philosophical interests, the ethical issues that relate to science and technology have an important place. These include artificial intelligence, robotics, human enhancement and genome editing. There has been a vigorous debate about the ethics of genetic modification since the 1970s. But with the introduction of new techniques for gene editing and the prospect of further rapid advances, there is a greater need for scrutiny.

CRISPR-cas9 is a family of DNA sequences that can be introduced into cells to modify their attributes and, while this tool has been used for several decades, it is now much more precise and will increasingly be used in the future in agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as for modifying genetic traits linked with disease in humans.

Robert focused on the future likelihood of altering an embryo when it is merely a cluster of cells; that is, at a much earlier stage than is the current practice. It would have the potential to radically alter the attributes of the individual, such as intelligence or physical prowess. But the process is complex, would involve a great deal of genetic material and is not completely understood at present. However, as a consequence, the fundamental question of what it means to be human would be challenged, and reaction to this research has been polarized.

On the one hand, many scientists consider it to be unethical, while others argue that it may offer advancement to our species and should be explored. Robert describes this frontier as human enhancement. He emphasised that it is a misunderstanding to see it as a way to treat disease. At present, if a couple faces the knowledge that their children have a known risk of inheriting a specific disease, the best option is for each partner to undergo genetic testing and for their fertilised eggs to be screened before implantation. Several IVF techniques are then available to help ensure a healthy pregnancy.

Human enhancement needs to be seen as experimental at present. For example, while some people may wish to be able to modify their offspring to ensure a particular ability, such as high intelligence, it is currently beyond our technological capabilities. It is likely that there are hundreds, if not thousands of genetic components which would affect this outcome, and the relevant knowledge is patchy. However, there is a rapid expansion of data within the field and many people are interested in its potential application. While acknowledging the current controversy, Robert believes that there is an urgent need to consider the personal, social and philosophical implications of incorporating such new possibilities. If we could create babies that are genetically enhanced, would obsolescence become an inevitable consequence? In other words, would one generation be superseded by the next—akin to successive models of mobile phones.

Obsolescence is a term that refers to things that are produced or used, one kind replacing another on account of preferred qualities. In the genetic debate, there is a qualitative difference between natural variation and planned superiority. In the latter case, humans are being ‘produced’. So-called designer babies become ‘things’, and the relationship between parent and child is altered. The German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, explored this in The Future of Human Nature around the turn of the millennium. The child becomes an artefact that is in a relationship as a means towards the end of another rather than an end in himself or herself. And while it is undeniable that parents are always modifying their children by cultural choices and interactive skills, genomic enhancement is of a different order ontologically.

If human enhancement becomes possible, there may well be successive generations that can out-perform each other, leading to social stratification and disparaging comparison, and sooner or later to a feeling of being ‘yesterday’s child’? Parents who wish to have a child will be faced with the difficult decision about when is the right time to do so, and with the possibility of regret as enhancement techniques move on. Also, consider what the effect might be on our attitudes about disability and the way our community responds to those who are different in this way. Furthermore, a disproportionate component of one’s lifespan might be discounted by being obsolete, compared with the period of feeling effective and enhanced, with a significant contraction of social participation in work and decision-making, not to mention the likely effect on psychological well-being.

Human enhancement is a form of eugenics. While the Fascists endorsed this in the middle of the last century, it should be remembered that the Fabian Society also did so, earlier. While the old-style of eugenics was coercive and for the good of the state, the more modern version relies on personal choice and hinges on the belief that it is for the welfare of the child. Robert has many students who passionately support it as a progressive step. He says while it is easy to state the argument in favour of human enhancement, it is much more difficult to define the ethical argument against it. While conservative religious groups oppose it, he feels that the real forces that are shaping the technology come from the capitalist market. Many of the arguments as to why we should resist this change are bad arguments—some people might even say that his are. However, Robert is concerned about the intrusion of the marketplace into reproduction. Although many would argue that parents should have the right to opt for enhanced offspring if the opportunity exists, he urges us to reflect on what effect it might have on being human. Obsolescence, he maintains, is one such side-effect.

References:

Habermas, Jurgen, The Future of Human Nature, 2013.

Sparrow, R., ‘Enhancement and obsolescence: Avoiding an ‘enhanced rat race” The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 2019. 25(3): 231–260, September.

Sparrow, R., ‘Yesterday’s child: How gene editing for enhancement will produce obsolescence—and why it matters’, American Journal of Bioethics, 2019. 19 (7):6–15.

Report by Jennie Stuart