Thursday, July 06, 2006

Johann Hari: Why I support liberal eugenics

Johann Hari of the Independent claims this has nothing to do with the evils of Nazi eugenics; it is entered into by parents and it is motivated by love.

Can anyone say "genetic idolatry"? Aren't we more than the sum of our genes? Or are we mere 'meatbots'?


Kevin T. Keith said...

Aren't we more than the sum of our genes? Or are we mere 'meatbots'?

Clearly we're more than the sum of our genes, in all the ways that extragenetic factors enter into development and personality formation: in utero, environmentally, and through family, educational, and social context. But we're not more than the sum of our biology taken all together (genetics plus environment as influences on development). And there is good reason to want that biology - all of it - to work as well as possible.

Granted that both education and genetics play important roles in a child's development, you would certainly take steps to see that your child grew up in the best educational environment possible. You would give it every educational advantage, eliminate any detrimental influences, and seek to make sure the child's every habit, capacity, or ability contributing to learning was as strong as you could make it. The results would be permanent and profound influences on its cerebral development, with consequences for its personality, behavior, and course in life. And we would applaud this as appropriate intervention.

Now why shouldn't you exercise the same influences, to the extent you can, over the genetic components of its development? Why should it be illegitimate to eliminate any incapacities, debilities, or weaknesses in its potential for life activities? Why should you not seek the most effective and powerful set of genetic conditions possible, to give it every advantage in later life? Why can't you influence its development, cerebral enrichment, personality, behavior, and course in life through direct intervention genetically, if you can do so through indirect intervention environmentally? These seem to be the same kinds of interventions as above - why does the technology used make them illegitimate if we've already decided the ends achieved are appropriate?

There are certainly important practical considerations to be taken into account. There may be no effective way to implement positive eugenics (other than simply eliminating certain genetic diseases), the possibility of unintended consequences is significant, and there are grave social questions to be addressed. But these are objections to the possible consequences of the technology - not to the technology itself. One good reason we might not want to pursue positive eugenics is that it might not work - but your question seemed to voice an objection to its use if it does work, and I can't see a reason for that. If it does work, it will simply be an effective means of doing exactly the same things we already try to do through indirect and ineffective means.

It seems we've already answered the question whether we think we should shape our children's destinies for them. The only question now is "How?"

Can anyone say "genetic idolatry"?

I can say it, but I don't know what it means.

If anything, we're fetishizing our children, not their genes. We've been obsessing over children forever. Genetic technology is just another way of doing so.

If you mean we're putting too much emphasis on an idealized vision of genetic health, I don't know how much would be "too much". Again, there seems no limit to what we're willing to do to ourselves (and our children) through non-genetic medical technologies. Maybe in some cases that's a mistake, but the mistake lies in the impulse to intervene, not in the technology used. I see no reason to oppose a given intervention because it's genetic, and especially not an intervention with exactly the same consequences we do or would accept by non-genetic means.

Sue Trinidad said...

Eloquent, as ever, Kevin. I especially like your point about genetic exceptionalism at the end there.

I also think there are some other interesting questions implied here. If one takes the positon that parents shouldn't tinker with genes, is preimplantation genetic diagnosis and non-implantation acceptable? If so, on what grounds?

Pushing it even farther, if we can't mess with genes, how do we justify terminating a pregnancy because a fetus has a chromosomal abnormality? Is it ok to eliminate future people with genes we don't like, but not ok to alter their genetic makeup?

Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

My questions were intended to be provocative, but not necessarily dismissive of Johanni's viewpoint -- I think one of the key questions is who do we want deciding this issue, and I would much rather parents deciding rather than government interference.