Science fiction, being fiction, is often filled with outlandish ideas. From faster-than-light speed starships, human-like aliens, or handy laser pistols, sci-fi is full of the impossible, improbable, and the impractical. But let’s look at an idea that may actually be within the realm of what’s possible.
Genetic engineering already exists but is restricted largely to changing the traits of things like medicines, agricultural products and laboratory specimens under study. But what about when people start using the technology for changing people?
The Basic Premise: People use genetic modification technology to actively select for and against the traits they desire for future generations.
As a brief overview (some additional reading can be found here, here, and here), genetic engineering is the techniques and technologies that allows people to modify, or engineer, the inheritable traits of an organism, or its genetics. This has had all sorts of applications and continues to do so, from something as outlandish as making populations of mosquitoes less likely to reproduce or spread disease, to something as seemingly mundane as producing strains of food crops that need less water to survive, saving on agricultural and environmental costs. So far, all genetic engineering technologies have largely had one thing in common: they’re not being used to alter people: human beings. Or, at least, not currently. But someday, that idea of science fiction (and Gattaca specifically) may, and likely will, become science fact.
Let’s break down the idea a bit.
How is genetic engineering done?: The big discussion these days about genetic engineering is the technique of CRISPR/CAS9, but it is far from the only tool; simply one of the newer and more well-known ones. Without getting technical, it functions (roughly) like a cut-and-paste operation of genetic code for an organism, and can be done for reproductive cells, thus modifying human children, or for somatic cells that do not reproduce, creating a kind of targeted medicine. (On non-human organisms, we’ve been modifying genes, and thus by definition creating GMOs, for thousands of years, but using imprecise methods such as cross-breeding to do so – this is why corn from 500 years ago is very different from modern corn, and why your pet dog is not a wolf.)
What could genetic engineering do for or to people?: There are two main, broad categories a lot of people divide up the effects of genetic engineering on people into. The first category typically deals with disease prevention: if two parents screen their genes and catch that their baby is likely to inherit a potentially life-complicating or even life-threatening illness, doctors could modify their genes and reduce or eliminate the risk, increasing the likelihood (though, as with all things in life, never exactly guarantee) that the child will live a healthy life without the disease in question. The second category is often labeled “cosmetic”: eye color, height, and other physical features could be tailored by parents to produce a child that was exactly as they wanted them to appear. And if genes can be discerned that code for specific traits such as empathy, general intelligence, or talent in a particular field like athleticism, parents hoping to raise one kind of child or another could potentially pay for the power to nudge or outright control the personality and disposition of their offspring; so-called, “designer babies”. (Realistically, however, you should never expect it to give anyone super-powers; this is not the X-Men, after all, so things like flight, invulnerability and telekinesis are all off the table.)
Who would likely use and receive genetic engineering techniques?: As it stands, genetic engineering applies changes to people who have not yet been born – the changes would be made before conception, increasing the likelihood (if not predetermining) that the resulting baby would possess the traits the doctors had designed them to have. This means that (possible future advances in using retroviruses for genetic modification of adults aside) we’re talking about modifying as-yet unborn, currently hypothetical children, who of course will one day grow up to become adult members of society. But it will be their parents who get to choose, not the children receiving them. And given that, at least currently, we are talking about a cutting-edge medical procedure, genetic engineering may, at least initially, be accessible only to the people who can afford it. While, as with nearly all technologies, the price may come down, there is a concern that, as with many medicines in the USA, the prices may stay extremely high. Genetic engineering may be available only to the wealthy for about a generation of time.
When will genetic engineering on people take place?: As with nearly all sci-fi ideas (or any future predictions), it is near impossible to definitively say when anything will happen, if it happens at all. That said, there is a chance that people who are school-age children today may have options by the time they are adults to modify their own children in one way or another. The farther forward in time we go, the more likely this technology will have developed to the level that makes it plausible – so if not your kids today, then maybe just one or two generations after, and almost certainly after a few more generations later.
Where will genetic engineering of people happen?: As a medical service, one may expect that genetic engineering will likely be available first at major hospitals and then become more widely available as costs come down and the tools and training disseminates from there. Alternatively, depending on the nature of the technology, it is possible that there will be an entrepreneurial component to it, especially if there are societies where the ethical dialogue and protections of the law lag far behind the technological development; this could, at once, make the technology more available and inherently more dangerous and unregulated. In developing countries that don’t have good medical health services in place to meet even basic needs, it’s likely to assume that those technologies will not be found there either. However, if for ethical or safety reasons a country decides to pass prohibitory laws on types of genetic engineering, there will likely be other countries that may have different permissions (or lack of restrictions).
Why are we genetically engineering people?: As stated above, usually one would modify the traits of their children to protect them from a (now) preventable disease, improve their quality of life, and/or predispose them to a selection of desired traits. In addition to just wanting our kids to be happy and healthy, however, it is not impossible to want to select for attributes in the next generation that will give them some competitive edge over their peers, which natural selection tells us, can help ensure their survival, even if not their happiness.
The Good …
Preventing diseases means improving quality of life for people who would otherwise either die in childbirth, develop a degenerate disease later in life, or in some other way suffer needlessly. Furthermore, if the technology could be made cheap and readily available to the whole human population, it could be an equalizing force: it could democratize the collective traits of all humanity for making the overall best offspring possible. It could elevate the whole human race, allowing future generations to be healthier, longer-lived, happier, and perhaps even more intelligent and more empathetic.
The implications for an improved next generation of humanity cannot be understated: all the medical or perhaps even psychological ailments that are controlled by genes could be permanently eradicated from the human race. Parents may never need to live in fear that their children will develop some kind of medical condition, at least as a result of genetics (environment being its own set of factors). And these changed traits would be hereditary, staying with humanity unless changed again. Furthermore, the tools could be used to replicate traits of other natural creatures or those of unique human individuals that could help all members of the human race: people may need less sleep, less water, or be better adapted to the heat and extreme weather of present and future climate change.
The Bad …
Of course, “best” is subjective – my criteria is likely different from yours in at least one or several ways. It could divide our society into various tribes or races (races being a social construct, perhaps enforced by an actually constructed collection of physical traits), in addition to dividing us into the Modified and the Unmodified (whether counted as, “the pure ones”, or as “those left behind” by technological progress). There are serious concerns that this will further widen the gaps that exist between the minority haves and the majority have-nots. In competitive game terms, genetic engineering of people makes a situation that is neither fair nor balanced: not everyone is guaranteed the same options for success from birth or before, and not every option they will have available will lead to the same odds of success in life. While the world may never have been fair or balanced before, genetic engineering could make the problem much worse.
Then there’s the fact that there is currently a limited understanding of what each gene that may be engineered does in an adult human; many things we’d code out may emerge from multiple genes, and some genes affect multiple seemingly unrelated things. Despite not having a competent understanding of the consequences, we’ll have a competency in understanding how to manipulate them. Genetic engineering accidents are bound to happen: then who’s responsible, and how do you fix the inheritable issue?
… And the Weird
When kids find out that their parent’s designed them to be good at music, athletics, or academics and tailored them to a savant’s predisposition, what does that do for self-worth, agency, and personal identity? How much does effort and hard work matter in such a culture? A whole generation could grow up having a completely different ideology of what makes them – and their children – individuals. Even without modification, just the widespread availability of genetic screening may lead some to construct their identity around gene test results: that we are a collection of traits, especially if the results come back with an absence of “positive” traits. The nature versus nurture debate becomes even more important in this kind of society.
In cultures with a traditionally strong preference for boys, overt sex selection of offspring (whether legally permitted or done covertly outside the law) could result in dangerously skewed population sex ratios. China has already seen some examples of this outcome with its One-Child Policy, and it has had unexpected effects on demographics, markets, and society in general.
While half-human/half-animal hybrid people are likely not possible, people might combine cosmetic physical traits together in ways they couldn’t arise naturally in real life. People with genetically improbable combinations of skin, eye and hair colors could become more commonplace, hoping to stand out from a potentially homogenizing human race. There may, alternatively, be a subculture of people who all actively choose to have their offspring resemble the same specific individuals, likely celebrities; if a venerated ancestor’s remains and DNA could be recovered and read, some people might want their child to directly copy that person.
The discussion about how to use this technology needs to happen. How to get the discussion started? What questions do we need answers for? Consider the following questions (and some possible answers that different people may have):
Rather than asking what you think about genetic engineering, ask what you would use it for? (Making sure my kid doesn’t get sick. / Making sure my kids are stronger, smarter, and healthier. / I have a specific future in mind for my child, and genetic engineering can help make that happen.)
What wouldn’t you use it for? (I wouldn’t make my kids look a certain way. / I wouldn’t force my kid to be more likely to be smart – they might become unhappy as a result. / I wouldn’t use it at all, and absolutely no one ever should.)
What would you not want someone else to use it for? (Making their kid look just like themselves. / Making it so their kids could out-compete my kids for jobs. / Making it so their kids have a certain kind of personality.)
Can people use this to eliminate autism, and the people who have cognitive differences? (Yes. / No. / Maybe extreme cases only?)
Can people use this to eliminate homosexuality or transgender individuals? (Yes. / No.)
Can people use genetic engineering to eliminate or bolster specific ethnic groups or populations of race? As an example, suppose there’s an interracial, white and African American couple living in the United States. They recognize that life for black people is hard, even for people who only look black, so they want their child to appear more white. (I think that they’re doing what’s best for their kid. / No, their skin color should be left to chance. / We should address the underlying racism in culture first.)
If we are making inheritable modifications to individuals, and thus to the human race, what kinds of changes do we want to pass on – what do we think of as improvements to humanity that we want made? (Improved quality of life. / Improved happiness. / Increased chance of survival.)
If your country makes the laws very prohibitive, but other countries are comparatively unregulated, what does this mean for competitive advantages of populations? This it is a discussion for all humanity, and not just one state. (We can only control our nation’s laws, and the rest is on them. / Internationally everyone must play by the same rules. / Let’s sit back and see what happens.)
We (you, me, your children, your coworkers, your doctors, and definitely your policy-makers – everybody) need to have the conversation about the ethics and legal uses of genetic engineering. As humans with this power on the horizon we need to seriously consider what we want to use it for. We are discovering and imagining very quickly what ways we can use it for, but only slowly now starting to consider ways we should and should not use it for.