To enhance, or not to enhance?

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For our class’ last research project, I chose to analyze the text of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Sepcifically, I wanted to analyze the use of eugenics and technology in the book that interact with the behavior and evolution of humans. During my research, I came across a paper written by a moral ethics professor at the University of Oxford in 2004 that explains his thought process to why there is a “moral obligation to enhance human beings.” 

The paper is written by Julian Savulescu, the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and part of a collaboration that is devoted to examining the ethical implications of cloning and researching stem cells. As a significant member in the science and ethics community, Savulescu believes that it is not only right but that there is a “moral obligation” to enhance humans to a new breed. 

In his introduction, Savulescu reviews research on gene therapy that has been shown to completely change behavior in species. Through gene manipulation and embedding genes with desired traits from one closely related species to another in the reward center of the brain, researchers have completely transformed behaviors of certain animals. In one example, researchers have turned lazy monkeys in to workers that will never stop. They have also converted polygamous breeds of species into monogamous ones. This would be the technology used by future doctors to enhance humans and create a new breed. 

Savulescu combats the argument of meddling with God’s will with the fact that abortion procedures are being performed at a high rate. He argues that if this is not meddling with God’s will, than neither is meddling with only the genes of an embryo, not getting rid of it all together. In a couple pages, Savulescu details his thought process behind the ethics of enhancing the human genome. His central argument states that we already take it upon ourselves to provide for someone’s health, with health comes well-being, which is something that humans are striving for. If we, as humans and as a society, believe it is moral to give someone life saving surgery, or provide antibiotics which improve health and well-being, than it is moral and ethical to enhance humans to a new breed that will be more well off and happier in the long run. It would be possible to increase intelligence, reward behaviors that benefit us more and forgo the behaviors already embedded in us that we find fault with. 

After coming to terms with this paper, I understand the thought process behind enhancement and ponder if I personally would have my children enhanced with traits that will help them in their lives. Personally, I would subscribe to the use of gene therapy to help my child and advocate the use of it. I imagine a world in which a person with a debilitating handicap because of genes can and should be corrected by the means that are working today in research labs. A person’s paralyzing shyness that has adverse effects on their well-being (i.e. making friends) could be cured with biological methods. Another example would be the ability to help someone with A.D.D or A.D.H.D and help them to be able to focus and work faster than they would living with this disorder or using any medication on the market today. Would you help your child if gene therapy could benefit him in the long run, or is it too dangerous of a technology that it could lead to a society like in the Brave New World?

 

Article: Savulescu, Julian. “New Breeds Of Humans: The Moral Obligation To Enhance.” Reproductive Biomedicine Online (Reproductive Healthcare Limited) 10.(2005): 36-39. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

Biographical info for Savulescu from his page on Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics Blog: (http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/staff/staff/director/julian_savulescu)

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9 Responses to To enhance, or not to enhance?

  1. phillykid888 says:

    Savulescu’s article raises some difficult ethical questions. Should we able to enhance our children before they are born, without their say? What constitutes a good life? Personally, I see no problem with the enhancement of embryos in the context of curing genetic disorders before birth. This would help an otherwise handicapped person live a more normal life. I don’t believe in fate, so I believe that if there was an opportunity to cure someone’s genetic disease before they were born then all available steps should be taken to do so. Other cases are not so cut and dry, however. For example, I strongly disagreed when Savulescu mentioned selecting for shyness. I’ve always been a fairly shy person and this is one of the things that makes me an individual. Even though it is sometimes difficult being shy, I wouldn’t change this aspect of my personality even if I could. While Savulescu makes some interesting points and I agree with him on some topics, it would be difficult for this argument to gain popular support. Religious people would probably view this as a violation of God’s will and because a large segment of the population is religious, it will be some time before this idea becomes popular.

  2. thomgc says:

    The difficulty that you have with an issue like gene manipulation is one of free will. Specifically I am referring to the use of chemical modifications to make people behave a certain way, you mention birds and making them monogamous, and just imagine if that were used on humans. If such modifiers were used on humans it would mean that the odds of somebody ever cheating on their spouse would approach zero, a fine change to current society. Does that mean that I should modify my own children with such genes to make them monogamous in the future? Why should I force that upon them, making them monogamous despite flaws in marriages that they may have, and forcing them to remain because of alterations to reward centres in the brain. We would be rewrding them for being in an unhappy scenario. Should we simply dictate who our children are to become before they are mature enough to make decisions for themselves then we would be creating a cultural stagnation, where our own speculations of desirable attributes prevents them from developing personalities and interests simply via living life. Evolution does not occur through speculation about what will be valuable 40 years from now, but by having traits that are valuable survive from one generation to the next. The commercialisation of genetic enhancement (which is the form it would take were they to become common place) is ultimately a surefire way to create evolutionary stagnation, as random traits that could be advantageous for survival in certain, unknowable scenarios are undone for traits that we speculate will be advantageous.

  3. This is certainly a heady question to approach. The most convincing part of Savulescu’s argument is the abortion comparison. That is absolutely correct, you really cannot meddle more with God’s will that. I am a devout Christian, but I believe strongly in Free Will, and therefore support abortion. Given that argument, it would be very hypocritical of me to argue against Savlescu’s. Abortion is a destructive process, genetic modification is a creative one. It has far better intentions than abortion. Another selling point is that fact that I suffer from very bad ADHD. I have a remarkably tough time focusing. My brother has a mild form of autism. Imagine a world where genetic modification could cure me of issues, but also cure something like autism? That would be amazing. When it comes to medicine, the sky should be the limit, I’m no theologian, but I think God would want us to live as healthy as we can for as long as we can – using our intelligence which is a gift from him – to create things that can help us. If the industry and the science was regulated pretty heavily to not be for vanity and misuse, only for serious health conditions, it could be very beneficial. The only bad thing is that good intentions do indeed pave the way to Hell. So it comes down to do we do something like this or not? I say yes because if we do it properly then it can be something very positive for society. If we fail and destroy the world (hopefully) God will forgive for our sins and take us into His Kingdom.

  4. shoutoutjfk says:

    This is quite an interesting proposition. The possibilities are endless. We would have the ability to prevent genetic diseases, and enhance individuals. Risk is of course the biggest issue. Human cloning is considered very taboo by the scientific community because of the possibility for error. Over half of all clones created by man of other organisms were failures. If we were to create a clone of a human that was a “failure”, would we have the right to euthanize it? This process contains essentially the same risks as cloning as foreign DNA has to be placed into the cell of a host organism. If there was a point at which we could guarantee safe genetic manipulation of humans, we would still be faced with the troubles outlined by thomgc. To elaborate, technology has little to no limits. Although most people would agree with fixing genetic disorders, what constitutes disorder? But if we begin any sort of “enhancement” of the human genome, where do we know to stop? Technology could allow every person to look, behave, and perform at the maximum capacity of the human being. Ultimately, this may lead to the loss of beauty in the concept of life itself due to lack of complexity. For further reference, check out the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates, which explores the dystopia of a society made entirely of seemingly perfect individuals.

  5. I agree with the author and the other commentors that the potential for gene therapy for curing diseases is huge and that it should be explored, if we have the ability to cure a disease, there is no ethical reason not to do it. Where I start to have a problem is where Savulescu starts talking about using gene therapy to improve well being and breeding better humans. Its not the fact that i think improving the human race is at all a bad thing, my problem stems from the possible social disparities it would create. There is no doubt in my mind that gene therapy is a very expensive process, and given the disparities between the rich and the poor that already exist and the many privileges the rich already enjoy in this country, the ability to change ones own genome in order to get ahead, would only further these social issues. In addition it could lead to human who have benefited from these gene therapies to consider themselves genetically superior to other, and this sense of superiority can lead to oppression of the groups deemed inferior, and even genocide. I think it is dangerous to make one group of humans concretely better than another especially knowing mans capacity for violence and oppression.

  6. djrosato says:

    Despite the apparent moral obligation to enhance human beings, I believe that altering a person’s genetic makeup is ultimately detrimental to society and individuals who undergo it. Personally, as a nonbeliever, I see no issue with many people’s disgust and fear of “meddling with God’s will,” much like Savulescu, but for different reasons. Although I do agree with Savulescu that targeting and eliminating genetic diseases are incredibly important, fine tuning a human’s personality traits before birth is doubtlessly detrimental to society. Even A.D.D. and ADHD aren’t necessarily negative things I’d eliminate; it’s just a different way of thinking. For example A.D.D., as well as other learning disabilities such as dyslexia, are typically associated with higher levels of creativity and intelligence, respectively (http://www.add.org/?ADHDandCreativity and http://www.dyslexiaconsultants.com/dyslexiaandintelligence.html). While it may seem positive to eliminate these, in reality it’d just lead more people to think more alike. Likewise, fine-tuning the genome to eliminate shyness leads to society determining what personality it deems best and would drive humanity to become more uniform. Who determines what is and isn’t a ‘good’ personality trait? On top of that, it’s pretty easy to speculate how expensive something like this would be—further driving a rift between classes already harshly divided in the American economy.

  7. findwhatwind says:

    I definitely agree with shoutoutjfk in the sense that I believe the process of genetically manipulating humans to fix genetic disorders could very quickly and easily spiral out of control, as more and more traits would begin to be labeled a “disorder”. For example, dantesnuggles’ original example of someone who is cripplingly shy. I’m pretty sure I would fall into this category, and although I find speaking, particularly speaking to new people, terrifying, I find the idea of my parents choosing to genetically manipulate me because they don’t like that fact about me to be even worse. Ultimately, I believe that the ability of a parent to decide to genetically manipulate their child, even to “help” them, is at its worst encouraging bad parenting and an overall view of one’s child as not good enough and therefore needing to be changed, and at its worst reaching far out of control. As a gay child of relatively religious parents, the idea of a parent being able to decide to genetically manipulate their child to eliminate any “genetic disorder” they might have is one that is actively terrifying, and although it has the potential to help with some genetic disorders such as ADD and autism, I don’t think I trust people enough to place that power in the hands of men.

  8. johnd0pe says:

    I think, like all things, gene manipulation is beneficial if bound within the limits of moderation. At a certain point, it becomes excessive and unethical, but exactly where that point occurs is very difficult to predict. Personally, I believe eradicating genes that are known to cause serious diseases is a practice which is entirely justifiable, ethically, and ought to be encouraged. The reduced quality of life associated with diseases like Down syndrome is so severe that I think it’s for the best to minimize births of babies with these diseases. Of course there is opposition to even this very moderate stance on the issue. The topic of gene manipulation and eugenics will always be faced with the counter argument that you never know what a person could achieve despite a defective genome. In fact, the original screening of the film Gattaca included a clip at the end listing people with genetic disorders who may not have been born if genetic screening had existed in their time; Abraham Lincoln (Marfan’s Syndrome), Emily Dickinson (Manic Depression), Vincent van Gogh (Epilepsy), Albert Einstein (Dyslexia), John F. Kennedy (Addison’s Disease), Ray Charles (Primary Glaucoma), Stephen Hawking (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). The last sentence is: “Of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own.” This segment was considered to inflammatory, so it was cut from the final edit, but its message is an argument that could be used as opposition to any and all forms of new eugenics.

    Personally, I would consider the line between beneficial and unethical at behavioral alteration. Sociology is far less concrete and definite than biology and genetics. It’s impossible to say what the benefits and detriments are of a certain behavioral trait until the person possessing it lives their life. Personality traits may appear to be detrimental in theory, but in application, they are far more complicated than they seem. They are not like genetic diseases, which are safe to say have no benefits and only negatively affect the subject. When the complexity of the phenotype excels the capability of human predictions, I feel that science should allow it to develop naturally.

  9. ojc31084 says:

    I believe that using technology to enhance or genetically change embryos is a very slippery slope. Since natural selection has not been able to eliminate any fatal genetic diseases (hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, etc.) people are still suffering today, but are medically supported by the drugs that we have developed. If we were to use genetic engineering to alter or enhance unhealthy or diseased embryos, we would basically be doing the job of natural selection. While I think this would overall benefit society, I think that it would be very risky. Soon eliminating diseases may turn into eliminating the risk of cavities or eliminating the gene for freckles or brown eyes. I disagree with the author over the idea of genetic enhancements being a moral obligation. I think curing a disease or saving an endangered life is a moral obligation, but enhancing the possibility of a life (an embryo) is not a moral obligation, it’s a privilege. Additionally, how would people pay for the enhancements? Would such surgeries be covered by insurance? As for the religious aspect, I do not think that religion should have anything to do with genetic enhancements being incorporated into medical practice. If it goes against someone’s religion or they are personally offended then they do not have to use genetic enhancements.

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