Thursday, November 16, 2017
I've mentioned here before the rapid advances in precise gene editing. We're getting close to being able to correct specific genetic defects in germ line cells. George Church (who was my high school classmate for two years until they kicked me out) offers a fairly technical discussion of the state of the art. He is quite solicitous of people who have moral objections to the destruction of human embryos, however sincere I don't know, but his point is that fixing germ line cells results in fewer destroyed embryos than the current technology, which is to test gametes for genetic defects and discard the bad ones.
The other serious ethical cloud over germ line editing is that you could create designer babies -- super intelligent, athletic, long lived, tall, physically beautiful, whatever. Actually we are very far from that and it might never be really feasible for two reasons. First, the phenotype -- the nature of the mature organism -- depends on the interaction of the generic heritage with the environment, with all of the experiences of the organism as it matures. A baby designed for a particular environment might not give you the results you want if the environment is a bit off, and it isn't fully controllable. Another reason is that these sorts of qualities aren't determined by a single gene either. They are really the result of complex interactions among many genetic traits and the environment, and we are a long way from even beginning to figure out the picture of what predisposes a baby to being smart -- not to mention there are various ways of being smart.
In fact optimizing for one characteristic could mean creating bad results in other areas. Maybe your supersmart baby will turn out to be a psychopath, or your designer NBA superstar will drop dead at age 42. George doesn't seem to worried about any of this but he does suggest that if you're trying to fix a defect, you will probably aim for better than average. And that's really an ethical quagmire. Where is the line between fixing a defect and making a person better than average? What height or IQ or facial deformity crosses the line from being on the short side or not the brightest bulb on the tree or plain looking, which it would not be ethical to fix, to having a defect or disability that is ethically fixable?
Bryan Cwik is worried about the ethical problems of designing clinical trials for germ line editing, and it does seem daunting. You have to follow the baby for a lifetime, and the offspring and probably grand offspring, which they might not consent to. As a matter of fact, none of them ever consented to the procedure in the first place.
However, my view is that all of this hand wringing is for nought because no matter what politicians or scientists or ethics panels in the U.S. think, if it looks like it's possible to create a superbaby, somebody is going to do it. There are rich people in every corner of the earth who will want it, won't have scruples, and will pay for it. It will happen.