Engineering the Perfect Baby
March 9, 2015 1:20 PM   Subscribe

 
Betteridge's Law tells us no. Carry on, then.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:30 PM on March 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


Levitation? Blue shape changing gene? I say go for it!
posted by sammyo at 1:31 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


They can definitely stop after it's too late, though.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:31 PM on March 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


For some values of "scientist," yes, and no. For some values of "children," yes, and no. For some values of "too late," yes, and no. For some values of "tomorrow," yes, and no.
posted by tempestuoso at 1:32 PM on March 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


HOW IS BABBY ENGINEERED
posted by Kitteh at 1:32 PM on March 9, 2015 [22 favorites]


Name me one time people have as a group voluntarily stopped doing anything before it was too late.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:32 PM on March 9, 2015 [26 favorites]


Some day, they may even breed a credible science journalist.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:32 PM on March 9, 2015 [32 favorites]


Eugenics is a set of decisions, so in the abstract, probably not. I imagine it will turn out something like the internet has: a hodge-podge of contentious policies.
posted by rhizome at 1:33 PM on March 9, 2015


I beat 'em to it. I helped make 2 perfect babies over 30 years ago, one of them even went on to make 2 more.
posted by Floydd at 1:39 PM on March 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


Some day, they may even breed a credible science journalist.

Only genetic engineering could yield such a beast. Unicorns, and glow-in-the-dark babies will come first. Priorities and all...
posted by tempestuoso at 1:39 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd do it, provided it was safer than not doing it (that is, the chance of a serious genetic disorder was lowered or at least not raised by the procedure). I'm not sure that "be socially responsible about how you reproduce" is really going to carry the day when this becomes practical.
posted by topynate at 1:41 PM on March 9, 2015


What could go wrong?
posted by Thorzdad at 1:44 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Economists are developing ways for parents to trade children based on specific desired traits. Will they create the perfect families of the future?
posted by Navelgazer at 1:52 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is how they ended up with The Nightmare Child in the last Time War that nearly destroyed the universe. Thankfully John Hurt was there to laugh in its face.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:53 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shouldn't we learn how to properly simulate protein folding first? Shouldn't we learn all the unique ways the human genome is regulated and read by different cell types? This is like a bunch of 1960's researchers discussing the smartphones they won't have for forty more years. We probably will be able to do this stuff, but not anytime soon.
posted by IShouldBeStudyingRightNow at 2:08 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


In the US, what will eventually happen is some rich guy will pay lots of money for his genetically-engineered basketball player of a child, then go up in flames and sue for wrongful birth when his kid is born with an unforeseen congenital defect or doesn't reach the promised height range. All of America will spend a year screaming at each other about it on talk shows while the child signs on for decades of therapy and the rich guy acts like he doesn't understand why the lawsuit is even a little problematic.

A handful of states will pass thoughtful restrictions on the technology, which will be completely meaningless as other states will continue to allow wealthy parents to buy their way around ethical concerns in the name of not letting the government make decisions for you. This group of states will largely overlap with states that heavily restrict abortion (but will not be co-terminal with them, as some of those states will also object to new reproductive technology for its thwarting of God's will). Fertility clinics will locate near favorable borders where they can provide genetically-selective fertility services in one state and send clients for selective reductions in the neighboring one.

Rich people's kids will still grow up to be disproportionately underwhelming in terms of personal success (not dependent upon daddy's money or the family business), because they will still be rich people's kids and most of them will, therefore, not be strivers, because they didn't grow up as strivers.

Which I guess is a long way of saying, it almost doesn't matter if we have an ethical discussion about it; a certain percentage of wealthy people are gonna buy the kids they wanna buy, no matter what the laws and ethics about it are, and they're going to defend themselves by saying, "BUT I WANT THE BEST FOR MY CHILD!" and that will completely stymie public discussion on it so we'll basically just stumble through with half-assed regulations and never actually do anything about it.

There will probably also be a reactionary group of upper-middle-class people who only have "all natural" babies as a status-seeking rejection of the status-seeking genetically modified babies. Some of the all-natural-baby brigade will have had full genetic panels run first (on themselves and possibly their embryos) before deciding their odds were good enough to go the "all natural baby" route; however, they will talk with the self-righteousness of the religious convert about how "all natural babies" are obviously superior and they never considered anything else.

The all-natural babies and the genetically-engineered babies will be indistinguishable in first grade with statistically equal rates of booger-eating, and will spend high school ill-advisedly impregnating each other.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:22 PM on March 9, 2015 [69 favorites]


5 bucks 10 years ago. Immense value for money.

Thank you Eyebrows McGee
posted by infini at 2:35 PM on March 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Engineering kids will happen. It's technologically feasible right now as long as you are willing to implant and abort a large number of fetuses with off-target mutations, and accept that deleterious epigenetic changes may not show up until adulthood. I don't think this is a good idea but somebody will. Look at what the Roslin institute is doing right now -- humans are not that different from other large mammals.

Germline engineering will likely first become acceptable as a method of preventing communicable diseases (e.g. lethal strains of influenza) that have no small molecule or vaccine available. The other thing that could tip the scale is if somebody engineers a cancer resistant large mammal as a proof of concept. At some point engineering livestock to be resistant to various insults will get robust enough that it will be obvious to transfer some traits to humans.

Smart babies are going to be handicapped by having parents who are too stupid to realize how difficult it is to measure, let alone engineer intelligence.
posted by benzenedream at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


A careful read of the article reveals that the current CRISPR tech "wouldn’t affect germ cells, and the changes in the DNA wouldn’t get passed to future generations". There are proposals to use CRISPR tech for germ line engineering but they are proposals.

With current tech you have to "edit about 20 embryos to get a live monkey with the edit you want" & "CRISPR can introduce off-target effects or change bits of the genome far from where scientists had intended. Any human embryo altered with CRISPR today would carry the risk that its genome had been changed in unexpected ways"

Bottom line is that we will have designer babies some day but not today and probably not in next 20 years.

Beyond 20 years all bets are off, and may be, we might have AI before designer babies. I guess we would need designer babies in order to compete with AI.

What is likely to happen today, and might be happening already actually, is that the doctors create as many embryos as possible & use genetic screening to select only those embryos which have all healthy genes or the specific genes that the parent is looking for.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 2:48 PM on March 9, 2015


Shouldn't we learn how to properly simulate protein folding first? Shouldn't we learn all the unique ways the human genome is regulated and read by different cell types? This is like a bunch of 1960's researchers discussing the smartphones they won't have for forty more years. We probably will be able to do this stuff, but not anytime soon.

Maybe in a few hundred years we'll have the technology to turn all the carrots and carp orange.

We've already seen large-scale impacts from things like sex selection, haven't we? And like the article says,
The problem, says Greely, is that it’s already possible to test the DNA of IVF embryos and pick healthy ones, a process that adds about $4,000 to the cost of a fertility procedure. A man with Huntington’s, for instance, could have his sperm used to fertilize a dozen of his partner’s eggs. Half those embryos would not have the Huntington’s gene, and those could be used to begin a pregnancy.
I would think that incremental improvements to things like this will make it a real issue, if it isn't already, long before we have a 3D baby printer.
posted by XMLicious at 3:03 PM on March 9, 2015


They can definitely stop after it's too late, though.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:31 PM on March 9 [1 favorite +] [!]


Has to be said: eponysterical.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:04 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is my favorite part of the article:
As with several other scientists whom I’d asked about human germ line engineering, Yang stopped replying to my questions, so it’s hard to know if the experiment she described is occurring, canceled, or pending publication.
No fucking wonder. Yang explained her research to him and he "waited for a chance to ask my real questions." What a little prick.

"Occuring, canceled, or pending publication." FFS. It was a PowerPoint slide! It wasn't a fucking grant proposal! There's no evidence Church's lab "hoped to obtain" human eggs/embryos from New York. They outlined how it could be done. Church and Yang followed up to say it was a non-project.

...I am only continuing to read this article as a hate read.
posted by maryr at 3:05 PM on March 9, 2015 [13 favorites]


PS: Have you seen Gattaca? Turns out the non-engineered babies can go to space too!
posted by maryr at 3:10 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Engineering smart babies is going to be a lot harder than engineering dumb babies. Who doesn't want a workforce of pliant, dull but happy and dextrous garment workers?

Being able to engineer or select away Huntington's, early-onset Alzheimer's, etc would be so obviously a benefit that I can't see people not trying to. Even if those genes are perversely useful at the level of populations, it seems like a seriously dick move to intentionally create a baby with Huntington's "for the greater good."
posted by BungaDunga at 3:23 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


PPS: There's CRISPR in your yogurt. Because if we're going to talk about bioengineered babies, let's see how people feel about GMO pizza cheese first.
posted by maryr at 3:23 PM on March 9, 2015


Some of the other comments sort of allude to this, but... my first thought on reading it was "The question assumes that it's not already too late."
posted by symbioid at 3:27 PM on March 9, 2015


Oh, sure, everyone's happy when you make a baby resistant to whooping cough and papillomavirus. But give the baby laser vision and adamantium claws, and they say you've gone TOO FAR!
posted by SPrintF at 3:58 PM on March 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


If I were a billionaire today with little scruples .. I would get eggs from from my super model wife, as many as possible, get them cloned (if possible) to have as many eggs as possible, and use my sperm to fertilize them so that I can get as many embryos as possible.

And then run DNA testing over the entire batch to select the embryos with all the possible best genetic markers we know of today and I want to have and get those embryos planted to have a crop of super kids ... who will rule my empire.

Is doing so technologically unfeasible today?
posted by TheLittlePrince at 4:11 PM on March 9, 2015


I've always thought the Nazis were ahead of their time with their crude concept of eugenics. Instead of killing off the unwanted, we're just going to make sure they'll never be born in the first place. So much more civilized.
posted by monospace at 4:14 PM on March 9, 2015


But give the baby laser vision and adamantium claws, and they say you've gone TOO FAR

AND = yes, too far. XOR = perfectly reasonable teachers/guardians/lovers.
posted by maryr at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Have you seen Gattaca?

Well, it turns out that the non-engineered babies only go to space by lying about having a congenital heart defect that might or might not kill them and possibly the entire crew during the mission.

I mean, genetic discrimination is horrible and all that, but congenital heart defects are the sort of things that should stop you from being an astronaut. It's not discrimination that we don't let color blind people be fighter pilots. Like Huntington's and early Alzheimer's, it's also a really good argument for human genetic engineering.

I liked Gattaca, but I would have liked it more if they had just made Ethan Hawke "normal", and resisted making him tragically flawed.
posted by Spiegel at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


No one said he was coming back from space.
posted by maryr at 4:16 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No, but it seems like he would be doing a pretty critical job, with all the extreme selection pressure and what not. A job where dying suddenly might be a detriment to others.
posted by Spiegel at 4:19 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think the real value of this would be for things like Huntington's.
posted by corb at 4:24 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


> "Name me one time people have as a group voluntarily stopped doing anything before it was too late."

Actually, it happens all the time. You just don't hear about it because, well, "People stopped doing a thing and nothing much happened because of it" isn't big news.
posted by kyrademon at 4:59 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've always thought the Nazis were ahead of their time with their crude concept of eugenics. Instead of killing off the unwanted, we're just going to make sure they'll never be born in the first place. So much more civilized.

I think this is the dumbest thing I've read in a while. Selecting against, say, disabilities via genetic engineering is not in any way comparable to murdering people with disabilities.
posted by Justinian at 5:23 PM on March 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


"The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you've burned so very, very bright, haven't you, Roy?"
posted by valkane at 5:36 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Name me one time people have as a group voluntarily stopped doing anything before it was too late.

1988: the year when the world stood as one and said "Nope." to Yahoo Serious.

More seriously, chlorofluorocarbons.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:52 PM on March 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Can you give my son a shrimp-head? Helps with the welder's mask...
posted by Windopaene at 6:00 PM on March 9, 2015


Oh, CRISPR-Cas system, you're the "oh my god cloning sheep designer babies are gonna happen next year!1?1!!!1" of today. Almost every single free life science online course I've taken over the last year has had at least one person posting hyperbole-driven science journalism about this system, sometimes followed by repeated questions about "how will Scientists Decide Who To Use This Technology On." I try to be helpful, but starting from the first principles of how translational science works (and how this isn't really translational science yet) is time-intensive.

Anyway, when you see people floating clinical trials to use this instead of egg donation in the case of serious inborn errors of metabolism leading to recurrent miscarriage or fatal both defects in neonates, THEN we can start worrying about who might use it for more ethically gray purposes. Until then, all this discussion is more theoretical than applied bioethics.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:02 PM on March 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Selecting against, say, disabilities via genetic engineering is not in any way comparable to murdering people with disabilities.

John Harris, the bioethicist quoted in the article as saying,“[i]t’s ethically imperative to positively support this technology,” has advocated infanticide.
posted by No Robots at 7:00 PM on March 9, 2015


That doesn't seem to contradict what I said in any way. Lots of people believe crazy stuff. Some of them also believe non-crazy stuff.

You know who else was also a vegetarian?
posted by Justinian at 7:05 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here's Richard Dawkins on the subject of Nazis and the "new eugenics:"
In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous - though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from "ought" to "is" and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as "these are not one-dimensional abilities" apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler's death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn't the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
There is no difference between the old eugenics and the new eugenics.
posted by No Robots at 7:33 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


A breeding program is completely different than trait selection in an individual.
posted by Justinian at 8:22 PM on March 9, 2015


Like clean sheets vs. Pyrex
posted by clavdivs at 8:27 PM on March 9, 2015


More pertinently, altering a zygote or selecting a certain embryo is not the same as gassing people in trucks.
posted by topynate at 8:28 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I tried that line of argument and he apparently didn't buy it.
posted by Justinian at 8:30 PM on March 9, 2015


Then we are agreed.
send more gold
posted by clavdivs at 9:01 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oops, my mistake Justinian.

I tend to see eugenics as ethically murky by virtue of the political issues it raises, not the immediate harms it would inflict: many people see the really controversial traits like height and intelligence as purely positional, rather than good in any absolute sense (the 'Einstein a janitor' view). Some think that's an acceptable thing to want for your kids, some think that equality demands otherwise, and some think that only Nazis would do such a thing (in other words that they're racist). This then seems to chain back inductively to the belief that anyone who doesn't take the correct line on human genetic engineering wants to do the unthinkable and unspeakable.

Well firstly, lots of attributes aren't positional. Genetically influenced character traits can make someone's life better at no expense to those of other people, for instance. Secondly, were an attribute purely positional, wanting to give it to your offspring would make you merely not very equalitarian when it comes to your own children, rather than fascist. And as far as the racist aspect goes, the fruits of biotech will be much more significant than anyone has ever dared claim race to be. Germline modification makes ancestry irrelevant.
posted by topynate at 9:07 PM on March 9, 2015


Therein lies the rub.
posted by rhizome at 9:09 PM on March 9, 2015


As David Mitchell once ranted, we are going to be the last generation to grow old and die. Those damned little brats who get immortality and perfected genomes. Oh I loathe them.
posted by humanfont at 9:25 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


But their pensions! Their pensions will get them, the bastards!

So with breeding not involved in the process any more, we're looking at the wealthiest humans becoming biologically perfect at about the time automation ensures that they don't need any of the rest of us for labor or war, right?

One way or another, it seems like it'll be impossible to stop it even happening openly somewhere at some point - as a corollary to forced sterilization of undesirables for eugenics purposes in the U.S. (as late as 1981), and in Nazi Germany and everywhere else, being wrong because even the "unfit" have a right to have children, I bet it'll be argued that the wealthy have the right to have exactly the sort of children they want. And once superior designer babies gets going I'll bet it'll conversely be used as a rationale for sterilizations again.

A conservatively-minded family member of mine unironically suggested, in the context of the Octomom story years ago, that poor people should be sterilized en masse. That family member is actually gay but they apparently didn't realize that homosexuals were some of the people who involuntary sterilization was used on here in the U.S.
posted by XMLicious at 9:39 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


This kind of thing makes me a little nervous, but at the same time, I think it's like nuclear weapons in that once you advance to the point where feasibility is certain, you have no choice but to proceed with implementation, out of fear of what the other person would do if they figure it out first.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:06 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


If I were a billionaire today with little scruples .. I would get eggs from from my super model wife, as many as possible, get them cloned (if possible) to have as many eggs as possible, and use my sperm to fertilize them so that I can get as many embryos as possible.

And then run DNA testing over the entire batch to select the embryos with all the possible best genetic markers we know of today and I want to have and get those embryos planted to have a crop of super kids ... who will rule my empire.

Is doing so technologically unfeasible today?


Yes, that is completely technologically unfeasible. We can't clone eggs yet (we juuuust got the hang of freezing them - up until recently we've been limited to freezing embryos, which was unfortunate for little girls with cancers requiring ovary-toxic chemotherapy, as most of them haven't chosen their ideal sperm donor yet - now we can at least offer their parents the option of putting their sick daughter through more surgery, if they have the money and if they anticipate being able to pay to maintain a freezerful of eggs until their girl grows up and wants to start a family). The stem cell work is promising but not there yet (and of course cloning is just going to get you multiple copies of the exact same egg - if it's got a defect, it's not going to help you to have multiple copies of it, absent the editing technology.)

We probably don't have markers for whatever qualities you want in your future oligarchs. We can select for embryos without major chromosomal malfunction, and if we know you're likely to have a particular detectable disease-causing mutation, we can choose an embryo without that if you get lucky and your IVF happens to produce one. (There is currently no guarantee that your chosen embryo will implant and survive to birth even if you get one that's viable. Embryo transfer, implantation and pregnancy remain crapshoots.) Even with gamete editing, I haven't heard any promises we can edit multiple sites in the same gamete. We are nowhere near being able to choose a laundry list of features for a child.
posted by gingerest at 12:32 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


out of fear of what the other person would do

This isn't really a healthy motive for driving strategy, imho. Too much fear kills clear sighted assessment of the operating environment. Focus on your own goals, quit fearing every shadow under your bed.
posted by infini at 4:28 AM on March 10, 2015


I think this is the dumbest thing I've read in a while. Selecting against, say, disabilities via genetic engineering is not in any way comparable to murdering people with disabilities.

If you think life begins at conception (let's not get into that here), you could argue that screening embryos and discarding ones with genetic problems is comparable to murdering people with disabilities. But this isn't even that. This is taking an embryo and editing its DNA to get rid of the disabilities.

I'd hardly be sad to see Huntington's disease or Alzheimer's disease eradicated. And how is treating breast cancer by eradicating the gene that makes it more likely to develop really ethically different than waiting for the cancer to grow and eradicating it then? The end result is the same, no breast cancer, but with less suffering for the patient. How is that bad? If a child has cancer, we let the parents consent to cancer treatment for that child. We let parents consent to vaccinations to prevent their child from getting infectious diseases. How is this really that different?

If you do your editing on an egg or sperm before conception, it's even harder to see why there would be an objection. No one seriously argues that every egg and every sperm have a right to join into an embryo (Every sperm is sacred...). No one argues that a woman has an obligation to get pregnant every time she ovulates (even if she did, she'd still get to menopause with unused eggs), and it's simply impossible under normal conditions for every sperm in an ejaculation to fertilize an egg. If you can tilt the odds in favor of sperm or eggs that don't carry the gene for a genetic disease, why shouldn't you?
posted by Anne Neville at 5:42 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would think that the fundamental issue with that particular question is that the definition of "disability" and "disease" kind of fits on a spectrum (and is more complicated than one dimension in reality, of course.)

Just from some casual Googling, I'm seeing claims that albinism is always associated with some degree of vision impairment. So maybe it makes sense for a society to eliminate all albinos through genetic engineering or other reproductive technologies, if being albino can be classified as a disability or disease?

But in some respects and in some societies, the social benefit of not being albino may far outweigh the benefit of preventing the vision problems.

Also, in many societies as I understand it, you can objectively demonstrate that having a lighter skin tone (apart from being albino) provides an array of social benefits and has a material impact on individual prosperity. So if parents can ensure that none of their children are albino, I'd expect that some people would ask, shouldn't they also be able to ensure that they don't have any children with darker skin tones?

Conversely, and probably a rarer issue, what if you have parents who want to intentionally cause their children to have a condition that other people categorize as a disability or disease? Would there be any limits on that? And, on an even more science-fictiony note, if after a few hundred years of this everyone has light skin or near-zero risk of heart disease or exceptional-compared-to-today intelligence, would re-introducing the eliminated traits be the equivalent of choosing for a child to have a disability?

I don't know the answer to any of the above but given the questions that sex selection alone has raised, it seems as though developing more and more sophisticated capabilities in this area won't be entirely straightforward, at least in terms of the effects at a societal level.
posted by XMLicious at 7:12 AM on March 10, 2015


But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as "these are not one-dimensional abilities" apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

It's not as though we have an insufficient supply of brilliant mathematicians, athletes, musicians, poets, etc. In fact, we have too many, and the competition is intense to find social roles and a decent living for the supply we already have.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:19 AM on March 10, 2015


Man, imagine how postdocs geneticially engineered geniuses will have to do.
posted by maryr at 7:44 AM on March 10, 2015


Biology is riddled with the idea that the human population needs to be “improved.” Here, for example, is Ernst Mayr:
I have been favoring positive eugenics as far back as I can remember. As I get older, I find the objective as important as ever, but I appreciate also increasingly how difficult it is to achieve this goal, particularly in a democratic western society. Even if we could solve all the biological problems, and they are formidable, there still remains the problem of coping with the demand for "freedom of reproduction", a freedom which fortunately will have to be abolished anyhow if we are not to drown in human bodies. The time will come, and perhaps sooner than we think, when parents will have to take out a license to produce a child ... A biologist will understand the logic of this argument, but how many non-biologists would? Obviously then, we need massive education. Such education would be paralyzed if it gets mixed up with racist and anti-racist arguments. This is why the Academy has to dissociate itself from Shockley's arguments.--Ernst Mayr to Francis Crick, 1971
The very foundation of contemporary biology makes this kind of thinking inevitable:
‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start—‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.— Darwin / Adrian Desmond, James Moore, p. xx1
Biology as a whole requires a complete overall, starting with the acceptance of democratic control of its own activities.
posted by No Robots at 7:54 AM on March 10, 2015


wut
posted by maryr at 8:45 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


previously?
posted by XMLicious at 9:20 AM on March 10, 2015


There's CRISPR in your yogurt

So this is just genome-sequencing-guided selective breeding of bacteria, right? Why is that scary?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2015


Biology as a whole requires a complete overall, starting with the acceptance of democratic control of its own activities.

Not sure I'm comfortable with the practice of biology being undermined by the likes of James Inhofe, Louis Gohmert, or Michele Bachmann, or any science for that matter. Nor would I like the Faux-Nooz-addled masses to determine what experiments can and cannot be done, outside of the well established rules for human subjects research. Democratic control should not be on its practice, but on the implementation of the output of science, which is where the damage is done.

That said, we've already been 'round the block on prior restraint. Remember the "no research with embryos" rules?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:50 AM on March 10, 2015


Not sure I'm comfortable with the practice of biology being undermined by the likes of James Inhofe, Louis Gohmert, or Michele Bachmann, or any science for that matter. Nor would I like the Faux-Nooz-addled masses to determine what experiments can and cannot be done, outside of the well established rules for human subjects research.

I can tell you that I am definitely not comfortable with the eugenicist, anti-democratic musings of the leading lights in contemporary biology.
posted by No Robots at 11:06 AM on March 10, 2015


The OP was originally tweeted in context of the slippery slide to eugenics being just a banana skin away - that's how I saw it framed originally, but I didn't want to put that down anywhere to editorialize. My own first thought was War against the Weak. Not to mention inequality, 'disease eradication' in developing world, and whole bunch of ugly things that are far away and remote from our privileged lives.
posted by infini at 11:17 AM on March 10, 2015


I wonder what Harris et. al. feel about the "moral imperative" to eliminate the ethically inferior, according to their own ethic of course.
posted by No Robots at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2015


Biology as a whole requires a complete overall, starting with the acceptance of democratic control of its own activities.

Glad we agree that eugenics is a thoroughly political question, rather than the sort of "moral imperative" inherently unsubject to vox populi.
posted by topynate at 3:12 PM on March 10, 2015


I've rewritten this comment about five times already but I keep deleting what I have because I'm using the word "fuck" too much. So I'm going to try to be brief instead, because I'm a bit angry at my profession (biology) being reduced to pro-eugenics based on this article.

In short, based on the article you link, Harris is not advocating infanticide, he's saying there are times it is ethically justifiable. I agree with him. I also believe in a right to die. That doesn't mean I advocate suicide.

Additionally, Harris's comments are in the context of a (charged!) debate on late-term abortion. He says passage through the birth canal should not be when we determine life to begin (in which case you'd think the pro-life group quoting him would celebrate his comments! that's what they are arguing! that life begins before birth!).

Please take your democratic controls out of the decision of where life begins. Beyond that, I'm not sure what democratic control you plan on enacting on "biology". Because that is like saying you want to vote on physics.

Oh, and fuck Dawkins.
posted by maryr at 3:48 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Harris is not advocating infanticide, he's saying there are times it is ethically justifiable.

The article states that, "he was not concerned that such a course of action could lead to infanticide for cosmetic reasons." Cosmetic ethics? Cosmethics? Cosmeticide?

Biologists have to learn to recognize the crimes committed and contemplated in the name of their field.
posted by No Robots at 3:56 PM on March 10, 2015


Recognizing the potential for those crimes should not bring research that could change lives for the better to a standstill.

A more complete quote using Harris's own words from the Telegraph's article:
Prof Harris said that he stood by his remarks, which he claimed had been elicited "in response to goading" from pro-life campaigners.

"People who think there is a difference between infanticide and late abortion have to ask the question: what has happened to the foetus in the time it takes to pass down the birth canal and into the world which changes its moral status? I don't think anything has happened in that time.
"It is well-known that where a serious abnormality is not picked up - when you get a very seriously handicapped or indeed a very premature newborn which suffers brain damage - that what effectively happens is that steps are taken not to sustain it on life-support.
"There is a very widespread and accepted practice of infanticide in most countries. We ought to be much more upfront about the ethics of all of this and ask ourselves the serious question: what do we really think is different between newborns and late foetuses?
"There is no obvious reason why one should think differently, from an ethical point of view, about a foetus when it's outside the womb rather than when it's inside the womb."

Prof Harris added that it was up to individual families to make a decision on the future of their child and that he was not concerned that such a course of action could lead to infanticide for cosmetic reasons.

"I don't believe there is any such thing as a slippery slope," he said. "I think that we are always on one. It is our responsibility not to avoid the moral choice.
"We shouldn't make a bad decision now because we fear it will lead us to make another bad decision in the future. We should make a good decision now and have the courage to believe we will make a good decision in the future too."
He is not concerned that people will make the immoral choice because he believes that will not. That they will behave ethically. He does not believe that the existence of a choice guarantees its outcome.

There is nothing in there advocating for infanticide.
posted by maryr at 4:32 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'd be kind of surprised if Harris even went that far - given the quote of his actual words that immediately follow, I'd be astonished if the original statement rewritten into that paraphrase were anything terribly different from "any hypothetical cosmetic reason that would justify abortion would also justify infanticide, in the context of the individual family making the decision concerning either, because there is no ethical reason to distinguish them."

I doubt very much that No Robot misunderstands this, but it seems as though his version of the responsibility and courage in the face of moral realities that Harris is talking about involves things like falsely representing that bioethicists believe ugly babies should be shot, all for the sake of scoring rhetorical points on the internet.

That kinda jives with my impression that this proposed overhaul of biology, subjugating an entire field of science to a political apparatus in the process, has nothing at all to do with increasing the accuracy or utility or productivity of scientific work and lots to do with substantially lowering the bar ethically and professionally to ensure that science will serve political and ideological purposes.

Misrepresenting the work of bioethicists is undoubtedly just the beginning of a plan like that.
posted by XMLicious at 6:05 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]




What a surprise that you used a link to The Onion to vaguely drop hints using someone else's words to make a plausibly-deniable joke about going in one direction along the age spectrum, but have nothing to say about going in the other direction. Courage and responsibility when it comes to moral decisions, yep.
posted by XMLicious at 7:12 AM on March 11, 2015


If anyone is wondering, I am not anti-abortion. In fact, I am perhaps not even anti-infanticide. However, I do not like that Harris invokes "moral imperatives" when it comes to eugenics; and when someone said that there is no correlation between the new eugenics and Nazis murdering people with disabilities, I thought that I would point out that, for Harris, infanticide is defensible in some cases.
posted by No Robots at 7:49 AM on March 11, 2015


People who think that Harris is a defender of women's rights might want to have a look at "Fear of a female planet: how John Harris came to endorse eugenic social engineering:"
In this paper, I respond to criticisms by John Harris, contained in a commentary on my article "Harris, harmed states, and sexed bodies", which appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics, volume 37, number 5. I argue that Harris's response to my criticisms exposes the strong eugenic tendencies in his own thought, when he suggests that the reproductive obligations of parents should be determined with reference to a claim about what would enhance 'society' or 'the species'.
posted by No Robots at 8:54 AM on March 11, 2015


But if infanticide may be defensible for you as well, one who so staunchly opposes eugenics—honestly and genuinely opposes it, not at all someone who is just trying to fashion mention of eugenics into a handy rhetorical bludgeon to attack twenty-first century biology specifically for some obscure reason while not displaying much of a problem with the plentiful eugenicists who populated every other field during the same time frame both inside and outside of Nazi Germany, and who existed and practiced eugenics by other names well after the end of WWII—

...if infanticide could validly be defensible to someone who honestly and whole-heartedly opposes eugenics, even if it's simply because they haven't bothered to really think about it too much, then what bearing can a bioethicist saying that logically some justifications for abortion should similarly justify infanticide, have on the subject at hand?

And of course, the connection you're offering between Harris and an endorsement of an equivalent of Nazi eugenics is about as substantial as his endorsement of shooting ugly babies, being a paragraph from the OP science journalism article that reads,
Some thinkers have concluded that we should not pass up the chance to make improvements to our species. “The human genome is not perfect,” says John Harris, a bioethicist at Manchester University, in the U.K. “It’s ethically imperative to positively support this technology.” By some measures, public opinion in the U.S. is not particularly negative toward the idea. A Pew Research survey carried out last August found that 46 percent of adults approved of genetic modification of babies to reduce the risk of serious diseases. (The same survey found that 83 percent said doing so to make a baby smarter would be “taking medical advances too far.”)
...so pretty unlikely that in the proffered quote he was talking about anything other than an ethical imperative involving gene-modifying medical treatments.

You must really love the science journalism part of modern biology, which furnishes plentiful fodder for sophistry. I bet that part of biology would last through the overhaul.

...and on preview, we have an utterly unexpected pivot from the problem being with eugenic genetic engineering to supposed eugenic social engineering.

Guess what: Harris could be a complete asshole, for all I know he is—I mean Dawkins whom you quoted above is definitely a complete unmitigated asshole—and that still would not furnish any support for your ideological overhaul and political subordination of biology.
posted by XMLicious at 9:46 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


A modern biology and medical establishment that thanks to political controls on it and a "proper" ideological backing would go about permanently curing inherited diseases while not openly discussing the fact that what's happening is essentially eugenics or honestly engaging with the ethical issues raised by the technology that makes that possible, and that pretends as though eugenics is something from the distant past that primarily has to do with the Nazis, which kind of seems like the logical consequence of the things you're saying and the way you're raising objections, is much creepier than anything you or anyone else has alluded to.
posted by XMLicious at 9:50 AM on March 11, 2015


so pretty unlikely that in the proffered quote he was talking about anything other than an ethical imperative involving gene-modifying medical treatments.

The extent of Harris' "moral imperatives" has been examined in detail in Sparrow's "A Not so new eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on human enhancement." Sparrow concludes that Harris' approach creates a coercive social environment wherein "[o]nce enhancement becomes possible, refusal to adopt it will appear unreasonable; because the welfare of children is at stake, parents’ failure to do 'the right thing' will appear especially egregious."

I'm not necessarily even opposed to the idea of "eugenic" therapies. I just demand full and open disclosure with public participation. Remember, abortion on demand was brought about through the democratic process. Why not take the time and trouble to deal with the public, rather than dismiss them as defectives in need of ethic cleansing?
posted by No Robots at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2015


that pretends as though eugenics is something from the distant past that primarily has to do with the Nazis, which kind of seems like the logical consequence of the things you're saying and the way you're raising objections

I think it's more like an awareness that the word eugenics has been forever tainted, despite the potentially good and non-murderous applications of it. When we say the word eugenics now, people don't hear "removing inherited disease from future generations", they hear the slow tread towards the gas chambers. And the one absolutely does not necessitate the other, any more than forcible sterilization in the past means that women shouldn't be able to use birth control now.

But people have visceral gut reactions to words and lines in ways that are not entirely rational.

Like his quotes - he's entirely right that there is no magic in the passing through a vaginal canal or the exposure to the open air that makes someone human on one side of it and not human on the other side. We have chosen that line, arbitrarily, for a lot of reasons, but not ethically reasoned out ones.
posted by corb at 10:24 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sparrow concludes that Harris' approach creates a coercive social environment wherein "[o]nce enhancement becomes possible, refusal to adopt it will appear unreasonable; because the welfare of children is at stake, parents’ failure to do 'the right thing' will appear especially egregious."

Well, no, in the piece you link to Sparrow says that about a bunch of extrapolations he's made concerning theoretical future implementations of Sparrow's own polemical synthesis of the work of Harris and another bioethicist. What he says about Harris's own work and claims are things like
Harris and Savulescu defend the right of individuals to reject their conclusions. In particular, they deny that the obligations they identify are of such a nature as to justify the use of state power to try to ensure that people meet them. Savulescu even goes so far as to explicitly defend the rights of parents to choose children with disabilities. As far as the appropriate role of the law in relation to enhancement goes, then, Harris and Savulescu are libertarians.
It's an interesting discussion and worth reading in the context of this OP (PDF link, PMID 21329104) but Sparrow doesn't offer his own approach to dealing with the ethical consequences of the technologies he mentions, and keeps speaking as though this is all a consideration for the future despite acknowledging the sex selection is an existing technology in the same category and using it in his arguments.

But, so No Robot... you don't fundamentally object to infanticide, you don't fundamentally object to eugenics, and the guys described above are examples of the malefactors within biology who are evidently threatening us with ethnic cleansing and are so anti-democratic that the entire scientific field needs to be overhauled and put under political controls?

What else exactly do they supposedly need to do to qualify as democratic enough, particularly given how packed full the "open access" tag here on MetaFilter is with scientists and universities ensuring than anyone with an internet connection or at a library can directly read up on the science itself the same way a scientist would, and with you yourself using as a citation a public debate involving both John Harris and pro-life advocates?
posted by XMLicious at 2:16 PM on March 11, 2015


I totally agree with you corb. I think that part of the responsibility and courage in facing moral decisions that Harris talks about as quoted in the Telegraph piece, in the context of these genetic engineering technologies, is to not pretend that we aren't carrying out eugenics and obfuscate with other terminology.

And to certainly not, via engagement in rhetorical gambits involving eugenics, let anyone push us or our societies around and compromise the integrity or role of science so as to achieve political purposes.
posted by XMLicious at 2:17 PM on March 11, 2015


Shoot, I'd meant to begin that quote from Sparrow's paper above with an ellipsis; the quote actually begins halfway through a sentence.
posted by XMLicious at 2:23 PM on March 11, 2015


Why not take the time and trouble to deal with the public, rather than dismiss them as defectives in need of ethic cleansing?

I'm curious, No Robots: have you ever actually talked to any biologists?
posted by nicolas.bray at 11:31 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I find it amazing that in the midst of global biocide, leading biologists still seem to be preoccupied with creating a master race.
posted by No Robots at 1:43 PM on March 12, 2015


you're picking these out of a hat, aren't you
posted by XMLicious at 2:43 PM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


There are no leading biologists doing that.
posted by maryr at 7:39 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know a lot of biologists because it was my undergrad major at a school where the majority go on to grad school, and I am comfortable saying that even the non-leading biologists aren't doing that. Moreover, as a reproductive epidemiologist, I have colleagues who work in reproductive medicine and others who work on inherited diseases, and none of them is striving towards eugenics by any definition, much less working on building a master race. We scientists of human health do talk to bioethicists, you know, and some of us even include them on our grant proposals. All of us, pretty much, have to get our projects approved by human subjects committees whose entire job is to spot and resolve ethical issues before the research starts, and to monitor projects as they go for unforeseen ethical problems.
posted by gingerest at 11:01 PM on March 12, 2015


I find it amazing that in the midst of global biocide, leading biologists still seem to be preoccupied with creating a master race.

While not explicitly presented as an answer to my question, I guess that's a "no".
posted by nicolas.bray at 11:35 AM on March 14, 2015


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