Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Shades Of Gattaca

Remember the movie Gattaca? Ethan Hawke played a non-genetically modified human in the midst of an entire society of genetically enhanced over-achievers. His parents made the dire mistake of letting God decide who their child would be, rather than laboratory eugenics, and Vincent (Hawke's character) payed the price for that indiscretion. His genetically tweaked younger brother was taller, smarter, healthier and much more socially acceptable in a world where a DNA sequencing served as a job interview, and human potential was just a line on a bar graph. Vincent, limited by his poor vision and weak heart, as well as his otherwise unacceptable DNA, became the dregs of society, an "invalid," a man whose only value to the people around him was as a janitor, allowed by their benevolence to earn his keep by picking up their trash, as was fitting a "God-child" in their world of scientific perfection.

The movie's plot centers around Vincent's attempts to buck the system and overcome his genetic limitations, fulfilling his dream of becoming an astronaut and travelling to another world--all the while pretending to be someone with the right genetic profile for the job. The challenge for Vincent is not only overcoming his physical limitations, but fooling all the perfected humanity around him into thinking he is one of their own. Of course, in the end, the movie is about the triumph of the human spirit and Vincent's victory over the cold, hard world around him--an offering of comfort to all of us living here on the edge of our own scientific hurdle into this "brave new world."

This is just a movie, though, right? We aren't really all that close to choosing how smart, or how tall our kids will be, are we? Well, let's see how far off the mark this particular piece of science fiction is, shall we? We all know that genetic tests for Down Syndrome are routine in pregnancies where the mother is over thirty-five, and fetuses are regularly aborted for that genetic abnormality. There are also many people in countries such as India and China who are already pre-selecting for gender, aborting their girl babies in favor of boys, leading to an imbalance in gender ratios, and an increase in social aberrations like wife-sharing (via Futurismic.) So, we can see that we already select, in some cases, for intelligence, health and gender. Alarmingly, James D. Miller writes at TCS Daily that we are just not all that far from moving on to selecting for these and other traits on a much larger scale. Want to raise a baby Einstein? Science may soon give you much better odds than God and nature ever did:

By some predictions, within five years the cost of sequencing DNA will be "affordable enough that personal genomics will be integrated into routine clinical care." Once millions of people have their DNA sequenced researchers may quickly determine which combination of genes gives people the best chance of having a high IQ. Parents using embryo selection could, therefore, screen their embryos and pick the one with the greatest intellectual potential.

A recent advance in gathering eggs from women will make it much easier for choosey moms to give birth to geniuses. Two British fertility clinics have found a way of safely obtaining thousands of eggs from a woman. Fertility clinics, therefore, will soon be able to give a couple thousands of embryos to pick from. So let's say that a certain couple's genes mean that normally they have only a 1% chance of conceiving a child with the genetic potential to reach a genius IQ. With the ability to select among thousands of embryos, however, this couple could now almost guarantee that their offspring has the genetic potential of a genius.

Some people might look at this as a wonderful breakthrough, a boon to the future of humanity. Who wouldn't benefit from having a world full of Smart People? However, I am not nearly so sanguine about the prospects. Setting aside for now the embryos that will be created simply so someone can pick their favorite, putting babies on the level of shoes in a department store (except that the unwanted shoes, unlike the embryos, don't get destroyed when a particular shopper decides they aren't the right style), what happens when an ambitious nation decides that part of their future military and expansionist plans include raising swarms of state-controlled super-smarties, capable of shifting the balance of power in the world, simply by virtue of their superior intellects and numbers? Miller presents a China scenario that doesn't give me much comfort:

Embryo selection gets even more interesting when we consider how a nation such as China might use it. Imagine that in ten years China forces all its college students to get genetic tests. Students with intelligence genes in the top 1% of the top 1% of humankind are then forced to donate sperm or eggs. China then uses the sperm and eggs to create a billion embryos each year. The genetic intellectual potential of all these embryos is checked. Those in the top 10,000 are implanted into women. Each of these embryos has the intellectual potential to be in the top one-billionth of humankind. Now because of environmental factors many of these embryos won't turn into intellectual titans. But let's say that one in ten does. This means that each year 1,000 people with the scientific ability of Einstein will be born. By 2035 they will become adults and start doing scientific research. I imagine these Einsteins will be rather helpful to China's economy and military.

I'd love to cling to the message of Gattaca, the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, physical and mental limitations and all that--Stephen Hawking is a shimmering, glowing star in the mental firmament, after all--but the whole notion of mankind genetically manipulating our potential sends up red flags all over the place for me. I acknowledge that every parent on the planet would want to give birth to healthy babies, and that, even if I would not do the same, many of them would think that genetic profiling was a reasonable way to achieve that end for their child, but in a non-personal, non-specific-individual way, many of our potential problems in the world are held in check by the fact that lots of people who have evil plans simply can't carry them out yet. I do not like the notion of an entire generation of enhanced nuclear scientists growing up in Iran, for example, or a crop of bio-weapons experts-in-the-making springing up in Pakistan. Equally repugnant is the notion of a whole generation of Islamic women bred to be subservient by nature (or in this case design), or a slave-class enhanced for their endurance. Don't tell me that there aren't societies in the world that would pursue these goals. Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, Nazi Germany, and even today's China, among others, put the lie to such thinking.

These are not desirable outcomes to scientific "advancement" if you ask me, and yet, is there really any way to prevent the undesirable in the quest for the arguably desirable--healthier, smarter children? As seemingly heartless as it is to want to limit parents' abilities to produce the best children possible, this is one area of "progress" I would rather see slowed, hindered, and even halted altogether than continue on to an unavoidably negative end. However, is there anything that will prevent this science from its inexorable march into the future, with both the good and bad it holds in its hands? I can't see a way to separate them, nor can I see the scientific community having the wisdom to refrain from following this particular yellow brick road. The technology will continue to advance, unless God himself chooses to halt the momentum.

I love science. I really do, and I'm thrilled as can be with the giant leaps that science has made in medicine, agriculture, bio-pharming, environmental protection, tech toys, space travel--you name it, but I really don't like to see the world presented in Gattaca coming to pass. Give me a whole world full of God-children. He is a designer who is not out to fulfill some selfish need, or evil scheme of His own, and the beauty of a Stephen Hawking comes not from any form of perfection, but from the understanding we gain from his example that our struggles define us just as much as our giftings. Our character comes, in part, from the effort we have to put into overcoming life's challenges. A person is not made more precious by virtue of more "perfect" DNA. I have no profound thoughts to offer here, and no answers to help mankind pursue its own improvement while avoiding the pitfalls that are inherent to high-tech eugenics, just a warning that, unless a way can be found to separate the good from the bad, this is an area best left alone. Designer people won't make the world a better place. They'll only fill the world with more potential for human abuses.

Hat tip: Instapundit