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Do you want children who are not human?

Children who are not only smarter than you, not just healthier than you, but children who are so fundamentally different from you that they are, in important ways, not your children at all – you may be their mother or father, and yet they may have, in every cell of their body, essential parts of their very being that come from neither of their parents. Ultimately, even, children who are not of your species.

This sounds absurd. A super-species? That's the stuff of comic books and Nazi fantasies, of horror movies and paperback thrillers, not real life. Unfortunately, it's not that far off. Some of the techniques needed to alter people have already been tested on animals, others are rapidly being developed, and – most worrying of all – a number of serious scientists are claiming that human genetic modification is not merely desirable but inevitable.

We need to talk about this. Now.

There is a rapidly expanding popular literature on the general subject of genetic engineering, much of it critical of the way things are going, but relatively little of it discusses in detail the problems with human germline manipulation. In part, this is because other questions seem more pressing, notably the commercial applications in agriculture, in part because the subject seems so unbelievable, and in part because of the sheer breadth of issues that the technology raises. Amid discussions of the history of genetic science, the technical issues involved, the economic implications, the legal status, the burgeoning field of bioethics, and all the other ramifications, the issue of affecting humanity directly, as a species, tends to get lost. It is one corner of an immense field, or perhaps the tip of a huge pyramid; either way, by the time that the author or reader reaches it, they seem wearied by the journey and discouraged by the immensity of the issue, rather as when discussing national budgets we may find long and intricate debates over matters involving mere millions of dollars, only to approve an adjustment of billions to the defense budget on little more than a voice vote. This is most unfortunate.

There is no doubt that the issue of altering the human genetic makeup is connected not only with the technical and ethical questions surrounding modern agribusiness but with the deepest social, economic and political problems of our time. Indeed, this is why some of the advocates of this technology regard its use as inevitable; they claim that it is but an outgrowth of the system, both scientific and social, that we have today. In certain important respects, they may be right. This, however, is not necessarily an argument in favor of the technologies, so much as an argument for a much wider reform of our system. In a sense, it is a kind of reductio ad absurdum argument against capitalism as practiced at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And yet, things are not so simple: That what we have can lead to excesses does not (necessarily) imply that something entirely different would be better; the argument that (1) capitalism implies the use of techno-eugenics, (2) the alternative to capitalism is socialism, (3) socialism has been discredited, therefore (4) techno-eugenics is desirable – this argument is utterly specious. It would hardly be worth bothering with, except for the fact that there are influential advocates, working mostly behind the scenes to promote techno-eugenics, who make exactly this argument.

I myself have considerable sympathy with the ideals of both anarchism and socialism, both libertarianism and statism, both pacifism and interventionism, and I could easily add to the list of apparent contradictions. The way I usually express this is to affirm my distrust of all isms. (Including, if you will, anti-ism-ism.) Some might call this logically inconsistent; I call it sensible.

I am willing to go further than that. The cult of dichotomy is, to my mind, fatally flawed. Our habit of viewing questions as to be resolved either one way or another, the two being mutually incompatible, is itself both a useful tool for approximately the truth and an extremely dangerous one whose natural tendency is to lead us towards the unjustifiable over-statement. Does it seem paradoxical to combine that belief with a call for a global ban on tinkering with the human genome? Yes it does; and so I do. I could justify the position with the caveat that what I call for is a moratorium – but I prefer to leave the matter as it is. In the words of Walt Whitman, I am large, I contain multitudes. Let the next generation, or the one after the one after that, resolve this issue.

Our duty is to give them the choice.



 April 2000