Not a lot has changed since the mighty Sumerian king Gilgamesh explored the ocean floor to find the Ur-shanabi plant which would restore his youth. That was in 2800 BC, and in 2019 AD tech enthusiasts in Silicon Valley are still looking for life extension techniques.
What if they succeed where Gilgamesh failed — attaining unending life and enhanced qualities like sporting ability, beauty, and better memory using techniques like CRISPR?
Perhaps such enthusiasts should be careful what they wish for. For such a quest could lead finally to a diminishment of the human capacities for empathy, compassion and acknowledgment of our mutual dependence. Indeed, bioethicists warn that gene-editing may lead us to feel past our use-by date as soon as we are born.
Our brave new world
It has become rather a cliché to bring up Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the context of bioethical debates, but it’s hard to ignore the book’s predictive power. In Huxley’s novel, citizens are biologically engineered into predetermined castes based on intelligence and labour skills. All important social decisions are made by “Alpha-Pluses.” There is thus no conflict in Brave New World, not just because of this process of biological-cum-social engineering, but because the State administers to everyone a soothing narcotic called Soma which both simulates happiness and quells every form of envy or resentment.
The plot of the novel revolves around two Alpha Plus individuals who in vain try to resist conformism to the suffocating, dehumanising practices of their society — like the abolition of monogamous relationships and the eradication of “dangerous” emotions. It also depicts the struggle of a “natural born” human being, a savage, who is brought from the reservation into society where he is treated like a curiosity, an animal in a zoo.
When it was first published in 1932, the dystopian vision of Brave New World was remote. Yet scientific developments have brought the possibility of altered humanity ever closer. The development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology means that scientists can precision-edit the human genome to select for desirable traits. CRISPR, which has been touted as one of the most significant technological developments of this century, allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.
Trials have already begun into the therapeutic use of gene-editing technology, to treat genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and breast cancer. Scientists are developing more sophisticated versions of CRIPSR that avoid the pitfalls of off-target genetic alterations — one the main problems of earlier versions of CRISPR technology. And while the idea of gene-editing human beings for desirable traits such as height, intelligence or athleticism has not received much attention, it is nonetheless theoretically possible.
This technology raises a host of questions. Of immediate concern is how to ensure that gene-editing research is conducted in a way that does not do immediate harm to human beings. More fundamentally, what are the anthropological implications of altering the genome in the population? What will this mean for persons who are created with altered genomes? And what might it mean for the way humanity views itself?
Obsolescence and the commodification of humanity
Australian bioethicist Rob Sparrow recently offered a critical appraisal of these questions. In an article in the July edition of The American Journal of Bioethics, Sparrow explores how the phenomenon of obsolescence would play out in a world where parents alter the genomes of their children for the purposes of enhancement (as opposed to therapeutic editing to eliminate congenital diseases). We all know about built-in obsolescence in refrigerators and cars. What about planned obsolescence in kids? Sparrow presumes that genetic enhancement technologies are developing at a rapid rate, and that new kinds of edits are being introduced virtually every year.
Sparrow argues that, in a world of rapid biotechnological progress, persons with edited genes will face rapid obsolescence — at least insofar as their enhanced genetic constitution is concerned. Ironically, people who have been genetically enhanced will become quickly outmoded. Sooner or later, every modified child will find that they have become “yesterday’s child.” This experience of obsolescence will have negative implications for the self-understanding of genetically modified persons. Sparrow warns:
People whose enhancements have become obsolete may struggle to think of their outmoded and outdated genes as anything other than worse than the genes of people born after them.
Importantly, the ideology underpinning human enhancement is one according to which enhanced human beings are better human beings. As Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu puts it, “to be human is to strive to be better.” In this respect, persons with deficient genes have a less desirable genetic constitution than persons with the latest genetic enhancements. We can contrast this with the self-understanding of human beings in a world with no genetic enhancement. In a world where our genetic code is fixed and not subject to further development, there is no risk of people feeling that their genome is obsolete. Our self-perceptions are not set against the backdrop of technological progress.
Related to this, widespread gene-editing could also have problematic implications for the way in which human beings think about each other. Specifically, Savulescu argues, it could lead human beings to see each other as ends rather than persons:
Perhaps most fundamentally, by rendering human beings subject to obsolescence, enhancement would transform our understanding of what it means to be human such that we would come to understand ourselves as — indeed, in an important sense, to be — manufactured things to be improved upon in future iterations.
The idea that human beings are ends in themselves — subjects as opposed to objects — has a long philosophical pedigree dating back at least to the Middle Ages. Aquinas described a human being as animal rationale, who not only inhabits the natural world but also has the capacity to interpret it, discern order within it, derive meaning from it and act upon it.
Similarly, Kant’s moral philosophy was built on the idea that human beings are creatures that should always be treated as ends in themselves and never simply as means.
Yet in a situation where the givenness of human nature becomes obscured by technological alterations, it becomes increasingly difficult to conceptualise human beings as ends rather than technological artefacts.
Sparrow does not confine his critique to a consideration of the general societal implications of gene-editing. Rather, he also considers how the effects of gene-editing may also be experienced at the level of family dynamics. Sparrow suggests that gene-editing for enhancement will alter the relationship between parents and their children. Parents may see children with obsolete genes as being genetically deficient:
As enhancement technologies improve, the parents’ own values will imply that their child is inferior to children born subsequently, with better enhancements.
In the end, parents who gene edit their children enter into a relationship of a producer to their products. This is fundamentally different to the unconditional love and self-giving that characterise traditional conceptions of maternity and paternity.
This should suffice, I trust, as an overview of some of the more sinister potential consequences of gene-editing. A common theme in all of these observations is that the givenness of human nature will be superseded by a technological conception of humanity.
Gene-editing, envy and resentment
Not all bioethicists agree with Sparrow’s dark prognostications. In an editorial comment on Sparrow’s article, Julian Savulescu insisted that the obsolescence argument is based on a series of errors that are common in so-called “bioconservative” bioethics — which is to say, research produced by those who are wary of altering fundamental aspects of our biological nature. Savulescu suggests that we could also try to enhance people to remove the aspects of human psychology that lead to the phenomenon of obsolescence:
rather than trying to stop people having longer or better lives because we are envious of them, we should try to remove envy. This could be done through social means, and education, or potentially through moral bioenhancement.
We might call these moral enhancements second-order enhancements, or alterations to our psycho-physiological constitution that ameliorate the unintended negative consequences of other enhancements.
And yet I wonder whether Savulescu’s approach addresses the fundamental issue at stake. Genetic enhancement will alter human nature, transforming it from something that is given to something that is made. Savulescu is suggesting that we use technological interventions to ameliorate the deleterious impacts that enhancement may have on our human relationships. While this may superficially alleviate envy between persons, at a deeper level it will only further exacerbate the technologisation of humanity.
In the end, moral bioenhancement is analogous to soma in Huxley’s novel. And, as Huxley’s cautionary tale instructs us, soma is only a superficial fix to the problem of social discord. Rather than seeking to restore a sense of givenness to human nature, we would be using a biological hack to suppress discord and tension in society and within families. This does not address the deep, ontological implications that gene-editing technology has for our humanity.
This is not, of course, to deny the promise of therapeutic gene-editing. Gene-editing may one day — perhaps sooner than we think — provide us with a means to cure genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease. Yet gene-editing for the purposes of enhancement is a very different scientific project, and has more radical implications for the identity of human beings and our relationships with others.
Amid the zealous enthusiasm about gene-editing technology, we should be mindful that genes are more than mere biological material, and enhancement is much more than therapy.
Xavier Symons is a Research Associate in the Institute for Ethics and Society at University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, where he is the convener of the Bioethics and Healthcare Ethics research program. This article has been republished with permission from ABC Religion & Ethics.