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Designer Genes Reconsidered

Creating super-people may not be such a bad idea, claims a prominent bioethicist.

People flying, people breathing under water-sound fantastic? Perhaps, but the latest genetic technologies suggest that soon we may be able to tamper with the genes in sperm and egg cells to produce super intelligent, super strong and even super-good-looking kids. This technology, called germ-line genetic engineering, alters the genetic makeup of not just one organism but of all its descendants. While such a feat is far off in the future, bioethicists are already concerned that this kind of gene modification will lead to “gene-ism”-social inequalities between the genetic “haves” and the genetic “have nots.”

But Leonard Glantz, associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, doesn’t see a problem. According to Glantz, who is also a law professor at the university, genetic alterations won’t necessarily lead to social inequalities. What matters to him is that the technology be safe and universally accessible.

Technologyreview.com contributor Paroma Basu sat down with Glantz to discuss genetic engineering, human cloning and the wonders of night vision.

TR: Human genes could be altered to produce super people-what’s your position?

Glantz: We have to think deeply about what the problems are. My colleague George Annas thinks that if you do germ-line genetic engineering it will lead to the genetic version of racism. My guess is that sort of hypothetical concern isn’t really the problem.

The culture in the United States is to try and keep class, race and sex differences from affecting work, salaries, privileges and so on. We’ve made remarkable strides in that regard. I think it’s too pessimistic to presume that one group will try to kill or maim the other group, because in fact U.S. history has shown the opposite to occur for social reasons.

TR: You don’t think that one group would see it as in their best interest to oppress another?

Glantz: White people could have continued to enslave black people but chose not to. Men could have continued to prevent women from voting but chose not to. Each is a social choice aimed at making people more equal. I think there are ways to create social systems to try and avoid gene-ism. I don’t see it as a problem. So instead of saying “gills? wings? I don’t think so,” it’s much more interesting to say “gills? wings? why not?”

TR: But what would species altering actually mean? What is the standard of a species?

Glantz: Well I don’t know. If we could create humans that could see at night would that be species altering? Or what if people could fly, or have ESP? Would that be species altering?

All through history human beings have tried to improve themselves. That’s why people go to gyms and pay for their children’s soccer lessons and send them to private schools-hoping that they would get better. The dream of all Americans is that the next generation will be better physically, mentally, economically, and socially. Certainly germ-line genetic modification is a way to guarantee that future generations will be better-provided we know what “better” means.

TR: Wouldn’t inequities arise, though?

Glantz: The concern is that only people with the means might be able to afford these changes so that, for example, rich people would see at night while poor people wouldn’t. That’s not a problem of germ-line genetic modification, however, but of a capitalist and market-oriented society.

TR: Is there any kind of modification that you wouldn’t accept?

Glantz: I’d have to hear the arguments against modification-and I haven’t heard a good one yet. Humans can fly right now, we just have to pay for a ticket. We can exist underwater, we just need submarines. We’re no longer limited by daylight. New forms of communication have radically transformed the concepts of time and place. There’s been a fundamental change in the way our species operates. I think many people don’t appreciate that.

One interesting question is whether we should do away with race. To me, that would be a problem because having a species that is so similar that you don’t have any variations in color or culture might be very troubling. On the other hand, we’re doing that already to a certain degree. It’s not easy to distinguish between globalization and homogenization. The fact that you can go to Beijing and eat at McDonald’s is quite remarkable.

TR: What other problems do you foresee?

Glantz: The idea of mandating changes-requiring people to have gills, for instance, or to have night-vision-is obviously quite troubling. So for example, I’m not a bodybuilder myself, but I’m not opposed to people committing 12 hours a day to a gym and creating huge muscles and extraordinary bodies. But they represent 0.0001 percent of the population. I’d be very concerned if I was told everyone had to spend 12 hours in the gym to become huge and buff.

I’d also be against making people immortal-if there was ever a way to do that. In fact, I’d prohibit it. I wouldn’t even be in favor of allowing people to live 200 years or so.

TR: Why not?

Glantz: There would be real problems of overpopulation. Now we have baby booms; then we’d have elder booms. And elder booms are more serious than baby booms because part of what our species does is get out of the way and make room for the new folks to come along and do their thing.

TR: George Annas recently recommended the formation of an international body to discuss each instance of modification. What’s your take?

Glantz: That’s probably the right way to go. These are not technologies that can be restrained within the nations, and besides, national boundaries are artificial and arbitrary. The question of whether human beings can fly shouldn’t be left to United States any more than to France or Egypt. Once someone develops people-can-fly technology, wherever it is, people will line up for it!

I think one of the concerns about changing the germ-line is that you don’t know how to do it, and if you do it badly you screw up generations. But that’s a technical concern, not a practical concern or a social concern. The technical concern has ethical implications about what risks people are willing to take. But I assume that in 500 or 1,000 years, people will have fooled around with DNA and stem cells and will have 50 generations of sheep that can fly under their belt. Then they’ll be able to say ‘well, now let’s do it for humans.’

TR: Are you as open to human cloning?

Glantz: I can’t think of a good reason for cloning. It is an anti-evolutionary exercise because it doesn’t create new generations, it doesn’t create complexity, doesn’t create diversity within populations, and I find that very troubling. It really matters that every one of us is a new individual and that we don’t create replicas. Until now, no matter how we did it, whether it was in vitro fertilization or any other technology, you ended up with a new baby. I think that means a lot.

TR: Do you see any benefits in cloning?

Glantz: I have problems with cloning as a reproductive, replicative technology. But the idea of cloning cells in order to develop things like new therapies doesn’t worry me at all. I worry about human societies and cultures, not about cells.

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