We can fix you

My sister has started to send her three-year-old daughter to tuition! When I was growing up, it was unheard of to send kids to tuition (or extra classes) even at primary school level. I know of some primary schools that require an entrance exam for Year One hopefuls!

Not smart enough? That'll be fixed soon. (photo from www.straitstimes.com)

Today is a dog-eat-dog world. Everyone wants to stand out, be the top, and be better in sports, looks, wealth, and intellect than the next person. I know of a company in Malaysia offering genetic examination on your child to determine your child’s predisposition. The rationale is by knowing your child’s predisposition and skills, you, as a parent, would be better prepared on how to educate your child, on which schools to send your child, and on what kind of activities that would inculcate your inherent child’s skills.

Now, just imagine for the moment that there was some established and safe gene therapy that could boost your child’s intelligence, or perhaps increase your child’s body metabolism so that your child becomes a better athlete. Perhaps even to make your child prettier, cuter, fairer, taller, less black and more white, more black and less white, blonder, or have blue instead of the boring black or brown eyes. In other words, you could design your child, almost out of a catalogue.

Sounds like science fiction? Think again. Genetic engineering is never short of controversy and heated debates. Although genetic engineering is still unable to make a genetically modified human, the science is getting there. And rapidly.

Just two decades ago, people were merely talking about genetically modified animals and plants. Now, over 80% of corn, cotton, and soybean planted commercially in the US are genetically modified to be more resistant to pests and herbicides. Over 22 countries have commercially planted transgenic (or better known as genetically-modified or GM) crops and these transgenic crops cover over 81 million hectares and involve more than 8 million farmers.

Fluorescent genes can now be extracted from jellyfish and inserted into plants, cats, fish, and mice. Under black light, these plants and animals glow! And yes, there are even potatoes that glow when they don’t have enough water to drink. In this way, the potatoes tell the farmers when they are water-stressed. How convenient!

Now with the human genome fully mapped, it is only time before scientists start to roll out the first transhumans or genetically enhanced humans.

Bill McKibben (Getty Images)

Bill McKibben, a writer and environmentalist, is most famous for his first book “End of Nature. It is considered as the first book for the general audience that warns about global warming. Now, he has a new book out.

Entitled Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” Bill McKibben now warns about the genetic changes to humans, which he considers as unnatural. Germline therapy is the manipulation of genes that would alter humans to be more athletic, more intelligent, and so on. Moreover, these genetic manipulations are heritable. In other words, a transgenic couple makes a transgenic child.

I didn’t agree with some of McKibben’s arguments. First, McKibben argues that genetically engineering would set in stone the child’s destiny. In other words, the child would be unable to choose a different path from that dictated by his or her genes. Following McKibben’s argument, genetically enhanced artistic children would grow up to be musicians (perhaps like their parents), or genetically enhanced smart children are destined to be the next scientist, engineer, doctor, or lawyer.

But McKibben forgets that the human character is both a function of genes and environment. In short, both nature and nurture matter in shaping a child. A tall boy may not necessarily grow up (or wants to be) a basketball player. The same case for a predisposed smart girl who not end up working as a researcher at a university but end up instead working with the poor in Bangladesh.

Second, McKibben also argues that a person may not enjoy the “gift” he or she has received from genetic engineering. For instance, a runner who has been genetically enhanced to run faster or have a higher stamina may feel that running did not give the same challenge, satisfaction, or joy than that obtained by a normal person. For example, if you have been genetically enhanced to run faster, completing the 100-meter dash less than nine seconds may be peanuts. Others (who have not been genetically enhanced) might huff-and-puff just to stay below 11 seconds. So where’s the joy for you? You breeze in what others struggle.

However, if you run faster, then you have raised the bar or benchmark for yourself, and you would get your challenge, satisfaction, and joy from hitting a higher target. So, although you run faster than normal folks, the “kick” you get is trying to run even faster than what your body can do, such as running the 100-meter dash under eight (not the usual nine) seconds. In the same way, a genetically enhanced scientist would get to solve even larger and more intricate problems.

Nonetheless, McKibben has some convincing arguments that merits his book, Enough, as mandatory reading for intelligent folks (genetically enhanced or not). First, the use of human genetic engineering sits on a slippery slope. Once you allow its use, it becomes easier and more justified to use genetic engineering to enhance any human capabilities and characteristics. Although very few would argue against the use of genetic engineering to cure serious illnesses, many would wonder about its use in making humans taller, more beautiful, and other superficial options.

Second, it is the rich who would benefit most from genetic engineering. Consequently, the world would be divided between the Gene-Enriched (or GenRich) and Naturals. Those who have been genetically enhanced would be more advantageous and influential than those who have not been genetically enhanced. The former group (GenRich) would play a more important role in business, social, economy, and politics than those who have not received any genetic boost (Normals).

Third, even among the GenRich folks, there would be competition between the old and new versions. Because technology is always improving, you may find a situation whereby a forty-year-old manager who has been genetically enhanced, using older technology, to be 10% smarter is soon displaced by a twenty-year-old kid who has been genetically enhanced, using newer technology, to be 25% smarter. How’s that for unfair advantage?

Although Enough is dogged by some poor science, it did open my eyes to the danger of human genetic engineering not because it is unnatural, as Bill McKibben tries hard to convince us, but because it could cause yet another division between humans: between those who have and have not been genetically enhanced.

Enough by Bill McKibben

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Comments

  1. Very interesting post and it’s worth to read…

    Thank you so much Dr.

    I always come and visit dr’s site but i dare not to give comments upon the posts.. If something affect..plz get rid of my comment..
    With much respect..

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