Sunday, May 20, 2007

Genetic Engineering and Natural Selection

I have for a long time been concerned at the fact that as humans we have all but removed ourselves from the process of natural selection. It turns out that since chimpanzees and humans split from our common ancestor, chimpanzees have had more (in terms of quantity) beneficial mutations than have humans, providing proof that this is the case. Our technology has allowed this to be so, and as technology advances, it becomes more and more the case.

Last night, Laura was reading an article about allergies. They are increasing in prevalence at an alarming rate. There's even an Eskimo (I believe in this case it's an Inupiat) boy who is allergic to bearded seal and something-or-other whale, two staples of their diet. This trend certainly can't be attributed to anything in the environment--it must be that nature would weed out these traits in an unhappy way, by killing off those with the trait before they get a chance to reproduce.

But today this doesn't happen. Now, people die more from unhappy circumstance than from having undesirable traits. I don't believe that we should change this. It seems wrong to let people die when we have the technology to save them. I, for one, would be dead without our advanced medical technology, since I needed an appendectomy at a young age. If you think about it, there's a good chance you would be dead too, even from something as minor as a flu. Plus, I have imperfect vision, which would not be a good trait for a hunter.

I've begun to think of our removal from natural selection as a natural selection strategy in itself. I think about cockroaches and how they've been removed from the process for millions of years simply because there's no reason for them to evolve. But we are different from cockroaches because our technology has actually caused us to deteriorate our gene pool rather than to stagnate it. But what if technology ceases to work as a crutch?

I had previously thought of a partial solution to the problem. I advocate the illegalization of reproductive assistance technology. You know: in vitro fertilization and the like. This would serve the purpose of eliminating from the gene pool those who can't reproduce naturally. I was discussing this with a law school friend about a year ago, and she pointed out that it's not really any different from any of our medical life-saving techniques, at least if applied before reproduction takes place. And as far as that goes, she's right to an extent. It is only a partial solution to the problem. Even so, I still advocate this position for the moral purpose of encouraging adoption. But what is the solution?

Enter the science of genetics. People cringe at the idea of genetic manipulation and the term "designer babies." There's some kind of sense that it's wrong, that it's playing God. But there's nothing we can put our fingers on to say, "Here! This is the reason it's wrong!"

But what if we used this technology for the very limited purpose of eliminating unwanted traits from the gene pool? Instead of engineering the prettiest babies, we'll only be concerned about engineering the healthiest and the fittest babies. Allergies will be a thing of the past. Cancer will be rare. The field of optometry will be an unknown, and spectacles will be curiosities of an age past. Is there anything wrong with that? It's the same thing as what we're doing already by fixing all of our problems, only it's one step better because we're preventing them from happening in the first place.

Now, I'm not really sure how you do this without using the reproductive technology that we already have. Perhaps you can't, and in such a case I would consider changing my position on that. But if people accept this position on moral grounds, then we may see the solution to one of mankind's biggest upcoming problems, and by the end of my lifetime. Before that we of course need to solve our energy issues and global warming, and then after this we can send people off to colonize other planets (I was pretty excited about the discovery of that possibly-inhabitable planet a mere 23 light years away).

So, is this moral position correct?


  1. Hey, Kelly! Haven't checked your blog lately, but I'm happy to see that you're back to it. Now, I will get back to my habit of giving you an extremely long-winded reply.

    While I see your point, I must disagree with your coming to the conclusion that our species has all but removed itself from natural selection, and that it is a problem that needs to be fixed.

    It has always been our intelligence and social skills that have driven the human race to our evolutionary superiority. Of course being physically fit also played a part, but it is arguably more important to be intelligent to survive. For example, even the fittest human can't possibly hope to outrun any but the very least fit of tigers. But by banding together with other humans with weapons and tools, no tiger would ever stand a chance against us. Alternatively, substitute the fact that even the most fit tiger would have a hard time getting into my house, and it makes me seem like an evolutionary hands-down winner.

    In the same way, even humans with the strongest immune systems could never hope to fight off cancer by themselves. Just as spears and houses did for our ancestors, so modern medical technology does for those of us who are alive today.

    Ray Kurzweil, a prominent futurist and longtime favorite author of mine, even goes so far in several of his books as stating that death will no longer be inevitable within a century. He believes that the baby boomer generation will be the last generation in which the majority of people will die natural deaths. While I am not sure if I completely buy into Kurzweil's thinking just yet, we are in fact extremely close to several breakthroughs in stopping, or even completely reversing several key elements of the aging process. It may even be reasonable to assume that with the advancement of nanotechnology, that we could someday be free of disease altogether, making your loss of disease resistance concern a trivial point.

    To live in our current environment, we don't need the muscles or the disease resistance, but rather the brains to overcome our lack of the first two. Eventually, of course, we will be able to overcome the limitations of even our brain power with memory implants and even by creating machines that are more intelligent than we could hope to become. My argument is that because we are beginning to do these things, that we are "evolving" ourselves more efficiently than we would if we were to rely on natural selection alone. Because of this, we will someday be able to ensure that we ALL evolve to be better species members. And since we are all destined to improve ourselves evolutionarily, the only reason NOT to save less fit people from deadly diseases and such is to stop us from running out of resources like food.

    I know I've sort of side-stepped the moral issue that you were attempting to pose, so here is my solution to that problem: In the system that I've laid out, those of us who have moral qualms with things like genetic engineering will be evolutionarily slower than those of us who will choose to embrace the technology. The latter, therefore, will be more fit to survive and prosper than those who don't. From there, good old fashioned natural selection should take care of the naysayers, once again making the moral issue a moot point. It won't be about who is right--it will be about who is left.

    In conclusion, here's a quote from Neal Stephenson's book "Cryptonomicon." I just read it a few hours ago, and this particular passage seems to be funny and interesting, if not relevant:

    "Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo ... Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead."

  2. First, let me point out the fact that I have rediscovered blogging...and incidentally, actually have readers. No comments from anyone to prove it, but Sitemeter says they're there.

    Second, an anecdote (oh, who am I kidding, I just think this is f'ing funny): It appears that a guy over St. Louis way wanted to kill his girlfriend. He stuffed her into the truck of his car and parked it on the train tracks and then he ran like hell. The train, of course, hit the car and, in what I can only imagine was a spectacular display of automotive aerodynamics, the car hit the would-be killer and squished him. The girlfriend is expected to make a full recovery..

    On to the question of morality.

    a) One could say that our ability to manipulate science in such a way as to allow otherwise doomed offspring to survive is, in and of itself, a mechanism of evolution. Ok, yes, technically evolution involves genetic mutation...but it wouldn't surprise me if generations to come discovered a small genetic mutation that made our use and understanding of technology more practical.

    As for the allergies, I'm not surprised. Allergies are the bastard-child of a shitty immune system, and our society has become obsessed with video games and anti-bacterial products. Couple that with the crap that gets dumped into the environment that our children ARE exposed to, and it's a wonder we've survived as a species this long...

    b) As far as designer babies are concerned, any attempt by science to "fix" harmful genetic traits is necessarily going to result in more attractive babies, because attractiveness (face symmetry, etc.) is the biggest indicator of genetic health.

    c) What you're proposing is neither moral or immoral, it just is. Isn't it the intent of the actor that determines the morality of the act? A man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving child has committed a legal wrong, but few would say he's acted immorally because of his intentions. The morality of "designer babies" seems to turn on whether a person is seeking to genetically manipulate their offspring because they want the best for their child or mere asthetics.

    Ultimately, I think the reason that most people cringe at the idea of genetic engineering is that it harkens back to the days of Nazi Germany, and if the Nazis did something, it can't possibly have any benefit to our society. Except the gas chamber, of course.