Dr Watson girds for battle

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“It’s elementary.. dear Sherlock”, so said Dr. Watson to the cloned super-detective.

“It seems unfair that some people don’t get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no-one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world.”

he continued..

I can’t wait for the inevitable catfights, the media brow-twitching and the hectoring by frightened politicians.. If the immediate reaction of some of the “bioethicists”is anything to go by, this one is shaping up to be another science-vs-fear debate. Well, guess who wins in the long run..?

For instance, a Mr. Shakespeare (no dead poet, this one) says:

“He is talking about altering something that most people see as part of normal human variation, and that I think is wrong…. I am afraid he may have done more harm than good, his leadership of the Human Genome Project and his discovery of 1953 notwithstanding.”

What exactly is “normal” in human variation? Is dying at the age of 40 from juvenile diabetes normal? Is not having the cognitive skills to get through basic math “normal”? Is a club foot “normal”? Adult Acne?..no?

I think Watson is right to bring this debate to the front burner, using his position and authority to do so. The cost of genetic engineering is going to fall, and knowledge is impossible to bottle up in any case. You’ll have better luck fencing wolverines with scotch tape. What Watson is trying to do is to move beyond just acknowleding this as fact, and pressing the rest of us to create a workable and mostly acceptable ethical framework for it.


  1. Did someone forget to tell the co-discoverer of the double-helix that IQ is a sham, that variations in traits like “intelligence” have nothing to do with genes, that eugenics is fascist in any of its incarnatons, and that genetic engineering would never work, anyway?

  2. I think we are going to soon have the power to reshape the social system by moving from a bell curve to a 1/2 bell curve (ie: everyone has an IQ above 100).

    This will create its own problems, because our current system does indirectly allocate wealth and power based on IQ. Granted it is not a perfect correllation, but it is a significant one.

    Intelligence matters in determining how much you get in this technological age.

    Who will want to be the underclass then?

  3. Who wouldn’t want to prevent birth defects in their own children? Or ensure them a long and healthy life? Why, to say that I, myself, couldn’t have benefited from a few more I.Q. points is a gross misunderstatement.

    The only question remaining, for me, is where are the genes for Jason Malloy Fascism syndrome, and how to turn them off? Then again, I rooted against the noble savage in Huxley’s “A Brave New World.” Pass the Soma, please.

    In the end, I think that as long as we don’t start breeding people down for menial labor (and we shouldn’t have to — see that crappy movie “A.I.”) we’ll be morally justified.

  4. Q: Who wouldn’t want to prevent birth defects in their own children?


  5. Dude… that link made me mad. That kid’s going to be pissed off when he grows up and learns what his “parents” (if you can call a couple of lesbians that with a straight face — I can’t) did to him.

    Anyway, if you genetically engineer your kids, then they aren’t really your kids, since they won’t have your DNA. It would essentially be like adopting. So we’re essentially going to be put into the position where if we have our own kids, they’ll be losers relative to all the genetically engineered supermen out there. This basically means the end of the human species as we know it, since we will no longer be needed for reproduction. It may be inevitable, but I don’t see why we should be celebrating.

    Of course, some people predict that we’ll have post-human AI in 20 years anyway, making human beings, genetically engineered or not, completely obsolete.

  6. Would you say that abortion is now embedded in a “mostly acceptable ethical framework”?

    If the answer is, “Yes”, why the continuing clash?

  7. Rahul speaks of moving from the bell curve to ‘half a bell curve’, where no one need have a subpar IQ. But of course this is not how it will play out – those with lots of money and a willingness to take risks will be first in line, followed by the strivers of the upper middle classes. The result is much more likely to be a two-tiered society, with an increase in disparities rather than a decrease. But the pace of the change should be slow enough that we will have time to adjust without major unrest…

  8. Oleg says that having a GE child would be like adopting. I suppose that would be true if you just bought a prespecified genome. But there are two other possibilities – first, you might be able to have a child and just change around some individual polymorphisms to alter certain characteristics. We already have enough knowledge of the human genome that identifying sites for alteration would allow repair of many defects as well as specification of eye color, probably hair color (not 100% sure of that one), changes to color vision (e.g. artificial tetrachromacy at least for girls), and many others. What the current state of the technique for making those changes is I am not sure of.
    Second, you might be able to have a child that was entirely ‘yours’ by sequencing both parents, identifying all possible combinations, and choosing and instantiating the one you liked best. Rigging the dice on a grand scale :-).
    As regards your dismay at the end of the human species – I do share some sadness at the eventual passing, or more likely, fade to obsolescence, of us old-style humans. But I second Nietzsche on this one:
    “All beings so far have created something beyond themselves,” wrote Nietzsche. “Do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?”

  9. Mardi Gras comes and goes here in New Orleans and I miss out on all the controversy.

    If the comments on this forum are in anyway indicative of how the dialog will go on the larger scale(and I suspect that it is) things will be like every other debate about genetic engineering, cloning, or pre-emptive medical intervention.

    The anti side will be ignorant of the basic science and will be composed of liberal art majors chattering about how wrong it is to “tamper with nature” and religious right-wingers chattering about how wrong it is to “tamper with god’s creation.” The pro side will be composed of those who understand the basic science involved and realize that this really is nothing new and nature has been doing it all along, but this side will be totally unable to communicate with the anti side because 1)the anti side is ignorant of the basic science, and 2)the anti side doesn’t really want a reasoned debate anyways, they just want to yell and scream about how wrong it is.

    Those who are less intelligent are canny enough to realize that if intelligence becomes officially realized as a good thing that decisions should be based upon, then the less intelligent become disenfranchised. They may not be able to spell disenfranchised, but they’re canny enough to realize it when it’s happening to them. That’s the real reason there will be no real debate. Less intelligent people in power have a strong interest in continuing to push the blank slate doctrine.