What Would Spock Say About Grouchy ‘Practical Ethics’ Piece on Human Genetic Modification?

Kirk and Spock discussing genetic modification?
Kirk and Spock discussing genetic modification?

Over at Practical Ethics they are calling for an almost Spock-like, emotion-free, and logical approach to the topic of heritable human genetic modification.

Sounds good in principle, right?

Well, unfortunately it fails in execution in their essay.

The authors of “Editing the germline – a time for reason, not emotion” seem to include Chris Gyngell, Tom Douglas, and Julian Savulescu.

It is notable that this Practical Ethics piece itself has an unmistakable bias toward allowing human germline modification to proceed unfettered by what they view as unnecessary and harmful constraints. The authors’ tone seems downright crotchety with those on the other side.

They take issue more specifically with both the recent Nature and Science perspectives pieces on this topic, and generally want to downplay potential negatives to human germline modification.

For example, their most strongly worded statements in the essay attack and minimize concerns over human genetic modification. They cast human germline genetic modification in the light of something that only has an upside and is really not that big a deal in terms of risks. Some examples of their one-sided verbiage include:

“While these statements appeal to broad concerns about germline editing, they do not provide clear reasons to resist or restrict it. Many technologies have unpredictable effects on future generations but this does not mean they are either dangerous or morally unacceptable. Who can predict the effect of information technologies like the internet or smart phones on future generations?

…One might object that such technologies don’t operate at the genetic level, like CRISPR, and are not passed heritably down to the next generation. But this is a deep mistake – environmental interventions, such as modified social interaction, have epigenetic effects, modify brain development and can be passed on to the next generation.

…Similarly many new technologies are non-therapeutic but this rarely warrants a moratorium on their use. While many medical technologies are only approved for use in a therapeutic setting, the mere fact that a technology could be used non-therapeutically does not justify placing broad restrictions on it. Lasik eye surgery can be used non-therapeutically, but this doesn’t justify restrictions on its therapeutic uses.

….A key fact noticeably absent from both the Nature and Science commentaries is that many other human activities cause modifications to the human germline.

So experimentally de novo creating designer babies with gene edits that the resulting genetically modified people could then pass along to future generations forever with unknown consequences is really not so different than say getting your vision corrected, stepping outside to smoke a cigarette, changing ones friends or allowing new generations to use the Internet?

I don’t think so.

In addition, this Practical Ethics piece uses a regrettable device of denigrating those who are concerned about human germline engineering. They are cast as too “emotional” or having other problems. For example, the authors conclude the piece with this rather sharply worded paragraph only focusing on potential upsides and not downsides of this emerging human modification technology and insulting those with whom they disagree:

“Gene editing is a revolutionary technology, which potentially offers the next generation an enormous range of benefits. It is important that bad arguments, empty rhetoric and personal interests do not cloud rational thinking and deny the next generation the enormous benefits on offer. It is a time for reason, not emotion.”

So, to paraphrase, if one looks at this human germline editing issue with reason and without personal bias, one must then necessarily agree with them? And if one disagrees with them then you must be some kind of a wackadoodle swayed by emotion and irrational thinking?

It’s sort of like saying, “I’m the logical, obviously correct Spock and you, if you disagree with me on human genetic engineering, are the reckless, overly emotional human, Kirk.”

My own views on how to approach human germline genetic modification can be read here. Also note the ISSCR policy statement too.

1 thought on “What Would Spock Say About Grouchy ‘Practical Ethics’ Piece on Human Genetic Modification?”

  1. Hi Paul, I also like reason and think that “ethics” is sometimes used as a smokescreen for bias. So, starting from practical point of view, I would raise a few questions/issues:

    I question why the human germline would need to be modified using these cut-and-splice molecules. It seems to me that it only helps a very small minority in their reproductive effort. Why bother? There are plenty of others who are “reproductively healthy” — just leave the reproducing to them.

    Frankly, I see this whole thing as a doubtful solution in search of a problem.

    Selection would be a far more viable way to breed out genetic diseases, or at least make them more rare. People don’t like that option. Ah, we’re back to emotional stuff. These guys are nuts if they think that emotion can be put on the back burner. It can’t.

    When it comes to managing human affairs, giving due consideration to emotion IS a practical matter.

    OK, I understand. Some parents might “like” glow-in-the-dark children. Splice in the gene, makes the kids easy to find when they get lost in the woods. Ah, we’re back to human vanity. There is money to be made from that! Now we know why…

    Or are these characters saying that this pointless technology should be applied to everyone? Of course, more money to be made! Quick, get it onto the health insurance plan$

    Having said all that, I don’t see a problem with doing this slicing and splicing for research purposes. We learn important stuff in all sorts of weird and unforeseeable ways. But I don’t see any need to reproduce people in this impracticable way.

    I foresee a time when our descendants will send off samples from potential mates to be analyzed by 23&me — to check whether or not they’re GMO or the real deal. Reminds me of “Blade Runner”. Heck, that was set in fall 2019. Only four years and a few months from now. Push hard guys, you might make it happen…

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