You’re Only Human, But Your Kids Could Be So Much More
Have you ever wished that there were something different about yourself? Maybe you imagined yourself taller, thinner, or stronger? Smarter? More attractive? Healthier?
Or perhaps, as much as you love your children, you wished that there was something different about them. It is not that the love is missing, but it is precisely because you love them that you imagine they would be happier if they were different in some way. It is also possible that some form of genetic disease runs in your family, or a predisposition to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or to some other potentially terrible health problem.
Until recently, you would have been able to do very little, if anything, about these situations, thoughts, and feelings. However, that might soon change. While you might not be able to fundamentally transform yourself or your existing children, in the near future, you just might be able to play God with your own new, little creations. Think of it as a very personal kind of experiment. Technology that is already available today may well make this experimentation possible for anyone who can pay the price to make a new person, only one that is hoped to be “better.”
I mean a designer baby. You would be literally designing and producing a new type of baby via the same sort of technology that is used to make a GM tomato, mouse, or monkey. The baby would be a genetically modified human or, to phrase it in an edgier manner, a GM human.
Dr. Paul Knoepfler (@pknoepfler) is a professor and biomedical scientist at UC Davis whose research interests focus on the epigenomics of cancer and stem cells, with a particular interest in pediatric tumors. He also writes the stem cell research and policy blog, The Niche. This is an excerpt from his new book, GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies, available on Amazon.
Would it be legal? In some places, yes.
Ethical? Hard to say, but I have my doubts.
Regardless of such thorny issues, it will be technically feasible to attempt, and you can bet that someone will try to do it in the coming years. The point of my bluntly laying out the incredible possibilities of what designer baby technology might be able to do for you was to illustrate how seductive it will be to many of us.
Should it fail at first, other scientists and doctors might be deterred. On the other hand, some could well see that as an opening to try it too. The technology will eventually become widely available. It might take two, five, or ten years, but it is coming. Should you as a parent do it? Many of us will answer, “yes.”
Playing God via genetically changing human creation is made possible today by the marrying together of two powerful technologies. The first is now an old technique, in vitro fertilization (IVF), which was mastered by Nobel Laureate Robert Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe four decades ago. The second is a new, cutting-edge genetic technology called Crispr-Cas9 that makes it remarkably simple to directly tinker with the human genome (the DNA sequence) of an early embryo. When combined with IVF, these new genetic tools allow scientists to change the DNA, which is the blueprint of a human embryo, when it consists of just one or a few cells.
Your GMO sapiens (a nickname I’ve come up with to describe these still-hypothetical creations) child might have avoided a terrible disease because genetic technology was used to correct a disease-causing mutation in a critical gene. Your baby, and you as its parent, may have literally dodged cystic fibrosis or a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that puts women at elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer, just to mention a couple of many possible examples. The hypothetical GM baby girl born without a BRCA1 mutation would not only have a different life, but also she would never pass the mutation on to anyone in her future family tree.
When combined with IVF, new genetic tools allow scientists to change DNA, which is the blueprint of a human embryo.
To produce a GMO sapiens baby, you would begin effectively by placing an order for her or him. It would be a team effort between you and the scientists involved. You might say it would “take a village and a lab” to make a GMO sapiens.
In the same way that today you might order a customized pizza with green olives, hold the onions, Italian ham, goat cheese, and a particular sauce, when you design and order your future GMO sapiens baby you could ask for very specific “toppings.” In this case, toppings would mean your choice of unique traits, selected from a menu: green eyes, hold the diseases, Italian person’s gene for lean muscle, fixed lactose intolerance so the designed individual can eat dairy, and a certain blood type.
Does this sound outlandish?
The personal genetics company, 23andMe, has already put together what is essentially a baby genetic predictor tool. For example, the company has specifically written about how one might go about, as a mother, selecting one’s preference for green eyes and for a reduced risk of certain diseases, by screening the sperm of potential donors for these traits.
Another similar effort is underway from a company called GenePeeks, co-founded by Professor Lee Silver of Princeton University, a proponent of human genetic modification. GenePeeks has developed a technology called Matchright. This service, available at some fertility clinics, enables customers to screen sperm from possible donors for how the genomes of those sperm when combined with the customer’s might lead to certain outcomes in possible future children. The search tool looks both for predicted disease risks and also specific traits.
After the design phase, the GM baby-to-be would go through a series of production steps, one or more of which might be completed outside of the womb, in a laboratory. IVF would play an important role.
Since there are now currently scientists trying to produce artificial or laboratory- produced human wombs, it is even formally possible that, at some point in the future, the “production” of GMO sapiens babies could occur entirely outside of the human body.
Human reproduction could become a process nearly entirely independent of people, relying just on our cells. Scientists, once they had our cells, could “take it from there” so to speak. Not only would sex be unnecessary, but there could also be almost no physical parental involvement at all to produce a baby.
At some point in the future, the ‘production’ of GMO sapiens babies could occur entirely outside of the human body.
Becoming a parent could turn into almost an intellectual exercise. A project. Instead of building a model airplane or jigsaw puzzle with your kid as a project, you as a parent would do a model building exercise, where your kid is the project. In place of plastic and glue or puzzle pieces, scientists would team up with you as the parent to make this new GM child, using your cells and genetic fabric as the starting material. The only other things needed from you would be the money to pay for the process and your input into the design of the baby.
Traditionally, to make GM mice, researchers make changes to the genome of mouse embryonic stem cells. These cells, which also can be made in human form in theory from any person, are like powerful shape shifters or “transformers” of the stem cell world. Embryonic stem cells can turn into any cell type in the body and hence can grow into a whole embryo. After genetically modifying the embryonic stem cells, these special cells are then transferred to female mice and develop into mouse embryos that grow into a GM mouse. In principle, this could be done in people too. However, with Crispr-Cas9 technology it could be done even more simply without using embryonic stem cells.
The genetic modification step is most likely to be done in humans, either in the egg prior to fertilization or in the one-cell embryo right after its fertilization, using Crispr-Cas9. It could even be done “earlier” in the human developmental spectrum in special kinds of stem cells that can turn into human sperm and eggs, called primordial germ cells or PGCs. By making gene edits via Crispr-Cas9 in cells or embryos very early in development, all the cells of the resulting GM human body would probably carry the same desired gene edit.
Otherwise, we could end up in a situation where the resulting GM baby’s cells do not all have the same DNA sequence. This is called mosaicism, and it could lead to disease.
When the laboratory work and your final part (having the embryo implanted in your uterus, your partner’s, or that of a surrogate) are all done, the end result would be your GMO sapiens baby. The hope would be that it would be a “better” baby than nature alone would have provided you with.
Clearly “better” is a subjective term and could invoke frightening scenarios, such as eugenics, the idea of producing genetically superior human beings and getting rid of genetically “inferior” ones. In the past, eugenics has led to disasters, such as the forced sterilization of thousands of people that occurred throughout the US.
Powerful new gene-editing and reproductive technologies will not necessarily catalyze eugenics, but there is a risk that that could happen. It is a danger made greater by some people today embracing the idea of a new, benevolent eugenics that is empowered by novel technologies, such as Crispr-Cas9.
I expect that, at first, the focus of heritable human genetic modification will be to design a healthier baby for you and ultimately a healthier adult.
That sounds noble enough. For example, imagine a designer baby who is inherently resistant to a host of particularly nasty bacteria or parasites such as that which causes malaria, or unable to be infected by certain viruses, such as a hepatitis virus, Ebola, or HIV. A GMO sapiens made resistant to viral infection via Crispr technology would be ironic given that bacteria use Crispr to resist viral infection too.
Or maybe the GM baby would have novel brain architecture or an innovative type of neuron, designed so that she or he could never get autism or Alzheimer’s disease. Tinkering with genetics to change the architecture of the human brain, the most complex object known in the universe, would be fraught with danger. You might well end up causing cognitive impairments and brain diseases.
As mentioned above, the most likely first goal will be to create a GM baby that has been corrected for a single, disease-causing genetic mutation. This mutation, often normally passed along by you or your spouse to the child, would otherwise have caused her to be ill or to die. But now your baby would be born without this mutation, as it would have been corrected by gene-editing when she was just an embryo or even earlier in the reproductive cells used to make her.
Maybe at least in the early days of GMO sapiens production, those doctors, scientists and parents involved would avoid the temptation to tinker with “vanity” traits, such as height, musculature, skin or eye color, or even intelligence, pushing your child to score off the charts on an IQ test. They would just stick to making a healthier GM baby.
Although if you paid enough money, perhaps you could make such, “a la carte,” designer selections at certain businesses in some countries. It would cost more. This would be akin to the way you can pay extra for a “vanity” license plate in some countries.
Those advocating for human genetic modification fall in two camps: those who support therapy to prevent serious genetic disease, and those futurists and some transhumanists who are keen to modify the human genome for the “betterment” of humanity. The latter are attracted to the new Crispr-Cas9 technology and appear to support a new, sometimes-called “liberal” eugenics, where the focus is on making people “better” rather than on preventing reproduction of “inferior” people.
Within the former camp, some advocates have succeeded in getting the use of mitochondrial genetic modification technology (also known as “three- person IVF”) in humans legalized in the UK in 2015. Some advocates of three-person IVF argue that it would not lead to genetic modification, but science says otherwise. So proponents of some forms of human genetic modification are not just here today, but are also actively advocating its use now or in the future.
Advocates of making designer babies imagine new realities. For instance, Professor Silver of Princeton, despite advocating for designer babies, also imagines a future reality in which genetic modification technology changes society. In this future, Silver predicts an upper class of the “GenRich,” who are GM people that control society, and a lower class of “naturals” who are not.v In the predicted future of his book, Remaking Eden, Silver’s GenRich become the new glitterati vi:
“(In a few hundred years) the GenRich — who account for 10 per- cent of the American population — (will) all carry synthetic genes… . All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry (will be) controlled by members of the GenRich class…. Naturals (will) work as low-paid service provid- ers or as laborers… . (Eventually) the GenRich class and the Natural class will become… entirely separate species with no ability to cross- breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee…. (I)n a society that values individual freedom above all else, it is hard to find any legitimate basis for restricting the use of reprogenetics…. (T)he use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable… . There is no doubt about it…whether we like it or not…”
In this future vision, it would appear a kind of Social Darwinism is at work turbocharged by genetics. Silver coined the term “Reprogenetics” to mean the coordinated use of assisted reproductive and genetics technologies to produce genetically enhanced humans. In a newer 2007 edition of his Remaking Eden book, Silver subtitled it, “How Genetic Engineering and Cloning will Transform the American Family.”
So make no mistake, there will be people who will spend large sums of money to not only have a child, but also to make GM children that are better than those of their peers.
What happens to them and to society as a result? If one looks at art and literature, collectively the prediction would be dire. There is a surprisingly long history of fictional works exploring humans hacking into their own creation. Almost without exception, the results imagined are dystopian in nature. Even today, polling suggests people are very concerned with the idea of human genetic modification and cloning.
A significant number of people would not be able to resist that temptation. Amongst those of us who are parents, who does not like to think that their kids are better than average? What if you could almost guarantee that your child would outshine all of the others in the neighborhood? All the kids in the country? Many of us would give in to that temptation.
To return or not: Who should own indigenous art?
The British Museum in London is opening a major new exhibition with a rather interesting subtitle. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation the most important show ever in the United Kingdom to look at the art and culture of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, and though the exhibition has a massive 60,000-year timescale, it presents indigenous Australian art as part of a continuous culture. Objects from the museum’s collection, such as a shield taken by Captain Cook from Botany Bay – now the site of Sydney’s airport – will be displaye1d alongside bark painting from West Arnhem Land, placards from recent indigenous protest movements and works of contemporary art that reckon with Australia’s past and future.
After the show closes in August, many of the objects on display will travel to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra – and there, debate is already roiling. Numerous indigenous activists are distressed, not to say furious, that artworks and artefacts they consider rightfully theirs will travel to Canberra only to return to London: “just rubbing salt into the wounds,” as one activist had it. What could have been a celebration has quickly become a major front in the endlessly challenging debate over the repatriation of artworks from museum collections to their place of origin. If, as the British Museum subtitle has it, indigenous cultures form an “enduring civilisation,” then are they the proper guardians of their own heritage?
Repatriating art to indigenous peoples, such as this Aboriginal bark painting at the British Museum, remains controversial (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)
‘Who owns culture?’
Indigenous claims to objects in Western museums should be understood separately from similar claims on behalf of nation states. The British Museum, of course, knows all about the latter: its prized Elgin Marbles, acquired (or looted?) in the early 19th Century, have been claimed by Greece since 1925. No country has been more forceful in its claims to cultural patrimony in recent years than Turkey, whose culture ministry has laid claims to Byzantine artworks made millennia before the establishment of the Turkish republic, and blocked loans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Pergamon. Such nationalistic muscle-flexing not only rests on sometimes dubious historical premises, but also on a myopic understanding of culture itself, which has never confined itself to national limits. So to the question ‘Who owns culture?’ we can confidently assert the truth of one response: not the nation state. Cultures do not line up with the boundaries on maps.
The Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in Athens two centuries ago, remain at the British Museum despite Greece’s demands that they be returned (Credit: Getty Images)
But in the case of works of art from indigenous Australia, we are looking at a very different question. Here the petitioners for restitution are not the government of the Commonwealth of Australia, but rather contemporary indigenous communities whose understanding of culture, time and kinship comes into direct conflict with the imperative of the Western museum. This is a much harder, much more fraught debate, raising some of the biggest questions of art and politics: what does it mean to be modern? Does all culture form part of a global heritage that should be available to everyone, even after centuries of war and colonisation? Must everything be presented for universal understanding, or is some knowledge correctly kept secret?
For many indigenous Australians, the objects in the London and Canberra exhibitions are not the material remnants of past lives, but very real connections to their history and their ancestors. They have a point – one that museums have ignored for too long. It remains all too common to see cultural works by indigenous peoples treated as natural history, to be filed away with rocks and bird carcasses, rather than treated as a vital culture in its own right. (When I was a student of art history, I remember the shock of discovering an aboriginal Australian painting in my university’s natural history museum rather than at the art gallery, even though the painting dated from 1988.) As many anthropologists have shown, there is nothing ‘natural’ about the designation of a cultural object as an ‘artefact’ or an ‘artwork’, as living or dead. The distinction is a historically freighted, constantly negotiable dance. In Paris, for example, pre-Columbian sculptures have migrated over and over: from the Louvre and the Musée Guimet in the early-to-mid-19th Century, where they were exhibited as antiquities; to the ethnographic Trocadéro in the late 19th Century, where aesthetics were irrelevant; and now to the Musée du Quai Branly, which proudly calls itself an art museum.
The remains of a child are given a traditional reburial after the Smithsonian Institution in the US gave them back to traditional owners (Credit: Getty Images)
What should be restituted? Some cases are clear – notably the case of human remains, which were acquired (or stolen) by Western museums as recently as the mid-20th Century and have very rarely served any scientific or historical purpose. Indigenous peoples have rightly campaigned for the return of these remains, and they have had success. In 2010, the Smithsonian in Washington returned the skeletons of more than 60 people from Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, all of which were less than 120 years old. In 2013, the Charité hospital in Berlin made similar repatriations to Australian and Torres Straits populations. These are excellent examples of museums respecting the claims of indigenous peoples and righting past wrongs.
Toward a solution
The case of sacred objects is trickier, and perhaps irresolvable. The idea of the ‘universal museum’, for all its Enlightenment virtues and educational potential, is at its core a Western imperial project, and museums that acquired sacred objects in earlier times absolutely must rethink their display, their function and their narrative. This can only be done along with native populations; the Association of Art Museum Directors, the main museum authority in the United States, instructs its members to work with indigenous groups on display and interpretation.
Yet the legitimate injustices of colonisation cannot be undone even if every object in every museum were restituted. What’s more, the very recourse to a terminology of “ownership” imbues ancient cultural questions with modern, capitalist practices – suddenly, culture sounds not so much like a living thing, but rather a lot like a copyright. The most extreme claims of cultural ownership can turn so absolute that it’s hard to account for them. Some indigenous people, for example, believe that a representation of an ancestor (such as in a photograph or a recording) embodies its subject – and thus no such documentation should be permitted. Important though it is to understand this cultural sensitivity, there’s just no way to undo the entirety of modern anthropology and museology. Some compromise has to be found.
The goal must be for museums to honour and nurture the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and at the same time to foster the understanding and the cross-cultural communication that pluralist liberal democracy requires. This can be done – and Australian institutions in particular have shown a way forward. Since the 1970s, the Australian Museum in Sydney has collaborated with indigenous communities to improve its interpretive displays and to understand the sacred character of some objects. The museum has an outreach unit that trains indigenous people in New South Wales with curatorial and conservation skills. And it now collects contemporary indigenous artworks, whether in traditional or in ‘Western’ media, to counteract the damaging falsehood of static culture.
One of the items showing at the British Museum is this Aboriginal shield collected by James Cook in 1770 (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)
We cannot unwind the universal museum, but we can build a better one – one where indigenous peoples participate at every step of the way in the display, interpretation and exhibition of their heritage. In this way, indigenous people can use the universal museum to rectify historical inequities, rather than merely let the museum promulgate the sins of the past. Exhibitions of cultural objects can provide evidence for indigenous claims to land, for example. Indigenous collaborations with museums can lead to more heterogeneous understandings of national or regional culture, and thus to fairer laws and fairer representations. Museums, even the British Museum, should not be seen as old imperial villains, but as living and mutable enterprises that can transform our understanding of others and of ourselves. That would benefit not only indigenous peoples, but all of us who want to build a more just and more cosmopolitan future.
Write a multiple paragraph response that introduces the topic, makes a counterclaim, and has a rebuttal.
Remember to use I.C.E
Compose your response in a google doc, print it, and hand it in at the end of the period.
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