Friday, December 14, 2007

Genetic Engineering People: A Friday Ramble

There was a discussion, which I am having a devil of a time finding, a while back on Brian's pre scienceblogs Laelaps about genetic engineering and people: that we should not be genengineering ourselves or our descendants because of the nasty possibilities that abuse of this could and probably would take place. Brian and Julia both came down on the side of being antigene-tinkers in a big way. At the time, I argued about genetic issues that my wife's and my own families have for genetically transmitted diseases ought to be wiped if at all possible, but they countered that this wasn't appropriate to do: they want to avoid the ubermensch or Sauron syndrome. At the time, it really bothered me: I respect their opinions, but I completely disagree with them. It would have just gone away, forgotten in the daily ups and downs had not James brought a usenet discussion into his livejournal. Then. I remembered. Then in returned to bother me.

My family tends to long lives at least on my father's side. Since we have arrived on these shores in 1683, the patrilineal line has had at least two centenarians and many that have made it into their late 80s. Last I checked my grandfather was still alive and kicking at his current mid to late 80s despite having been a career soldier, smoked, drank, and eaten all the nasty things that he ought not. He may reach his century. If this is really genetic, then my father and my siblings may reach such an age too. That means my daughter and any other children I have might too. Normally, this is a good thing. However, in other lines, dementia and Alzheimer's runs through them. Now mix a very long life with being a prisoner in your own failing mind. Wonderful, huh?

There are other genetic bits that could be cleaned up as well: horrible near sightedness? Check. problems with glaucoma? yep. Diabetes? oh yeah. etc. If we could tinker and fix those genes, if they are present, though my descendants would not need fear whatever genetic cruft may have been picked up by marrying and having feeling while only being human. For me, it feels like its a responsible act to fix this, not an act of hubris or desiring to create a superhuman. Yet, obviously others feel rather different. I am looking at this with hope and some others are looking at it with fear.

I view genetic engineering in this context as a medical procedure, de nada more. From my point of view, it's an improvement on the quality of life. It doesn't hurt that if this were wildly applied then we could see massive savings in medical expenses. My glasses have cost me with medical insurance $350 a pop and I've had many prescriptions. Yet that would pail compared to what a diabetic has to deal with. Or what a specialist home requires from a senior suffering from dementia.

I sat down and wondered about those fears. One of them is that The Rich will be able to afford fixes and the poor will not. That one is probably not a realistic worry, truthfully. With genome sequencing dropping in price - very soon it will cost around $1,000 per sequence! - and depending on how much the fixes cost, it might be that because of the savings in terms of chronic health issues that get wiped out that everyone will get at least that. The second thought is that people might pursue their own twisted ideals of perfection: supersoldiers, Saurons, ubermensch, or whatnot. Doesn't this happen anyways? People pick their own mates, right? It's another form of selection. Just cruder. Genetic engineering is just more advanced versions of that. Finally, others - not the two science oriented individuals above - have stated that its not our place to play God. *snorks*

I guess the point of this ramble is to try to spark a discussion among my readers - and I KNOW there are more of you than post comments! - about whether or not YOU feel gene tinkering with people is a net bad. I don't think it is, but I'd like to hear what others think. I'll write some possible follow-up comments myself if I get others to get the discussion amongst themselves going.

Here's hoping!


Laelaps said...

Hi Will, I think I remember the thread you're talking about and I wrote something similar not long ago, but if I remember correctly I believe I did say that I don't really have a problem with trying to cure genetically-inherited diseases. What I was against was the sort of "We can make ourselves better through modern chemistry" argument where people could potentially choose the sex, eye, color, height, appearance, etc. of their baby because of the libertarian view that we should be able to do whatever we want so long as it's not harming someone else.

Again, in the post I wasn't talking about curing diseases but about "improving" our own species by some subjective measure. That's what I have a problem with.

Mike R said...

My Fiancée (wife in 12 more days!) and I have very different views on this subject: I'm all for it, but the thought of it makes her uneasy and she's not sure why. It's not any religious reasons either, just some general unease.

We're planning on having kids in 3 - 5 years, so it's really doubtful that it will be an issue for us, but barring nuclear war I'm sure it will be an issue for the grand kids.

I really just don't see the benefits of choosing not to make your kid free from genetic disorders. The amount of pain and suffering that is currently caused by random fluxes in a genetic code dwarfs that of all wars that are going on in the world that I view not trying to remove them as morally on the same level as letting your kid die of an infection because you don't believe in using antibiotics.

It's a tool. The fact that a hammer could be used to bash someone's skull in does not mean that you should not use it to hammer in nails.

Julia said...

I'm having a think about this. I'll get back to you - maybe via comment, maybe via my own post, maybe a combination of the two. Sadly the faeces has collided with the rotating blades in a big way and my mind is a bit addled for matters of science and ethics. I suspect my blog posts over the next few days at least will be as intellectual as pointing and laughing...

Unknown said...

We've bred cats, dogs and horses for thousands of years. We've organised cities, farms and the flow of water over millions of acres across the globe. We've cured diseases hand over fist and at every step there was a naysayer.
Less than a 100 years ago people were saying "If man were meant to fly..."
The only thing to do is just to do it. The only thing that shuts people up and then only temporarily before they start again, is success. So the fact that people disagree with genetically engineering human beings is really inconsequential.
I bet more than 20% of people have a problem with what any other person wears on any given day yet we all wear whatever we want every day and don't stop to care. This is exactly the same.

Jizzka said...

hi, was just browsing around looking for more info about genetic engineering. your post helped give me some ideas about my college health ethics project, so i just wanted to say thanks.

Will Baird said...

You're welcome, Jizzka. If you care to share your position on the subject, it would be tres kewl. :D