I have kept no secret of my support for genetic modification in solving many of the world’s problems. But that support, being incredibly controversial outside of the scientific community, has brought to my attention many misconceptions about genetic modification of humans or other organisms. I have received many arguments against my beliefs on the internet as well as in discussion with my friends. I wanted to address one of those misconceptions here to present, in an organized fashion, where I stand and why my platform shouldn’t be so lonely.
The best argument that I have received against genetic modification in humans is that we don’t know which traits will be most beneficial in the future. This is an argument essentially against eugenics. We could in the near future, theoretically, engineer an insanely smart, muscular, tall, disease free, by all standards of today, ideal person. But let’s say the world reaches an apocalyptic state and nearly the entire world freezes over. In this world, being short would be favored because of the better heat retention of shorter stature. Now we have only tall people on this world and everyone dies. That is far from ideal. A more realistic example of this could be sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is a malformation of red blood cells common in people in locations with high incidence of malaria. This fairly common mutation of the hemoglobin gene results in red blood cells being sickle shaped. This, in turn, results in the RBCs being less capable of carrying oxygen and more likely to clog small blood vessels. On the surface this disease appears purely harmful to the host but in reality, it comes with a benefit. This mutation protects the host from malaria, and in countries ridden with malaria, is actually selected for rather than against. If we were to remove all sickle cell anemia from a population without removing the malaria, the population would suffer tremendously. Genetic modification in this respect would be genocide. So who is to say what traits are good and what are bad when there is obviously so much gray area?
I say the hosts themselves. We shouldn’t and wouldn’t implement policies requiring genetic modification, but we shouldn’t halt research because of these concerns. The answer to the concern about our inability to know what the future holds is the proposition itself. Because we cannot and will not know what may be genetically favorable in the future, the only logical way to act is based on our immediate concerns. Aubrey de Grey, a leading theoretician in gerontology and huge advocate of ending aging addressed a similar issue very logically. Aubrey’s quest to have humans live to be over ten decades old was challenged with the concerns of over population on earth. He responded with this statement:
“We will have to decide whether to have a low birth rate, or a high death rate. A high death rate will, of course, arise from simply rejecting these therapies, in favor of carrying on having a lot of kids.
And, I say that that’s fine — the future of humanity is entitled to make that choice. What’s not fine is for us to make that choice on behalf of the future. If we vacillate, hesitate, and do not actually develop these therapies, then we are condemning a whole cohort of people –who would have been young enough and healthy enough to benefit from those therapies, but will not be, because we haven’t developed them as quickly as we could — we’ll be denying those people an indefinite life span, and I consider that that is immoral. That’s my answer to the overpopulation question.”
My logic is the same as his. Providing humanity with another tool does not inhibit us. Instead, it gives us options and for us to make that decision on behalf of future humanity, in my opinion, is tremendously unethical. If we fund research in ending sickle cell disease now, we may stumble across a cure for malaria in the process, or a mutation that could protect against malaria without the negative effects of anemia.
We may, however, obliterate sickle cell disease from the population only to find malaria resurface. The solution to this is one that has already been implemented with crops. With reduced biodiversity of crops, we have created seed banks to retain the traits that in the past were not favorable but we may find salvational in the future. But to grow fields of those crops that are less than ideal today would be wasteful and inefficient. To maintain deleterious genes in human specimens because there is a possibility that they may one day be helpful is beyond that. It is immoral and sadistic. Instead, we keep those genes in online banks, where we can access them and in the future could implant them back into the genome. We have an opportunity to end genetic based diseases and I don’t believe it is our right to withhold that potential from the future.