Designer Babies Are a Terrible Idea

Recently, we asked whether designer babies were OK. I’d like to reopen that discussion, because it’s such a complex question, with no easy answers. So let me start by saying: No, obviously they are not.

It’s pretty open-and-shut, to my mind; and frankly, I’m surprised to have seen any support at all for tweaking your kids’ genetic makeup to taste on a forum like this one, where the taste of the mainstream public is routinely derided. How much of science fiction teaches us that people, and especially large crowds of people, tend to make terrible decisions? Cripes, look at how much of history teaches us this:

Designer Babies Are a Terrible Idea


Salem Witch Trials

Designer Babies Are a Terrible Idea


Nazism

Designer Babies Are a Terrible Idea


The Macarena

And why would we expect it to be any different when it comes to passing on our DNA?

And therein lies the problem. It can be entertaining and illuminating to delve into the philosophical points of whether we should choose a baby’s sex or eye color or give them a chocolate-flavored penis, and whether we even have the right to do so in the first place—but ultimately, we have to look at the practical aspects of the question, too. And one of those relevant realities, sad or not, is that people love fads.

On a small scale, that might not seem like such a big deal. Like, OK, so violet eyes become popular—and you know they would; we’d have preschools teeming with little purple-eyed monsters named Carson and Sequoia—but what’s the damage? And perhaps there wouldn’t be any, although there are many people still alive who remember when differences in color determined, say, which water fountain you got to drink out of.

Sex selection is more worrisome. Again, maybe it would just all pan out that about half of parents would choose boys and half would choose girls—although, as was pointed out in last week’s post, even without science that allows them to choose, there are people who clearly lean one way. Yes, you could argue that this is actually a point in favor of sex-selection technology (as commenter icelight did)—that if a culture is going to kill its daughters, for example, then letting them opt for sons from the outset at least keeps babies from being murdered. That’s a fair point, but there’s an inherent danger in it, beyond the fact that it could be seen as implicitly condoning the culture in question’s inherent sexism (which, for the record, is not what I think icelight was doing).

Designer Babies Are a Terrible Idea

The danger, which figures into all questions of designer offspring, is simply that we might skew our genetic portfolio the “wrong” way—and I put wrong in scare quotes because, short of being able to predict the future, there’s no way to tell which attributes may or may not be valuable two or three generations down the line. Is it good to be tall? Sure, unless something bad happens to your planet and you have to move underground, in which case a population whose average height is six-foot-two is a gross inconvenience. Is it good to have a super-efficient metabolism that keeps you from getting obese? Absolutely, unless food for some reason abruptly becomes much less plentiful.

Even in the case of predetermining and preventing a child’s predisposition for disease or disability, I’m wary. When it comes to cancer, it’s pretty cut and dry, but what about autism or dyslexia? The case has been made that these aren’t inherently crippling conditions so much as different modes of perception that aren’t aligned with the traditional or mainstream way of experiencing the world. By eliminating them from the gene pool just because we’re sure they’re “bad,” we may risk cutting ourselves off from a valuable kind of knowledge.

The thing about nature is that it makes our genetic choices for us randomly, impersonally, and incontestably. We can assume with some certainty that by leaving our biological makeup in its hands, we’re not going to end up with too many tall people, too many women, too many redheads, or too many or too few of anything else. I’m all for scientific progress, but I’m even more in favor of caution, particularly when it comes to something as irreplaceable and still well beyond our understanding as humanity’s genetic constitution. We have not, in my opinion, demonstrated sufficient wisdom to convince me that we can be trusted to ensure our future as a healthy species once we start futzing around with the biology that determines it. Once we do, hey—give your kids all the chocolate-flavored penises you want.

Commenter Moff’s real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog.