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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  April 2003

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE April 2003

Subject:

Designer Humans: The Possibilities of Supertots And Frankenkids

From:

"S. E. Anderson" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 23 Apr 2003 03:38:15 -0700

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text/plain

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text/plain (308 lines)

NOTE: Hitler's Eugenics Dream (which was/it the dream of many
European and North American leaders and scientists) may be closer
to reality than ever before... now that the Human Genome Project
has completed just about all the human genes have been mapped.


We see, once again, the dangerous convergence of the eugenicists
and neo-eugenicists and a white supremacist rightwing political
state with world dominance at hand. Our fight to resist and destroy
this alliance must intensify on a global scale.


==============================
http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0317/baard.php

On the Rights of Those Not Yet Designed
Supertots And Frankenkids
by Erik Baard
April 23 - 29, 2003


The complete accounting of the human genome, a de facto guide
for building a person, met with predictable fanfare last week.
Its celebration marked 50 years since Francis Crick and James
Watson published their Nobel Prize-winning description of that
iconic spiral staircase, the double helix of DNA.

"After three billion years of evolution, we have before us the
instruction set that carries each of us from the one-cell egg
through adulthood to the grave," Dr. Robert Waterston, of the
International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, told a crowd
at the National Institutes of Health.

With this new knowledge comes new power, the ability to shape
our fundamental form—and, one day, to better it. Within our lifetime,
scientists say, we will see the advent of genetically enhanced
human beings, babies who might look like all the others in the
nursery but will grow up to jump higher, learn faster, live longer.
Powerful and privileged, they could also become a vulnerable
minority, as much subject to prejudice as primed for success.

On January 3, during the final, furious effort to sequence those
3.1 billion units of DNA, a federal court in Lower Manhattan
handed down a ruling that by some bizarre twist could serve as
precedent for a third-millennium Dred Scott decision. Judge Judith
Barzilay of the U.S. Court of International Trade decreed that
intelligent characters with "extraordinary and unnatural powers,"
beings with "tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs," "highly
exaggerated muscle tone," or "exaggerated troll-like features,"
are "nonhuman creatures." Really.

That ruling, regarding a tax on comic-book toys, revealed a mindset
that doesn't bode well for the souped-up variants of human who
could be living shoulder-to-shoulder with your grandkids, or
could be your grandkids. They could very well be augmented with
better genes and robotic prosthetics or implanted chips, by choice
or necessity. Will they face an angry mob of normals when they
start filling the roster at Harvard? When they go to vote, will
they be recognized as citizens? The law has gone a lot further
in banning their birth than in protecting their rights.

Months before that court decision, Olympic officials and scientists
meeting in New York City resolved to bar genetically engineered
athletes from future competitions. And preferring phrasing that
sounds protective, the Council of Europe stated as far back as
1982 that "Human Rights imply the right to inherit a genetic
pattern which has not been artificially changed."

Watson, founding director of the National Center for Human Genome
Research, isn't part of that consensus. "It's strange to say
we've come to a point where we don't want to improve things,"
he told the Voice. "It's against the main thrust of civilization's
work."

Before we swallow an overweening sense of preciousness about
the human being, we should be mindful that our Constitution never
defined what one was. Rather than narrowing our sense of perfection
to Leonardo da Vinci's precisely proportioned Vitruvian Man,
we might define ourselves, for ourselves, according to values
and qualities like intelligence, empathy, compassion—regardless
of outward form or inner tinkering.

The grand-père terrible of genetic research, Watson argues that
"nature knows best" is a delusional quagmire. Evolution, after
all, is a messy set of continual compromises designed to make
do for the moment. There's the wondrous human hand and the horrible
human knee. In his new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson
advocates genetic modification not just to protect us from disease,
but to make us smarter, too.

Other scientists foresee new, superior offshoots of our species
spawned by genetic blending with various flora and fauna. Leading
lights in these fields gathered at Boston University this month
to sort it all out in a symposium called simply "The Future of
Human Nature."

"Enough," says environmentalist author Bill McKibben in his new
book of that name, a jeremiad against such supposed technological
sins. But should SEE BAARD PAGE 36

fine-tuned babies and transgenic beings pop up among us anyway,
he says, "I am certain the better angels of our nature will prevail
and we will treat them as we would anybody else."

His assessment, that we can hate the sin but love the product
of it, seems glib given our planet's track record of prejudice.
Even children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, so-called
Amerasians, faced severe discrimination in the land of their
birth because the circumstances of their conception carried a
stigma of colonialism. And the organic farming movement has denounced
genetically modified "Frankenfoods." How much of a stretch is
it to imagine that metaphor coming full circle, stigmatizing
people enhanced by those same technologies?

The transgenic revolution is already here—fish genes have been
spliced into tomatoes to make them frost resistant, and jellyfish
genes have been used to make a fluorescent rabbit. Now imagine
if the problem of world hunger were eased by creating an even
hybrid of human and plant, people who could feed off sunshine.
We'd all benefit from the reduced demand for food, but "would
those individuals be protected by the Constitution?" asks Lori
Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology
at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of Future Perfect:
Confronting Decisions About Genetics.

"These issues are already on the table. We're going to have to
expand the definition of man," she says. The pithiest conclusion
to the dilemma she cites came from an exchange between her students:
"If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes
like a man, then it's a man."

It may sound like science fiction, but biotech's progress continues
to defy prediction. The HIV genome took years to sequence; SARS
was done in weeks. Human genetic enhancement is drawing closer—we've
already identified more than a thousand genetic markers for outcomes
like Down's syndrome.

The day is approaching when wealthy parents can pay to have markers
tweaked or added to bolster qualities like intelligence and athleticism.
But the rights of such unusual progeny are being curtailed before
the people even exist. The situation is one the X-Men, conceived
as a comic-book response to the civil rights movement in 1963
and returning to movie theaters on May 2 with a plot centered
on a repressive Mutant Registration Act, could easily appreciate.
"Born with strange powers, the mutants known as the X-Men use
their awesome abilities to protect a world that hates and fears
them!" reads their Marvel Comics tagline. In the end, the X-Men
were sold out by that very company. It was Marvel subsidiary
Toy Biz that persuaded Judge Barzilay of the heroes' "other than
human" status so it could reap reimbursements on taxes paid to
import action figures from China—the levy was higher on dolls,
which depict humans, than on other toys.

That might seem a trivial and unlikely basis for the question
of what makes us human, but as Andrews notes, "Science looks
forward, law looks backward. Computer cases rest on what happened
with books, and space shuttle cases will look back to what was
decided for horses and buggies."

The personal decisions that would accompany genetic enhancement
are frightening. How would you feel about your first child when
the second one comes bundled with upgrades? Could the younger
sibling ever enjoy a sense of real achievement, or would the
kid forever wonder if that three-minute mile had been written
in before birth? "I suppose if I were the only one enhanced,
I'd feel a bit of a cheat," Watson admits. Where do you draw
the line between risks and rewards? Changing the germ line—those
genes that will be passed onto future generations—must be done
ahead of the fetus's development, and so carries tremendous potential
for cascades of disaster. Somatic therapies—delivering genes
to a living person—have loosed cancers in test subjects.

Even in best-case scenarios, the questions are endless. Will
genetically enhanced people be held back by society, just as
gifted students are now woefully underserved? Should you have
to pay insurance premiums inflated by others whose parents lacked
the foresight to eliminate disease genes? How much privacy protection
should such people have? Pity the presidential candidate who
must reveal that she's been enhanced by a lab instead of a blue-blood
pedigree.

Why should the DNA-boosted have to follow our usual strictures
at all? "The minimum time you must invest to do a Ph.D. these
days is something like three years," says Princeton philosopher
Peter Singer. "But why force someone to do it in three years
when it can be done in three months?" Need a person with faster
reaction times be stuck driving 55 miles per hour?

Social pressure may end up curbing wild-eyed genetic hubris,
says Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver. "Parents
want kids like themselves, except maybe a little smarter," he
says. "Not beyond the curve, but on the leading edge of the curve.
I think this is all going to happen very slowly, step by step.
That's much more insidious, of course."

The means to achieve GM babies are spreading, and if the practice
ever catches on, it'll be because parents are trying to keep
up with the Joneses.

Douglas Osheroff, a Nobelist for physics, opposes genetic enhancement
on principle. Instead of molecular manipulation, he favors providing
a stimulating environment, which as a Stanford professor, he
could provide in spades. But even he concedes, "If it appeared
that [my children] would not be competitive unless they were
engineered, I suppose I would seriously consider this process."

So once created, what kind of reception would those kids get?
Most visions of genetic engineering—Gattaca, Brave New World—focus
on the danger of having a genetic über-class. These dystopian
renderings overlook one crucial fact: Time and again, mob rule
has eliminated elites, real or perceived. "This could be another
way privilege is concentrated and the underclass will be angry,"
Watson says. "The underclass has always been angry, sometimes
with good reason."

The raw meritocracy of the Olympics will segregate against GM
humans, even an athlete with a single GM grandparent, according
to World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound. "They can go
and compete with people who've had genetic enhancements," he
says. But the Olympics have always been a proving ground for
genetics. Jesse Owens demolished Nazi claims of a superior race
in the Berlin games of 1936. And as Silver notes, bicyclist Lance
Armstrong has a heart 33 percent larger than average. "That's
not just training," the biologist says. "That's genetics."

Pound freely acknowledges that these people didn't earn their
genes any more than would a person whose parents had them tweaked
in a lab. "No matter what you do with a five-one Indonesian or
Malaysian, you're never going to make him a star NBA player.
You're also not going to turn a seven-two basketball player into
a great badminton player," he says. "Just like athletes from
developing nations with poor nutrition, those were the cards
they were dealt by chance. I don't look to sport to resolve all
of the inequities of the world."

Those sitting at the highest echelons of intellectual life say
they'll be more welcoming. Osheroff judged the most recent round
of what's widely regarded as the junior Nobels, the Intel Science
Talent Search. "I believe that mental power is far more important
than athletic talent to humanity, and don't think that we would
be likely to exclude genetically engineered humans from such
competitions as the STS," he says, adding that he'd put his money
where his mouth is. "As far as my not getting a Nobel Prize because
an engineered human won one, I think the issue is who has done
work which is more deserving. The prizes should be considered
as drawing attention to major advances in science, not something
that confers instant genius on the recipients."

But in the shorthand of our culture, getting into Harvard does.
"There's no dearth of quality, of brain power. Kids with 1600
SATs are a dime a dozen now, thanks to prolonged coaching since
eighth grade or seventh grade," says Dwight Miller, senior admissions
officer at the university. The school looks for other intangibles
to round out its classes, a practice that could thwart a genetic
pecking order. "There are plenty of arrogant people here already.
We don't try to compound it. All of this is diametrically opposed
to genetic engineering."

Yet Harvard wouldn't limit the number of GM students it accepted.
"I don't think it's written into the Constitution that one is
guaranteed the right to attend the college of one's choice. The
last thing you're ever going to hear Harvard say is there are
quotas," Miller says.

The trade-offs and ethical conundrums are enough to tie an anti-quota
Republican parent like Steve Sanford in knots. He's a successful
commercial artist and credits genetics for much of his ability,
tracing his lineage through talented artists and draftsmen directly
back to George Washington's portrait painter, Charles Willson
Peale. His daughter, Emily, recently won admission to two prestigious
New York City institutions, Stuyvesant High School and the LaGuardia
High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But what if
she couldn't get into Harvard because its ranks were filling
with the offspring of parents who could afford million-dollar
enhancements?

"I'd say that's definitely not fair—it's like being able to buy
your way out of conscription in the Civil War," her father says.
"There could be riots, I think. Things could get out of control."

Then again, if he were having a new child in an era when designer
babies were common, he'd opt for enhancement if he knew it was
safe and a competitive necessity. But for the same reasons he
wouldn't want her to have bat wings genetically grafted on, he
wouldn't want her to be so intelligent as to be "a freak, someone
who can't socially relate to other people. Being smart has its
own rewards, but if you go too far the kid will probably be lonely
and maybe ostracized."

Sanford intuitively locks onto Lee Silver's powerful brake—that
need to connect.

Society has always been cruel to the unusually gifted. When asked
what enhancement she'd give a child, Mensa's American president
doesn't answer intelligence or immunity to cancer. "Sure, I'd
want my child to have at least an average IQ, but if I had the
opportunity to pick one thing to enhance for a child I would
probably pick physical attractiveness," Jean Becker says. "It
opens doors to you. People like physically attractive people.
It's one thing that has been linked to higher wages and an easier
emotional life, and I don't know of any research like that in
terms of intelligence. I'm sorry to say that and ashamed that
in our culture it's true."

And maybe that'll be the end to which the free market drives
biotech: the quest for classic beauty under a microscope instead
of a knife. Hey, at least it would spare a few slots at Harvard.

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