by Jamie Metzl
Genetic enhancement is the inevitable future of our species.
For years, I have been writing articles and speaking about how most of us will ultimately use genetic selection and manipulation when having children. I’ve made the case in journals like the esteemed Foreign Affairs and in testimony to the US Congress that the revolution in genetic technologies would mean the end of sex as a means of procreation, that our children will be conceived in labs, and that we will eliminate genetic diseases that have plagued us for millennia and live longer healthier lives.
As I’ve laid out my case argument by argument, describing what science can already achieve and how global competition will ensure that human genetic engineering races on even if entire countries, perhaps the United States, decide to opt out, I’ve watched eyes listeners’ eyes bulge ever bigger. Something about challenging nature felt to them at the same time frightening and the defining attribute of our species’ history (the moment we developed agriculture and medicine, we were giving the finger the nature as it found us).
When my new genetics thriller, Genesis Code, was released in November 2014, I travelled the country telling audiences of the brave new world of genetic engineering that has already arrived. We are, for example, already experimenting with gene therapies, are on the verge of allowing mitochondrial transfer treatments in places like the UK that will result in babies being born with three genetic parents, and are engaging in embryo selection in some countries based on the genetic attributes of pre-implanted embryos.
Writing a novel, however, is different than writing policy articles or testimonies. A novel, of course, is simply a distilled essence of some part of the author’s soul, and a writer on a speaking tour is therefore already more exposed than the same person (in this case, me) speaking about policy issues.
So when someone at a Los Angeles book event asked me a personal question, I was already disarmed, exposed, and predisposed to a more personal answer.
“Would you genetically enhance your own children?”
I’d been speaking for years about the inevitability of our genetic future, but this question wasn’t about that. It was about me, about the children I don’t yet have. My mind raced to a favorite cousin, a hugely successful doctor and father of three adorable children, who’d displayed a genetic abnormality in his amniocentesis as a six month embryo. Would my perfectly healthy cousin have been selected from a group of ten early stage embryos prior to IVF implantation if that technology had been around then? I hate to say it, but probably not.
In the genetic selection process available today (called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, or PGD) the woman has her eggs extracted, then fertilized by the male sperm in vitro. Then the fertilized eggs are grown from one cell each to eight cells each, and one cell from each of these blastocysts (early stage embryos) is removed and analyzed. Anything we can know from the genome we can know from these individual cells. Currently, we can test for single gene mutations like those for gender as well as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, etc. In the future, we will be able to determine polygenic traits like height and the genetic component of intelligence.
But does that mean that I and my partner wouldn’t want to screen our future embryos for genetic defects prior to implantation? I am in my 40s. The research has been around for a while saying that women over thirty-five have higher rates of genetic abnormalities in their offspring than younger women, but recent research has indicated that older fathers carry a genetic risk as well. And if we were already screening embryos for genetic defects and choosing which from the ten or fifteen of our natural blastocysts to implant, would I instruct the doctor not to tell me about what else the genome indicated for each of my potential children?
Genes, of course, do not tell the whole story of our lives, but any parent can tell you that much of what our children are is baked in by the time of birth, an observation that studies of twins have confirmed conclusively. I am also a data driven person, always aspiring to choose even the hardest truth to even the most comforting falsehood or avoidance. Would I turn off one of the most significant drivers of my being during the most significant event in my life? I doubt it. If I determined that the benefits of genome-based embryo selection outweighed the risks, and, critically, my partner felt the same, I would do it.
But what if, as will likely be the case in the future, I could choose from a hundred or a thousand of my natural blastocysts after stem cell technologies make it possible to produce many more eggs from each prospective mother? We, like other parents, would get a spread sheet telling us about the genetic predispositions of our various potential offspring. Of the thousand blastocysts, for example, we might hear that these twenty have Down syndrome, these fifty have a genetic predisposition to genius, these fifteen have the same genetic markers as most Olympic marathon champions, etc. Would we tell the doctors to just make a random selection from among the thousand options, or would we pore over the spreadsheet to make our choice? The idea of selecting our children is uncomfortable to many, but it would take a strong dose of ideology to actively choose the randomness built in to our traditional reproductive process.
And let’s just say that we selected our embryo but found that it, perhaps like all of the thousand, had one gene carried by both of us, perhaps a gene that gave the future child a thousand times greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s? If it were deemed completely safe, would we not even consider asking the doctor to replace that faulty gene with a synthetic version or a replacement gene from someone else’s genome?
Thinking like this is so different from where we have come as a species, but it is almost certainly where we are going. And that future will have to start somewhere. Someone was the first person to use an antibiotic, or take a vitamin, or do IVF, or plant a seed. If science and science fiction feel like they are merging, would it not make sense for science fiction writers like me to be among the early adopters?
I, like many others, have both great hopes and great fears about the ongoing genetics revolution. I constantly ask myself, and others, if we really know enough about the massively complex human system to be taking what may be irreversible action (probably not, but that hasn’t stopped us before), if genetic selection and enhancement run the risk of dividing the human population based on genetics and perceptions of genetics even more that currently the case (absolutely, but the differences in access and opportunity between the most and least advantaged humans is already massive), if genetic selection will make some people think of their children as commodities or consumer products (possibly, if we are not thoughtful and careful), and if selection could ultimately limit human genetic diversity, our greatest source of resilience as a species (at some point, potentially).
But, in the end, assuming the safety of the process and the complicity of my partner, my answer to the questioner in Los Angeles, was a qualified yes.
I am convinced that someday in the not-too-distant future billions of people around the world will join me. But for now I must accept the label that some will ascribe to this philosophy: freak.