Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Designer babies?

It was bound to happen sooner or later: the technology to design your own kid. A futuristic technology that Star Trek never touched, for obvious reasons, but should be readily available in Roddenberry's future. (Actually it sort of is, and highly illegal, but what was done to Dr. Julian Bashir wasn't gender choice or physical characteristics; he was genetically enhanced to be smarter and more agile, and that isn't the same thing.)

The first main concern is gender. The Chinese are already doing this, to some extent. They only allow families one baby per couple, with certain exceptions, so a lot of female babies are illegally aborted to allow a man to have a male heir, and of course a laborer after so many years. (My blog is so going to get blacklisted in China.) The problem with this is, after a few generations, China will become an all-male population, or so male-heavy that females will become a scarce commodity traded by the rich and the desperate. The sex slave trade will take off and rape will become very common. And since China is one of the most populated countries in the world, this will affect the rest of us as well.

So what gender would Americans pick? I do believe a lot of Americans would choose to have a son, as well. (I'd love to drop a joke about Catholics, but my wife's Catholic, so I've got to tread carefully.) A lot more (than China) would choose daughters (as would I - they're much easier to deal with in the first 10-12 years, heh heh) but the gender balance would still be largely offset. If you're rich and you really want a girl, you can go to China and pull a Brangelina and try to adopt one before somebody opens her throat with a blade, but what if you work for a living?

And that leads to the second point of interest. Some believe that 'designer babies' can be almost guaranteed to be free of many diseases, deformities, and defects. No allergies. No asthma. Nothing like that. But of course this would all cost a lot of money; tens, or possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars. If it weren't such a smack in the face to much of what Christianity stands for, you'd be able to expect overwhelming support from the Republicans as a way to further divide the rich and poor. But is it right, some ask, to play God by using genetic manipulation to eliminate disease? I believe that's exactly a doctor's responsibility, to fight disease any way they can. And if they can eliminate a disease before birth, well, they can devote so many more resources to fighting the diseases they haven't defeated yet. AIDS and cancer, to name two heavy hitters.

But would they be eliminating diseases? Who's to say a perfect baby will really be perfect? There is such a thing as too good to be true, and this could well be one of them. I think anybody who thinks they can make a perfect and disease-free baby is kidding themselves; more likely the baby's going to come out worse off than a naturally-born baby. Something will have to go wrong somewhere. Or maybe the kid will just fall over and die after ten years. We are not advanced enough, scientifically, to guarantee that such a thing will not happen.

Gender and physical traits, possibly. Moral issues aside, those do seem like a possibility. There are certain DNA markers that decide those traits, and if all of them can be found, and all of them can be altered correctly, then you very likely have the makings of a baby design system. The article does not cover sexuality, but I imagine that's on a lot of peoples' minds. Could a baby be engineered to be 100% heterosexual, with no leanings toward the same gender? While it's horrible that parents disown their children when they find out they're gay, it's understandable if they could use pre-birth genetic manipulation to ensure their kids are born straight. The caveat here is that most homophobes believe that sexual orientation is a choice and are therefore bisexual and would miss the point. Additionally, God, whose followers not only accept, but often preach, works in mysterious ways, may have created homosexuality as an attempt to fight overpopulation (nevermind that many gay couples want or have kids and many straight couples either can't have kids or don't want kids). So if we eliminate that, we may be slapping God in the face, proverbially, by eliminating it. If you don't believe in God, at least consider that homosexuality might be a natural evolutionary process for Nature to prevent overpopulation of the human race; whether it's God or Nature, it's engineering brilliance regardless.

The problem however, is that despite being a quantifiable and inborn trait, sexuality as we know it manifests itself in so many ways. If they can track down every DNA marker which makes one gay and flip the switch, maybe they're onto something. But would they stop there? Aside from the tendency to have relations with the same gender, we have people who are attracted to the very young and very old, we have people who prefer rape to consensual sex, and, while perfectly legal, we have people interested in various fetishes, as opposed to "square" sex. Most of those, including some cases of homosexuality (though it isn't true homosexuality, but that's beside the point) are caused by psychological conditions. So essentially they would need to discover all the triggers and eliminate them. Essentially we are talking about removing trauma from the human condition. Pedophilia is an easy target because it gets studied more than anything else I've mentioned in this paragraph, and for good reason. It's a highly dangerous trait and one which should be at the top of the list to eliminate, if possible. And it's often caused by trauma, the cycle of abuse.

But then what can we say for the human condition if we eliminate trauma? We go and eliminate the ability of the mind to become traumatized by abuse because this causes the victim to, in some cases, become abusive themselves down the road. As good as that sounds, what comes next? Could we also eliminate sadness? How about grief? See where I'm going with this?

As a sci-fi fan and something of a science nerd, I can't advocate genetic manipulation because I can see where it can go. I can advocate it in a limited fashion. For example, as long as China is euthanizing girls by the thousands (millions?), I think Americans and Europeans ought to be able to choose to have a girl. That may be vital to the success of the human race (never mind that an all-male China will spread out to the rest of the world, where there are females, and outbreed everyone else). Also, elimination of specific diseases that can be successfully eliminated is a good thing. Two stipulations: First, this has got to be available to everybody, whether you punch a time clock or lounge around all day watching the stock market or whatever rich people do. Second, advancements need to be strictly regulated, and not by nutjobs who want to limit it (aka Christians) or tyrants who want to use it to enforce class separation (aka the Republicans), but rather by a responsible group of some kind.

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