Synthetic Eugenics and Scientific Silence

Posted by Daniel Sharp on June 21st, 2012

Last week, I flew cross-country to a symposium on synthetic biology organized by the National Academy of Sciences. While much of the symposium was as I expected, I was appalled that a growing number of synthetic biologists seem to support re-engineering future generations of human beings in fundamental and radical ways.

Using synthetic biology techniques to redesign the human germline came up a number of times, with little recognition of the serious ethical problems it would pose. For example, Peter Leadlay, a biologist at the University of Cambridge, remarked:

I’m really interested in nature, but I do not see any problem, and I’m struggling to understand why other people have a problem, with changing the genetic makeup of a human if it is done reflectively, thoughtfully, we have good reason to believe it might work, and it alleviates human suffering.  So, I think that it is perfectly proper to do that, and it is just part of what we’ve been doing already for the same reasons.
Jaydee Hanson of the International Center for Technology Assessment reminded the speaker that there’s an old name for this practice: eugenics. But no one from the synthetic biology community took Leadlay to task.  In fact, quite the opposite: The twittersphere buzzed with hostility at Hanson’s suggestion that using synthetic biology for eugenic purposes should be prohibited, and with the repeated claim that this would undermine key research.

Remarks like Leadlay’s wouldn’t be so disturbing if they were isolated incidents.  But a number of leading synthetic biologists seem to share his view that modifying fundamental aspects of human biology in irreversible ways is “perfectly proper.” Here’s a list of similar statements: 
•    Drew Endy: “What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?”
•    Craig Venter: “Not too many things excite my imagination as trying to design organisms – even people – for long term space flight, and perhaps colonization of other worlds.”
•    George Church: “I wouldn't mind being virus-free,” he says with equal parts mirth and earnestness. It may be too late to reengineer all of his own cells to prevent viral infections, but Church doesn't rule out the possibility of rewiring the genome of a human embryo to be virus-proof.
•    Andrew Hessel: “[P]erhaps it's time to consider a new grand challenge for genetics, one that captures the public interest. I can think of none grander than an international effort to write a human genome. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm talking only about the task of writing a complete 3 billion basepair human genome, correctly organized into 23 chromosomes, and packaged into a nucleus. A technical challenge, validated by showing the synthetic genome is functional if microinjected into a cultured cell. What I'm definitely not suggesting is growing a baby from a synthetic genome. Before we can fly, we need to be able to walk”
•    JohnJoe McFadden:  “But why stop with microbes? It will soon be possible to make entirely novel forms of plants or animals (including man).”

Surely not all synthetic biology researchers share these techno-eugenic dreams. An article by one critic, New York Medical College Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy Stuart Newman, can be found here. But with only a few exceptions, the eugenic fantasies of leading synthetic biologists have been met so far by a disturbing silence in the scientific community. Here’s hoping that more of their colleagues will speak up to challenge them.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Eugenics, Synthetic Biology


Comments are now closed for this item.

  1. Comment by Cameron Keys, Jun 25th, 2012 2:23pm

    J Craig Venter, though, I admit to having mixed feelings for. That man is a tremendously adept pirate.

    On one circumnavigation of the globe on his Sorcerer II yacht, Venter's team isolated tens of thousands of new species of microorganism. They will attempt to patent them all. Anyone who finds productive uses for these species will have to pay up.

    Venter's business ventures are documented in exhaustive detail in Lewis D. Solomon's 2012 book Synthetic Biology: Science, Business, and Policy. Venter has tremendous business acumen and great technical skill.

  2. Comment by Cameron Keys, Jun 25th, 2012 2:18pm

    To fuel your ethical concerns, you might want to look through DARPA's 2013 budget proposal -- at least the part that is unclassified. The Living Foundries program is alive and well (10.549 million for FY2013, which starts Oct. 1st, 2012), and the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT)program to develop RNA-vaccines using synbio is double listed, once for 15.5 million and again for 24.5 million, which probably means this program has two components, and a total of 40 million in funding for one year of R&D.

    If you like science fiction novels, the mind reels to consider what synthetic biology will become in the timeframe of some great books like John Scalzi's Old Man's War, when aging civilians are given the chance to exchange their old bodies for new ones with extraordinary capacities. The price to be paid is that these refreshed octogenarians are consigned to fight for the Colonial Defense Forces on a galactic quest to make the universe safe for mankind.

  3. Comment by Cameron Keys, Jun 25th, 2012 1:59pm

    I agree with you that these are somewhat alarming statements, in principle.

    There are a very many places where the ethical concerns of synthetic biology have been aired -- especially by the people you've quoted. Many of these people testified in front of the President's Bioethics Commission in 2010, where they spoke of ethics almost constantly. Endy is a leader in writing codes of conduct for DIY practitioners.

    Allow me to characterize what I think their position is. 1) In the near term, synbio might be capable of curing or preventing some diseases. This would be a positive development. 2) In the longer term, we can imagine more exotic changes that might also be positive developments, but more controversial. 3) In the far distant future, we can imagine radical changes to human physiology; we simply acknowledge this possibility -- some of us are open to the thought, and some of us object.

    These are separate temporal horizons. Are you objecting to the ethical desirability of the near term claim, or just the longer or far distant future claims?

    If you think synbio is currently capable of modifying the human genome to make good on any of these claims, think again. One speaker at the 2010 Commission pointed out that we don't even understand e. coli yet. Diseases are multi-factoral, and preventing bad things from happening to people requires a vast knowledge of systems biology that we do not possess, and are not likely to possess for at least a while. We can shove engineered DNA into a living shell, but that living shell has hundreds of thousands of working parts that we have no idea how to control. When we put two standardized DNA pieces together, they typically behave in unexpected ways. At this point, we are trying to focus our research into clear domains, asking good research questions, to build some of the knowledge required to do some things that seem ethically desirable. The more distant futures are not set in stone; some of us have opinions and feelings about what is and is not ethically acceptable. Right now, though, our knowledge is utterly rudimentary; powerful, yet rudimentary.

    In short, they are all speaking about distant hypotheticals. How distant? One decade, eight decades? Tough to say. Stay tuned!

    There is plenty of room for ethical discussion in these fora. These are not monstrous, unthinking, uncritical mad scientists. These are almost all really thoughtful, very interesting people. They value humanity and are not itching to try some exotic experiment to shift the trajectory of the species.

  4. Comment by Daniel Sharp, Jun 22nd, 2012 11:34am

    Dear Shlomo,

    Thanks so much for your comment. You're right to point out that there may be benefits from the work these researchers are doing. What I was trying to convey in this brief post is how little discussion, attention, and care are being paid by some synthetic biologists to the serious ethical dilemmas posed by modifying the human genome in potentially inheritable ways. I also wanted to point out that these statements have so far received little response from other scientists. These are topics that certainly warrant a longer piece that provides more context and qualification.

  5. Comment by Shlomo Sher, Jun 21st, 2012 1:30pm

    While there are many reasons to be concerned about various types of genetic modification, there is also clearly something that may be gained from them. These scientists might be overly-optimistic in their outlook, but simply labeling them as pro-"eugenics", which is all this article does, tells us nothing critical about their views.



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