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Tired Tropes and New Twists in the Debate about Human Germline Modification

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on May 28th, 2015


Untitled Document

BEINGS 2015, or “Biotech and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit,” billed itself as “a gathering of global thought leaders to reach consensus on the direction of biotechnology for the 21st century.” The event, held May 17–19 in Atlanta, took place against the backdrop of the simmering controversy about the use of new gene editing tools to alter the human germline, and the prospect of human germline modification was a frequent and hot topic. 

Both my observations as a “delegate” attending BEINGS 2015 and commentary about it (including this post at The Guardian by Charis Thompson, Ruha Benjamin Jessica Cussins and myself, and this coverage in BuzzFeed) unsurprisingly indicate that “consensus” is not in the cards. This is especially true because lead organizer Paul Wolpe set out to include participants representing the full spectrum of views, and succeeded in that goal.

By design, “faculty” and “delegates” addressed a broad range of biotech topics, and a months-long document-drafting process that is now underway will reflect that full range. More about the conference can be found on Twitter at #beings2015, and the organizers have promised that video will soon be posted. This post focuses mostly on comments and exchanges at BEINGS 2105 about human germline modification.

The far end of techno-enthusiastic perspectives, both on human germline modification specifically and on biotech in general, was represented by Harvard experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker. In his opening remarks, Pinker counseled bioethicists to "stay out of the way of progress." In his closing comments, he cast “vague fears” as standing in the way of saving millions of lives. In between, he epitomized the “bad boy scientism” that too frequently characterizes the biotech field.

Pinker provided an undiluted dose of the trope that feminist scholar Charis Thompson calls the “pro-curial frame.” In that framework, “cures and treatments for disease” – promises of which are often wildly exaggerated – are pitted against “risks and ethics,” often described as fuzzy and hypothetical. Pinker, for example, told Buzzfeed that “biomedical research has the potential to save a vast number of lives and prevent staggering amounts of human suffering” and that “[g]etting in the way of progress in biomedical research means more people will be sick and die.” From the stage of BEINGS 2015, he proclaimed, “Ethics is quite simple: life is better than death, and health is better than disease. That’s it.”

In this view, any concerns about any aspect of biotechnology other than immediate harms to identifiable individuals are illegitimate. One participant summarized Pinker’s perspective with this tweet: “We need to resist bowing at the altar of amorphous existential risks without identifiable harms.” And without specifying his target, Pinker himself tweeted, “Sadly, some still use woolly dignity/sacredness arguments against curing disease & preventing death.”

Another tired trope that surfaced over and over at BEINGS 2015 was a starkly disdainful tone about “the public.” Dan Gincel, Executive Director of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund, talked about “a lot of public alarmism that as scientists we can discount.” Dismissals of “the public” were sometimes tempered by the view that “the public” simply needs to be educated (by scientists). As an article about BEINGS 2015 in BioWorld that gave most of its play to the biotech-cheerleading camp put it, “Much of the fear surrounding science – of any kind – can be attributed to lack of clear communication with the public.”

This view of the public, known in science and technology studies as the “deficit model,” was clearly applied to concerns about the creation of genetically modified human beings. Harvard geneticist and synthetic biologist George Church, for example, remarked that concerns about human germline modification and reproductive cloning “come up like a reflex not passing through the cerebral cortex.” Several speakers opined that the major problem regarding human germline modification is “the public’s perception” of it. Pinker went on at some length about why there’s no need to be concerned about genetic engineering of future human beings. According to BioWorld, he “scoffed at the idea of gene-editing tech ever being used to allow wealthy people to build genetically enhanced children.”

While it’s true that, as Pinker put it, “There is no gene that gives you 10 IQ points,” researchers continue to search for the combinations of genes associated with “intelligence,” and gene variants said to confer particular kinds of athletic prowess have been identified. It’s easy to imagine, as germline modification advocate and Princeton molecular geneticist Lee Silver did years ago in the pages of Time, that fertility clinics of the future will advertise the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to procure genetic upgrades for “your child-to-be.”

After arguing that concerns about human germline enhancement are silly, Pinker went on to ridicule the notion that modifying the germline would represent anything new. In fact, he said, human germline modification has “no coherent meaning.” As BioWorld reported,

"I'm not sure what it means to pass on the germline to future generations," because mutations are constantly being introduced, he said. "Each of us is changing the genome, whether we like it or not, when we have children."

BioWorld did not report Pinker’s following comment that “the women who decided to sleep with me or not sleep with me were making decisions about altering the human germline.”

The litany of comments trivializing public concerns about biotech developments is unfortunately nothing new. But there's a novel twist on this trope that was in evidence at BEINGS 2015, and that's also cropped up in other recent conversations about human germline modification. It holds that people have been brainwashed to worry by anti-science depictions in literature, on television and in films. During a recent hour-long NPR program titled Re-Engineering Human Embryos, for example, host Tom Ashbrook played a clip from the 1997 film GATTACA; later that day, Carl Zimmer blogged, “I’d like an international ban on invoking GATTACA in these discussions.”

As the BioWorld account of BEINGS 2015 put this view, the public has been “conditioned by a pop culture filled with dystopian fiction – not to mention many a Hollywood blockbuster – that has instilled a common wariness for the unintended outcomes that can accompany scientific progress.” Genetics Policy Institute Executive Director Bernie Siegel came to the microphone to say that “the public is hysterically afraid of biotechnology based on what they see on TV" and that “the public thinks scientists are creating the zombie apocalypse.” Pinker warned bioethicists to “stay away from science fiction dystopias,” a category in which he included GATTACA and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as the myths of Prometheus and Pandora.

These efforts to police the boundaries of conversation about human germline modification were in keeping with other similar moves at BEINGS 2015. In response to a comment about the experiences of physicists who helped develop the nuclear bomb and were appalled when it was dropped without warning in Japan, Pinker said, “We have absolutely nothing to learn from the Manhattan Project.” At another point, libertarian Ron Bailey declared that “the precautionary principle is an evil influence on bioethics.” In sum, these techno-enthusiasts are now arguing that as we think about the human future, we should rule out considering what we might learn from works of literature and film, as well as those aspects of myth, policy and history they don’t like.

One final cameo from BEINGS 2015 illustrates the antipathy to public oversight of biotechnology, as well as a gender dynamic that often creeps into discussions about its social implications. Dan Gincel opened his presentation on the second day of the conference with a slide of a bright red Ferrari and announced, “Now that’s innovation.” Biotech researchers, he said, are doing their best to move forward as fast as possible, and efforts to establish regulations are the brakes. That was an opening I couldn’t resist. Here’s a rough rendition of what I said in response: 

What kind of person gets to climb behind the wheel of a car like that, and who is being taken on a wild ride? In a world in which we’re trying to keep fossil fuels in the ground to avoid a civilizational climate crisis, a world of galloping inequality, should we be encouraging and celebrating a car that costs a quarter of a million dollars?

Yes, we want to keep moving forward, but carefully and following the rules of the road. And even a Ferrari has a steering wheel. A lot of us are saying that we need a way to get many more hands on the wheel – citizens’ hands. A Ferrari also has a rear-view mirror, and looking in it once in a while should help inform where we’re going. A Ferrari has brakes; we should certainly apply those as needed. In fact, sometimes we need to slam on the brakes. That’s the case with human germline modification. There’s no need to go there, and it would take us down a very dangerous road.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Bioethics, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Marcy Darnovsky's Blog Posts, Reproductive Cloning, Synthetic Biology


Comments

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  1. Comment by Dwight Jones, Jun 5th, 2015 4:23pm

    Humans have a germline, but so too do you. If your phenotype has to be modified to enable a treatment, so be it. Unless you subsequently have children, the danger is moot.

    OTOH, your PERSONAL germline has indeed been altered. You can take an interest in its preservation and, beforehand, safeguard it, as with Genity.org by sequestering your native DNA with your own kind.

    Clones do not exist, and likely cannot, despite the machinations of mind uploaders. Your genotype however, if you come to recognize it for what it is - can and will be effectively immortal if left in the right hands.

    There is nothing illegitimate about this line of thinking, and resistance would be intellectually inadvisable.


  2. Comment by Dwight Jones, Jun 5th, 2015 4:21pm

    Humans have a germline, but so too do you. If your phenotype has to be modified to enable a treatment, so be it. Unless you subsequently have children, the danger is moot.

    OTOH, your PERSONAL germline has indeed been altered. You can take an interest in its preservation and, beforehand, safeguard it, as with Genity.org by sequestering your native DNA with your own kind.

    Clones do not exist, and likely cannot, despite the machinations of mind uploaders. Your genotype however, if you come to recognize it for what it is - can and will be effectively immortal if left in the right hands.

    There is nothing illegitimate about this line of thinking, and resistance would be intellectually inadvisable.


  3. Comment by Justine Durrell, May 29th, 2015 9:19am

    Analyzing new life-changing technologies in a purely linear mode of thinking fails to balance the nonlinear depth and peripheral considerations of the world it intends to be integrated into. As such, without the broader considerations, life-altering technology threatens and frightens people, as any unintegrated power rightfully does.


  4. Comment by Jeff Scott, May 29th, 2015 6:33am

    I am always suspicious of people who can only invoke vague and ethereal concerns at the expense of concrete ones. Things like CRISPRs can cure specific diseases, decrease human suffering, extend life, and improve quality of life. All of these are very real and concrete metrics of human well-being.

    On the other hand, we have people who find power in your Ferrari rebuttal analogy, which touches on many of the banal concerns coming from certain bioethicists. Things like "dignity," "natural order," "altering the germline," "rules of the road" - suspiciously non-specific that may or may not have anything to do with human well-being. Why not cut out the nonsense and talk directly about actual metrics of human well-being? If CRISPRs, as a specific example, are great cause for concern, then it should be very easy to summon the intellectual tools to say, specifically, why it matters in terms of real harm to humans. And please try to do better than "someone, somewhere, someday might use it for ill."

    In many ways it is so much like theology. We hear Christians say homosexuality is dangerous because of the same kind of concerns that likely have nothing to do with actual human well-being. Homosexuality is "eroding dignity" or it is "against the natural order", we are told. Yet we are never told anything concrete about human happiness, lifespan, etc. The irony is that I suspect most bioethicists would defend homosexuals with almost identical arguments I've made here. Yet suddenly when their doomsday imagination gets the better of them, they revert to vague and non-specific concerns.

    Respectfully,
    Jeff


  5. Comment by Jeff Harding, May 29th, 2015 6:32am

    I am always suspicious of people who can only invoke vague and ethereal concerns at the expense of concrete ones. Things like CRISPRs can cure specific diseases, decrease human suffering, extend life, and improve quality of life. All of these are very real and concrete metrics of human well-being.

    On the other hand, we have people who find power in your Ferrari rebuttal analogy, which touches on many of the banal concerns coming from certain bioethicists. Things like "dignity," "natural order," "altering the germline," "rules of the road" - suspiciously non-specific that may or may not have anything to do with human well-being. Why not cut out the nonsense and talk directly about actual metrics of human well-being? If CRISPRs, as a specific example, are great cause for concern, then it should be very easy to summon the intellectual tools to say, specifically, why it matters in terms of real harm to humans. And please try to do better than "someone, somewhere, someday might use it for ill."

    In many ways it is so much like theology. We hear Christians say homosexuality is dangerous because of the same kind of concerns that likely have nothing to do with actual human well-being. Homosexuality is "eroding dignity" or it is "against the natural order", we are told. Yet we are never told anything concrete about human happiness, lifespan, etc. The irony is that I suspect most bioethicists would defend homosexuals with almost identical arguments I've made here. Yet suddenly when their doomsday imagination gets the better of them, they revert to vague and non-specific concerns.

    Respectfully,
    Jeff


 


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