2016-06-30
Before long, two new technologies will be available to parents who come to fertility clinics: first, cloning, and second, deleting and inserting genes in the fertilized egg before it is implanted in the mother's womb. The second of these technologies Princeton University scientist Lee Silver calls reprogenetics. Reprogenetics would offer to the parent the opportunity to improve the quality of life of the child, to remove genes that carry susceptibility to various diseases, to insert genes that carry real or perceived advantages. In the long run, reprogenetics is far more important than cloning. Cloning would probably be attractive to a small minority of parents who would otherwise need alien donors and prefer to give a child their own genes. Reprogenetics might be attractive to a far larger population of parents, including many who do not suffer from infertility and would not otherwise think of going to a fertility clinic. The cloning of Dolly caused an explosion of public statements calling for laws prohibiting the cloning of humans. But the social consequences of allowing parents to clone babies are unlikely to be serious, provided that the procedures are certified to be safe and do not damage the offspring. Meanwhile, the possible repercussions of reprogenetics are far more severe and have received little public attention. Lee Silver observes that, after the desire to have children, the desire to have successful children is the next strongest force driving parental behavior. Many parents spend the greater part of their disposable income to send their children to private schools and universities, believing that education is the key to success. If, for a small fraction of the cost of higher education, parents could endow their children with superior genes, the demand for reprogenetics might become irresistible. Superior genes might give a child the ability to be an Olympic figure skating champion, or to be chief executive officer of a company, or whatever else the ambitious parents might wish.

Unfortunately, it would not be possible for the parents to obtain the informed consent of the child before undertaking the experiment. Nobody yet knows whether superior genes exist or how they might be identified. But the progress of knowledge of human genetics is rapid, and the technology of reprogenetics will not be far behind.

Silver believes that, as far into the future as he can see, the technology of reprogenetics will be expensive. He sees a possible long-range consequence of reprogenetics to be the splitting of humanity into two species, which he calls GenRich and Naturals. GenRich are people who can afford to give their children genetic enrichment. Naturals are those who are left behind. After a few centuries, the division between rich and poor might become hereditary, and the two classes might cease to interbreed. All economic and political power would belong to the GenRich. Naturals could not compete in the market for influential jobs and would have to be content with the station in life to which their genes have called them. Human society would once again be divided into master and slaves. Silver warns us that this nightmare could become reality, if a free market in reprogenetic technology were carried to its logical conclusion. I am imagining a different view of the future. I consider it unlikely that reprogenetic technology will remain permanently expensive. Most of our socially important technologies, such as telephones, automobiles, television, and computers, began as expensive toys for the rich and afterwards became cheap enough for ordinary people to afford. It usually takes about fifty years for a new technology to become generally affordable. Television took less than fifty years; computers may take a little longer. I do not see any reason why reprogenetics should depart from this pattern.
At first, reprogenetics will be expensive for the same reasons that in vitro fertilization is expensive today. It is done by specialist medical doctors and highly trained technicians, it requires long hours of their personal attentions, and demand for the services exceeds the supply. After fifty years the situation is likely to be different. Procedures will become standardized and largely automated. Rich patients will still pay more for personal attention and privacy, but clinics for poor patients will provide standard treatments at reasonable prices. It is possible that clinics will supply take-home do-it-yourself kits for parents who are willing to learn the necessary skills. Having reprogenetic babies at home might become a popular hobby, like desktop publishing today. Silver expects that an effectively free market in reprogenetic technology will exist, at least in the United States, and that efforts to prohibit or restrict its use by parents will not be successful. He expects the technology to remain in private hands. American traditions encourage the replacement of public services by private institutions. In the United States, private universities have more prestige and more resources than public universities, and the idea of a national health service is strongly resisted. But in many other countries, higher education and health services are provided by the state, and traditions favor the maintenance of high-quality public services. When reprogenetic technology becomes available, it is likely that many countries will decide to make it available to citizens as a public service. Where it exists as a public service, it may also be available in a deluxe private version to the rich, but the private suppliers will not enjoy a monopoly, and the rich patients will not have it all to themselves. In countries where everyone is legally entitled to reprogenetic technology, a division of society into GenRich and Naturals is unlikely.
Even in the United States, if the beginnings of such a division become clearly visible, public outrage could put an end to it, just as public outrage put an end to slavery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was defended by believers in the free market. Abolitionists decided that the free market should not extend to human bodies, and their view prevailed. I hope and believe that our descendents will decide, in the fullness of time, that the free market should not extend to human genes.

Silver and I are in agreement when we consider the more remote future. We agree that the technology of reprogenetics will ultimately split humanity into many species, and that the division will not be only between rich and poor. The division will be between different philosophies of life and different ways of living. When desires for different ways of living can be translated into reality, the diversity of desires will be translated into a diversity of species. The technology of reprogenetics will then be only a faster version of the natural process of speciation which has been generating new species ever since life began. Speciation happens naturally when a small population becomes genetically isolated from its neighbors, so that it can adapt independently to changed conditions and find its own ecological niche. Speciation has been, for billions of years, the main engine driving evolution. Established species evolve very slowly, if at all. Only by speciation can evolution move fast. The technology of reprogenetics will be a variation played by humans on nature's theme, allowing evolution to move faster by a creative use of genetic isolation.

The biologist Ursula Goodenough describes, in a recent paper with the title "Rapid Evolution of Sex-related Genes," the genetic machinery by which creatures from algae to yeasts and insects and mammals are enabled to speciate rapidly. Rapid speciation enabled all these creatures to evolve faster than their competitors, and therefore the machinery for rapid speciation is built into their genomes. Rapid speciation requires that the genes involved with mating and sexual recognition mutate more rapidly than other genes.

Goodenough finds that the genomes of higher organisms contain just two classes of genes that are programmed for rapid mutation: the genes for the immune system and the genes for sexual mating systems. The immune system must mutate rapidly to respond to invading bacteria and viruses. The sexual mating genes must mutate rapidly to raise genetic barriers between populations. Genetic barriers are nature's way of creating new species. When we have mastered the technology of reprogenetics, we shall be creating our own genetic barriers, not in opposition to nature, but enabling the natural processes of human evolution to continue.

Even if the division of humanity into several species is a division among equals and not a division between masters and slaves, it will still bring with it intractable social and ethical problems. It is difficult to imagine several human species coexisting peacefully on this small and crowded planet. Here Silver and I are again in agreement. To allow the diversification of human genomes and lifestyles on this planet to continue without restraint is a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later, the tensions between diverging ways of life must be relieved by emigration, some of us finding new places to live away from the Earth while others stay behind. In the end we must travel the high road into space, to find new worlds to match our new capabilities. To give us room to explore the varieties of mind and body into which our genome can evolve, one planet is not enough.

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