The scientific ethicist community’s response to the report that a Chinese genetic researcher successfully altered a gene in twin human embryos (that were later implanted in the mother’s uterus and resulted in live births) was exactly as expected: condemnation, outrage, high dudgeon, and dire warnings. I write “as expected,” because this is what ethicists do: they clutch pearls and wring hands at every bit of human progress that has an element of the unknown about it.

It’s not hard to understand. Fear of the unknown is a deeply ingrained (and quite beneficial) survival tactic, inculcated across millennia of evolution, and not just in humans. It’s reflected throughout and across human cultures and history, and witnessed in warnings as banal as “curiosity killed the cat” and as apocalyptic as can be imagined by the most creative science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers ever born.

This doesn’t mean it’s justified. For one thing, the unknown can become “known” with a bit of investigation or education, diffusing the fear for those who care to challenge it. Many, however, don’t. Care to challenge it, that is. Many would rather take the easy path of continued ignorance rather than put the work into determining whether or not a fear is actually warranted, even when such work comes at no actual risk. And, since such laziness doesn’t really bolster one’s image or reputation, people will find rationalizations to offset the risk of being embarrassed by it. Oftentimes, they’ll find others of a like mind, and band together, satisfying another deeply ingrained survival tactic: safety in numbers.

And, with the advent of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to find other indolents and ignorants with which to echo-chamber fear of the unknown. This, in turn, provides a market for those who wish to profit off that fear, giving rise to dumbasses like David “Avocado” Wolfe, The Food Babe, Ken Ham, Gwyneth, countless celebrity anti-vaxxers, and snake-oil hucksters of all shapes and flavors.

The growth of scientific knowledge has made it more challenging to fully inform one’s self on every unknown, and this drives our ever-increasing reliance on experts and on the idea of scientific consensus. While this is generally a good thing – specialization and division of labor are engines of productivity – it allows the aforementioned indolents to cherry-pick their experts and confirm their preferred beliefs.

One person’s fear-based ignorance is of little concern to the rest of us. Nor, for that matter, is a group’s, as long as the group doesn’t seek to force its ignorance on everyone else. I don’t much care that people with no actual celiac disease or non-celiac sensitivity avoid gluten, for example, because they’re not seeking to have gluten removed from the food supply. I do care, on the other hand, that anti-GMO people oppose things like Golden Rice, because their activity stands in the way of technology that will benefit millions of lives.

This is the problem with the ethicists’ freakouts over genetic engineering of human embryos. Just as we consider it immoral to subject a child to polio when a preventive vaccine exists, or to demand that someone not be cured of a disease with modern medicine (do these ethicists side with Christian Scientist parents who deny their child treatment for a curable disease, or Jehovah’s Witness parents who refuse a medically necessary blood transfusion for their child?), for whatever reason, we must consider the immorality of insisting that correctable genetic defects or diseases not be corrected.

Rather than side with those who claim it’s wrong and dangerous to mess with the natural order (something we’ve been doing since the first days of cooked food and agriculture instead of hunting/gathering), we should side with the unborn. If we have the ability to save a child from cystic fibrosis or hemophilia, it’s morally reprehensible to assert that we shouldn’t. Ditto for congenital blindness or other defects.

But, what of non-medical gene editing? What if a parent wants a blue-eyed child? What of “designer babies” and the fear of the 1% taking over the world?

Bioethicists assert that, once the Pandora’s box is opened, the super-affluent will have the ability to tailor their children, giving them advantages over the poor and less-affluent in their generation, and exacerbating the differences between haves and have-nots. This flies in the face of history and empirical evidence. The wealthiest, by adopting new technologies early, help make those technologies more affordable for the masses not too much later on. Just as those who spent many thousands on the first plasma televisions just a few years ago facilitated the ability of anyone to buy a state-of-the-art flat-screen for a few hundred bucks today, the super-wealthy who pay handsomely to have their kids’ DNA tweaked will accelerate the timetable for the technology becoming available and affordable to everyone.

Technological advances create their own pressure, and build their own momentum. From the moment gene editing became feasible, it became inevitable that it would eventually be used on humans. Many are calling for pre-emptive prohibitions, whether it be out of fear of the unknown, concern about adverse societal effects, or perhaps merely out of jealousy/envy, but in doing so, they ignore the immorality of that ban. We can and should have concerns about side effects or things going wrong in the use of gene-editing technology (as, apparently they have with the twins in China), but that’s akin to judging the efficacy of a medical treatment, not hand-waving about Frankensteins. In other words, informed science, not motivated ignorance.

For some reason, we tend to assume that the people who caution us about the ethical concerns associated with technology speak from a moral high ground. Ditto for environmentalists and others who argue from a “societal good” point of view. It’s far too often the case, though, that these people have a callous indifference to human suffering, and are OK if others die as long as their (often irrational and unsupported) selfish fears be allayed.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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