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Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Y?

Following is an excellent comment in regards a SA article on the evolutionary demise (or stability) of the Y chromosome. It tells me that a new definition for ethics is "thinking ahead."  Who do we really want to be when we grow up? There are ethical principles that can guide us in nature--our own human nature. And only there [unless you believe in supernatural revelation that needs no human interpretation and mediation through language and other human artifacts which I cannot.] But do we want to change nature and it's principles? Maybe. But we at least need to think about it. To think seems to be the most important and primary of our ethical principles--springing from the capacity that most defines our species. But who are "we" doing the thinking? And for whom are we thinking?

Writing people's genetic code runs into a minefield of ethical issues if we're not careful. While gene therapy may be able to cure some diseases of people alive today or in the future, it is nearly impossible and extremely dangerous to change the genetic code of someone after they're older than a zygote. As such, we run the risk of making "designer babies" possible where parents who can afford it can try to give their children the musical talent of Mozart and the athletic talent of Usain Bolt. Meanwhile, those that cannot afford these treatments will be stuck in a permanent underclass with economic inequality much worse than we see today. The movie "Gattica" explored some of these implications a lot better than I'm describing them here.

And since the y chromosome surprised us with how essential it is to human biology aside from sex determination, trying to radically revamp the human genome and reorder millions of years of evolution will be a tough nut to crack. Add in all the surprises that epigenetics is giving us and trying to "improve" the human race through genetic engineering becomes a monumental task.
Sure, let's get rid of the genes that serve no function aside from contributing to horrible diseases. But lets say we identify all the genetic components of Autism for example. Would we want to eliminate them as well even though some of history's greatest thinkers may have been on the autism spectrum? And if we take it further, "improvement" is in the eye of the people making the decisions of which genes to keep and which ones will be eliminated going forward. If there aren't strong ethical safeguards in place, what's to stop the genetic gatekeepers from deciding which ethnic / racial / gender groups will be taken out of the gene pool?

There are tremendous opportunities to improve the human condition through genetic engineering, but they need to be tempered by ethical principles. And since technology can move way faster than our ethics, we need to think long and hard ahead of time to keep potential disasters from happening.

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