Hemmy Cho, "The Ethics of Designer Babies" and "The Ethics of Transhumanism," Ethics of the Future, October 25, 2010 and May 30, 2011. http://www.ethicsofthefuture.com. Copyright © 2011 by Hemmy Cho. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Hemmy Cho is Global Programme Manager at Google. Previously, she worked as a multiplatform trainer and product manager at the BBC, specializing in TV, radio, web, gaming, and social media.
Out of the development of gene science has emerged a new relationship between humans and evolution. Rather than relying on natural selection, parents can now select certain traits for future children. While these advancements have stirred up controversy, designer babies are not the first or only example of humans enhancing their natural states through science. Technology is now moving beyond aids like artificial limbs, which are a substitute for a lost ability, and into giving people "superhuman" powers. Whether genetic selection or technological innovation, these movements in artificial human enhancement bring forward many ethical and societal questions, but all people should be able to benefit from important and worthwhile advancements in human technology.
I recently spent a day with married friends and their beautiful one-year-old girl, Lily. Lily smiled, giggled and ooh-ed at everything and everyone around her. She was simply delighted to be there, in that non-descript café-bar on the South Bank on a grey London afternoon. When she cracked one of those gorgeous sunny smiles at you, it wasn't for any other reason but because she was there, now and she was very pleased about it, and you couldn't help but feel pleased yourself.
Lily is the perfect baby. Cute, pretty, smiley, well-behaved, fun, smart. If people could choose to design their babies, they would make her like Lily. Currently, our knowledge of genetics is not enough to select much more than gender or eliminate certain diseases, but advances in genetics in the future will probably make it possible for parents to 'design' their babies while they are still embryos, i.e. select the gender, hair colour, personality, IQ, and eliminate any diseases and 'negative' traits such as anti-social tendencies. Would it be a problem for you if Lily, in all her perfection, had been genetically modified?
[Ethologist] Richard Dawkins has suggested that through evolution, certain traits get more and more specialized, but not necessarily better. This is because natural selection relies on random mutations of genes that enhance certain traits and thus help that individual to reproduce and pass on his or her genes. Over millennia, those traits that are most helpful to the propagation of the species will become more widespread. But now, advances in genetics mean we don't have to rely on evolution. We can choose the genes that we wish to pass onto our immediate future generations and bypass the genetic lottery.
Understandably, many debates rage around the ethics of 'designer babies.' Does the foetus have the right to not be genetically modified, or do parents own the right to change its genetic code to have the kind of child they want? Would the 'advantages' the parents endow upon the foetus in fact stop the child from experiencing character-building trials and make the child feel superior to its non-genetically modified peers? What if the child could be genetically engineered to be modest and kind as well as superior in intelligence, appearance and ability?
Many people feel uncomfortable with 'playing God' or being able to change someone else's destiny. But don't parents shape the child mentally, emotionally and physically after birth anyway through upbringing and the environment they provide for the child? Also throughout history, humans have been selecting the traits that they want in their children by selecting their mates. Why not give the child a head start with a little help from available science?
One could argue that everything we do to develop ourselves is 'enhancement' of our natural state, whether it's learning an instrument, foreign language, or social skills. On the physical side, parents paying for orthodontics and even breast enhancements for their children are accepted by society, so why not enhance the more fundamental and arguably more important aspects of our children like intelligence or memory before birth? ...
[T]hroughout history, humans have been selecting the traits that they want in their children by selecting their mates. Why not give the child a head start with a little help from available science?
Technology Already Enhances People
[M]any ordinary people out there have "superpowers" already thanks to mechanical or technological enhancements. They are real-life cyborgs, defined as a being with both biological and artificial (e.g. electronic, mechanical or robotic) parts. And what's more, with our growing reliance on technology, we all seem to be well on our way to becoming cyborgs. What kind of ethical dilemmas might this bring to our society?
Daniel Kish, a man who's been sightless since a year old, is still able to mountain bike and camp out in the wilderness alone. He uses echolocation, the technique that bats use to see in the dark, which involves him clicking his tongue and interpreting the sound of the returning echo to figure out his surroundings. Most people rely on sight to navigate but Daniel has learned to use echolocation to do most things that sighted people can do, and in certain instances, can "see" his surroundings much better than them. His dream is to help all sight-impaired people see the world as clearly as he does. He is developing canes for the blind that would create the same range of sonar waves that bats send out, and hearing enhancements that would enable those blind people to hear a wider range of sound waves that are returned so they could navigate accurately just like a bat does.
[D]on't people have the right to change their bodies whichever way they see fit ... ?
Enhancements like these are going one step further than, say, artificial limbs in that instead of acting as a poor substitute for an ability a person has lost, they actually give "superhuman" powers that are not part of ordinary human biological make-up and allow the person to do things other humans cannot do....
There are people who already advocate the development and use of technology to improve the human condition by eliminating aging and enhancing human intellectual, physical and psychological capabilities. This international intellectual and cultural movement is called Transhumanism (often abbreviated to H+ or h+). They predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "posthuman"....
Many of the ["designer baby"] arguments could apply to transhumanism. Many people feel uncomfortable with "playing God", and philosophically and culturally, many people place a moral value on being "natural." But don't people have the right to change their bodies whichever way they see fit, as long as it's not harmful to themselves or others?