‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
Stephen Johnson is a St. Louis-based writer whose work has been published by outlets including PBS Digital Studios, HuffPost, MSN, U.S. News & World Report, Eleven Magazine and The Missourian.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Imagine it's 2045. You start hearing rumors from your well-heeled friends about a mysterious corporation based on an undisclosed island that's offering an unprecedented service: the ability to genetically design your baby.
The baby will have some of your genetics, and some genetics from a sperm or egg donor, selected by you. But the rest of your child's genetic profile will be engineered by science. These changes will make it impossible for your child to develop genetic diseases. They'll also allow you to customize your child for dozens of traits, including intelligence level, emotional disposition, sexual orientation, height, skin tone, hair color, and eye color, to name a few.
This raises unsettling philosophical questions for some customers. "When does my child stop being my child?" they ask the corporate representatives. These wary customers are reminded of how risky it is to reproduce the old-fashioned way. The Better Genetics Corporation's motto sums it up: "Only God plays dice—humans don't have to."
This is the world described in a new science-fiction series by Eugene Clark titled "Genetic Pressure", which explores the moral and scientific implications of a future in which designer babies are becoming a major industry. The first book begins with the story of Rachel, a renowned horse breeder who befriends a billionaire client, and soon gets the funding to visit the tropical island on which the Better Genetics Corporation is headquartered.
There, corporate executives walk her through the process of designing a baby—an experience that feels like an uncanny mix between visiting a doctor and designing a luxury car. The series is told from multiple perspectives, serving as a deep dive into a complex moral web that today's scientists may already be weaving.
[T]he introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.
Case in point: In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world's first genetically engineered babies. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR on embryos, He Jiankui modified a gene called CCR5, which enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. His goal was to engineer children that were immune to the virus.
It's unclear whether he succeeded. But what's certain is that the experiment shocked the international scientific community, which generally agreed that it's unethical to conduct gene-editing procedures on humans, given that scientists don't yet fully understand the consequences.
"This experiment is monstrous," Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. "The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer."
Importantly, He Jiankui wasn't treating a disease, but rather genetically engineering babies to prevent the future contraction of a virus. These kinds of changes are heritable, meaning the experiment could have major downstream effects on future generations. So, too, would a designer-baby industry, even if scientists can do it safely.
With major implications on inequality, discrimination, sexuality, and our conceptions of life, the introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.
Tribalism and discrimination
One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.
"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."
For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product."
Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with.
Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate?
Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.
But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.
But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image.
When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc.
Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.
"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.
But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme.
Regulating designer babies
On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.
In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough."
After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations into the 1970s). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century.
Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies.
But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits.
If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the opposites of those traits are undesirable. As the International Bioethics Committee wrote, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."
"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps" by Eugene Clark is available now.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
An early feasibility study finds a potential new treatment for Alzheimer's disease.
For the past few years, Annabelle Singer and her collaborators have been using flickering lights and sound to treat mouse models of Alzheimer's disease, and they've seen some dramatic results.
Now they have results from the first human feasibility study of the flicker treatment, and they're promising.
"We looked at safety, tolerance, and adherence, and several different biological outcomes, and the results were excellent—better than we expected," says Singer, assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.
Singer shared preliminary results of the feasibility study in October at the American Neurological Association annual meeting. Now she is a corresponding author with Emory neurology researcher James Lah of a paper outlining their findings in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.
The flicker treatment stimulates gamma waves, manipulating neural activity, recruiting the brain's immune system, and clearing pathogens—in short, waging a successful fight against a progressive disease that still has no cure.
Previous research already had shown that sensory areas in the human brain will entrain to flickering stimuli for seconds to hours. But this was the first time Singer and her team were able to test gamma sensory stimulation over an extended period of time.
The study included 10 patients with Alzheimer's-associated mild cognitive impairment, which required them to wear an experimental visor and headphones that exposed one group to light and sound at 40 hertz for an hour a day over eight weeks, and another group for four weeks after a delayed start.
"We were able to tune the devices to a level of light and sound that was not only tolerable, but it also successfully provoked an underlying brain response," Lah says.
As they hoped and expected, Singer says, "there was widespread entrainment." That is, brain activity—in this case, gamma waves—synchronized to the external stimulation.
Gamma waves are associated with high-level cognitive functions, like perception and memory. Disruptions to these waves have been found in various neurological disorders, not just Alzheimer's.
The human feasibility study showed that the gamma flicker treatment was safe and tolerable. And perhaps most surprising, patients followed the full treatment schedule.
"Adherence was one of our major concerns," Singer says. "When we sent the device home with the participants, would they use it? Would they use it for a couple of days, and that would be it? We were pleasantly surprised that this wasn't the case."
Adherence rates hovered around 90%, with no severe adverse effects reported during the study or the 10-month open label extension (some patients even volunteered to continue being monitored and assessed after the study, though this data wasn't part of the published research).
Some participants reported mild discomfort that could have been flicker related—dizziness, ringing in the ears, and headaches. But overall, Singer says, the device's safety profile was excellent. She also reported some positive biological outcomes.
"We looked at default mode network connectivity, which is basically how different brain regions that are particularly active during wakeful rest and memory, interact with each other," Singer says.
"There are deficits in this network in Alzheimer's, but after eight weeks [of treatment], we found strengthening in that connectivity." This may indicate stronger interactions and therefore better communication between these regions.
In previous animal studies, the 40Hz of flicker stimulated mouse gamma waves, significantly reducing some Alzheimer's pathogenic hallmarks and recruited microglia to the cause—these are the primary immune cells in the brain. But in the human study, there were no clear changes in the presence of pathogens amyloid beta or p-Tau.
However, as with the mouse studies, "we are getting immune engagement in humans," Singer says. The flicker treatment sparked the activity of cytokines, proteins used in cell signaling—a sign that flicker had engaged the brain's immune system.
"That is something we want to see, because microglia do things like clear out pathogens. Some people think that part of what's going wrong in Alzheimer's is a failure of this clearance mechanism," Singer says.
She and Lah have wondered if a longer human trial would make a difference—would there be reduced amyloid activity, for example.
"So far, this is very preliminary, and we're nowhere close to drawing conclusions about the clinical benefit of this treatment," Lah says. "But we now have some very good arguments for a larger, longer study with more people."
Funding for the study came from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, the Packard Foundation, the Friends and Alumni of Georgia Tech, the Lane Family, the Wright Family, and Cognito Therapeutics. Any findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the researchers and not necessarily of the sponsors.
Annabelle Singer owns shares in Cognito Therapeutics, which funded the human study at Emory Brain Health Center. Cognito aims to develop gamma stimulation-related products. These conflicts are managed by Georgia Tech's Office of Research Integrity Assurance.
Source: Georgia Tech
Original Study DOI: 10.1002/trc2.12178
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