‘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.
Cow cuddling is getting ever more popular, but what's the science behind using animals for relaxation?
- An Indian non-profit hopes to help people relax by giving them cuddle sessions with cows.
- This is not the first such center where you can chill out with cattle.
- Like other emotional support animals, the proven health benefits are limited.
Who needs a therapy dog when you can hug a cow?<p> Located outside of the Indian city of Gurugram, the new Cow Cuddling Centre will be run by a non-profit <a href="https://interestingengineering.com/ngo-launches-cow-cuddling-therapy-center-in-india" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">headed</a> by the former Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India, SP Gupta.</p><p>Pitched as a way to escape the stresses of modern life and "forget all your problems," the founders of the establishment have high hopes for it, suggesting that spending time with the cows can cure "respiratory diseases, blood pressure, spinal pain, heart problem, depression but also sadness, anxiety and all kinds of tensions" in a <a href="https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/cow-science-exam-may-be-postponed-but-an-ngo-is-launching-a-cow-cuddling-centre-in-haryana-535024.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press statement</a>.</p><p>While you might be thinking that cow cuddling only exists in India because of the cultural importance placed on the animal there, <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Dutch beat them to it.</a> Cow cuddling farms exist in the United States as <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/style/self-care/cow-cuddling-therapy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well</a>.</p>
Is there any science behind the idea of cuddling with a cow over a more traditional, travel-sized pet?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QG3fOOT7xWQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Like many claims about emotional support animals of any kind, there is a limited amount of data on this.</p><p>What studies do exist on emotional support animals are <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2015.11435396" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small</a>, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228932.2013.765734" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limited</a>, and should be considered to be the beginnings of more extensive <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00268.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">studies</a> which will settle the question of how much help these animals can <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127627/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">provide</a>. This is different from work on well-trained service animals, which are <a href="https://content.iospress.com/articles/neurorehabilitation/nre1345" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proven</a> to be very <a href="http://www.cf4aass.org/uploads/1/8/3/2/18329873/psd_and_veterans_living_with_ptsd_-_gillett_march_23_2014_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">helpful</a> when doing the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229913002148" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tasks</a> they are specially trained for. <br></p><p>Regarding cows, the <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">BBC</a> suggests that chilling with cows can cause relaxation by boosting oxytocin levels in humans, though they do not cite a specific study supporting that stance. One often-referenced study from several years back suggests the cows might like and get relaxation out of cuddling <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159107000445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">too</a>.<br></p><p>However, Dr. <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/contributors/michael-ungar-phd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Michael Ungar</a> suggests in this <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/202001/cuddle-cow-the-new-psychotherapy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Psychology Today</a> article that cow cuddling might be comparable to equine therapy, which, while also lacking in rigorous scientific support, does seem to provide some people certain benefits.</p><p>The news magazine <a href="https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/cuddling-a-cow-the-latest-wellness-trend-1764558-2021-01-31" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">India Today </a>featured a brief interview with professor Ritu Dangwal, who also suggests that cow cuddling might have some benefits:</p><p> "As a psychologist and someone who herself experienced it, being with cows is extremely therapeutic. We are stuck in a rat race and our anxiety is at an all-time high. Being with an emotive animal, one that has no judgement and loves unconditionally, does wonders."</p><p>What relaxes some people might be somewhat surprising to others or difficult to generalize in a scientific study. While you might not get prescribed a day in the pasture anytime soon, cow cuddling is an increasingly popular way to relax that gets people back into nature and interacting with animals in a way that many of us rarely get the chance to. While the science isn't quite all there, some people might find it worth the time.</p><p>Just be sure to wear closed-toed shoes if you go.</p>
How does philosophy try to balance having free will with living in a deterministic universe?
- People feel like they have free will but often have trouble understanding how they can have it in a deterministic universe.
- Several models of free will exist which try to incorporate physics into our understanding of our experience.
- Even if physics could rule out free will, there would still be philosophical questions about it.
Hard Determinism<p> Some philosophers have taken the argument of casual determinism mentioned above and used it to say that there is no room for free will at all. This stance, called "hard determinism," maintains that all of our actions are causally necessary and dictated by physics in the same way as a billiard ball's movement. </p><p> The Baron d'Holbach<strong>, </strong>a French philosopher, explained the stance:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."</p><p> While physics and philosophy have both advanced since the enlightenment era, hard determinism still has supporters.</p>
Indeterminism<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DMNZQVyabiM" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> As some of you are probably thinking right now, quantum physics, with its uncertainties, probabilities, and general strangeness, might offer a way out of the determinism of classical physics. This idea, sometimes called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">indeterminism</a>," occurred to more than a few philosophers too, and variations of it date back to ancient Greece.</p><p> This stance holds that not every event has an apparent cause. Some events might be random, for example. Proponents of the perspective suggest that some of our brain functions might have random elements, perhaps caused by the fluctuations seen in quantum mechanics, that cause our choices to not be fully predetermined. Others suggest that only part of our decision-making process is subject to causality, with a portion of it under what amounts to the control of the individual. </p><p> There are issues with this stance being used to counter determinism. One of them is that having choices made randomly rather than by strict causation doesn't seem to be the kind of free will people think about. From a physical standpoint, brain activity may involve some quantum mechanics, <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank">but not all of it. </a>Many thinkers incorporate indeterminism into parts of their models of free will, but don't fully rely on the idea. <br><a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank"></a> </p>
Soft Determinism<p> Also called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/" target="_blank">compatibilism</a>," this view agrees with causal determinism but also holds that this is compatible with some kind of free will. This can take on many forms and sometimes operates by varying how "free" that will actually is. </p><p> <a href="https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/mill/" target="_blank">John Stuart Mill </a>argued that causality did mean that people will act in certain ways based on circumstance, character, and desires, but that we have some control over these things. Therefore, we have some capacity to change what we would do in a future situation, even if we are determined to act in a certain way in response to a particular stimulus. </p><p> Daniel Dennett goes in another <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/iphi/files/free_will_2016_01.pdf" target="_blank">direction</a>, suggesting a two-stage model of decision-making involving some indeterminism. In the first stage of making a decision, the brain produces a series of considerations, not all of which are necessarily subject to determinism, to take into account. What considerations are created and not immediately rejected is subject to some level of indeterminism and agent control, though it could be unconscious. In the second step, these considerations are used to help make a decision based on a more deterministic reasoning process. </p><p> In these stances, your decisions are still affected by prior events like the metaphorical billiard balls moving on a table, but you have some control over how the table is laid out. This means you could, given enough time and understanding, have a fair amount of control over how the balls end up moving. </p><p> Critics of stances like this often argue that the free will the agent is left with by these decision-making models is hardly any different from what they'd have under a hard deterministic one. </p>
Libertarian Freedom<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UZmpUGl6eRc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This is the stance with the premium free will people tend to talk about—the idea that you are in full control of your decisions all the time and that casual determinism doesn't apply to your decision-making process. It is "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">incompatibilist</a>" in that it maintains that free will is not compatible with a deterministic universe. </p><p> People holding this view often take either an "agent-casual" or "event-causal" position. In an agent-casual stance, decision-makers, known as "agents," can make decisions that are not caused by a previous action in the same way that physical events are. They are essentially the "prime movers" of event chains that start with their decisions rather than any external cause. </p><p> Event-casual stances maintain that some elements of the decision-making process are physically indeterminate and that at least some of the factors that go into the final choice are shaped by the agent. The most famous living proponent of such a stance is Robert Kane and his "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/#2.3" target="_blank">effort of will"</a> model.</p><p>In brief, his model supposes an agent can be thought responsible for an action if they helped create the causes that led to it. He argues that people occasionally take "self-forming action" (SFA) that helps shape their character and grant them this responsibility. SFAs happen when the decisions we make would be subject to indeterminism, perhaps a case when two choices are both highly likely- with one being what we want and one being what we think is right, and willpower is needed to cause a choice to be taken. </p><p> At that point, unable to quickly choose, we apply willpower to make a decision that influences our overall character. Not only was that decision freely chosen, but any later, potentially more causally-determined actions, we take rely at least somewhat on a character trait that we created through that previous choice. Therefore, we at least partially influenced them. </p><p>Critics of this stance include Daniel Dennett, who points out that SFAs could be so rare as to leave some people without any real free will at all. <br></p>
Can’t we just outsource free will to physics?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/R-Nj_rEqkyQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> No, the question of free will is much larger than if cause and effect exist and apply to our decisions. Even if that one were fully answered, other questions immediately pop up. <br></p><p>Is the agency left to us, if any, after we learn how much of our decision-making is determined by outside factors enough for us to say that we are free? How much moral responsibility do people have under each proposed understanding of free will? Is free will just the ability to choose otherwise, or do we just have to be responsible for the actions we make, even if we are limited to one choice?<br></p><p> Physics can inform the debate over these questions but cannot end it unless it comes up with an equation for what freedom is.</p><p>Modern debates outside of philosophy departments tend to ignore the differences in the above stances in a way that tends to reduce everything to determinism. This was highlighted by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian in a recent Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/philipcball/status/1356244216385560581" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thread</a>, where he notes there is often a tendency to conflate hard determinism with naturalism—the idea that natural laws, as opposed to supernatural ones, can explain everything in the universe. .</p><p> Lastly, we might wonder if physics is the right department to hand it over to. Daniel Dennett awards evolutionary biology the responsibility for generating consciousness and free will.</p><p> He points out that while physics has always been the same for life on Earth, both consciousness and free will seem to have evolved recently and could be an evolutionary advantage of sorts—not being bound to deterministic decision making could be an excellent tool for staying alive. He considers them to be emergent properties we have and considers efforts to reduce us to our parts, which do function deterministically, to be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joCOWaaTj4A" target="_blank">unsound</a>. </p><p> How to balance our understanding of causal determinism and our subjective experience of seeming to have free will is a problem philosophers and scientists have been discussing for the better part of two thousand years. It is one they'll likely keep going over for a while. While it isn't time to outsource free will to physics, it is possible to incorporate the findings of modern science into our philosophy. </p><p> Of course, we might only do that because we're determined to do so, but that's another problem. </p>
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
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