Designer Babies Will Be Godless Achievement Machines

By Kyle Munkittrick | February 22, 2011 8:31 am

Are designer babies a danger to the middle class? Should we, as a society, specially breed children for submission to the Achievatron to defeat Chinese mothers and live up to the genetic “Sputnik Moment” in which we find ourselves? Will designer babies be atheists? Peter Lawler, ostensible smart person, seems to think so! If I am translating his compassionate conservative gibberish properly, Lawler is under the distinct impression that the goal behind designer babies is to make a more productive populace and that doing so will wreak havoc upon our families and lives.

Some background on Peter Lawler. He writes for Big Think, loves The New Atlantis (their writers at Futurisms are great sparring partners) and was on the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) . For those of you unfamiliar with Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I kid you not. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has decided to employ.

Thus, on to the question: will designer babies turn the USA into a culture of compulsory overachievement?

Let us examine Lawler’s argument proper, if such a thing can be said to exist. Most of his post is a cobbled together string of non-sequitor rhetorical questions posing as an argument. But he’s a professor, so I’ll show some respect and presume he makes sense. Lawler’s argument is that if we enhance our children, it’s so they will be competitive and productive, and to make sure enhancement doesn’t increase inequality, we’ll have to make sure they’re all enhanced to the max, regardless of the benefits for the actual child. Though he doesn’t cite the paper, Lawler’s argument seems to be based on Alan Buchanan’s “Enhancement and the Ethics of Development.” Buchanan’s argument is complex, but part of it revolves around the idea that previous forms of human enhancement (agriculture, printing press, microprocessor) had huge benefits for the economy. Thus, it is logical to conclude that the State has incentive to provide, um, incentives for families to enhance in the name of productivity and the economy.

However, Lawler isn’t addressing Buchanan, merely a disfigured straw-man version of Buchanan’s argument. Lawler’s rhetorical goal is to lead the argument to a point of absurdity, where you’ll react, aghast at how awful a world with enhancement will be. The crowning moment is when Lawler says that the society will neither welcome the “gift” of a child with Down syndrome, nor will it tolerate “all those stupid and disease-ridden Mormon and Catholic kids.” Not so, for the following reasons.

1. Buchanan’s argument, as well as those of most proponents of human enhancement, is predicated on the idea that not only will enhancement itself be an option, but the kinds of enhancements and the available traits one can select from will all be optional. Lawler ominously implies there will be a mandate of a “perfect” child, a specter long rejected and rallied against by actual bioethicists. No one will be forced to do anything.

2. Lawler implies that those who support enhancement devalue the lives of those with disabilities. Do those who seek to cure HIV devalue the lives of AIDS sufferers, or are the developers of prostheses disdainful of amputees? I hardly think so. Parents who choose to have a child should love that child as is–period.

3. Again, he doesn’t cite his source, but Lawler’s reference to “Mormons and Catholics” is a nod to Donna Haraway’s epic lines:

Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse.

Let’s ignore for the moment that an increase intelligence and education correlates with a drop in religious belief. I’ll be honest: I have a very, very hard time disagreeing with Haraway that teaching creationism is a form of abuse. Any religious fundamentalism (funny how Lawler neglects Islam, Judaism, and protestants) is a pestilence. Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.

4. Enhancement is still extremely speculative. Ethicists argue about it the same way we argue about philosophical zombies and aliens to understand personhood. Enhancement helps us understand how procreation and parenting creates an ethical obligation to the child. The ability to enhance intelligence, morality, charm, and other complex but universally desirable traits is a long, long ways off.

5. That said, an enhancement arms race might ever take off would result in the least destructive, most beneficial Cold War in human history. Oh no, the world is suddenly a-flush with inventive, moral, empathetic, charming, attractive and beneficent people! Whatever shall we do!

In short, enhancement is not going to be commandeered by the state to make generations of godless child robots hell-bent on productivity. Not by a long shot. For more coherent thoughts on designer babies, I suggest Anders Sandberg’s post “Making Babies.” Mr. Lawler promised more on the topic, I sincerely hope he delivers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Genetics, Transhumanism

Comments (18)

  1. Cathy

    He seems to be conflating two different things – “designer babies” and “preimplantation genetic diagnosis.” The latter is what is used to screen today for natural genetic variability among embryos, to ensure that the chosen embryo doesn’t have genetic disabilities.

    If you asked a mother of a child with juvenile diabetes, or sickle cell anemia, if they had had the opportunity to prevent that disease in their child whether they would take it, the answer will probably be yes. They are devastating diseases and the emotional and monetary costs are immense, and a good mother wants the best for her child.

    On the other hand, if you ask a mother whether she would deliberately tamper with the DNA of her child to make sure it was good at math or had green eyes, the answer would probably be a no.

    Preventing a disease is one thing. Enhancing traits is something else entirely. The former should be encouraged. The latter is going to be the real issue ethicists need to tackle.

  2. Skrim

    I disagree. The line between “negative” enhancement (removing diseases and the like) and “positive” enhancement (improving on the baseline) is blurred because there isn’t SUCH A THING as an absolute human baseline. If you count whatever-the-kid-would’ve-been-naturally as the baseline, than everything is a positive enhancement. It all has to do with the perspective of the parent and the future perspective of the modified or unmodified child.

    Think about it. A kid naturally ‘destined’ to have sickle-cell anemia or some other defect would be enhanced by removing the defect, regardless of what view the kid might take of the condition when grown to the point of developing his/her own judgment. S/he would probably grow up to see the lack of the defect as the better possibility, instead of remaining unmodified (and likely ending up trying to rationalize or teleologize their condition, or getting memed into the notion of the defect being “something good”).

    Similarly, someone enhanced inherently to be good at math would see ‘being good at math’ to be a good thing, not an ad hoc desire of their parents forced upon them. Said kid would would then be able to spend less effort having to learn math and would be able to devote more time and effort to other things (UNLIKE the scenario of a parent forcing a normal child to spend immense effort on math in order to overachieve). If the mother does say “no” when offered the possibility of having a child inherently better at math, than that is because the mother has herself rationalized that ‘being good at math’ is not a good thing, somehow. Not enhancing when you could have would force the child to spend more effort during their life learning math, and that extra effort the parent making them spend IS an ad hoc desire that said parent is forcing upon the child.

    (As for green eyes, that’s also ad hoc. But since most people take a liking to their personal aesthetic traits like eye color, probably the kid would end up liking hir green eyes anyway)

  3. Matt B.

    That’s “populace”.

  4. You say “Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.”

    How do explain creatio ex nihilo and the birth of scientific enquiry from the phrase ‘God ordered all things by measure, number, weight’ (Wis 11:21). Read P Duhem and S Jaki for a full explanation of that.

    Can you prove that the ‘fictive texts’ of Catholicism are indeed ‘fictive texts’?

  5. Steve

    No religious arguments on the internet Ian, neither side can win and it will just lead to flame war.

  6. Skrim

    Really, what has asking (or telling) someone to explain some random lines from some old book and then telling them to read some other whoknows GOT TO DO with a blog post about genetically enhanced humans?

    And yes, said old book is a fictive text if you take it literally (and not as some bizarre allegory). It clearly doesn’t describe the real world, the history of which is more or less well charted out from about 13.7 billion years ago to now.

  7. dgjt

    You can not say “I have a book now prove it is not true” It is not the readers job to prove or disprove but the writers.
    Mabe we should be worried about babies designed to believe in God

  8. Jillinthebox

    Are “Godless Achievement Machines” really all that bad if they are also moral, empathetic, inventive, charming, etc. ?

  9. @7, I appreciate where you are coming from, but I believe Kyle has bypassed any review or critical analysis of the ‘book’s in question and their authors.

    From a Catholic perspective the Church would not fall into the category you describe – i.e. “I have a book now prove it is not true”. The Church’s teachings on the Bible and its development are available for all to read from the Vatican’s website and supported by many Catholic apologists. Kyle’s criticism of, for example, Catholic teaching which he would consider to be one of many ‘fictive texts’ does not reference this material.

    I dare say that if Kyle was to critique a scientific process, say the oxidation of copper, he would reference the appropriate research papers.

  10. Jillinthebox

    You go Kyle….This is the “science not fiction” blog…. right? not the “religion is non-fiction” site….Just say’in

  11. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Ian: Normally I wouldn’t reply to a Christian commenter, but you’ve been quite polite so I feel compelled to respond. First, thank you for being cordial and articulate.

    Second, yes, I have consulted the primary texts. Without a laundry list, I’ve read the Book cover to cover (Catholic, Mormon, and some apocryphal books as well), big chunks of the Talmud and Haggadah, Quran, and commenters ranging from Origen and Valentinus up through Augustine, Aquinas, Charles Taylor and Alvin Plantinga. Let’s not pretend I’m coming at Catholicism from a position of ignorance.

    Third, my point is that your religious perspective should have no impact on our laws and social moral structure. You can certainly use it as a personal ethic, but just secularism demands evidence and logic to determine right action. As religion specifically demands faith (which is a step beyond evidence and logic) it should not be relevant to discussions of ethics. Was that point made with a bit more venom in the post? yes. It’s for effect.

    Fourth, as for “fictive” burden of proof, it’s on you. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Finally, I have a low tolerance for religious conservatives who insist on universalizing their perspectives in areas of science. Scientific ethics are based on logic, not divine fiat.

  12. Mr. Munkittrick,

    Thanks again for taking the time to read my response to this post. I wanted to alert you to a comment I posted over on Mr. Lawler’s follow-up post to my post. He has made some assertions about my intent in writing the post with which I disagreed (particularly one assertion that I was intending to call you intolerant), and I hope I made him aware of the way he was skewing my words to support his own intent. I look forward to your post in response to mine, and I hope you that you are enjoying your weekend.


  13. Abelard Lindsey

    I don’t think religion will disappear. Rather, religion will evolve into new forms based on higher standards and logical self-consistency. It is not possible to guess what the beliefs of people with a 300 IQ will be. It is reasonable to assume that such people will think fundamentally different than people today. No doubt people with IQ’s of 300 will come up with more efficient forms of social organizations that we cannot even guess at today.

  14. While the idea of a government mandate to produce super children is quite frankly ridiculous the idea that parents will select for traits that may result in such a world isn’t.

    Genetic engineering will, at least at first, be used by parents on their children and as such parents will likely select for traits that they feel give there child the greatest chance of success in life. After all this is what parents already do in the form of extracurricular activities, summer camps and college prep courses and there is little reason to think this new tool will not find a similar use. If we look at what our society currently values (the acquisition of wealth and status) its not too far of a stretch to say that we may end up with a world of wunderkids simply as a result of what more or less amounts to a form of natural selection.

  15. Eleanor

    I’m probably way off track here, but isn’t AI are a crude form of genetic engineering/ designer baby? Rather than selecting randomly from the available pool of men, there are pretty strict regulations about sperm doners being disease free and, at least in private clinics, it is possible to select potential doners on the basis of height, looks, hair colour, ethnicity etc. Why was this not the ‘moral slippery slope down which we must not venture’?

  16. Eileen

    Just looking for some statistics/figures on how many eggs are used on average per year – how many are discarded? need information to provide accurate research for school project – for and against designer babies? Cannot find any figures anywhere??

  17. Hmm

    The real problem with designer babies is that only the rich will be able to afford them. The upper class will become immortal, super-intelligent post-humans, while the rest of us toil and die for them.

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