Bufo marinus. Image Source: NT News.
Someone should call the editors at the OED. There is a new definition of 'responsible parenting.' In another of those stories in which scientists gain ever greater abilities to do amazing things, but seem not to register any implications of said things, The Telegraph reports on an Oxford professor's comment that, "genetically engineering 'ethical' babies is a moral obligation. ... Genetically screening our offspring to make them better people is just 'responsible parenting.'"
Can our sense of right and wrong really be cooked up in a test tube? Sure it can! The report:
Parents' rights to choose the morality of their child? I can just see the political camps and ideologists lining up to claim this one, armed with whole new branches of -isms. Surely Oxford must have some moral philosophers to advise its geneticists on the elementary ethical irony of playing god. Hasn't anyone over at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics read Mary Shelley? Or read the history of the 20th century?Professor Julian Savulescu said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a "moral obligation" as it makes them grow up into "ethically better children".
The expert in practical ethics said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to "harm themselves and others".
The academic, who is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, made his comments in an article in the latest edition of Reader's Digest.
He explained that we are now in the middle of a genetic revolution and that although screening, for all but a few conditions, remained illegal it should be welcomed.
He said that science is increasingly discovering that genes have a significant influence on personality – with certain genetic markers in embryo suggesting future characteristics.
By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out.
In the end, he said that "rational design" would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.
"Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?" wrote Prof Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor in practical ethics.
"So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. ... He said that unlike the eugenics movements, which fell out of favour when ... adopted by the Nazis, the system would be voluntary and allow parents to choose the characteristics of their children.
Debates on tinkering with the building blocks of living humanity aside, the assumption that genetically screening society so that it comprises ethical people will not necessarily constitute a social good. Doubly ironically, this notion brings these scientists up against the oldest unanswered theological questions: why does evil exist? What purpose does it serve? Could not destroying foetuses with genetic markers for psychopathy, violent tendences, depression and addiction produce new evils? We know little about why psychopaths exist; what purpose they serve within evolution.
While the world would be better off without psychopathies and other violent mental disorders, these traits have genetically evolved for some reason. Some very great figures in history have possessed the obsessive and violent traits the professor describes. The film Gattaca (1997) explored the enormous potential of those whom scientists perceive to be genetically 'weak'. Erasing a new psychological genetic underclass without understanding the reason for their current existence could simply prompt genes to mutate and generate new strains of madness. Superpsychopaths.
One analogy I recall is the introduction of the cane toad in Australia in 1935 (another period when social engineering was popular) to keep down the population of cane beetles. The population of invasive poisonous cane toads promptly exploded. The eradication of one self-evident evil through scientific engineering did not anticipate far bigger, out-of-control problems. Something tells me that the evils of unintended consequences will shape the history of the world over next hundred years.