Every time there’s big news about advances in controlling genes, it evokes a broad scale of mostly goofy reactions.
On the one hand, we imagine the terrifying, science-fictioney “We grow peasants for their perfect livers, so we can blow ours out with whiskey and replace them every 18 months or 5,000 drinks. But we never knew the liver incubators of sector nine could . . . love.”
Still, how can we not yearn for the Garrison Keillor version of the future, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”
But as we get closer to a future when we can manipulate genes to order, I’m reminded that the dangers lie in unexpected consequences.
This week, Britain approved a new technique to edit the genes of human embryos. In theory, researchers internationally are observing a moratorium on changing DNA in a way that could be transferred from generation to generation. But this research won’t violate that rule because the embryos are not supposed to be implanted in wombs.
You have to wonder how long that moratorium will be observed, though. Not everybody follows rules, and for someone who figures out how to give humans specific traits, breaking the rules would likely deliver a payoff worth the risk. Beyond individuals, there are governments that would probably put scruples aside if a geneticist could offer a superior race incapable both of becoming ill and of rebelling against tyrants. And yeah, North Korea, I’m looking at you!
Most dinner-table conversation on the subject seems to involve the quest for beautiful, brilliant people who are good at sports and don’t whine. But what if science succeeded in providing that? We who are already alive would be the last ugly, dumb, clumsy whiners on Earth. Our perfect descendants would look at us as if we were some hideous variety of slug — even more than they do now.
For all the spirited debate that goes on about gene manipulation, though, it’s easy to imagine news of discoveries that effectively shuts down most of the opposition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 33 babies in the United States has a birth defect. If a Harvard researcher says, “So we just figured out how to stop all the birth defects, but the law says we can’t,” the law probably would change.
Would that be wise? Who knows? That’s the problem with the law of unintended consequences. What if changing those genes leads to something worse than the problems we strive to eliminate?
Just take the stupid example I dreamed up during a discussion Monday on this breakthrough: “You know, with food shortages potentially getting serious, scientists could slow metabolisms so future people only need half as much food to survive as we do now.”
It was only as I was finishing dinner Monday (I knew I was almost done because my body was full to the top of my esophagus and the pain was unbearable) when I realized what a terrible idea it would be to engineer people to burn fewer calories. Many of us already eat twice as much as we need. Our food consumption bears almost no relation to how many calories our bodies burn. Cut future generations’ caloric needs in half and they might not reduce what they eat. They might just be twice as fat as we are now.
As the potential to modify the genes of people who might suffer comes to fruition, it will be embraced. I just don’t know that it will work. But maybe I’m just not looking forward to being the last hideous slug in a world full of beautiful people.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.