The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

Blurring the Boundary Between “Person” and “Product”: Human Genetic Technologies through the Year 20601

Michael Bess

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.2 (Summer 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

Police inspector: “You are playing God!” | Scientist: “Somebody has to!”

—Steve Martin2

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2011

(Volume 13 | Issue 2)

Genetic technologies have been growing rapidly in sophistication and efficacy over recent decades, opening new avenues for humans to modify their own bodies and minds. It is possible that these technologies could allow the humans of today to sculpt entire lineages of their offspring and descendants, down through the generations. In this essay, I will first lay out three historic shifts in our understanding of what genes are and what they do. Then I will consider the long-term social, cultural, and moral implications of genetic interventions on human beings.3

History of Genetic Interventions: Three Major Shifts

1. From Indirect Alteration of the Phenotype to Direct Manipulation of the Genotype

When Gregor Mendel conducted his path-breaking experiments on sweet peas in the 1850s, he was investigating a phenomenon that had already been familiar to farmers for millennia: offspring bear many of the characteristics of their parents, and this fact can be put to good use in selectively breeding certain traits into a species of plant or animal, channeling the evolution of their bodies down paths preferred by humans—from aurochs to milk cow, from einkorn to wheat, from wolf to dachshund.4 Over the 150 years since Mendel, the science of genetics has steadily advanced, with a notable acceleration in the pace of discovery during the half-century following World War II. By the time the Human Genome Project came to fruition in 2003, scientists had pieced together the following basic picture.5 A gene is a unit of heredity, corresponding to a specific segment of DNA code.6 It can best be thought of as a finite set of instructions that tells the body how to go about the basic functions it requires—either for building the tissues of a developing organism or for maintaining the life processes of a fully developed organism. Some genes, such as those that determine hair color, are relatively straightforward in their phenotypic expression (that is, in their effects on the observable characteristics of the organism): one version, or allele, of a specific gene may code for brown hair, for example, whereas a different allele of the same gene may code for blond hair. If the brown allele dominates, the blond-hair gene will remain silent or unexpressed, and the result will be an individual with brown hair.

Most genes, however, operate in concert with one or more completely different genes and therefore are only expressed at the phenotypic level if all the required participant genes have been properly activated. These “symphonic” genes play a role (alongside environmental factors) in shaping the more complex traits of an organism, such as capabilities for immune response, varieties of personality, or levels and kinds of intelligence. These genes operate by interacting with other genes and biological processes in extremely complicated ways that scientists are only just beginning to understand.7 The key point here is that, while some traits can indeed be directly linked with single genes, many other key traits emerge from symphonic interactions of genes and environmental factors that have yet to be fully understood. Though there is a single gene for hair color, there is no unitary gene for intelligence.

The great shift that has taken place, since the time of Mendel, lies in the level at which humans can now intervene to carry out genetic interventions. In Mendel’s day, the practice of altering species of plants and animals was conducted on a hit-or-miss basis, by observing certain desirable traits in parent organisms, then interbreeding those creatures and waiting to see if the desired traits would be expressed in a more pronounced way in the offspring. The intervention took place entirely at the level of the phenotype: observed phenotypic trait, followed by selective breeding, followed (hopefully) by a still more desirable version of the phenotypic trait in the next generation.

Today, by contrast, scientists can engineer specific traits into plants and animals by directly inserting new genes into their DNA. They can snip out the green-fluorescence gene from the DNA of a jellyfish, for example, and splice it into the DNA of a rabbit embryo. When the rabbit is born, voilà, a bunny that glows green under a specific wavelength of blue light.8 More usefully, scientists can extract a gene from the bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis that codes for the secretion of a chemical that is toxic to certain classes of insects. When this gene is inserted into the DNA of crops such as corn, potatoes, and cotton, it causes all successive generations of the plant to manufacture the bacterial toxin within its own tissues, thereby rendering the crops resistant to major insect pests. Eleven percent of the world’s corn planted in 2006 contained this genetic modification.9

The significance of this shift in capabilities can hardly be overstated. It is like the difference between groping one’s way across a pitch-dark room, as compared with striding purposefully through a brightly lit space. Though the science and technology of direct interventions at the level of the genotype are still at their early stages of development, the powers that such interventions confer are potentially immense. They open up realistic possibilities of re-engineering the biology of many existing species, and also of inventing ex nihilo entirely new species of our own design. They take the slow, fitful, trial-and-error processes of evolution and natural selection, and transform them into a new kind of directed evolution more akin to manufacturing or art. Human bodies and minds, of course, fall squarely within the purview of these nascent capabilities for partial alteration or wholesale redesign.

2. From “Nature vs. Nurture” to “Nature via Nurture”: Our Shifting Understanding of How Heredity and Environment Affect Who We Are

Certain people tend to love deterministic explanations of human behavior. Perhaps it is the simplicity that draws them: they are constantly looking for the irresistible cause of some aspect of our actions or basic nature. Sometimes they locate this determining cause in our genes: “your propensity for violent aggressiveness runs in the family bloodline, and there is little you can do to change it.” Sometimes they situate the repository of implacable shaping power in environmental factors such as our rearing: “Your mother repeatedly spanked you while you were breastfeeding, and this is why you are so hopelessly screwed up.”

For those who find such simple and mono-causal explanations appealing, the coming century is likely to be an increasingly frustrating epoch. Among both natural scientists and social scientists, rigidly deterministic and mono-causal models of explanation are increasingly giving way to complex models involving feedback loops, self-organization, emergent properties, multi-level and multi-modal causal relationships.10 The more we learn about the determinants of human behavior, the more the mirage of simplicity recedes from view.

Some observers of the “nature vs. nurture” debate have sought to resolve it by adopting a Solomonic solution, seeking a sensible compromise between the two extremes of “all nature” vs. “all nurture.” Surely, they maintain, we can find plenty of solid evidence supporting both sides in the debate: heredity clearly determines some human traits, while environment equally clearly determines others. I am five feet eleven inches tall, and this trait of mine stems from genes predisposing me to grow to a certain height and no higher, but, at the same time, the kinds of nutrition I received while growing up played a key role in allowing me to attain the height I did. Had I drunk more milk, I might have ended up an inch taller; had I been deprived of milk entirely, I might have been a couple of inches shorter. Both factors, nature and nurture, worked together to make me the height I am.

This fifty-fifty position has undeniable appeal. Nevertheless, the problem with it is that, all too often, its proponents still envision genetic causation and environmental causation as two wholly separate processes—not just analytically distinct from each other, but ontologically and functionally discrete as well. Yet this is turning out to be simply not the case. Everywhere biologists look, they are finding that in concrete practice genes and environment work together, repeatedly affecting each other in causal sequences that thread constantly to and fro: the two operate in tandem, wholly dependent on each other for their causal efficacy. To be sure, we can still speak of them as separate for analytical purposes, but we should not let this blind us to the fact that they function as two reciprocal aspects of a broader unitary process that encompasses them both.11

In order to illustrate this point more fully, we first need to describe a third major shift in scientists’ understanding of genes.

3. From Genetics to Genomics: Trait Determination vs. Running the Biochemistry of an Organism

In the Mendelian model, a gene codes for a certain trait, and if the gene is expressed, the trait appears in the phenotype. The gene’s activity is thought of as something of a one-time affair: it exerts its shaping causality at the moment of its expression, during the organism’s developmental stage, and after that point, the gene has completed its assigned task. It sits there, an inert piece of information, until it gets activated again (or fails to be activated) in the next generation.12

Over the past half-century, however, the rise of molecular biology has gradually brought about a very different understanding of the role played by genes in the functioning of an organism. In this new picture, genes interact with other genes, and with other biochemical processes in the body, throughout the life cycle of an organism. They remain active agents in the ordering of life’s basic functions, from cradle to grave.13 They help regulate the ongoing biochemical processes inside every cell; they interact with hormones to turn up or turn down the secretions of chemicals that govern major organ systems; they mediate the cascade of chemical signals that allows the immune system to respond to toxins and other foreign bodies; they respond to chemical stimuli in the brain, modulating the performance of this most important of all organs. Genes, in other words, form a key element in the ongoing self-regulation of our bodies’ biochemistry: they are active participants not just in making us who we are, but in keeping us alive and healthy moment after moment.14

The more we learn about the functioning of genes, moreover, the more salient becomes the role played by the mediating factors that regulate their activation, deactivation, and transcription. Many of our 30,000 genes, it turns out, are constantly being switched on and off in complex combinations, as well as in still more complex chronological sequences of combinations. The activity is profoundly and pervasively bi-directional, in the sense that genes both regulate, and are regulated by, the chemical processes going on in the cell and broader organism that surround them. Genes do not only dictate: they also interact.15

Where We May Be Fifty Years from Now

The future trajectory of genetic engineering is even harder to envision than those of other technologies of human enhancement, such as pharmaceuticals or bioelectronics. Genetics is a young field, relatively speaking—an arena in which both the technology and the underlying science are changing dramatically from year to year (in some cases from month to month). Nevertheless, if we analyze the field’s development over the past thirty or forty years, four basic principles emerge as plausible candidates for characterizing the coming half-century.

Principle #1: Feasibility. Genetic Engineering of Human Traits Is Not Only Possible, but Likely.

Some experts, like the psychologist Steven Pinker, consider the genetic redesign of humans mere science fiction:

Many of the dystopian fears raised by personal genomics are simply out of touch with the complex and probabilistic nature of genes. Forget about the hyper-parents who want to implant math genes in their unborn children, the “Gattaca” corporations that scan people’s DNA to assign them to castes, the employers or suitors who hack into your genome to find out what kind of worker or spouse you’d make. Let them try; they’d be wasting their time.16

Pinker is quite right to emphasize the fact that most genetic interventions will inevitably prove to be, in individual cases, a bit like rolling the dice. Because of the complexity of the bidirectional causal interplay linking genes and environmental factors, it will only rarely be possible for parents to tweak a specific gene in their unborn offspring, with the certainty that this will yield a precise phenotypic result. Such a scenario may be achievable for highly specific traits like the ability to taste bitterness, which stems from a single well-characterized segment of DNA code (the gene known as TAS2R38, located on chromosomal region 7q36).17 But if one is talking about such ethereal traits as “math genes” or “employee attributes,” the complexity of the underlying causal relations unavoidably imparts a probabilistic quality to the genetic intervention. Based on what scientists have learned thus far about genetic causality, it seems safe to predict that parents will almost certainly not be able to order traits in their offspring the way one orders toppings for a pizza. In many cases, they may ask for pepperoni, but wind up getting anchovies instead.

Yet Pinker is ignoring here a quite different possibility, namely, that parents might still be able to influence the parameters of expression for a certain trait, increasing the likelihood that the trait will be manifested strongly or weakly. You will never be able to guarantee absolutely that your child will grow up to be six-foot-three or possess an IQ of 170, but you might nonetheless be able to use genetic tools to alter the underlying probability of her turning out taller or smarter than she would otherwise have been.

What might it mean, in concrete practice, for a genetic intervention to alter the propensity, likelihood, or strength of expression for a given trait in a human individual? Such an intervention would require at least the following five elements:

  • Mapping the code. Identifying the genes that code for the trait, or (in the case of more complex traits) identifying those portions of the genome that participate in the symphonic causal interactions that influence the parameters of the trait’s expression.
  • Mapping the causal cascade leading from code to phenotype. Understanding each relevant DNA segment itself, how it is regulated, how it codes for proteins, and how it interacts with other DNA segments and with various environmental factors to produce the trait.
  • Potent recombinant techniques. Ability to alter in precise ways the relevant segments of code, either directly or through other genes that regulate their expression.
  • Preventing unwanted side-effects. Identifying other potential phenotypic outcomes that would be brought on by the alteration of those specific segments of code. Finding ways to avoid undesirable elements of those secondary outcomes.
  • Modifying the environmental factors in the causal cascade. Ability to alter in specific ways the relevant environmental influences that help shape the phenotypic expression and development of the trait.

These five elements add up to a very tall order, to be sure. But it nonetheless seems unduly restrictive to assume, as Pinker seems to be doing, that scientists will never figure this out. We should be wary of assuming that just because something is staggeringly complex, it therefore lies irretrievably beyond the reach of human intervention. One does not necessarily have to understand the full workings of a complex system in order to make precisely targeted alterations in its functioning.

Neuroscientists, for example, aren’t yet anywhere near understanding the complete functional architecture of the human brain—yet this has not prevented them from identifying certain chemical and neurological pathways that play key roles in shaping our emotions and cognitive processes. Armed with this limited knowledge, they have designed and created chemicals like the SSRI drug fluoxetine (Prozac), which seems to work astonishingly well in altering people’s emotional states in predictable ways. The neuroscientists don’t know everything about how and why it works: they just know that in concrete practice it does.18

Is there any reason to believe that genetic causal processes operating in the body and mind are for some reason qualitatively unique? That they will not prove amenable to intervention until the full nature of their expressive pathways has been elucidated? The preliminary evidence suggests quite the opposite. In 1999, when the Princeton neuroscientist Joe Tsien engineered a strain of transgenic mice with elevated levels of expression for the NR2B gene, those mice performed much better than unmodified mice in various tests of learning and memory.19 Tsien demonstrated that the genetic intervention had augmented activity of the synaptic receptor NMDA in the animals’ forebrains, and he attributed the striking leap in their cognitive abilities to this fact. Most importantly, for our present purposes, Tsien did not possess (nor does anyone today possess) a full understanding of how mice brains work. He merely tweaked the gene, and the phenotype changed dramatically—in precisely the ways that Tsien had hypothesized it would. The mice became smarter.

The broader implication was clear. Through direct intervention at one point in this extremely complex causal pathway—the genetic regulation of NMDA receptors in the brain’s synapses—one could significantly alter animals’ cognition in predictable ways, either by turning up the expression of one gene or by turning off the expression of another.

To be sure, we have no reason to believe this kind of feat will be applicable to humans anytime soon: apart from the practical challenges, the ethical problems involved in attempting such a thing are multiple and profound. Nevertheless, the precisely targeted genetic interventions achieved by scientists like Tsien suggest that we may eventually be able to do much more than just tinker around the edges of the human constitution, altering relatively minor traits like hair color or the ability to taste bitter chemicals. We may be able to reach far deeper, modifying or re-engineering some of the traits that render us most distinctively human: emotion, cognition, and character.

Principle #2: High Demand. Consumer Demand for Genetic Technologies of Trait Selection and Enhancement Will Be Intense.

The competitive impulse runs deep in the human constitution, and it is not likely to go away over the next half-century. As long as our society remains broadly stratified, with a range stretching from affluence to wretchedness, and as long as one’s place in the hierarchy is based at least in part on meritocratic criteria, the jockeying for position will remain as intense as ever. Therefore, to the extent that genetic science can offer parents a safe intervention that promises to increase their kid’s chances of success (however those parents define it), many will eagerly seek it. They will no doubt be willing to make considerable sacrifices in order to secure it for their children. Granted, a genetic intervention is far more complex than signing up your child for a two-month Kaplan test prep course. Consumers will want to see a very strong safety record before they commit to altering their children’s genomes. But if safety and effectiveness seem assured, demand for such interventions can be expected to run high.

It is worth underscoring, moreover, that this competitive phenomenon has two facets: it is not just about getting ahead, but equally as much about not falling behind. As more and more families begin adopting genetic enhancements for their children, this will presumably tend over time to raise the bar for “average” performance for certain domains of activity or behavior. To opt out of genetic enhancements in such an environment will amount to a tacit acceptance of reduced chances of relative success for your offspring in those competitive domains. And this, in turn, will further propel the demand for genetic interventions because families will increasingly come to feel that they are left with little choice in the matter. In this game, they will have to keep running simply to retain their relative position: standing still, over time, will gradually shift them from “above average” to “average” to “sub-par.”

Principle #3: Open-Ended Flexibility. Consumers Will Avoid Rigidly Irreversible Genetic Interventions.

For all the difficulty of hazarding predictions about the world of 2060, I will now go ahead and make one. A half-century from now, no one will be irreversibly engineering major traits of character, talent, or cognitive ability into the germline of their offspring. There will be no permanent, heritable, trans-generational germline interventions. Who would want to saddle his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren with rigidly irreversible genetic technologies that will become outdated a few years or decades after their installation? Scientists will need to devise ways to ensure not only that genetic design packages are safe and effective, but also that they can be modified, upgraded, tweaked, or even turned off at will. Otherwise no one will want to buy them because they will soon become hopelessly obsolete.

The idea of an upgradeable gene pack may sound like pure science fiction, but it is not as far-fetched as it initially seems. In his thought-provoking book, Redesigning Humans, the biotech entrepreneur Gregory Stock describes a scenario—based on an extension of present-day technologies—that would introduce precisely this kind of flexibility into germline genetic interventions. Stock’s argument hinges on the technology of artificial chromosomes, which were first developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using the genomes of bacteria and yeast. This remains very much an experimental technology, but in Stock’s view it holds singular promise for the long haul.

Adding a new chromosome pair (numbers 47 and 48) to our genome would open up new possibilities for human genetic manipulation. The advantages of putting a new genetic module on a well-characterized artificial chromosome instead of trying to modify the genes on one of our present 46 chromosomes are immense. Not only could geneticists add much larger amounts of genetic material, which would mean far better gene regulation, they could more easily test to ensure that the genes were placed properly and functioning correctly.20

Stock acknowledges the many hurdles that would have to be surmounted before such a construct could become practical. Scientists would need to make sure the added genes on chromosomes 47 and 48 did not interfere with the functioning of existing genes. Extensive animal trials would be required before even the most rudimentary extra chromosome could ever be inserted into a human.

Nevertheless, he argues, the key advantage of such a technology would lie in the flexibility it would confer. An artificial chromosome could be loaded with chemical switches that allowed specific genes to be turned on or off at will, simply by taking a pill containing the right chemical trigger for activation or deactivation. In addition, the entire chromosome could itself be designed in such a way as to allow it to be turned off selectively in a person’s sex cells—thereby ensuring that the construct would not be passed on to the next generation.21 In other words, by coupling the technology of artificial chromosomes with the regulatory controls available through chemical interventions (that is, taking a pill with a trigger chemical), one would get the best of both worlds: genetic alterations that affected all cells in a person’s body, but that could still be tinkered with or completely shut down at any point in the person’s lifetime.

Principle #4: Incrementalism. Adoption of New Genetic Technologies Will Proceed in a Gradual, Piecemeal, and Cumulative Fashion, with Therapeutic Modifications Coming First.

Both scientists and consumers will want to go slowly and cautiously in tinkering with human genomes, avoiding radical departures from the status quo. While there will always be a Raël-style fringe seeking attention by attempting to clone themselves or to engineer wings in their offspring, these will remain rare outliers in the overall trajectory of genetic advances. Mainstream applications of human genetic technology will more likely be shaped by the overlapping force fields of moral values, safety concerns, regulatory restrictions, social competitive pressures, and the profit motive—and these combined forces will probably exert an overall moderating influence on both the nature of the modifications introduced and the pace at which those innovations proceed. Reckless or outrageous modifications are unlikely to appear anytime soon, simply because demand for them would probably be low, and few biotech companies would therefore be interested in spending the vast amounts of money required to develop them, test them, and market them.

If human genetic modifications do become feasible, therefore, they will not all arrive at the same time; rather, certain kinds of modifications will appear long before others. My own hypothesis is that the order in which they are likely to become available in our society could plausibly go something like this:

  • elimination of single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis
  • augmented resistance to diseases like heart disease or cancer, heightened immunity to viral and bacterial infections
  • anti-aging interventions
  • alteration of cosmetic traits
  • alteration of physical functions and capabilities
  • alteration of social, cognitive, and personality traits

What we see here is a gradual escalation of interventions, moving from alterations that are unequivocally therapeutic in nature to those that fall more clearly under the rubric of enhancements.

Conclusion: From Givenness to Design

Throughout history, the identity of each individual human has been shaped by four main kinds of factors: rearing, genetic inheritance, social milieu, and the choices made by each person in sculpting his or her own selfhood over a lifetime. A strong element of “givenness” has pervaded this story. We find ourselves, each of us, born into a specific family in a particular society at a distinct moment in time. We have no choice in the matter. As we grow up, we discover our innate talents and propensities, foibles and weaknesses. Here again, our range of control is rather narrow. No one really “chooses” to be gifted in abstract reasoning and physically frail, tone deaf, and irascible: it is simply the hand we are dealt.
But now, with the advent of genetic technologies, a shift is at hand: the impersonal givenness of the world recedes somewhat; the element of human accountability grows. The more humankind takes control over the processes that contribute to shaping the traits of each new generation, the more heavily the mantle of responsibility will shift to human shoulders. Individuals who live in this new world will know that a specific nexus of parental decisions, biotech companies, regulatory agencies, and research labs have all played a role in configuring their very own genomes. Even if the inhabitants of this new world understand very clearly that genes do not by themselves make people who they are—even so, the awareness will be there: the parameters of my being have been directly influenced, to an unprecedented degree, by human decisions. My innate propensities and traits were not solely determined by the inscrutable designs of nature or God: they were molded in part by other people’s choices.

I see five main areas in which these nascent genetic powers raise questions about the human communities of the future.22


To whom will these genetic technologies be available? If the distribution of access reflects the same kinds of gross inequalities that characterize our current health care system, for example, will this result in a further exacerbation of the gap between “haves” and “have-nots”? Might we see the emergence over successive generations of two radically divergent strains of humanity—the “gen-rich” and the “gen-poor” (as the biologist Lee Silver calls them)?23 On one side would stand those persons whose wealth allows them to modify the trait profiles of their children by using the most potent and advanced enhancement technologies. On the other side would stand those for whom these technologies remain out of reach, those whose offspring are condemned to fall ever farther behind in the competition for resources and power.

Trends toward Conformity or Speciation

Even assuming a system (such as government subsidies, for example) that affords universal and equal access to these technologies, what patterns might we expect to see in the kinds of traits and trait-ensembles selected by parents for their offspring? Would there be “trait fads” dictated by passing vagaries of fashion—the blond nineties, the musical seventies? Would social pressures for conformity tend to narrow the variety of human trait profiles to a narrow and homogeneous range, like the blandly cloned houses one finds today in certain prosperous suburban enclaves? Or, to the contrary, might trait profiles tend to cluster in increasingly divergent and distinct groupings, each defined around a particular constellation of preferences: artistic type, science type, leader type, action type, and so on? If this were to occur, might each successive generation’s choices further reinforce the consolidation of these types into ever more distinct lineages—with a resultant trend toward fragmentation of the species?


Let us suppose (and hope) that genetically based social fragmentation does not reach the levels just described. Might one nonetheless expect significantly higher levels of prejudice to plague our society, once people start to augment their physical and mental traits in increasingly potent ways? In the past, discrimination has primarily been based not on the observed capabilities or character traits of individuals, but rather on crude collective stereotypes deriving from their physical appearance (for example, black versus white) or their membership in an ethnically demarcated group (for example, Jew versus German Christian). How much more potent the impulses of stereotyping, resentment, and denigration would be in a world where individuals—and perhaps entire groups—truly did differ increasingly from each other in their particular profiles of strength, health, talent, appearance, or mental acuity!


Looking back at the portions of this essay in which I discussed the possible genetic technologies of the year 2060, it is striking how often I used metaphors involving products and commodities: I spoke of the “installation” of gene packages, of different “versions” and “models,” of the need for “upgrades.” This kind of language is hard to avoid because genetic interventions—particularly those oriented toward enhancement—are inherently product-like in nature. They require machines, chemicals, tools, and techniques that advance in complexity and efficacy over time. They can easily be compared with each other and evaluated according to how well they achieve the goal they were designed to produce. They become obsolete after a certain number of years. They are (or will be) available for purchase on the open market.

In this way, we can easily find ourselves forgetting that these “products” are in fact altering key aspects of a real human being’s selfhood. The danger of moral slippage into commodification of humans is grave: without realizing it, we drift into an instrumental mode of thought, reducing a person to the sum total of his or her traits, and losing sight of the person’s intrinsic value and dignity. It was precisely this kind of dehumanizing slippage that vitiated the thinking of eugenicists in the first half of the twentieth century, with catastrophic consequences.

If human genetic engineering becomes widespread during coming decades, we have every reason to expect that this danger will return—and probably on a much broader scale. The tendency for people to speak casually about “getting an upgrade” or “choosing a better model” will be strong. Insofar as large numbers of people start perceiving themselves and others in this commodified way, our society runs a risk that cannot be overstated. This is the kind of thinking that inherently dehumanizes people, distances them from each other, degrades their sense of each other’s fundamental worth. Confronting this terrible risk, and counteracting it with effective cultural strategies of “re-humanization,” will pose one of the most important moral challenges facing our civilization.

Unsettling of Bio-Social Relationships

What will it be like to sit down with your spouse or significant other to lay out the design parameters for your offspring? Would not this very act, in itself, have the effect of crystallizing expectations and hopes about your children that would otherwise have remained tacit and inchoate? Does this not, ipso facto, increase your chances of being disappointed if the outcome turns out differently than you expected? What about if you and your spouse cannot agree? Do you compromise by swapping one trait against another, or perhaps by allowing one spouse priority in shaping the traits of one child, while allowing the other spouse to have the say in shaping the next kid? What effect would this subsequently have on family dynamics?

And what would it be like, conversely, to know that your parents had sat down for that little planning session in the months before you were conceived? Would it feel like a strait jacket on your potential to be whatever you wanted—even if your parents never told you the specifics of the discussion?24 Would you resent your parents for providing you with traits you ended up disliking in yourself? Would you be jealous of your siblings, envious of the traits your parents selected for them, as compared with those selected for you?

Would you wonder, over time, if your achievements really belonged to you, or were merely by-products of the engineering carried out on you by someone else before you were born? And wouldn’t your very ability to explore this question be constrained by the traits that would have been designed into your personality and cognitive profile?

All these questions reflect the same basic fact: human genetic engineering would scramble, in profound ways, the categories of “person” and “product.” This is not a mere side-effect, something that can be averted by adopting palliative measures: it lies at the heart of the enterprise itself. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the advent of this technology causes major upheaval in our sense of who we are.


  1. The author would like to thank the following institutions for supporting the research project from which this paper derives: the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the ELSI program of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NIH), the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University, and the endowment for the Chancellor’s Chair in History at Vanderbilt.
  2. Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, and George Gipe, The Man with Two Brains (Burbank: Warner Brothers, 1983).
  3. For a full bibliography, see my project website: <>.
  4. William K. Purves, et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 5th ed. (Sunderland: Freeman/Sinauer, 1998) chapters 9–12.
  5. Purves, chapters 9–18; Barry Barnes and John Dupré, Genomes: And What to Make of Them (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  6. The definition I am giving here is a “quick and dirty” first approximation. Barnes and Dupré point out the many conceptual difficulties in defining what a gene really is (51–7). Matt Ridley, in Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), lays out seven distinct meanings of the term “gene” (233–41).
  7. Michael Rutter, Genes and Behavior: Nature-Nurture Interplay Explained (Malden: Blackwell, 2006).
  8. Christopher Dickey, “I Love My Glow Bunny,” Wired 9.04 (April 2001): <>.
  9. Philip Reilly, Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics (San Francisco: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000) 159–60; Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, GM Crops: The First Ten Years—Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts (Dorchester: PG Economics, 2006).
  10. The literature on this issue is of course multi-disciplinary and gargantuan. Five good books to start with are William Sewell, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002) especially 69–71; Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys, eds., Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008); Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic, 2007); and Volney Gay, ed., Neuroscience and Religion: Brain, Mind, Self, and Soul (Lanham: Lexington, 2009). See, also, Jerry Fodor, “Special Sciences (or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis),” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. David Chalmers (New York: Oxford, 2002) 126–34.
  11. See Rutter, chapters 9 and 10; and Ridley’s Nature via Nurture.
  12. Purves, chapters 10–12.
  13. The clearest articulation of this new understanding is given in Barnes and Dupré.
  14. Barnes and Dupré 49–50.
  15. Rutter, especially chapters 9 and 10.
  16. Steven Pinker, “My Genome, My Self,” The New York Times (11 January 2009).
  17. Valerie Duffy, et al., “Bitter Receptor Gene (TAS2R38), 6-n-Propylthiouracil (PROP) Bitterness and Alcohol Intake,” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 28.11 (November 2004): 1,629–37.
  18. In a similar way, doctors have implanted electrodes deep into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease or intractable depression, administering small electric shocks that produce remarkably positive outcomes. No one fully understands the multi-tiered electrochemical mechanisms through which Deep Brain Stimulation delivers these predictable results—but this has not prevented scientists from gaining an impressive measure of control over those mechanisms. See Bruce Katz, Neuroengineering the Future (Hingham: Infinity Science, 2008); and Adam Keiper, “The Age of Neuroelectronics,” The New Atlantis (Winter 2006): 18–9. The Keiper article also provides an excellent overview of bioelectronics in general.
  19. Ya-Ping Tang, et al., “Genetic Enhancement of Learning and Memory in Mice,” Nature 401 (2 September 1999): 63–9; Kristin Leutwyler, “Making Smart Mice,” Scientific American (7 September 1999): <>.
  20. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Genes, Changing Our Future (Boston: Mariner, 2003) 66.
  21. The Nobel laureate Mario Capecchi has identified precisely such a genetic “shut-off mechanism” and tested it successfully in mice. Mario Capecchi, “Human Germline Gene Therapy: How and Why,” Engineering the Human Germline: An Exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We Pass to Our Children, ed. Gregory Stock and John Campbell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 38–9.
  22. Among the dozens of recent books on the social and moral implications of human enhancement, the following stand out: Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (Malden: Blackwell, 2004); Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002); Ramez Naam, More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (New York: Broadway, 2005); Eric Parens, ed., Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1998); Michael Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Stock, Redesigning Humans.
  23. Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) 4–8.
  24. This is the central argument against human genetic engineering put forth by Jürgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

Michael Bess is Chancellor's Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He is the author most recently of Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (Knopf, 2006); and The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960±2000 (Chicago, 2003). Bess received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989.

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