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Redesigning humans

Book review

Redesigning humans - Choosing our Children's Genes, by Gregory Stock. Profile Books 2002

Even the title of this book may send a shiver down many spines. Can humans really be redesigned? If so, should anyone try to do it? What kind of people might result? Might humanity divide into different varieties, even different species, over time? Could H G Wells's vision of a master class of Eloi and an underclass (appropriately underground) of Morlocks ever become reality? Is the idea technological foresight or science fiction?

Gregory Stock starts from the proposition that the next frontier for humans is not, as is often said, expansion into outer space, but rather the development of the inner space which is ourselves. Looking back into history since the end of the last ice age, we can already see a transformation of the human body through agriculture, urban living, the use of writing, and resistance to disease. The techniques of birth control, fertilization of eggs by sperm outside the womb, the detection of genetic defects in embryos, the example given by the cloning of Dolly the sheep, and now the sequencing of the human genome, have opened up possibilities for control of our evolutionary future unimaginable even a generation ago. Over thousands of years we have through selective breeding transformed the dog population. We now have the means enormously to accelerate the process of change, and to apply it to ourselves.

James Watson (he of DNA fame) once asked: "If we could make better humans … why shouldn't we?". On this hangs the tale of this book. There is a wide range of possibilities. In many ways each begins as a change of degree rather than of kind. Protection against hereditary disease can lead on to choice of desirable characteristics. In vitro fertilization already accounts for almost 1% of live births in the United States. Three technologies for germ line intervention are now in prospect: briefly they amount to the comprehensive genetic testing of embryos to enable couples to choose what should be implanted. Planting of chips, or the splicing of electronics into the nervous system, has already been done, but is unlikely to be popular. A still more exotic idea is the addition of a new chromosome pair to the human genome. This would be, in the author's words, "an inert scaffolding dotted with insertion sites where modules of genes and their control sequences could be placed, using the various enzymes that splice and clip DNA".

One way or another he believes that in germ line choice technology lies the future. So do you want your child to be taller, brighter, nicer, longer lived, freer from disease than you are? Are you inclined to go for the laboratory rather than the double bed to achieve conception? Will sex become essentially recreational? The author jumps a thousand years and looks back on our time as "strange and primitive … when people live only 70 or 80 years, died of awful diseases, and conceived their children … by a random, unpredictable meeting of sperm and egg".

Whether the technology required is ten years or more away or will ever exist, there can be little doubt that in spite of all the hazards and complexities, it is moving in that direction. Even if it were banned in one country, it would probably be developed in another. The rewards of success would simply be too great. There might be a long period of trial and error: people could become biological time bombs so that their bodies failed on them; unknown gene variants could impoverish the genome; and designer children might be unable to adjust to society. But the author sees the main difficulties as elsewhere: our repugnance at this interference with natural processes (usurping the role of God), fear of the possible consequences, and, perhaps more important, an increasing division in society between the enhanced and the unenhanced in which biological inequality could become the norm.

Gregory Stocks is an unrepentant redesigner. He believes that redesigning will happen however much church or state or anyone else may disapprove or seek to ban it. The genie is already out of the bottle. He sees remaking ourselves as the ultimate expression and realization of our humanity. "We are" he writes "beginning an extraordinary adventure that we cannot avoid, because, judging from our past, whether we like it or not, this is the human destiny".

This is a well thought out book without excessive jargon, and honestly confronts a real however uncomfortable set of issues. The technology may not turn out as the author expects. Its consequences may not only be repellent but worse than he believes. Here at least are the arguments. We badly need to think about them.

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