February 20, 2011

Making babies

I was on BBC's The Sunday Sequence today, a brief discussion about whether we ought to select for smart designer babies. Not much time to expand my ideas, so here is an extended version - what I would have said if I have had indefinite time:

The reason for the discussion was Julian Savulescu's comments that we ought to use IVF to select for smarter children. This follows from his principle of procreative beneficence (PPB): all things being equal, we should choose to have the child who is expected to have the best life. Since smarter children have better life chances than less smart children, we ought to select for them. Besides being good for the life of the child, this is likely to be beneficial to society since having smart people around gives various general benefits to society (economic growth, higher levels of cooperation, new ideas and inventions etc.)

What to select for?

One might argue that intelligence is not everything, and I would agree. In terms of improving lives avoiding many illnesses likely trump intelligence, and intelligence in a narrow sense does not help living a truly good life. Most geniuses seem to be a confluence of both a great deal of intelligence, a strong motivation, good education and finding the right problem to focus on. For life outcomes self-control, motivation, emotional intelligence, mood set-point and other things matter: when enough come together, good things can happen. All of these things should be promoted according to the PPB - even if we can just tweak one of them a child will now have a better chance to get the others right than before.

Of course, selecting what traits are good is in itself a fraught issue. This week Felicitas Kraemer argued in her James Martin research seminar (abstract in pdf) that emotional enhancement programs tend to require an assumption of value realism, something many philosophers would likely feel is going out on a limb. Still, there is no shortage of philosophers and other people who might say that happiness, tranquillity or lack of cruelty are objectively good things. More seriously (and practically) the real problem is that we do not understand emotions or other complex traits like intelligence well, and they often form complex wholes we might be mistaken in changing in particular ways. I think there is some merit to this, but it is not an argument against enhancement, just against naive enhancement. Going after a too narrow goal might be self-defeating, but we can aim at broader and more open outcomes. This is why pursuing general instrumental goods like intelligence, self-control or health is more useful, impactful and moral than attempting to provide narrow goods like a future musical career.

Many think the goal of genetic selection is perfection. But perfection does not exist: there is no best brain or best immune system. Individual variations will interact in subtle ways with the environment and experiences, producing different outcomes. This means that a given genome will not determine what life a person lives, or ensure that it will go well. Bad luck, bad choices and unexpected interactions happens all the time. We can tilt things towards certain possibilities, but we cannot guarantee them. More deeply, we have a pluralism of ideas of what constitutes a good life, and different parents will aim for different forms of perfection. But it is the aiming that matters, not hitting the target perfectly.


From a practical standpoint selecting children requires artificial interventions into reproduction, if only by sperm sorting (for gender selection, an action where the PPB seems to suggest we might wish to bias towards more women since they live longer and are happier than men). This is expensive and cumbersome: note that the PPB does not say it immoral to have children the natural way, just that if you are anyway using IVF PGD is a good idea.

In fact, I believe we would have good effects if everybody used IVF for reproduction even without any selection. The reason is that IVF reproduction requires motivated parents who want the child. Wanted children get more warmth and support than unwanted. This is likely far more important for all outcomes than any amount of screening.

The real problem with PGD is that while it is relatively easy to screen for bad alleles (say, genetic diseases) good traits are multifactorial and often quite dilute. Most common alleles involved in IQ have <1% effect on the outcome. But in the near future where we can do a sequence of the whole embryo genome we could still weight things together to get an overall score, despite this being uncertain. If we were to select for embryos with a high score we would get more children developing with genomes correlated with good things. Over time we could also learn by observation what genes and traits actually matters and refine this process.

My own suspicion is that spread of genetic selection will be slow and that this refinement process will be so slow, making the evolution towards widespread designer babies a so slow process that other technologies (AI, brain emulation, cognotechnology, nanomedicine, ...) race past it.

The E-word

Is this eugenics? My answer is that of course it is, and there is nothing inherently wrong with eugenics. What has historically been wrong with attempts at eugenics is that they have been 1) forced upon people, 2) based on faulty values, and 3) based on faulty science.

The big problem with state-sanctioned eugenic programs is that they have coercively interfered in people's most private sphere. This is something Julian and me both are very strongly against: I would argue that reproductive freedom is very important and closely linked to morphological freedom. The only acceptably limitations is to prevent harm to others. Having a "bad" child is not harming others (at most it might cost society a bit more), not even the child itself (they would not exist if they had not been selected/randomly occurred). But that such coercive programs were bad is not an argument against allowing people to themselves, if they wish, perform reproductive selection for traits they think are good. The role of governments here is likely more to ensure that people are informed with the best information we currently have, and (if you like positive rights or think there is a possible equality problem) maybe even provide services and subsidies for those willing to use them.

The second issue is what values to promote. Classic negative eugenics had some pretty narrow values and did not accept critique of them. "Liberal eugenics" on the other hand allows different groups to pursue their ideas of the good. In fact, Julian has argued that current rules providing state support for selecting against serious illnesses but not other things such as gender or positive traits hides an accidental (?) negative eugenic agenda - people do not see selecting against illnesses for what it is, while decrying positive selection as eugenics that must be avoided.

There is no fundamental difference between wanting to give a child a good life by it not getting sick, not getting stupid or having good self-control.

There is a big difference if the goal is to make sure children have better chances of having good lives, improving society or fulfilling some desire of the parents. The later two are wrong from a Kantian perspective, since they treat children as means towards an end (society or the desire). It might be possible to have mixed motivations, of course. Knowing that smart children are more likely to make the world a better place might be motivational, but the children better be wanted.

Selecting pre-persons

The real elephant in the room is of course the ethics of selecting embryos, which is more about when personhood begins than selection itself.

I hold the basic view that someone cannot complain that their embryo was selected from among others, even when there were bad outcomes, since without that particular selection they would not exist. Potential people do not have rights, otherwise we would be in trouble with the billions who are refused existence every time a couple conceives a child. Only people who exist have rights and might morally oppose interventions in their lives, but if their existence is contingent upon an early intervention they cannot morally claim they would prefer it not to have happened (unless they think their existence is so bad that it would have been better not to be born at all). They might still claim compensation if they got a bad deal, of course.

The view that personhood occurs when the egg is fertilized is a non-starter. If that is accepted, then monozygotic twins are one person, chimeras are two people in one body, and there is a massive scourge of human deaths that nobody holding this view seem to care about. All the things we ascribe to persons (like a continuous and separate history, consciousness, having representations of the world and so on) come into play later. Embryos are pre-persons, perhaps worthy of special consideration due to their potential for becoming persons, but not inherently more valuable than other small clumps of cells.

Julian has a nice model for when we give moral status to embryos:

"Embryos have special moral value when they are part of a plan to have a child, or at least desired by the people who made them. Embryos do not have special moral value when they are not desired by the people who formed them."

Basically, a lump of cells we intend to turn into a beloved offspring is worth special consideration, but a similar lump of cells we merely see as a necessity for bringing about our child (in the case of excess embryos in IVF or the non-selected embryos in PGD) is just a lump of cells. It is the act of selecting an embryo that starts giving it moral value!

Aren't we playing God?

Flippant jokes aside, I think the proper answer is that we are playing God by using our rational thinking (one of the few similarities between humans and Gods in most religions) to make the world a bit more to what we think it should be.

The playing God argument is more about potential hubris and overconfidence than a real religious argument. It is a shorthand of humans meddling in complex systems where the consequences can be pretty grave. But most of medicine is about playing God in this sense. The goal - health - is regarded as so valuable that we allow amazingly yucky things to happen to living bodies, and most people would be willing to defend the practice as one of the professions with the highest moral motivations. It seems that providing health *and* other good life outcomes to children are ends that should allow equally drastic means. We are aware of the misuses and downsides of medicine, but I think most people would agree that they can be managed - peer review, evidence based medicine, ethics review boards, follow up and further research. We can become better at playing God.

Posted by Anders3 at February 20, 2011 03:07 PM