As one of the early advocates of the Human Genome Project (I helped establish the first HGP, at Berkeley, California, in 1987), I read Michael J. Sandel's "The Case Against Perfection" (April Atlantic) with great interest. Sadly, his discussion of "designer children, bionic athletes, and genetic engineering" demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the important results of the HGP that were announced with great fanfare by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000 and published in 2001 in the journals Science and Nature.
The preponderance of results from the international effort to sequence the three billion nucleotides of the human genome, and hundreds of subsequent studies on the mechanisms of gene expression, have made the prospect of predicting disease propensities and the ability to manipulate genetic traits far less likely than Sandel projects. This is particularly true where complex traits such as intelligence, physical characteristics, cognition, and behavior are involved. Sandel uses scenarios for which there is little scientific support. It is now apparent that each gene may yield several thousand expression variants. The DNA gene is an essential component of gene expression, but it is clearly not deterministic, as Sandel and his science-challenged colleagues on the President's Council on Bioethics reflect in their various official publications. Sandel uses scenarios from a science-fiction movie to bolster his view of reality. He has distorted facts: for example, the cloned sheep Dolly did not "die a premature death"; it was euthanized because of an arthritic condition that is not uncommon in sheep of that breed and age.
Sandel claims to be "troubled by genetic engineering for stronger bodies, sharper memories, greater intelligence, and happier moods." His construct and other fears are so remote as to raise questions about his motives in raising these scientifically unsupported scenarios. The council's publication Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness contained statements implying that it was now possible to create designer babies with specific complex traits. Elizabeth Blackburn, of the University of California at San Francisco, who was purged from the council, and Janet Rowley, of the University of Chicago, requested that these unscientific statements be modified to reflect the fact that no such possibility was in hand or available in the near term. Their request was rejected.
Like his colleagues on the council, Sandel is obviously motivated to convert nonbelievers to accept the role of supernaturalism in our work and lives. Indeed, Sandel and the council are so intent on securing a role for supernaturalism that they have purged the membership of anyone who does not share their religious beliefs. What is particularly egregious is that they are using federal funds and resources to achieve this purpose as well as suppressing, distorting, and misrepresenting facts to implement their proselytizing efforts.
Paul H. Silverman
University of California
The big problem is that Michael Sandel asserts a distinction between ethical "medical" and dubious other uses of genetic engineering, without ever attempting to provide a principled distinction. I doubt that there is one. At what point should low mental function cease to be a glorious example of the diversity of life and become a tragic accident? "Normal" is nothing more exalted than acceptance of the inevitable—the pot bearing the marks of its making. Why should any use at all of genetic engineering—as compared with open-heart surgery or modern neonatal care—be regarded as "the one-sided triumph of willfulness"? To whom does the former seem "somehow worse—more intrusive, more sinister"? The problem with the more grotesque applications has to do with "the attitudes and dispositions that prompt the drive for enhancement," which really has nothing to do with particular technologies (think of the grotesque applications of demographics, or of financial-accounting technology), and remains unexamined here.
Of course perfection is to be striven for (no fear it will be achieved). What would the alternative be? The preliminary task is to describe perfection, here in a society of individuals. Sandel isn't helping.
Coos Bay, Ore.
Michael Sandel doesn't reckon with the possibility that parents' willfulness in genetically designing their children will be matched by children's willfulness in resisting their parents' intentions. One can easily imagine a child "designed" to be, say, a basketball player who rebels against a career in sports and the parental pressure that accompanies it, preferring instead to become a poet. Theoretically, of course, the child could be genetically programmed for a compliant nature; but such passivity would detract from the qualities of improvisation and leadership needed to excel in basketball.
The complexity of the genetic underpinnings of talent and temperament, and the still-mysterious interplay between genes and environment in shaping who we are, suggest that attempts to design children for specific purposes are as likely to backfire as they are to succeed.
Michael Sandel presents several dubious arguments against the use of genetic engineering to enhance human capabilities. The most fundamental problem is his false assumption that with sufficient engineering humanity's future would lack enough challenge and uncertainty to sustain our awe of the wondrous world about us. Surely we have ample evidence that genes alone do not determine our future makeup; rather, it is the unpredictable interaction of genes and environment. And isn't it likely that our enhanced capabilities would lead to a greater awareness of what we do not know rather than to a total mastery of all there is to know?
If advances in scientific knowledge pose difficulties for our self-image and our "moral landscape," perhaps our efforts would be better spent in reevaluating the bases of our self-image and moral values than in trying to prevent the application of science to the betterment of humanity. Considering the pace at which scientific advancements are moving on so many fronts, that re-evaluation is urgently needed.
Michael Sandel's real beef is with human nature: we are proud, we favor tall and pretty people, we act our insecurities out on our children, we act selfishly. Taking aim at technology will do little to correct these things. We will continue to modify the natural state of affairs for our own benefit, as we always have. The question is not whether we should presume to improve on the lot we're dealt by nature—we will, because that's what human beings do—but how we use the tools we invent, and what safeguards we put in place to prevent nasty consequences. With obvious exceptions (such as nuclear weapons), we always seem to figure it out eventually. To use an example from Sandel's article, instead of prohibiting genetic testing across the board, the Senate voted to prohibit genetic discrimination in health insurance. It is seldom easy to figure out how to get the benefits of technology while minimizing the bad side effects; but it can be done, and it is a far more productive endeavor than wringing our hands about man's hubris and the "dehumanizing" effects of every new invention that comes along.
Michael J. Sandel replies:
Paul H. Silverman's letter is a farrago of confusion and misdirected ideological ire. He takes me to task for the sins, as he sees them, of the President's Council on Bioethics, a body on which I serve, but for which my article does not speak. He accuses me of proselytizing for the supernatural, of trying to convert nonbelievers to religion, of slandering Dolly the cloned sheep, and, most absurdly, of helping purge from the council my friend and colleague Elizabeth Blackburn, a noted cell biologist who dissented from the majority's vote for a moratorium on cloning for research and regenerative medicine. In fact I, too, was among the dissenters, and was unhappy when President Bush dismissed Dr. Blackburn. Mr. Silverman's suggestion that I had anything to do with this is ridiculous. His accusation of missionary zeal is hardly more credible. Although my article maintains that eugenics and other forms of genetic engineering are at odds with an appreciation of the giftedness of life, I emphasize that this notion does not necessarily depend on religion. As for Dolly, Mr. Silverman is incorrect in saying that she was euthanized because of an arthritic condition. Dolly did have arthritis, but was euthanized because of a virus that caused a tumor in her lung. (See Nature, vol. 421, p. 776.) The source for my statement, disputed by Mr. Silverman, that Dolly died a premature death is a paper by Rudolf Jaenisch, an MIT cell biologist who is one of the world's foremost cloning experts. (The article can be found at www.bioethics.gov/background/jaenisch.html.)