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July 21, 2011 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

Many are not convinced the glittering promise of genetic manipulation implies the presence of a pot of gold. Science often moves faster than moral understanding. The Internet is a prime example. The greatest tool yet developed for expanding human knowledge and, by extension, reducing human suffering, is primarily used by most people for shopping, email, and entertainment. Of course, human ability and perspicacity in the aggregate has not yet caught up to the implications of E = MC2, originally described in 1905.

For some, the gift of life is paramount. Children should be appreciated as the gifts they are. If we are seduced by the sirens of science, the breakdown of society will ensue and social solidarity will dissolve.

Of course, some level of social breakdown has already occurred due to a failure of personal responsibility. Litigation runs wild in the U.S. — the McDonald's "coffee case" being a notorious example. Trial attorneys typically portray their clients as victims using the "Twinkie defense", which set the standard for the "I'm not responsible" defense strategies.

Let’s assume that genetic enhancements will become available, although this is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Let's imagine that athletes could upgrade the physiology of muscle recovery. If everyone could do it, the playing field remains level. Yes, they would be post-human, but I see no benefit in remaining merely human. The visionary paleontologist, philosopher, and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pointed toward such a future. In his seminal work The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard states "we appear to be on the eve of having a hand in the development of our bodies and even of our brains". One day, he proposes, we may be "grasping the very mainspring of evolution, seizing the tiller of the world".

Although we have very far to go before our development begins to approach that envisioned by Teilhard, twenty-first century humans are certainly post-human compared to those of even the 19th century. We don't succumb to infectious disease, on average, as easily as those  humans did. On average, we're several inches taller and we live longer. We run much faster, jump much higher, and periodically set new world records for powerlifting. In the 2010 Winter Olympics, ladies figure skating competition, Mao Asada landed three triple axels, a feat which had never been done by a woman before.

None of these enhancements have come about through overt genetic manipulation, but doesn't de facto manipulation result from pairings like that of tennis stars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi? Surely their children are more likely to be better athletes than the average college student. Systematizing the process (if possible) would merely be more efficient.

There's a wider benefit. Good genes over time create fitter humans — the entire gene pool could become optimized over a handful of generations. Certainly, such humans would have genomes qualitatively and quantitatively different from the genomes of 10,000 years ago. But over evolutionary time, viruses infiltrate our nuclei and update our 3 billion base pairs. Again, systematization of this "creation"-based process could provide great benefit.

Such genetic enhancement might create a sort of ennui, in which individuals would no longer wish to succeed by their own efforts. But this is unlikely. Professional baseball stars who used performance-enhancing drugs did not merely show up at the ball park after their trainers injected the meds. They attended daily practice, hit in the batting cage, and continued to take instruction. They followed all their life-long training methods, putting in the time and the effort. All the drugs did was make them stronger and possibly quicker.

I'm not justifying the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It's manifestly unfair, unless everyone was using them. But using drugs did not diminish effort and did not diminish the athletes' capacity to act freely.

The human genome is a highly dynamic structure, continually being modified by sexual reproduction as well as the environment. For example, humans who are extraordinarily intelligent, having received this gift via the usual process, strive or don’t strive, based on their personal inclinations. If such a gift were received via genetic optimization, the distribution of outcomes would likely remain the same. The critical difference would be in the increased brilliance, variety of applications, and meaningfulness of unusual outcomes.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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