As a follow up on the designer babies post, here is an extended excerpt from Evolve. For context: this is a conversation amongst four scientists (Ethan, Myrada, Chuck, and Colleen) – who are in the early stages of learning how to actually make “designer” humans – and an elite athlete (Athena) who is willingly allowing them to experiment on her.

The key question is asked, rhetorically, by Colleen near the end of this excerpt. It is basically: would you rather have DNA that leads to you getting cancer or would you rather not have DNA that leads to you getting cancer (all other things being equal)?

-JD Cross


From Evolve:

The morning after the evening and night of celebration began late for everybody except Athena at Gene Camp.  Athena did not use an alarm clock.  Her internal clock drove her from bed when the sun had risen to the point of casting a bright enough glow for her to be able to run.  That clock had served her for many years, and never failed to wake her, regardless of how little sleep she received the night before or how exhausted she was from whatever she had done the day or days before.

Athena returned from a ten mile run at around nine o’clock and found the four scientists casually eating breakfast and conversing in the dining hall.  She joined them and asked the question that she had pondered with every step of her run, “So, what’s next?”

To Ethan’s surprise and relief—for Ethan had been trying to figure out the answer to this question for days—Chuck responded immediately and decisively, “Colleen showed me the answer yesterday.  We’re going to build new engines.”  He looked at Ethan and added, “We’ve got to work on the ATP side.”

Ethan did not immediately respond; he thought.  Nobody immediately responded.

Chuck continued, “I looked at the blood work.  The numbers for both of the women show that we’ve exceeded the point where they are consuming all the oxygen we’ve provided them with.  Working on the oxygen side of the equation is done.  We can’t go any further with it.  But we haven’t done anything yet with the ATP side.  When I saw the steam engine yesterday—it’s working perfectly—I started to think about how we might change the body’s engines to be more effective, more productive.  I think that’s what we need to focus on, Ethan.  The blood data supports that notion.”

“What, are you going to modify the citric acid cycle?” asked Myrada.

“Yes,” replied Chuck.  “Ethan has already figured out a number of ways to do that.  We’ll have to get you and Colleen to test the models in the lab.  We don’t have any validation that our ideas are right or not.  But if they are, then yes, we’ll be modifying the citric acid cycle to make it run better and faster—burn more of the now abundant oxygen.”

Chuck, Ethan, and Myrada continued to discuss the specific modifications that Ethan and Chuck had in mind.  Myrada started probing them for information about the kinds of experiments that she would need to perform.  She was creating a mental inventory of the reagents that would need to be prepared and the kind of data that would be needed to verify or reject their theories.

In the midst of the increasingly technical conversation, Athena interrupted, “Guys, why are we here, hiding?  You’re talking, now, about the next phase of our evolution.  If we’re already superhuman, what will be in a few months?  I mean, look at what we’ve accomplished.  Look at what you,” she looked at each of the scientists in turn as she spoke, “have created.”

She captured their attention, and she continued, “Think about my time from yesterday.  I ran as fast, faster, than men run.  Think about what that means.  It means I’m free, we, women, are free to compete on the same terms as men.  Sure, I did it with this treatment, but I think it’s safe to imagine that we—athletes—could have access to the same kinds of treatments, men and women alike, that would put all of us on the same performance curve.  We would be limited not by what we’re born with, but by our own desire and ambition.  This technology—what you guys are creating right here—could unlock the potential for any person, man or woman, black or white or Asian or Mexican or whatever to be a professional athlete if they wanted.  It’s amazingly liberating.

“You’re talking about creating new ATP engines.  You could be talking about creating all sorts of new things.  It’s not just making people faster.  It’s about making people better.  It’s about giving people the choice, the technology, to change themselves to be whatever they want to be.  One doesn’t have to hope to be born able to be an athlete.  One could potentially decide to become one.  You’ve made that possible.  With the right drugs and the right training and the desire, anybody could do what I’ve done.

“And what we become—those of us that change, evolve, take these treatments—is far better than it would have been.  The level of performance, whatever that performance is, is better than it would have been.  Everybody benefits from this.  The people that take the drugs benefit, and the people that enjoy the products of the people that have taken the drugs benefit. These drugs make life profoundly, fundamentally better.”

She finished and a calm quiet hung in the room.  Everybody looked at her, and nobody said anything.  She asked her original question, “So, why are we hiding?”

Colleen responded first, “I think we all know that there are lots of people who would not find what we’ve accomplished liberating and wonderful.  There are a lot of people who would be appalled by this.  I mean, we’re all here, doing here what we did out there, because out there we were attacked for doing it.”

“I saw a commercial,” Athena said, “about AGR.  It was a while ago.  It showed an army of people—clones—that all looked alike.  It asked, ‘do you want this future?’  Do you understand what that commercial was about?”

“Clones, mutants, recombinant DNA, all of the usual genetic engineering nonsense,” replied Ethan.  It was somewhat cryptic comment that Athena did not fully understand.

Chuck picked up Ethan’s idea and continued, “I don’t agree with it at all, obviously, but think about recombinant DNA.  Recombinant DNA was part of the gene module therapies that Ethan and Myrada developed at AGR.  Recombinant DNA is when a piece of DNA foreign to the genome is introduced into it.  Sometimes you cut out a piece of DNA that was there before, sometimes you just add to everything that is already there.  Regardless, the DNA that you add produces protein products—it changes your body.  Recombinant DNA—say, to cure breast cancer—would potentially be passed on one’s children.  So there’s an ethical question:  is it okay for parents to knowingly or unknowingly make life changing genetic decisions for their children?”

Athena replied, “But parents make life changing decisions on behalf of their children all the time.  They eat good or bad food while they’re pregnant; they raise their children a certain way; they send their children to certain schools or they do or don’t help their children with their homework; or they pressure their children to have a certain profession.  I’ve even heard of parents with sick children having a baby specifically as an organ or tissue donor for the sick child.  How is any of that—all of which is normal and accepted—any different than being born with different genes?”

“Well,” Myrada said, “I think all of us would agree that it isn’t any different.  But, then again, we’re here, hiding.  Obviously, the question Chuck asked is one for which many people will give many different answers.”

Athena asked another question, “And what about choosing a partner?  That decision is probably the most important as far as genetics is concerned, isn’t it?  And that’s completely unregulated, unmonitored, uncontrolled.”

“Right,” said Colleen, “it’s a bit peculiar isn’t it?  For some people, there is a very high value placed on letting randomness determine the fate of individual lives.  And yet, for these same people, there is contradictory, inconsistent behavior.  There are some activities, choosing a partner as you said, for which randomness is valued.  While other activities, schooling, choice of profession, where control is tolerated or encouraged.  Is it rational?  No.  For whatever reason, however, it’s accepted.  The contradiction is unquestioned.  It’s just the way it is.”

Athena asked, “Don’t mutations happen all the time, in nature?  Aren’t those mutations a bit like what you’re doing here?  Except, rather than gambling with bad outcomes like cancer, you’re ensuring good results?”

“Well,” said Ethan, “mutations don’t exactly happen all the time.  But you’re right that mutations do happen, and often—usually—they lead to bad results.  You’re also right, we do—practically, from a biochemical perspective—essentially the same thing as the sun; except that we make sure the outcome is what we want.”

Colleen added, “Imagine this gene module technology—recombinant DNA that cures disease and gets passed along to children.  Imagine that you could reverse the process.”  Colleen looked to Ethan, who nodded in acknowledgement that the process could be reversed.  “Now, you have children—mutants, maybe they’d be called—and you wait until they’re eighteen or twenty-one.  You say to them, ‘You’ve got DNA that you shouldn’t have. Do you want the DNA that you should have?’  Suppose that you’ve kept copies of the original DNA for just such an occasion.  The kid asks, ‘what’s the difference?’ ‘Well,’ you say, ‘the stuff you’ve got is mostly similar to the DNA you should have except that the stuff you got will not result in you getting cancer.  The stuff you’re supposed to have is mostly the same as what you’ve got, except that you’ll get cancer.’  Is there any doubt about which the kid will choose?  I mean, there’s a right answer here.  It’s not that we’re talking about some question for which there is no answer, or for which we don’t know the answer.  The right answer is life.  If you don’t think it’s a priori true, it’s easy enough to find that it’s empirically true.  Just do the experiment—that is, ask them—as I’ve described.”

Athena seemed frustrated.  She asked, “See, that’s a perfect example.  It’s obvious.  And yet, we’re here.  I guess I just don’t understand why we’re here and not out there, helping people.”

Ethan replied, “It’s because other people—people with power—think they know what’s best for everybody.”

“But,” protested Athena, increasingly frustrated, “those others, they don’t have to be a part of or suffer from or benefit from my decisions.  I take the drugs you give me.  I am the one and only person affected by that decision.  It seems so obvious…” she trailed off in frustration.

Ethan stood, hoping to end the conversation before Athena got more frustrated, and said, “To those who think they know what’s best, they think we—consumers—don’t know.  They think we are being lied to and deceived by companies trying to sell us shoddy goods or bad drugs.  They—our self-appointed protectors—think they have the answers.  They can protect us.  They want to think they’re protecting us.  They want that job.  They want that responsibility.  Most of them—politicians and regulators—seem to take the jobs they take because they enjoy bossing people around.

“I don’t know why they want that control.  I don’t know why they think the world is a better place because we’re here in hiding…” Ethan trailed off.  Last night’s celebration was now a distant memory.  He wished that he had something more encouraging to say.  He did not.  The group dispersed.  They started back to work.