But What About Genetic Enhancement? An Excerpt from the Dictionary of Christianity and Science

ZA Blog on April 21st, 2017. Tagged under ,,.

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What is the relationship between Christianity and science? How does Christian theology relate to scientific inquiry?

The answers to these questions are finally here. The Dictionary of Christianity of Science gives you access to key terms, theories, individuals, debates, and much more to help you engage in the interaction between science and faith. In today’s excerpt, we give you a sampling of an article about genetic enhancement by the moral philosopher C. Ben Mitchell.


9780310496052Part of the larger project of human enhancement, genetic enhancement is a means of augmenting the human genome or genetic blueprint to create “better humans.” The idea of manipulating the genetic structure, or DNA, of living entities dates back at least to Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants. The Human Genome Project — the effort to map the entire human genetic blueprint — recently has spawned new hopes for the genetic manipulation of humans, not only to eradicate diseases, but to extend human life span and enhance traits like IQ, eyesight, memory, athletic ability, musical abilities, etc.

Having once been the subject of science fiction, proponents of genetic enhancement hope it will soon become science fact. Philosopher John Harris sees the project of enhancement as a way of directing human evolution. The aim according to thinkers like Nick Bostrom is to create a new species of posthumans, transitional humans (or transhumans) who are ultimately engineered to develop enhanced traits such that they can no longer be considered mere humans.

There are essentially three scientific methods of manipulating human genetics. First, researchers may manipulate the genetic material in sperm or eggs, the so-called germ cells. A cleft chin, for instance, is a single-gene dominant trait passed from one generation to the next through normal human procreation. If it were determined that “enhanced” human beings would not have a cleft chin, it might be possible to “turn off” that gene in the germ cell so that it is not expressed in future generations.

Next, the genetic material of a human embryo might be manipulated in vitro. The genetic material from the sperm and egg combine in in vitro fertilization to generate a genetically unique member of the human species, namely, an individual person. This person has two types of cells in his or her body, germ cells and somatic cells. The germ cells, or reproductive cells, are passed to future generations. The somatic, or body cells, are unique to that individual. Currently, specialists are able, through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), to identify genetic anomalies in vitro, like the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or Down syndrome, but are unable to eradicate those genes without destroying the embryo.

Consequently, PGD is used most often to select embryos for transfer to a woman’s uterus. Those not selected are either frozen, destroyed in the process of research, or discarded. The successful manipulation of the genetics of the embryo — in either germ cells or somatic cells — appears to be especially difficult. There is little reason to expect this to change very soon. Germline modification is currently not supported by government funding in the United States and many other countries, but some jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, are beginning to experiment with modification of mitochondrial DNA.

Finally, researchers hope to be able to modify the DNA of adults in the not-too-distant future. Gene therapy might be a means of treating a disorder by inserting or deleting certain genes. Once this is possible, some hope that the same techniques might be used to enhance the genetic traits of an individual, either in the germ cells or somatic cells. Gene therapy has been attempted for a limited number of different conditions, but without much success. Whether or not these techniques will enable scientists to enhance human genetics depends on the answers to a number of questions.

First, genetic enhancement depends on the development of genetic science. Experts predict that the current gap between the ability to diagnose genetic conditions and treat genetic conditions will exist for quite a while. Closing this so-called diagnosis-therapy gap will not be easy, but there is little reason to doubt that the gap will be narrowed over time. And even if single gene manipulations become available, traits like IQ are multifactorial and notoriously complex. Increasing IQ by 10 points will be demanding to say the least. Likewise, just because a modification of a person’s fast twitch muscles becomes possible, this does not mean that person will be a better baseball or cricket player. Some rightly worry that an incredibly smart person who is also incredibly mean would create havoc. So moral enhancement could be considered necessary also. Even if they exist, the genes for moral traits would likely be quite elusive.

Second, and even more problematically, society will have to reach consensus about the nature and goals of human enhancement. Who determines what is an enhancement? By definition an enhancement is an improvement. Philosophers like Gregory Pence consider adding vitamins to cereal or giving people smart phones a form of human enhancement. Although the therapy-versus-enhancement distinction is somewhat fuzzy, there seems to be a categorical difference between correcting someone’s vision with contact lenses and, say, manipulating a soldier’s genome so that he can see long distances at night. Similarly, there seems to be a difference between the attention-enhancing qualities of a cup of coffee and altering one’s genetic structure so that one could stay awake and alert a week at a time. Given normative human functioning, it is not clear to everyone that nonsomnolence is an enhancement. Furthermore, some genetic conditions have positive side effects that might be lost by manipulation. For example, the same gene associated with sickle cell trait also protects against malaria. Knocking out the sickle cell gene would at the same time make a person more susceptible to malaria.

Third, not every means is justified by the ends. That is, even if we could agree that certain genetic enhancements were desirable, that does not entail that the means to attain them are ethically acceptable. Because of the difficulty, complexity, and problem of unintended side effects, experimenting on human embryos for the sake of enhancements is extraordinarily difficult to justify. We might put a child at risk to save her life, but do we really want to put a child at risk in an effort to increase her IQ or give her a boost in memory? It is hard to imagine which so-called genetic enhancements might warrant clinical trials on human beings.

Finally, Christian theology teaches that every human being, regardless of genetic traits, abilities, disabilities, age, or capacities is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27 – 28). The pursuit of genetic enhancements might tempt us to trust in technology for shalom (completeness, a proper ordering of things) rather than God. Moreover, because of the fallenness of the created order, we can be certain that, short of the consummation, human frailty of one sort or another will persist, whether genetic or from some other source.


 C. Ben Mitchell (Ph.D, University of Tennessee) is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Union University.


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