Genetics frightens me a bit

Like nuclear physics, I feel that the science could be used for good, but also has the potential for tremendous evil. In fact, for a couple different reasons, I think it might be even more dangerous. First, when we start talking about the genetic selection and manipulation of human beings (largely sci-fi right now, but closer to sci-real every day), we’re talking about messing with someone’s character, personality, inclinations – some of the core things that make them who they are. The worst thing nuclear physics gave us was the atom bomb, and the worst thing that could do to you is kill you. Forcibly deciding, genetically, who someone is or will be – I don’t know, it feels somehow worse to me.

And second – we all agree that nuclear weapons are a terrible thing, even if some would defend their use as, at times, a necessary evil. But we do not have that societal consensus when it comes to biological manipulation. Some of us think that aborting a fetus with a serious genetic malady is murder, others have no problem with it at all – could we get any further apart? Let me give you another example.

This is on my mind because I just read the essay “Killing Your Own Clone is Still Murder” by Jason Eberl in the collection Star Trek and Philosophy. (Hey, I’m enjoying it!) Here’s one sentence from the essay,

B’Elanna’s concerns for her child echo those of parents who, born deaf, wish to undertake measures so that their children will be born deaf as well.

When I first read that, I thought there must be a typo in my book. Isn’t there a “not” missing here? Wouldn’t deaf parents want their children to “not” be born deaf? I don’t want to denigrate the deaf, but in truth they are missing out on something important and beautiful, are they not? But no, Eberl goes on,

…members of the deaf community argue that it’ll be easier for parents and children to relate to one another if the entire family is deaf.

He also includes this footnote,

The relevant measures would include the selection of embryos produced by in vitro fertilization, to implant in the mother’s uterus only those embryos that test positive for the genetic sequence coding for deafness.

I find it horrifying that someone would want that for their child, and that we now have the technology and the will to make that wish come true.

Let me calm down and just say a little more. The main focus of the essay is an episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation called The Masterpiece Society. It’s available on Netflix streaming. The Enterprise stumbles upon a community of humans where everyone has been selectively bred to be the best possible at whatever occupation they are destined for within the community. The episode raises several interesting questions. For example. some of the Enterprise crewman are repulsed by the fact that the occupations of everyone in the community are predetermined for them before they are born, but the leader of the community points out that while he was indeed bred for his post, it is also what he would want to do with his life – so what is the problem?

Episode is recommended if you have Netflix. Other genetics-themed Star Trek episodes mentioned in the essay are Dr. Bashir, I Presume from Deep Space Nine and Lineage from Voyager. I’m kind of surprised how much serious thought these essayists have been able to pull out of a television series.

And I guess I should say that I’m well aware of the rebuttals to some of my objections, which usually take the form of “what we can or will be able to do with genetics is simply a faster or more complete version of something people have been doing for centuries.” Still… I am disturbed. Our former church in St. Louis actually had a course on Christian bioethics one semester – too bad I didn’t take it, eh?


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