the misguided quest for perfection

January 31, 2009 — 9 Comments

Imagine being able to customize your child and pick everything from gender to hair and eye color, athletic ability and intelligence. Why, with enough money and genetic tinkering, you could make the perfect little kid. Right? Well they do say hope springs eternal and over the last century there have been several attempts to create a super kid endowed with the athletic talents of a professional sports champion and the intellect of a Nobel Prize winning scientist.

super kidI’ve written before about the flaws of eugenics and its concept that somehow, through a practice of methodical reproductive planning, human evolution can be steered the same way as that of dogs or plants. The idea was developed without real understanding of genetics and with a whole lot of arrogance that still continues to this day. Even with a highly refined knowledge of genes and genetic mechanisms, there are still people who cling to the idea that somehow, we can put together the right genes like building blocks in a Lego set and come up with a perfect human.

Case in point, plastic eyeglass entrepreneur Robert Graham who used his wealth to create the infamous Repository for Germinal Choice better known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank after a few Nobel Prize winners agreed to donate their genetic data to the project. The goal was to use the gametes from people that had a particular type of intelligence to create a sort of factory in which future geniuses would be manufactured. You see, Graham decided that humanity wasn’t evolving in the right direction and it was up to him and people who shared his ideas to reverse this. Out of some 217 children who were born through the RGC, only a few were the prodigies that Graham wanted. After growing public disgust with the project, the sperm bank finally shut down in 1999 and sealed its files.

Graham and his Nobel Prize winning supporter William Shockley adhered to the same ideology that fueled some of the most monstrous eugenics experiments in history. Graham was pretty much a textbook Social Darwinist who believed that if people weren’t wealthy or at least well off, they were “retrograde humans” who were dumbing down humanity. Shockley was a racist who preached that blacks were genetically inferior and less intelligent than whites and that anyone with an IQ below a certain threshold should be sterilized. It’s a classic study in eugenic history. People with little to no idea of how genetics and heredity work believing themselves to be really smart and very resourceful decide to “uplift” the human species. Had they actually got off their high horses and got an education in biology, they would’ve known that their efforts would fail.

First and foremost, the idea of what human perfection should look like is a subjective one. In a natural environment, there’s no such thing as perfection. There are only attempts in which the rate of survival determines success of failure. Try to engineer something different and there’s no telling what hidden flaws your might expose or what environmental effect will override your efforts by activating or deactivating a gene crucial to your plans. Genomes evolved as dynamic systems so to think of taming this semi-controlled chaos the same way one thinks of making a change to a blueprint is just plain ridiculous. Even if you do succeed, what happens when your supposedly perfect human suddenly faces another definition of perfection later on?

Secondly, the role of nurture is not to be underestimated. You can have children with all sorts of propensities of intellectual or athletic achievement. But if you don’t try to grow and develop them, the kids will never be champions or Nobel Prize winners. Genes do contribute quite a bit, but they’re not the end-all-be-all and the best they can do is create predispositions that come in many forms and take many years to truly figure out. Just because you’re a child of a genius, you won’t necessarily be one. Amazingly for Graham and Shockley, this was the case with their RGC experiment. They didn’t help create a new generation of geniuses but rather, children who spanned a bell curve in every aspect of human development, just like any normal population in nature. Again, Genetics 101 would’ve been handy.

Finally, and most importantly, rather than trying to enhance humanity, Graham’s experiments were actually going against one of the fundamental principles of evolution. This is pretty ironic when we consider that he blamed social welfare programs for undermining evolution and yet, ended up doing the exact same thing though in a different way. You see, intelligence and talent come in many forms. Gifted actors, musicians, mathematicians, biologists, writers and artists can be considered geniuses in their unique ways. When we consider how evolution works, we’ll find a good reason for the variety of talents we see in humans. Each new organism is a sort of genetic experiment and the more variety a population has, the more likely it is to survive in an ever changing world. When a hack like Graham decides that only a certain strain of intelligence is the one that matters and tries to make it the dominant one, he’s in effect trying to make the species worse suited so survive through natural selection.

So here’s a bit of advice to parents who want the perfect baby. There is and never will be a baby that’s perfect. Rather than aiming for subjective ideas of perfection, embrace variety, try to find your child’s talents and nurture them. You will never succeed in doing something different. The rules of nature don’t cooperate with our personal desires.

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  • http://hplusbiopolitics.wordpress.com/ Joshua

    This is a very interesting and well-written post.

    I agree with you that there will never be a perfect human. I do, however, think this is due to difficulty in deciding that perfection constitutes, rather than any difficulty in enhancing people to a particular specification. But, despite this, I see nothing wrong with attempting to create a perfect child.

    As an analogy, everyone has differing views on what sort of education is the best for their children. And yet, that is no argument against parents sending their children to what they think is the best school. I’m sure there may be other arguments against doing this (practical, financial, ethical), but the fact that perfection is subjective and inevitably unattainable is no argument against trying to make things better for ourselves and our children.

  • Greg Fish

    Joshua,

    It’s one thing to try and give your child the perfect education, it’s something wholly other to try and mess with her or her genome and work against the natural systems that have existed for the last 3.5 billion years.

  • http://hplusbiopolitics.wordpress.com/ Joshua

    Both education and genetic enhancement aim to make the child have better chances in life. They are different processes, and may have very different chances of achieving that aim, but nonetheless are both forms of enhancement.

  • Greg Fish

    Correct. My only point was that good education gives children a better shot at success in life while trying to genetically engineer them into the perfect human either won’t work or will actually leave them and their progeny worse off because genetic variety has been compromised.

  • http://hplusbiopolitics.wordpress.com/ Joshua

    I agree that engineering a person into the perfect human won’t be possible, but I find it hard to believe that there would be no genetic enhancement possible that would be almost unanimously accepted as beneficial. Certainly we must be cautious not to decrease genetic variety (although, with the promise of adding transgenes or entirely novel genes, I don’t think that’s a worry) and to ensure each enhancement is safe and effective, but I don’t see any moral or even practical reasons not to investigate such enhancements.

  • Greg Fish

    “I find it hard to believe that there would be no possible genetic enhancement that would be almost unanimously accepted as beneficial.”

    Sure there would be. Like taking out cancer causing genes or genes that cause all sorts of genetic diseases. We just need to be careful not to make things worse and to keep our populations varied to prevent inbreeding so we don’t amplify any genetic flaws that the population might have.

  • http://hplusbiopolitics.wordpress.com/ Joshua

    I don’t feel particularly concerned about a loss of genetic variety. Everyone has a different idea of perfection, and so I doubt we will have a society of identical perfect people.

    In fact, variety may even be increased as people take whatever traits they think are good and magnify them in themselves and their children. Sporty people aiming for athleticism, intellectuals for intelligence, etc. I expect the human race to split off in many different directions, pursuing varied goals, rather than to all converge onto a mythical perfect form of human.

  • jypson

    Khannnnn!

  • thatswhatsup

    Something has to be done, and eugenics is bullcrap. Fix the school systems, get rid of the crap on TV (Ohmigawdnoway! I totally LOVE MTV!), whatever it takes See, I think the reason why our intelligence is dropping is not because of genes. I see no true evidence supporting that. I think the reason we are such a stupid society is because of the media. Yeah, I know conspiracists who say it’s all part of the “Government’s Plan”, but I really don’t think so. I think it’s the terrible schools in our country and the media–including music–that is causing us to head towards Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”. Great post, though!! =D