(C) 2005 Hank Wallace
The debate over the ethics of human cloning and genetic engineering is capturing more of the media’s attention, but as usual the common sense, face value view is ignored. The big question they are asking is, What will be the societal impact of having ‘perfect’ children?
These commentators and ethicists are missing some basic points about human beings and our process of rearing them, and these points minimize or eliminate some of the grave concerns. Let’s go through them one by one.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
First, if we want to make a near perfect human, we have to assume that the base material we are working with is near perfect, perhaps with some minor flaws that we would remedy with genetic spot remover. Of course, that is the assumption of many in our society, that each and every individual is basically good. I am not speaking of the merit of collective humanity, but rather the merit of the individual who thinks enough of himself to want himself cloned, with some edits.
The assumption of good base material of everyone who can afford a clone job is mistaken. The human genetic mapping process was sped along in the early days by correlating genetic characteristics with diseases. We are dealing with a set of design drawings here that are fundamentally flawed. I’ve met only a couple people I would like to see cloned, and one of them is not me!
Occasionally in my work as a design engineer, someone calls me about a design drawing I released, asking about some detail. I find that they cannot read the drawing because it has been copied and faxed several times. No matter what that caller does to the drawing, it is still damaged, and though improvable it will never be perfect. The product made from the drawing will not be perfect, either.
Expecting perfection or significant improvement from the human cloning or genetic engineering process is like expecting some chemical process to produce steak from the food refuse in a McDonald’s dumpster. Garbage in, possibly better garbage out, but still garbage.
Cloning is Only Part of the Human Process
Are you a parent? Remember that moment when the nurse handed your first baby to you? I do. Wonder. Awe. Terror!
No matter whether the baby is a clone or genetically altered individual, the new parent is still going to be clueless. Don’t think for a minute that fewer cloned children are going to be abused, ignored, or deserted. Nature is important, but nurture is more important. Only if cloning can produce a better parent will society benefit, but that’s doubtful.
You know those kids at the mall? They are the kids of your high school buddies, who incidentally turned out to be mediocre parents, no? Those mallies are the ones who are going to be cloning themselves! What excellent parental role models they had. What excellent parents they will be (not).
What Cloning Can and Cannot Change
We can change eye and hair color, and some disease tendencies, but there is no gene for:
- Good parenting
- Common sense
- Self discipline
- Self sacrifice
- The Golden Rule
Not only have we no genetic control over the better qualities, we cannot use genetic engineering to tune out these plagues:
In the twenty-first century, those manager jerks we work for in the cubicle farm will all be blond-haired and blue-eyed, but that will be the only difference. They will still be jerks! I suppose working for a good looking jerk is a slight improvement over working for an ugly jerk.
You may be able to select genes that eliminate predisposition to some diseases, but in the main, the changes we can make are mostly mechanical.
Perfection In, Garbage Out
The year is 2050. There are fifty million near-perfect genetically altered humans in the US alone. They are progressing through the public education system and being monitored closely. Hundreds of PhD theses hang on the results.
Unfortunately, things are not going too well. There is still a 50% divorce rate among the parents of the cloned. Many do not know a father. Many have only one parent to begin with because cloning requires no spouse. And the children are not doing much better in school than their peers, though they test high for aptitude. Seems they are bored. Take perfect children, put them in the public education system and what comes out? Average children!
The problem here is that perfection abhors mediocrity. Either perfection divorces mediocrity, or mediocrity absorbs perfection. In this case the prediction is easy: our more perfect children become absorbed by our mediocre society. Instead of a 750 pound behemoth lounging on the couch, sucking down bon-bons and watching Oprah reruns, we will have a lithe, 120 pound beauty — lounging on the couch, sucking down bon-bons and watching Oprah reruns. I can’t wait for the future to get here, can you?
The Real Threat
Some people worry that we would create a race of better humans, and in effect make the rest of us less useful and less valuable. In fact, the genetic engineering process itself is said to reduce our worth as humans.
I disagree. I think that geneticists can modify human beings to improve them on some levels, but those humans will still have parents who don’t love them, public education that encourages them to be average, a society that hates them for being better (or just better looking), and all the basic higher level ills that we have today.
The danger is not that we will create perfect humans, but that we will create more humans just like us.
Hank Wallace is the owner of Atlantic Quality Design, Inc., a consulting firm located in Fincastle, Virginia. He has experience in many areas of embedded software and hardware development, and system design. See www.aqdi.com for more information.