That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!
Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.” He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim. However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent. In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place. It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.
Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power. For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks. Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies. It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg. According to the article,
…for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.
It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:
The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.
In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:
As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”
Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find. There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice? After all, we’re not the only ones in the game. Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website: Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,
Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.
The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.
Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”
The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please. The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision. They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.” However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.