IEET > Rights > Fellows > David Brin > ReproRights
Germ-Line (inheritable) human “improvement” via genetic engineering? The “Heinlein Solut
David Brin   Apr 22, 2015   Contrary Brin  

This fascinating (if long) essay - Engineering the Perfect Baby (from Technology Review) - explores the scientific and moral ramifications of “germ cell genetic engineering” or the changing of genomes in ways that can be inherited and passed-down, parent to naturally conceived child.

And while we may shrug or even cheer, if we see a mother elephant give birth to a fertile woolly mammoth, some time in the next 20 years, it is both enticing and worrisome to imagine we might rush into “designing” or pre-modifying human babies -- selecting desirable traits and eliminating genes that cause inherited diseases.

Worrisome… but also inevitable.  As with most new era quandaries, the real question is .... “How do you plan to stop it?”  

"Any scientist with molecular biology skills and knowledge of how to work with embryos is going to be able to do this," according to Jennifer Doudna, a biological researcher at UC Berkeley.

== Should We Regulate? ==

The reflex to pass laws and ban something seems nearly universal… and nearly always turns out wrong, since all you’ll do is drive the endeavor underground, into secret dabbling by the uber-castes — the perfect formula for uncriticized plans to go awry and give us Hollywood-Crichtonian dire scenarios. 

Much better is the true science fiction film GATTACA, which portrays a society genuinely concerned over the injustices and grappling with how to solve the problems.

In this case, the dullard tendencies of the punditry-class are especially evident.  It never seems to occur to even smart science reporters - let along dogmatists of right and left - to use a finger and trace the trend lines... realizing that what's impossible today will likely be expensive in ten years… and cheap as dirt a decade after that.

Many countries ban or regulate germ-line engineering, and leading scientists have recently called for a summit to discuss these issues, saying that researchers should accept a self-imposed moratorium on techniques that could lead to genetically altered children.

I do not oppose all such pre-discussions or moratoria!  Indeed, I want one on METI or “Messaging to ET” until we have a chance to talk it over. (See a more extensive writeup here.)  But notice that yet again, my theme is opening up a field to the widest argument and range of ideas.

Bans and prudish renunciation will not solve the problem of human germ cell engineering. 

Nor will the simplistic assumption that all choices have to be black and white, zero sum, either-or.

== A potential positive-sum? ==

Are there conceivable win-win scenarios, in which we might get many of the benefits, while minimizing most downsides? That very question is offensive to the dogmatic purist.  But it is how we got all known benefits of the modern world. Moreover, that fact seems worth raising, from time to time, as simplistic reflexes dominate most of our indignation-soaked politics.

In fact, these issues were explored far earlier than most pundits realize. Aldous Huxley, when writing Brave New World, discussed germ cell engineering with scores of that era’s finest minds, as did science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, when he wrote his classic novel Beyond This Horizon.

(As I say elsewhere, it is the second half of this novel that is “classic” and thought provoking.  The first half is to be endured or skimmed, on your way to the fascinating parts. Not the usual Heinlein pattern, which is more generally the reverse.)

Those discussing germ-line engineering would be startled by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — allowing couples to select which naturally produced sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but forbidding them to actually alter the natural human genome.

Consider the elegance of this proposed compromise. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. 

Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. (No fashionable feathers or lizard tails, just kids who are the healthiest and smartest and strongest that the parents might have had, anyway.) 

It is a notion so insightful that biologists 40 years later have only recently started to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


“Heinlein Solution” still looks limited to me. If both parents have “bad genomes”, then even the best child they can have would still have many defects. This problem is significant because of assortative mating. Healthy and smart people tend to mate with each other, and the remaining ones have no other choice than to do the same.

A better solution to me would be to allow parents to choose to put at least some genes that none of them have into their baby’s genome if those genes have a significant impact on his/her future well-being, or to allow couples to pick one of the two gametes from an external donor.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: A New York Judge Has Granted Legal Person Rights To Chimpanzees (Updated)

Previous entry: The Epistemic Costs of Superintelligence: Bostrom’s Treacherous Turn and Sceptical Theism