Why you should care

Genetically improving our offspring sounds scary, but it might also be the kindest thing to do.

China’s biggest genetic research center is sequencing the genomes of some of the world’s most brilliant minds and looking for a marker to determine human intelligence. The goal is to allow potential parents to pick their brightest zygote and have a top-of-the-class child.

Creepy? Or cool?

It’s hard to consider the idea with equanimity because eugenics has such a bad rep. The word conjures images of dystopian birth labs in Brave New World and sadistic Nazi doctors on a mission to “purify” the Aryan race. And Germany wasn’t the only society that tried to genetically eradicate its least “desirable” citizens. About half of the states in the U.S. had forced sterilization laws during War World II.

Still, the pace of scientific progress might soon allow us to select smarter, healthier children without resorting to anything crueler than a petri dish. Nazi undertones aside, being able to have children with the best possible genetic makeup — fostering traits like intelligence and avoiding the risk of many serious diseases — could be an incredible gift. No one would ever blame their parents for giving them a strong set of genes. So why not do so?

Are parents morally obligated, for the good of humanity, to enhance their children?

In some ways, eugenics is already socially accepted. We’ve already designed sturdier crops, vaccinated millions against once-incurable diseases and extended a woman’s ability to procreate long after her biological clock has stopped ticking. In the U.S., 92 percent of fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome are never born; the most demanded sperm donors are healthy and highly educated; and we seek mates with visible genetic attributes. Genetic enhancement, therefore, could just be the extension of a very healthy instinct to give our offspring every possible advantage to succeed in life.

Indeed, if we insist on continuing to bring babies into a world facing climatic collapse, maybe the least we can do is give them a few extra IQ points — if only to help them keep up with the Chinese. Julian Savulescu, director of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, goes so far as to say that parents are morally obligated, for the good of humanity, to enhance their children — promoting genes associated with compassion and self-control. “We are already modifying our children’s biology through diet or medication to help them manage conditions like attention deficit disorder. This is no different,” he says.

Of course there are plenty of ways the process could quickly turn sinister. The concept of “better genes” is extremely subjective, and once you allow people to pick variables like intelligence and health, it might be difficult to draw a line at other features, like skin color or weight. And though some argue that eugenics’ darkest chapters resulted from governments that used genetics as a tool to inflict their most racist and elitist biases on society, critics say individual, market-driven choices would be just as scary. Left to the market, genetic technology would not be used in an egalitarian way, warns Marcy Darnovsky, who directs the Center for Genetics and Society, in Berkeley, California. “We would only be bringing new inequalities into the world and exacerbating existing ones.” Maybe we could just design an ultra-smart, morally righteous human and let her decide.

What do you think? Is eugenics humanity’s last hope or the world’s worst idea? Let us know in the comments below. I dare you not to mention Hitler.

Photography by Shutterstock.

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