Superhuman flaws

What could possible go wrong with a race of six-foot-tall, athletic, intelligent superhumans? Other than back problems. Last week’s 2009 Weiss Lecture on Medicine and Medical Ethics, held in Griffin and given this year by Ronald M. Green, Dartmouth professor of religion and director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute, grappled with the issue of genetic modification and what Green dubbed “pure genetic enhancements.” We aren’t talking about flu vaccines or giving sight to the blind here – this is the superhuman stuff.

Green’s examples of “pure enhancements” included stronger tooth enamel, increased intelligence and faster metabolisms, among others. Green comes out ultimately in favor of these enhancements, seeing them as almost inevitable in our quest for a more perfect human form. One of his arguments noted that we already spend millions of dollars a year on orthodontic procedures, so why not deal with the problem at the genetic level?

But let your mind dip into the beautiful realm of science fiction and fantasy. Stronger muscles and bigger brains are nothing, so why not night vision and cobra venom? You know who wins an argument 99 percent of the time? A spitting cobra. Or how about wings? Yes, you would also have to overhaul a person’s bone structure, upper body muscles and lungs to produce a body capable of flight, but come on, it’s flight! The airline lobby will be desperately opposed.

I don’t want to belittle the importance of this discussion, and so I will table all issues relating to spitting venom from fangs, night vision and Delta Airlines backlash. What are the actual areas of worry? First and foremost, one has to deal with the inevitable inequality of the enhancements. Already, nobody is equal to anyone else – there are class and income differences in every shared room, in every entry, in every building and for Williams as a whole. This is to say nothing about the state, county and global levels. So how can we expect expensive genetic procedures not to create two separate kinds of humans – the Modified and the Naturals.

Green argues that once we adopt a national health care system (like every other industrialized nation in the entire world) the government can guarantee a basic level of “enhancements” for everybody. But why would they? The government doesn’t pay for plastic surgery, Botox or silicone implants, so why should it pay for superhuman sports prowess or hyper-intelligent babies? Even if the government did pay for these, what about everyone else in the world? A Reuters article in 2006 noted that “millions of mothers, newborn babies and children die each year in Africa from preventable diseases despite promises of better healthcare by governments and donor countries.” How can we even begin to fathom an equality of genetic modification if we can’t even treat pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea and tuberculosis in these countries?

The truth is we can’t, and I think Green knew that. His answer to this often-posed question jumped into possible far-distant futures and science fiction pipe dreams. I can’t blame him; it is a tough question, and one that I don’t think has a good answer. Perhaps, though, we are willing to accept that inevitable inequality in the same way we accept our current ones. Just because millions of people in the developing world can’t get their hands on vaccines and treatments common here in the U.S. doesn’t mean we should stop treating ourselves. The same truth holds for genetic modification: we can’t wait for a technology to be available to everybody before we start implementing it on those who can afford it.

But does genetic modification cross a line? Perhaps. There is something downright eerie about the thought of people walking around who have taken evolution and the human genome into their own hands, crafting a smiling, breathing, fantasy version of themselves. These people would be different at the genetic level, perhaps better at the genetic level. Green notes that this may be one of our more unspoken fears – our children will be so much better than us. Will we suddenly feel alienated and targeted by an upcoming generation of genetically modified superhumans? “Mom, Dad, you just don’t get me or my chiseled physique and perfect test scores. Or my cobra venom.” Then again, parenting would take on a whole new level of difficulty if at any point an unruly child could spit venom in your face (I hope I’m not the only one with this venom idea).

Several other problems come up, including a loss of genetic diversity, a genetic arms race and the religious implications of “playing god.” As you grapple with these questions on your own, keep two things in mind: genetic modification is coming, whether we like it or not, and a race of super-tall people would constantly be hitting their heads.

Sam Jonynas ’12 is from Chester, Vt. He lives in Mills.