Friday, March 25, 2016

Designer Babies via CRISPR/Cas9?
Science-Fiction vs Catholic Teaching

Mechanism of CRISPR/Cas9 Genetic Modification
From Wikimedia Commons

"...the Sleepless [genetically modified humans] are superior in mind and body, and easily capable of outperforming their normal cousins. All men are not created equal. Where, then, is the line between equality and excellence? How far should any superior minority hold themselves back for fear of engendering feelings of inadequacy in their inferiors?—especially if this minority is not hated and feared, but rather the elite?"  Wikipedia comment on Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress's sci-fi novel on genetically modified humans
"In moral evaluation a distinction must be made between strictly <therapeutic> manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), from manipulation <altering> the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called 'genetic surgery,' 'will be considered desirable in principle. provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.'...On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is "the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities," [emphasis added] which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, "are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future,'... 'no social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being.' [emphasis added] "  Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.


Designer babies?  Yes, that possibility looms ahead of us, as I recently learned from a Biologos Forum post:   CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing of human embryos by Chinese scientists is reported in a late issue of  Protein and Cell.*   

In this post I want to explore what science fiction has had to say about genetic engineering and the idea of society divided into classes, classes defined by ability.  Since science-fiction has been successful in anticipating other changes imposed by science on the world we live in, perhaps we should take note of what it has to say about a world with ubermensch and lumpen-proletariat.  

Finally, and this will be the message, what does Catholic teaching have to say about the moral course to follow?  (It's already there in the second quote above, but I want to enlarge on that.)


Nancy Kress's Hugo Award winning novella, Beggars in Spain.  dealt with the societal and moral issues of genetic engineering in 1995, before the advent of the CRISPR/Cas9  technique.   The title comes from a character's question, one of the genetically engineered elite, "what do the productive members of society owe to the unproductive members who have nothing to offer except need"?  These unproductive members are presumably "the Beggars in Spain"*, whence the title.  I won't spoil the novel's conclusion (it's actually a trilogy), except to note that it's surprising.

The same question arises in a classic science-fiction story, "The Marching
Galaxy Magazine cover
for "The Marching Morons"
from Wikimedia Commons
Morons" by C.M. Kornbluth.    In this story an intelligentsia, an elite in which each member has to hold several jobs, manages a world in which there is no material want.   They keep the lumpen-proletariat satisfied with mindless TV quiz and reality shows (and how does that 50 year old story strike a chord today!), cars that seem to go 80 mph but are actually doing only 20.  (Warning! Spoiler!)  They attempt to keep the population down by trying to make contraceptive pills glamorous, but that solution doesn't work.  So, their "final solution" is to popularize a "Trip to Venus" in TV, movies and posters, pack the lower orders into rocket ships that will end nowhere, and thus rid themselves of "The Beggars in Spain".

Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World, had a somewhat different approach.   In his "brave new world"**, babies came from bottles, not the wombs of mothers;  they were sleep indoctrinated to be happy in their pre-ordained caste--alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon:
 "Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard... And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour.  I'm so glad I'm a Beta." Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 2.
Astounding Science Fiction Cover
Beyond this Horizon
from Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein's 1942 novel,  Beyond this Horizon, (written under the pseudonym Anson McDonald), also dealt with genetically modified superhumans.   As in the previous works, there is enough material wealth to supply everyone. Indeed, a major problem in Heinlein's quasi-utopia is how to dispose of surplus goods.   The value of genetic spontaneity--unpredictability--is established by setting a class of "control naturals", a protected group who have not been subject to genetic engineering.

In each of the above works it is not that those with lower abilities can not be supplied with what they need (in Beggars in  Spain, there is unlimited energy source from a special device), but rather what is owed from those with high ability to those of lower ability, that they should also partake of a good world.

Both Nancy Kress and Aldous Huxley show how a world managed by pre-ordained ability and oriented towards material satisfaction is, ultimately, not a satisfactory world in which to live.   There is a particularly moving episode in Beggars in Spain, in which a genetically engineered dog, a luxury curiousity--frightened beyond its ken--jumps off a penthouse patio.    But none of these authors, whether or not they view genetic enhancement as enabling a worthwhile society, raise the question of whether there is an absolute, intrinsic moral prohibition against genetically modifying humans as if they were things or animals.  So, that's where we go next.


The substance of Catholic teaching on genetic engineering is given in the document from which the second quote above was taken, Charter  for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance., and from works footnoted in that document.   I want to summarize and comment on this.

First, the distinction between genetic treatment to remedy or cure a disease is carefully laid out.   For example, there are a number of diseases which are genetic in origin:  Huntington's chorea (Woody Guthrie's disease), hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, susceptibility to breast cancer, to mention just a few.  Can we conclude then, that God allows us to alter these defects, to enable us to live better lives?   Suppose genetic therapy had been available to correct the childhood condition of Bl. Hermann Contractus, who was the author of the prayer Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) and who supposedly suffered from cleft palate and spinal defects.  Would we then have had that prayer?

Now let's go to the borderline situations.   What about diseases that may disable a person, or make him more liable to die, conditions which are secondary causes  of disease:  obesity (as a precondition for circulatory problems), depression (as a precondition for addiction or suicide)?   What about babies with Down's syndrome?  What do the prescriptions laid out by the Charter tell us here?  Would genetic manipulation to avoid such problems be treatment or enhancement?

The situation is clear in other respects;  genetic manipulation to get 180 IQ, 7 ft basketball players is not to be done (if it be possible).   Pope St. John Paul II made this abundantly clear in his address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in  the encyclical Donum Vitae
"Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man  'copore et anima unus' [body and soul one thing]...It is on the basis of this anthropological vision that one is to find the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the case of procedures which are not strictly therapeutic, as, for example, those aimed at the improvement of the human biological condition" Pope St. John Paul II, Address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in Donum Vitae
And this says it all.   That which preserves the dignity and uniqueness of the human being as God has intended, is that which is to be allowed.   Enabling a designed class of superhumans will not bring happiness to the world, as Brave New World and Beggars in Spain demonstrate.   And the final question (to which I don't know the answer), is there a slippery slope in genetic engineering on which we can't control our descent?   If we can replace the gene that causes Huntington's chorea, will we then be content not to engineer the superman or superwoman?

Perhaps the answer is to find a gene for holiness.  As C.S. Lewis put it, the next evolutionary advance will not be in physical or mental improvement, but to be sons of God:

"...I should expect the next stage in Evolution not to be a stage in Evolution at all:  I should expect that Evolution itself as a method of producing change will be superseded. And finally, I should not be surprised if, when the thing happened, very few people notice it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction---a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God... [t]he first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago." C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.


*Very briefly, this is the molecular biology involved in this gene editing; it's also illustrated in the diagram above:  RNA is introduced into a plasmid, with a protein complexing agent, Cas9, which procedure enables the RNA to snip genomic DNA at a predetermined site, into which alternative genomic material can be introduced.   For a more extended discussion please do a Google search or consult the Wikipedia article.

** "Beggars in Spain" refers to a 16th Century English nursery rhyme that I have not been able to source.  I have read (can't recall where) that it refers to impoverished Spanish noblemen who are too proud to beg, but still need to be supported.

***"The title is from Shakespeare's The Tempest, "O brave new world, that has such people in it"

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.