The New Eugenics: The Case Against Genetically Modified Humans

by Marcy Darnovsky

At the cusp of dot-com frenzy and the biotech century, a group of influential scientists and

pundits has begun zealously promoting a new bio-engineered utopia.  In the world of their

visionary fervor, parents will strive to afford the latest genetic ìimprovementsî for their children.

According to the advocates of this human future (or, as some term it, ìpost-humanî future), the

exercise of consumer preferences for offspring options will be the prelude to a grand

achievement: the technological control of human evolution.

My first close encounter with this techno-eugenic enthusiasm was in a 1997 book written for an

unconverted lay audience by Princeton geneticist Lee M. Silver.  In Remaking Eden: Cloning

and Beyond in a Brave New World (New York: Avon Books), Silver spins out scenarios of a

future in which affluent parents are as likely to arrange genetic enhancements for their children

as to send them to private school.

Silver confidently predicts that upscale baby-making will soon take place in fertility clinics,

where prospective parents will undergo an IVF procedure to create an embryo, then select the

physical, cognitive, and behavioral traits they desire for their child-to-be.  Technicians will

insert the genes said to produce those traits into the embryo, and implant the embryo in the

motherís womb.  Nine months later, a designer baby will be born.  After a few centuries of

these practices, Silver believes, humanity will bifurcate into genetic ubermenschen and

untermenschenóand not long thereafter into different species.  Here is Silverís prediction for

the year 2350:

"The GenRichówho account for 10 percent of the American populationóall carry synthetic

genes. Genes that were created in the laboratory....The GenRich are a modern-day hereditary

class of genetic aristocrats....All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment

industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class."

How do the other 90 percent live? Silver is quite blunt on this point as well: "Naturals work as

low-paid service providers or as laborers."

That rich and poor already live in biologically disparate worlds can be argued on the basis of

any number of statistical measures: life expectancy, infant mortality, access to health care.  Of

course, medical resources and social priorities could be assigned to narrowing those gaps.

But if Silver and his cohort of designer-baby advocates have their way, precious medical talent

and funds will be devoted instead to a technically dubious project whose success will be

measured by the extent to which it can inscribe inequality onto the human genome.  Silver

pushes his vision still further:

"As time passes,...the GenRich class and the Natural class will become the GenRich humans

and the Natural humans entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as

much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

Silver understands that such scenarios are disconcerting. He counsels realism.  In other

words, he celebrates the free reign of the market and perpetuates the myth that private

choices have no public consequences:

"Anyone who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an expensive

private school education cannot use ëunfairnessí as a reason for rejecting the use of

reprogenetic technologies....There is no doubt about it...whether we like it or not, the global

marketplace will reign supreme."

When I first read Silverís book, I imagined that these sorts of bizarre prognostications must be

the musings of a lab researcher indulging in mad-scientist mode. I soon learned differently.

They are not ravings from the margins of modern science, but emanations from its prestigious

and respected core.  Silver vividly and accurately represents a technical and political agenda

for the human future that is shared by a disturbing number of Nobel laureate scientists, biotech

entrepreneurs, social theorists, bioethicists, and journalists.

Since the late 1990s, this loose alliance has been publicly and energetically promoting the

genetic technology known as ìhuman germline engineeringîó modifying the genes passed to

our children by manipulating embryos at their earliest stages of development.  Such genetic

modifications would be replicated in all subsequent generations, providing supporters with the

basis to claim that "we" are on the brink of "seizing control of human evolution." Frank about

their commitments to control and ìenhancement," advocates of human germline engineering

claim that the voluntary parental participation they foresee refutes any characterization of their

project as "eugenic."  With public conferences, popular books, scholarly articles, websites, and

mainstream media appearances, they are waging an all-out campaign to win public acceptance

of their techno-eugenic vision.

The promoters of a designer-baby future believe that the new human genetic and reproductive

technologies are both inevitable and a boon to humanity.  They exuberantly describe near-term

genetic manipulationsówithin a generationóthat may increase resistance to diseases, ìoptimizeî

height and weight, and boost intelligence.  Further off, but within the lifetimes of todayís

children, they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new body forms, extend life

expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some even predict splicing traits from other

species into children: In late 1999, for example, an ABC Nightline special on human cloning

speculated that genetic engineers would learn to design children with 'night vision from an owl'

and 'supersensitive hearing cloned from a dog.'

How plausible are such scenarios?  Because human beings are far more than the product of

genesóbecause DNA is one of many factors in human developmentóthe feats of genetic

manipulation eventually accomplished will almost certainly turn out to be much more modest

than what the designer-baby advocates predict.  But we cannot dismiss the possibility that

scientists will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage -

biologically and politically.

Promoting a future of genetically engineered inequality legitimizes the vast existing injustices

that are socially arranged and enforced.  Marketing the ability to specify our childrenís

appearance and abilities encourages a grotesque consumerist mentality toward children and

all human life.  Fostering the notion that only a 'perfect baby' is worthy of life threatens our

solidarity with and support for people with disabilities, and perpetuates standards of perfection

set by a market system that caters to political, economic, and cultural elites.  Channeling hopes

for human betterment into preoccupation with genetic fixes shrinks our already withered

commitments to improving social conditions and enriching cultural and community life.

Germline engineering is now common in laboratory animals, though it remains at best an

imprecise technology, requiring hundreds of attempts before a viable engineered animal is

produced.  Human germline manipulation has not been attempted: The only kind of human

genetic procedures currently practiced involve efforts to 'fix' or substitute for the genes of

somatic (body) cells in people with health problems that in some way reflect the functions of


In about five hundred 'gene therapy' clinical trials since the early 1990s, doctors have tried to

introduce genetic modifications to patientsí lungs, nerves, muscles, and other tissues.  These

efforts have been largely unsuccessful.  In late 1999, their safety was also called starkly into

question by the death of an 18-year-old enrolled in a clinical trial, and by ensuing revelations of

almost 700 other 'serious adverse effects' that researchers and doctors had somehow failed to

report to the proper regulatory authorities.  Some observers have commented that gene

therapy would more accurately be called "genetic experiments on human subjects."

Many people are reluctant to oppose human germline engineering because they believe that

'genetics' will deliver medical cures or treatments.  But there is no reason that we cannot forgo

germline engineering and still support other genetic technologies that do in fact hold promising

medical potential.  In fact, the medical justifications for human germline engineering are

strained, while its ethical and political risks are profound.

Fortunately, the distinction between human germline engineering and other genetic

technologies (including somatic genetic engineering) is a reasonably clear technical

demarcation.  In many countries, this demarcation is being drawn as law.  Legislation that

would ban human germline engineering and reproductive cloning is making its way through the

Canadian parliament.  Germany's Embryo Protection Act of 1990 makes human cloning and

germline engineering criminal acts, and the Japanese legislature is considering establishing

prison terms for human cloning.  A number of other European countries forbid cloning and

germline engineering indirectly by outlawing non-therapeutic research on human embryos.

Twenty-two European countries have signed a Council of Europe bioethics convention that

includes similar restrictions.  In the United States, however, neither federal law nor policy

forbids human germline engineering or cloning, though federal funds cannot be used for any

kinds of human cloning experiments.

In order to bring the new human genetic technologies under social governance, strong political

pressure and a broad social movement will be necessary.  Though no such movement

currently exists, efforts to alert and engage a variety of constituencies are getting underway.

The movement that this work aims to catalyze will need to draw in a wide range of

constituencies, and encompass a variety of motivations.  Some participants will base their

opposition to a techno-eugenic future on their commitments to equality and justice, and to

human improvement through social change rather than technical fix.  Others will be moved by

the threats to human dignity and human rights, and the horror of treating children as

custom-made commodities, that germline engineering and cloning entail.  Still others will find

their primary inspiration in the precautionary principle, or their wariness of techno-scientific

hubris and a reductionist world view, or their objections to corporate ownership of life at the

molecular level, or their skepticism about the drastic technological manipulation of the natural


It will be far easier to prevent a techno-eugenic future if we act before human germline

manipulation develops further, either as technology or ideology.  This is a crucial juncture: a

window that the campaign for human germline engineering is trying to slam shut.  Your

participation is urgently needed.

(A longer version of this article is forthcoming as 'The Case Against Designer Babies: The

Politics of Genetic Enhancement,' in Brian Tokar, ed.  Redesigning Life? The Worldwide

Challenge to Genetic Engineering, Zed Books.)