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Can Inequality Be Hardwired into Our DNA?

We need more than a moratorium on making inheritable edits in our genetic code. We need a moratorium on people getting rich off of editing our genes.

"What used to be pure science fiction—the ability to edit our DNA—has now become science reality." (Photo: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability/Flickr/cc)

 

Remember the college admissions scandal? Earlier this year we learned that awesomely affluent parents have been spending small fortunes on scams to get their undeserving teenage offspring into America’s most elite colleges and universities.

This admissions scandal crept back into the news cycle earlier this week when Vanity Fair reported that the wealthy parents of one California teen had plotted with a top admissions “consultant” to get their white — and distinctly non-athletic — daughter accepted by elite schools as a black tennis champ.

In this case, the rich parents overreached. Their scam failed. But plenty of other sports-related scams, we now know, worked quite well. Rich families paid to have their kids’ faces photoshopped onto the bodies of real high school athletes. They conspired with college tennis, soccer, and water polo coaches to get their kids admitted under false pretenses into schools like Yale and Georgetown.

All these kids had no outstanding athletic talent. But what if wealthy parents had the ability to give their kids that athletic talent? What if our nation’s rich could use emerging 21st-century “gene-enhancement technology” to make their kids physically bigger, stronger, or faster? What if they could even use that same technology to make their kids smarter? Would they?

The answer the college admissions scandal makes plain: Many of the richest among us will stop at nothing to perpetuate their privilege. Spend a fortune to make their kids genetically superior? Of course they would.

Should we be aghast at this prospect? Of course we should.

What used to be pure science fiction — the ability to edit our DNA — has now become science reality. A generation ago our hippest young programming hotshots were working in computer code. Now the high-tech hip are busy working to reprogram our genes.

Worried senior scientists, notes historian Walter Isaacson, have begun talking “about the need for a moratorium on making edits that can be inherited.” They have plenty of reason to worry. In our deeply unequal world, grand private fortunes have much more of a capacity to shape how gene-enhancement technologies evolve than our scientists and ethicists.

“Look at what parents are willing to do to get kids in college,” observes MIT neuroscientist Feng Zhang. “Some people will surely pay for genetic enhancement.”

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Should these super rich, asks Erik Sontheimer, a University of Massachusetts expert in molecular medicine, simply “be allowed to buy the best genes they can afford?”

The genetic pioneer Zhang certainly doesn’t think so. Think of what that would do, he urges, “to our species.” Think about our societies, too. A “free market” for genetic enhancement, suggests historian Isaacson, might well encode our world’s current inequities on a permanent basis.

What can we do to help guard against that dystopian future? Isaacson sees promise in one bold approach: Let’s not permit anyone to get rich off gene-enhancement tech. The essential first step toward this egalitarian goal: Let’s prevent anyone from patenting a genetic-engineering breakthrough.

If researchers — and the enterprises that employ them — couldn’t patent new genetic-engineering techniques, no one would be able to hit the financial jackpot by becoming the first to make a breakthrough on one genetic-enhancement front or another. No one would be able to use the monopoly power that patents bestow to charge what only the rich can afford to pay. Benefits from breakthroughs could become — would become — much more accessible to everyone, not just the rich.

Free-marketeering flacks for our rich have an obvious counter argument. They would undoubtedly insist that researchers in a world without patents would have little incentive to make new scientific breakthroughs. Innovation, they would self-righteously assure us, would slow to a crawl.

Fine. A crawl may be just what we need. We need more time for a reasoned public discourse and debate on genetic engineering, a debate that could help us reach a social consensus on what to enhance and when, a debate that help us determine priorities for genetic research. We might, for instance, choose to aggressively — and publicly — fund research that has the potential to eliminate certain horrible inherited diseases.

We would have no shortage of researchers eager to take on that research challenge — or any other challenge that we decide, as a democratic polity, to make a priority. Most scientists, after all, don’t go into science to get rich. They go into science to do science.

Let’s let scientists do just that, in an environment where decisions based on reason, not outrageously lucrative rewards, determine just who will benefit as science marches on.

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