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The altering of the inherited characterteristics in genetic engineering

Received 2006 Feb 5; Accepted 2006 Jun 26. Abstract In this article we examine four objections to the genetic modification of human beings: We then demonstrate that each of these arguments against genetic modification assumes a strong version of genetic determinism.

Since these strong deterministic assumptions are false, the arguments against genetic modification, which assume and depend upon these assumptions, are therefore unsound. Serious discussion of the morality of genetic modification, and the development of sound science policy, should be driven by arguments that address the actual consequences of genetic modification for individuals and society, not by ones propped up by false or misleading biological assumptions.

Background In Brave New World,[ 1 ] Aldous Huxley imagined a society in which the government manufactures five different human castes designed to perform different roles. Four decades after the publication of that dystopia, Robert Nozick[ 2 ] developed another futuristic scenario, the genetic supermarket, to prompt discussion of the moral implications of eugenics conducted not by the state, but at the level of individuals.

In the genetic supermarket, as Nozick portrays it, becoming a parent is like buying a new car. If you want to have a child that will be male, athletic, musically gifted, heterosexual, 6'1" tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and an IQ of 140, then you simply purchase the goods and services necessary to create that exact child.

  • Second, almost all causal relationships involve more than one factor or condition;
  • The mutagenic effects appear to be random throughout the genome and, even if a useful mutation occurs in a particular plant, deleterious mutations also will likely occur;
  • We will set these issues aside and assume that parents have an obligation to avoid making decisions that are likely to narrow the range of arguably desirable choices, or life pathways, that their children might otherwise have available to them;
  • Cold Spring Harbor, NY;
  • Because developmental patterns and processes influence gene expression, two organisms with identical genomes and substantially similar environments may still express different phenotypes [ 35 ];
  • Because of the random nature of recombining genes and traits in crossed plants, breeders usually have to make hundreds or thousands of hybrid progeny to create and identify those few that possess useful features with a minimum of undesirable features.

Parents can design children to fulfill their own desires, hopes, and aspirations. And fully five different presidential committees have dealt with ethical issues raised by the genetic modification of human beings [ 3 - 7 ]. As a libertarian, Nozick defended a laissez-faire approach to genetic modification, arguing that the government should not interfere with the market forces that influence procreation. Other writers have put forth similarly vigorous defenses of reproductive freedom [ 89 ].

Many commentators, however, have argued for government regulation of genetic modification in order to protect important values, such as social justice and the altering of the inherited characterteristics in genetic engineering welfare of unborn children [ 10 - 12 ]. Finally, some have argued that genetic modification should be banned, since any attempt to modify the human genome violates human freedom and dignity, and leads us down a perilous path toward social, political and biological disaster [ 13 - 18 ].

Since the risks to unborn children from genetic engineering mistakes are not currently known, and are likely substantial, few authors support the no-regulation view with regard to modifying the human genome. Most of the current debate is between those who think that genetic modification should proceed under some type of regulatory scheme, and those who think that the best solution is to ban genetic modification entirely [ 19 ].

Those who favor regulation see nothing inherently wrong with genetic modification: Society should take appropriate steps to control genetic modification in order to maximize its benefits and minimize its harms [ 1112 ]. Those who favor a ban, however, believe there is something inherently wrong with genetic modification, that there are inevitable, unavoidable, and undesirable consequences associated with modifying the human genome [ 16 ].

In this article, we examine four arguments used to support the view that there is something inherently wrong with genetic modification. These arguments aim to pre-empt analysis of actual or expected medical, social, economic, political, and biological consequences, and to argue for the altering of the inherited characterteristics in genetic engineering comprehensive ban of the technology due to its very nature.

We demonstrate that these arguments against genetic modification — the freedom argument, the giftedness argument, the authenticity argument, and the uniqueness argument — all necessarily assume a strong version of genetic determinism.

If these deterministic assumptions are false, as we maintain they clearly are, then these particular arguments against genetic modification lose their logical force.

Thus, serious discussion of the morality of genetic modification is more properly focused on arguments that examine and address the expected consequences of genetic modification for individuals and society, and not on ones that would pre-empt such a discussion by arguing that genetic modification is inherently objectionable.

Our analysis is divided into three separate parts. First, we attempt to define two important terms: Finally, we argue that moral assessments of genetic modification should consider arguments that pragmatically examine the biological, medical, social, and economic consequences of genetic modification, rather than those that rely on scientifically unwarranted assumptions of genetic determinism to portray genetic modification as inherently objectionable.

What is genetic modification? In this paper, when we speak of "genetic modification" we mean the process of intentionally altering human genes for the purpose of producing offspring with those genetic changes [ 20 ]. We use the term "genetic modification" because it covers a wider range of cases than other terms, and because it does not assume a distinction between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement, one which is difficult to maintain and which may not be as morally significant as is often assumed [ 2021 ].

Some examples of genetic modification include: Some examples of procedures that we do not consider to be genetic modification include: The sine qua non of genetic modification is permanent genetic alteration: In philosophy, determinism is usually equated with the problem of free will: We are compelled to make the choices that we make as a result of previous circumstances, and we cannot make choices that are genuinely free.

This type of determinism, which we shall call psychological determinism, has some profound implications for morality and the law, since we normally ascribe moral or legal responsibility to people under the assumption that they can choose freely. Over the years, philosophers have developed three basic positions on the problem of free will: According to some compatibilists, actions may be considered "free" if they are caused in the appropriate way.

For example, a "free" act is one that results from reasoning and deliberation rather than external forces or emotional compulsions [ 22 ]. While questions about the metaphysics of human freedom are of the utmost importance in philosophy, they are not the focus of this article.

However, there are some important parallels between psychological determinism and genetic determinism, since the interpretation of causation plays a pivotal role in both of these doctrines. Also, as we shall see below, worries about genetic determinism can reinforce concerns about psychological determinism [ 23 ]. Since the concept of causation plays a central role in various forms of determinism in philosophy and science, we will say a bit more about causation. We do not have space in this paper to provide a detailed analysis of causation, but we will make a few critical points that are relevant to questions about genetic determinism for further discussion of causation, see Salmon, 1997; Tooley, 2000 [ 2425 ].

First, causation is a temporally ordered relationship between events, properties, or processes.

Genetic modification and genetic determinism

In the statement, "lightning caused the forest fire," lightning precedes the forest fire. Second, almost all causal relationships involve more than one factor or condition. For example, the dryness of the forest and wind velocity would also be causal factors in the forest fire.

Very often, causal factors serve as background assumptions in causal explanations [ 25 ]. For example, a person who claims that lightning caused the forest fire would be assuming that there was enough oxygen in the atmosphere the altering of the inherited characterteristics in genetic engineering fuel the fire. Third, causal statements can be used in explanation or prediction [ 24 ]. For example, the statement "smoking causes lung cancer" can be used to predict that a person who is a heavy smoker will develop cancer, or to explain why a heavy smoker develops cancer.

Fourth, and of greatest import for our purposes, causal relationships can be either deterministic or probabilistic [ 24 ]. For example, consider the claim "If you drop a rock, it will fall". Many would consider this to be a deterministic form of causation because it does not make a reference to the probability, or chance, of an event occurring: However, consider research on smoking and lung cancer.

Smoking causes lung cancer, even though many smokers do not develop lung cancer [ 26 ]. If you smoke, you may not get lung cancer, but smoking increases your probability of getting lung cancer. While deterministic causation is common in the physical sciences, it is very rare in biology and in medicine. Most explanations and predictions in the biomedical sciences are probabilistic, not deterministic [ 27 ].

As we shall soon see, despite assumptions to the contrary, most of the causal claims related to genetic determinism are probabilistic, not deterministic. With the preceding comments in mind, we now consider genetic determinism. Genetic determinism can be loosely defined as the view that genes genotypes cause traits phenotypes [ 28 ].

This definition is almost trivially true, because most traits have some type of genetic basis. More precisely, one could say that trait T is genetically determined if it is caused by gene G. For example, a person who is born with two copies of the Sickle Cell allele will almost certainly develop Sickle Cell Disease SCDprovided that some necessary environmental conditions obtain. SCD is said to be genetically determined. However, even this definition is not precise enough, since it ignores that fact that genetic causation is usually not deterministic in the strict sense: People with the APOE4 mutation have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, but most of them will not develop this condition [ 31 ].

Human, Social, and Environmental Impacts of Human Genetic Engineering

To differentiate between these types of genetic causation, we distinguish between three different forms of genetic determinism: G sometimes leads to the development of T. Geneticists have a term — "penetrance" — that is similar to what we have in mind here.

Penetrance is often defined as the percentage of members of a population that will have a particular phenotype, given a particular genotype [ 32 ]. Strong genetic determinism is not very common: There are several reasons why strong genetic determinism turns out to be rare. First and foremost, the environment plays a very important role in the expression of most genes. The complex interaction and interdependence of genes and environments, a fundamental and frequently ignored reality of biology, undermines the notion that genotypes alone determine or cause phenotypes [ 3435 ].

Second, most traits are epistatic: Dozens or even hundreds of genes may play a causal role in the genesis of complex traits such as intelligence, personality, or athletic ability. So, a single gene may only have a small influence on the development of the trait [ 32 ]. Third, development or epigenesis has a significant impact on gene expression, i.

  • According to some compatibilists, actions may be considered "free" if they are caused in the appropriate way;
  • Our final point concerns the relationship between determinism and control.

Because developmental patterns and processes influence gene expression, two organisms with identical genomes and substantially similar environments may still express different phenotypes [ 35 ].

Identical twins, for example, usually look very similar but may possess subtle variations in hair, skin pigmentation, facial shape, fingerprints, or dental impressions. Even among cloned animals there may also be phenotypic differences [ 37 ].

Since most traits are not strongly genetically determined, Nozick's genetic supermarket scenario strikes us as having little grounding in reality. While parents may one day select among genes that will increase or decrease the odds that their children will develop specific traits, creating children will not be like shopping for an automobile or designing a home.

Despite this reality, popular culture, the media, and politicians are apt to ignore the fact that strong genetic determinism is almost entirely a myth. Journalists continue to speak of "genes for obesity," "genes for alcoholism," and "cancer genes," as if genes exist that, once discovered, will give individuals the ability to simply "shut off" obesity, alcoholism, or cancer with a few simple snips to their genome.

The idea of a "genetic age" continues to exert a powerful influence on popular culture and many individuals regard genes as possessing nearly magical power, as well as moral and religious significance [ 38 ].

As explained below, these popularized and sensationalized imaginations of the power of genotypes to control and determine phenotypes have influenced, and indeed serve as the foundation for, some of the most common contemporary arguments employed against genetic modification. Before concluding this section of our article, we briefly discuss three other points, each of which call into question the deterministic portrayal of genes and are, therefore, relevant to understanding the role of genetic determinism in arguments against genetic modification.

First, advances in behavioral genetics — the study of the genetic the altering of the inherited characterteristics in genetic engineering of behavior — suggest that genetic determinism may have implications for psychological determinism [ 39 ]. If an individual has a gene linked to a type of behavior, such as aggression, does this gene undermine the individual's free will when it comes to that behavior?

Can an individual with a genetic tendency toward aggression choose to not act aggressively? Behavioral genetics has led some legal scholars to raise questions like these [ 3940 ]. However, we would like to note that those who are troubled by these questions must assume two different kinds of determinism to get their arguments off the ground: To seriously claim that a gene linked to aggression invalidates the free will of a person with that gene, one would need to show that the gene both strongly determines aggressive tendencies in people and, in addition, that people with these tendencies are not free to act differently.

Our second point distinguishes between determinism and fatalism.