Universal Genetic Health?

I’m not sure how to title this one and also not to immediately poison the well by mentioning the word eugencics.

Basically the scenario is that by some FutureTech means it becomes feasible for everyone to have entirely healthy babies free from any genetic defects or diseases. For the purposes of the hypothetical there are no negative or unwanted immediate or longer term side effects, its free or cheap enough that everyone can have the treatment if they want, and there are no nefarious or sinister aspects, it simply does what it is supposed to do, enables you to have perfectly healthy children, at least in the genetic sense.

There are otherwise no other modifications to the child’s genes, except to remove anything that will cause them health issues so its not a Gattacca style situation where some people are more improved than others.

Is there any reason we shouldn’t do this if it was possible? How about if the government decided it was a good thing and imposed / provided it to the entire population like flouride in drinking water?

Thanks for the answers!

Define “defect”

That’s were a lot of the issues would come in, how do you define defect? I’ll just note that some people consider a skin color other than their own a “defect”.

There are traits that are a trade-off of sorts, even if they might be considered desirable. Height is often desired for men (not as much for women) but very tall men tend to have shorter life spans and are more likely to have back problems or certain types of cancer, as just one example of a trade-off.

I’ll also note that there are some instances where being homozygous for a “defective” gene is actually an advantage - the most famous instance being the sickle cell trait. Having just one copy makes you more resistant to malaria, a disease that killed about 600,000 people last year. If you live in a malaria-prone area you might want your kids to each have a copy of the gene (but only one). If you don’t live in such a place you might not want them to have any. This may lead to some disagreement as to what should or should not be eliminate/added.

Certainly, people these days are already utilizing technologies to help them avoid having children with genetic problems, even if they’re a bit crude. This can range from customs avoiding marrying cousins (that’s an old one), to databases of people carrying a known defect so they can avoid marrying someone also carrying the trait, thereby avoiding producing children with a genetic illness, to pre-natal testing, to testing in IVF, and so on. So I do think if the technology was available on the terms you indicate it would be widely used - although not universally, because there are always contrary people.

Yep. ISTR that Iceland has done away with Downs Syndrome through a program of prenatal screening. India has greatly reduced the number of unwanted daughters in much the same way.

All things are a slippery slope. The slippery slope argument can be applied against anything. That said, this is a very dangerous slippery slope.

Thats no longer the case. India is on the road to recovery : Why is India’s sex ratio normalising? | The Economist

BTW Indian women have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies and wish freedom to American women.

Yes.

Genetics is complicated. We are not perfect predictors of what traits may or may not become advantageous in future.

We may accidentally breed out the one trait that would have protected us from the Great Humanity-Ending Plague of 2199 this way, just because it was linked to one that rendered current people allergic to pickle juice and that was something we wanted eliminated in our kids.

Whereas a natural gene pool, while retaining a lot of unwanted stuff, also retains a lot of variety. Which really is the spice of big-L Life.

I know the OP said “no negative long-term side effects”, but I’m talking about consequences here, not side effects.

I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to the idea, just that I think the Precautionary Principle should be applied quite stringently.

Putting fluoride in water is not the same level of meddling as eugenics. I would oppose government mandates that this be done. The government merely providing it to anyone that wants, I’m cool with.

I’ve thought about such things for quite some time, and I’ve come up with two hard principles that I think, if followed, will eliminated most of the risk of downsides.

  1. All modifications must be done in the best interests of the person who will be born with them. Nothing just because The Government says it must be done, or if it’s just a matter of convenience or fashion for the parents or society.

  2. It will be the parents who decide what, if anything, will be done.

Strict adherence to these rules will prevent most of the nightmare scenarios, of kids engineered to be slaves, or fashion statements for narcissistic parents, or icons of Racial Purity, or any such thing. Make the kid generally healthy, generally intelligent, and then let them find their own way in life, not burdened by genetic diseases or infirmities, or expectations.

If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that a large percentage of our population will not accept any kind of scientific interference in their lives, so I have no doubt this will also have a large group of dissenters. So long as we follow my second principle, we’ll always have a large control group of naturally bred kids, in case something unexpected arises from the genetic engineering. You just know there will be people looking forward to the Generational “We Told You So!” that would bring.

Correctly said. Were you to give Australopithecus genetic engineering do you think Homo Sapiens would be the result, or would Lucy have gone for bigger teeth, sharper claws, and warmer fur? Who needs brains and speech if you’ve got physical attributes? We’re not qualified to decide where to go next.

That’s a nice set of thoughts. Shame humans can’t begin to think that way.

If the parents get to decide, an astonishing fraction of parents will decide based on what’s best for them, not best for the kid. While rationalizing all along that they’re doing it for the kid’s sake.

Just like many parents of potential sports stars now, potential paino prodigies, etc., the parents drive the kids mercilessly to succeed at the parent’s chosen passion.

I don’t see any but, believe me, based on what I’ve observed about human behavior, there will be people who will manufacture reasons if none are readily available. Were i to anticipate what they might be, I’d have to list religion as a strong possibility. “God didn’t make us that way. It is not natural. Tampering with the birth of children is like all other science, the work of the devil.” Etc.

Yes, there’s going to be some inherent conflict between these elements. The first rule will have to be implemented by some external system. Not forcing changes on parents, but forbidding changes that can’t be objectively shown to be beneficial to the individual. Like some kind of family court, that evaluates the reasons for the change, and can disallow things like, “I want my kid to be 6’10” so he can get in the NBA!" The goal would be to maximize the kid’s potential choices in life, and being genetically tunneled towards one specific job reduces such choices.

Heh. I just now remembered a sci-fi short story I read once. It was a mid-70s dystopian kind of story. The idea was, to reduce overpopulation, the government allowed people to sue their parents on their 18th birthday for things the parents did while they were kids. Like, “Not letting me go to that sleepover killed my social life!” kinds of things.

Do this for genetics. Sure, make the kid 6’10" if you want, but if they decide they hate basketball, you’re on the hook for $X, to compensate them for the hassle of never being able to buy clothes off the rack.

Don’t we already engage in a sort of ‘eugenics program’ when governments and social taboos prohibit marriages between too close of relatives with the idea of reducing the incidence of serious birth defects?

If there was a magical way to change our genes so we would have no health issues I think we should do it. But the hypothetical in the OP requires magic, because, as has been mentioned, most of the time genetic differences have positive and negative effects. The interactions between genes, non-gene DNA and epigenetics is such a massively complex web of trade-offs there is no way we can ever engineer disease free humans, and that’s even before we get into disease being a dynamic and evolving system interacting with humanity and responding to changes in our defense.

While you aren’t wrong the OP does mention that in the setting there are no actual genetic modifications, you can’t chose the height of your child for example, just that they won’t have any genes that trigger abnormal size either way. So no designer-children.

Yes, but as with all such hypotheticals, the devil is in the details. We know some people will want designer children, so the question is, how do we implement general genetic editing without allowing designer kids?

The technology does exist today, although it is expensive and more research would need to be done to fully utilize it. But we currently have the means to replace segments of DNA in gametes and then see that DNA expressed in produced offspring. We do it literally all the time in animals and plants.

There is nothing stopping us from replacing genes in babies produced through IVF to remove genetic diseases by replacing the genes that cause them with healthy genes - in fact, this WAS allegedly done in humans at least once, to add resistence to HIV. We could even replace problematic human genes with genes from animals and plants.

We could start having all of our babies through IVF tomorrow, and start experimenting with various gene snips at the same time. The issue is that we aren’t quite good enough at genetics yet to confidently predict what our changes will do without simply making those changes and seeing what grows; we can’t even reliably test things out in animal models because it’s impossible to tell which differences in the base genome will matter and which ones won’t.

So unless we’re prepared to grow a bunch of modified humans with potentially crippling or lethal genetic issues until we figure things out, this isn’t an avenue we can access quite yet.

However, your hypothetical posits that we’ve worked out these issues. Maybe we got good enough at animal and plant genetics that we can confidently predict what the impact of gene changes on human genomes will be without actually growing anything from those genomes; maybe quantum computing and advanced AI allow us to accurately model genomes and potential changes; etc. One way or another, we are confident in our ability to correctly predict the effects of our meddling. What then?

Well, I think that in such a world modifying the human genome would absolutely be the moral thing to do. How much human suffering and death is caused by some random quirk of biology? Evolution isn’t isn’t concerned with morality, or comfort, or suffering. It selects for only one thing - the ability to pass on our genes to the next generation. It isn’t sacred, or intrinsically valuable in any way (besides any survival advantages it may give us, as noted by @MrDibble). So if we can engineer away sickle cell anemia while fighting malaria a different way (we have mastery over genetic code in this scenario, I’m sure we can figure something out), I say DO IT, and I can hardly believe we’re even debating the question.

Genetic modification of humans is to eugenics what weather engineering is to praying for rain (or perhaps more accurately, sacrificing humans to the rain god). I don’t really think it’s a fair comparison.

A lot of people have hang-ups about “playing god” with their children. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, since literally every choice you make as a parent “plays god” with your kids’ lives, but that’s probably the biggest problem we’ll encounter.

Of course, if this does become both easy and widespread, then those parents who don’t engineer their kids might face the wrath of those kids. If I found out my parents could have eliminated my hereditary weight problem, but didn’t, I’d be seriously pissed off.

I suspect that within a few generations, only Amish-like religious cults would still be refusing such genetic treatments.

“play god” is lazy thinking that lots of people engage in. Worthy only to be ignored.

Agreed, if we developed and adopted this technology in a widespread way there would certainly be resistance. But like you note, the advantages of adopting it would be so staggeringly huge that I think we’d see very few holdouts in the long term (not to mention selection pressure coming into play).

Of course, this technology isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. It would also give us the power to utterly destroy the ecosystem, create devestating plagues that wipe out people and crops, and worse. For a great look at a dystopian world ravaged by unchecked biotechnology, check out the underappreciated book The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.