There has been a lot of chatter in the media lately about the threat of designer babies to the future of the human race. The United Kingdom recently voted to legalize “three person babies” created from the nuclear DNA of two parents and the mitochondria of a third donor, and more recently, American scientists have been calling for a moratorium on human germline manipulations due to fears that genetic editing techniques are becoming too easy and cheap. The risk, apparently, is that a rogue investigator will get his or her hands on embryos and try to create a race of hyperintelligent blue-eyed superbabies. Or, alternatively, that the experiment will go awry and we will end up with real-life Professor X and Magneto battling it out on the streets of New York City.
There are many reasons why fears that genetic manipulation is poised to alter the future of humanity are completely overblown. For the past thirty years, frothy commentary about the promise of gene therapy has ended with statements like, “Many scientific obstacles remain before it becomes a practical form of therapy.” That’s still true today. Moreover, even if techniques for genetic manipulation advanced to the point where tweaking DNA was a mere surcharge to the already steep cost of in vitro fertilization (about $20,000 for each attempt), only a small minority of individuals on the planet could afford the procedure—and they would only be willing to bear the expense, emotional stress, and physical indignities if the rewards were great. Which brings us to the next issue: Most genetic diseases that would theoretically be amenable to gene editing can already be screened out by testing the DNA of IVF embryos and picking the healthy ones, and nobody has a clue how to make a brilliant, blue-eyed baby. After billions of dollars have been spent to sequence the human genome, the precise genetic determinants of polygenic traits like intelligence and eye color remain unknown.
There aren’t likely to be superbabies any time soon, and even if there were, it’s hard to imagine that they would be on the top ten list of humanity’s problems. Rich people already purchase unfair advantages for their children, and nobody is declaring a moratorium on private schools or trust funds, though perhaps we should. In the case of experiments gone bad, it would be a tragedy to induce genetic disease in a child whose parents decided to gamble for blue eyes, but we should probably be a lot more worried about 8 million babies already being born each year with genetic diseases. So why all of the hand wringing about designer babies?
The scientific community, abetted by the media, has unwittingly encouraged the public to worry about the wrong things. The problem grew out of a sort of grade inflation—or hyperbole arms race—for investigators seeking funding. If you look at any grant application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you will read claims that discovery X or innovation Y will save millions of lives and billions in tax dollars. It doesn’t matter if discovery X is chicken noodle soup and innovation Y is using a spoon, the investigator will tout them as being ten times more important than penicillin, because everyone else is saying the same thing about their discoveries. Nobody who says, “I’m not sure this will work, but I think we should look into it” has a chance of being funded. The pitches to venture capital firms are even worse. They sound more like, “I use innovation Y to spoon some of chicken-flavored discovery X into the mouth, and through a secret reaction, the patient becomes immortal, develops super strength and can fly.” (Kryptonite doesn’t come up.)
Exaggeration of the importance of scientific discoveries and downplaying of limitations and problems with those discoveries have become standard for the scientific community. Scientists don’t talk about how many experimental results are ultimately invalidated, how many drugs are never brought to market, or how many good ideas just don’t have a practical application in the real world. Unreasonable belief in the power of technology has also shaped the lingua franca of science and the media. You probably wouldn’t have started reading this article if the headline had been, “Designer babies are conceptually possible but if we’re being realistic, they probably will never exist. And if they did, it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Not relative to global warming, anyway.” Headlines about mutant babies or revolutionary new cures for cancer grab readers in a way that rational, cautious analysis does not. That’s good for advertisers, but bad for the public. It can cause laypeople to either show up in their doctors’ offices with unrealistic expectations of what science can do for disease or, worse, decide that science is all nonsense, and there’s no reason to vaccinate children for polio.
Americans have a conflicted relationship with science. They believe that science can make the world a better place, but they don’t believe much of what comes out of the mouths of scientists. Given how many times the cure for cancer has been announced, and how many people are still dying from cancer, that’s not surprising. Scientists haven’t earned the public’s trust, and the press has exacerbated the problem. It’s time for the scientific community and the media to turn down the hyperbole and initiate more nuanced discussions. Honest, thoughtful dialogue will go a lot further toward educating the public and building trust with the scientific community than chest-thumping bravado or fear mongering. It is critical to build that trust, because the real threats to the future of humanity are not rogue scientists doing genetic engineering, but the everyday behaviors of billions of people. If nobody believes what scientists tell them, we will be devastated by global warming or resurgent infectious diseases long before the world becomes overrun by superbabies.