A metamodernist narrative of genetic engineering

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Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 9.18.18 PMWith the ethical concerns raised by issues of gene editing of human embryos, academic ethics research has set the foundation for and discussed the bioethical threats mankind faces. Alongside artificial intelligence (AI) and similar issues such as data science privacy and the power of social media, the steps into baby manufacturing are illustrated through a mix of modernist and postmodernist ideologies and require a revised notion of a biological-digital autonomy that can account for the changing self. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology have already shocked and disgusted scholars in science and philosophy around the world. Questions of how much of who we are we should be able to change and what we should do with the rapid power of artificial intelligence on the horizon have taken center stage. With the newfound metamodernism appraoch to science, reality, and existence, we step into gene editing the same way we jump off the deep end of a lake and hold our breath until we rise to the surface.

The oft-repeated truism “science is moving so fast that ethics just can’t keep up” couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ignoring the baseless assumption that science and ethics were racing against one another, the scientistic idea that philosophers and ethicists in similar fields have not addressed the power and potential of science would be to disregard the decades of ethics research on genetic engineering. The claim also seems to treat science as an uncontrollable force that must be braced against because we can’t do anything to stop it. It’s false that mankind has complete control over nature, but the notion inaccurately portrays mankind as weak and vulnerable to the world when we can take a metamodernist approach that rests somewhere in between. Researchers in ethics have been paying close attention. They’ve been studying everything closely.

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 9.18.12 PMSociety and individuals have been shifting from postmodernism into metamodernism. We create the self as something between a postmodernist and modernist notion of reality through gene editing. As opposed to postmodernist traditions that nothing is real and modernist ones that reality is there beyond media, language, and symbols, right now we’re sure reality is somewhere in the middle in our notions of metamodernism. We are both a modernist believer in the power of science and technology and a postmodernist skeptical of the reality we find. Genetic engineers have begun using pluirpotent stem cells, ones that have the same properties of embryonic stem cells but come from manipulating ordinary adult cells rather than destroying embryos, that are more effective in providing dozens or hundreds of offspring for individual parent cells. As more stem cell research goes into how male sex cells can result from female cells and vice versa, this could even allow single parents or same-sex couples to produce biological children. Researchers have even predicted scenarios in which children result from the DNA of more than two biological parents, known as “multiplex parenting.”

Recent success in both cloning and CRISPR technologies have let scientists understand better the embryology and developmental physiology of human embryos as a result of the pluripotent stem cell advancements and in vitro fertilization (IVF). We must warn of the issues that may arise as stem cell reproduction methods gear towards manufacturing embryos for desirable traits. Couples who choose to keep their unwanted embryos frozen or donate them to further research or to other couples need to be aware of how those embryos are being used to assess their role of responsibility in stem cell research.

This stem cell method comes with the advantage as the daughter cells result similar to the adult ones, and researchers have posed solutions for the issues of eugenic control that would result. We can critique these ideas for their shortcomings in characterizing the eugenics movement. These movements do not thoroughly emphasize the social forces governing how individuals would be manufactured. To address the issues raised by gene editing, we need a deeper, more multidimensional view of the moral problems raised by eugenic control that accounts for the changing self and reality in a metamodernist world. We can engage in these subjects through personal narratives and humanized ideas of who we are that embrace ethics and threats of existentialism.

Researchers have, however, brought up solutions that derive from dangerous principles of eugenics and extreme notions of individual autonomy. In the transition to metamodernism, they prevent mankind from pushing back against looming threat of a full-fledged surveillance state, and, instead disregard the idea that a particular line of research can be inherently morally wrong. These transhumanist thinkers such as philosopher Nick Bostrom (who has also warned about the threat of Superintelligence) who proposes a solution to use stem cell sex cells for performing eugenic selection for intelligence, partially as a method for combating superintelligent AI. If humans can replicate natural selection on a group of embryos over the course of several generations, they can produce the most intelligent humans possible. This eugenics approach isn’t uncommon, either. Ethics professor Nicholas Agar wants prospective parents to choose how they can improve their children in a “liberal eugenics” fashion. This sort of scientific perfection fails to capture how these humans would supposedly relate to the rest of society given that they’ve attacked the fundamental ideals of community and sharedness that humans share. Bostrom does suggest there may be religious or moral grounds to prohibit this method of creating genetically enhanced children, but claims having children at a disadvantage to those around them would cause everyone to eventually pick up the technique. This reasoning rests on a dangerous egalitarian notion of human success and morality driven by competition in a way that forces those who disagree to accept the technique. It doesn’t rest upon morally reasoned principles or the virtues of humanism and research. Much the same way individuals would rapidly evolve under Bostrom’s scheme, the entirety of society should follow suit regardless of choice.

Bostrom’s idea also doesn’t recognize the reality of how natural selection and evolution work. Much like natural selection, this method wouldn’t automatically and instantly choose the most optimal DNA. Instead, it would choose a heritable trait without regard to DNA the same way nature influences which traits are optimal for survival and reproduction. Bostrom’s method relies on knowing which parts of the DNA are responsible for the trait which can be edited directly without the need for cycling through generations. Besides, the genetic basis for these traits have been shown to be limited as the traits themselves are a complicated amalgamation of environmental interactions, genetic pathways, what epigenetic factors activate throughout an individuals’ lifetime, how nature would “select” for certain traits, and the resulting phenotypes. It wouldn’t dictate how a superintelligent human may emerge. The typical issues of the artificial selection process being prone to error and having an inherent natural selection to it raise concerns as well. All of this lies on the inhumane assumption that we may find human perfection through genes regardless of how an objectified individual may control their own fate and what right they have to do so. Indeed, the vacuous claim that “science is moving so fast that ethics just can’t keep up” only measures unethical, unjustified notions of how fast science is moving to begin with.

The ethics of some reproductive technologies become blurrier in light of the newly complex understanding of heredity’s cross-currents. A maternal surrogate, for example, will likely exchange stem cells with the fetus she carries, opening the door to claims that baby and surrogate are related. If the surrogate later carries her own baby, or that of a different woman, are the children related? Parenthood becomes even stranger with so-called mitochondrial-replacement therapy. If a woman with a mitochondrial disorder wants a biological child, it is now possible to inject the nucleus of one of her eggs into a healthy woman’s egg (after removing its nucleus), and then perform in vitro fertilization. The result is a “three-parent baby,” the first of which was born in 2016. Zimmer doesn’t presume to make ethical judgments about procedures such as this, but warns that “informed consent” in such cases can be unexpectedly difficult to determine.

The more honored individuals in bioethics such as Stanford law professor Henry Greely have voiced similar arguments. Greely has argued insurance companies and government agencies can help fund the effective DNA sequencing methods in fighting genetic disease. In his book The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, he predicts how we may perceive and judge the potential of stem cell technologies. He notes he wouldn’t ban embryos created from a single parent, but would still require pre-implamentation genetic diagnosis to select for optimal offspring. But, above all, Greely emphasizes that these should be closely scrutinized by a standing commission that can recognize what principles all people would believe in. What sort of principles all individuals would agree upon, such as the four common principles of medical ethics: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice, are up for debate. The principles of parenthood should be upheld even for extreme scenarios of the future that may select for the most desirable traits such that biological parenthood becomes meaningless. We must protect every notion of humanity that comes from our current methods of reproduction, both biologically and artificially, to address these issues.

With the growing threat of AI, namely that computers may become more and more Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 9.19.35 PMhuman-like, our autonomy should reflect how the self has been changing through these innovations. The self can be changed artificially much the same way robots and computers are programmed, but they’re not completely fragmented that humans share nothing with one another. These stem cell methods can give humanity a more unified individualistic self that, when appropriately regulated, allow for even modified individuals to exercise appropriate rights and responsibilities. Greely’s ideas still disgust by suggesting market-driven factors to influence human reproductive choices. The principles that doctors and scientists must stand upon are far too likely to become cold, calculated treatments for dehumanized problems. Professor of public health Annelien L. Bredenoord and professor of bioethics Insoo Hyun argued in “Ethics of stem cell‐derived gametes made in a dish: fertility for everyone?” multiplex parenting will shake the very notions of responsibility and autonomy and moreso than other reproductive techniques. They will disgust individuals, citing ideas of the reaction by professor of philosophy Martha Nussbaum’s book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Phyisican Leon Kass noted there is wisdom in this repugnance in his paper “The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Humans.” No amount of sociological or psychological research into the well-being of multiplex children can prevent this natural sense of disgust that we feel at this idea – and with good reason. We must hold onto this disgust and other aesthetic, physiological responses and assess them to the extent which they provide us with moral clarity. From there, a metamodernistic view of gene editing can take place. Writer Carl Zimmer noted in She Has Her Mother’s Laugh that he doesn’t make ethical judgments about multiplex parenting, but “informed consent” in such cases can difficult to determine.

Reading, learning, and writing about these issues is the first step. For anyone to learn more about science and technology in this age would help spread humanism to fight ignorance. These issues need to enter the sphere of public debate and discussion in contrast to how they’re currently only governed by scientists, ethicists, and philosophers. We need laws in place to prevent these catastrophic consequences long before they occur. In our metamodernist society, we need not reject science and technology entirely. We may remain skeptical of the notions of progress and reality, but only to a point where we can begin a new direction for scientific research. Given the existential crises of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, we may imagine a moral society through personal development and psychological growth in wrestling with and understanding these struggles. We need a humanized notion of reproduction to address psychological needs of individuals in a society that has the power of gene editing. We can create a grand narrative that mankind has an overarching worldview to connect all humans to one another, but hold it lightly enough to recognize the limits of what we know and should do. We can understand that we may create an idea of “reality” and methods of understanding the world around us that respect scientific research while still questioning the authority of problematic research techniques. By creating a “reality,” we can embrace the truths that we can create a moral society that determines who we are despite the changing self brought upon by genetic engineering and the digital age. We can determine what is honest, authentic, and true without being cynical, showing contempt for the beliefs and sensibilities of others, and turning to eugenics approaches for solutions. Metamodernism, as it begins to infect all areas of life, means our scientific research should seek elegant, morally refined methods that we embrace for knowledge.

Only then will we come closer to our selves in a metamodernist future. The intellectual thought to counter the doomsday dystopia scenarios of the future can involve selecting for desirable traits in offspring through trustworthy, verified methods that acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of the individual. We must remain skeptical of harmful progress, but remain open to gene editing technologies insofar as they may help mankind without raising ethical concerns.