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Eugenics De-fanged or Re-fanged?

Genetic Ethics: An Introduction

By Colin Farrelly

Publisher: Polity

Pages: 207

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Colin Farrelly, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University in Canada, says he has been grappling with the subject of genetic ethics for two decades. This book, which is addressed to students and scholars in the life sciences and social sciences, gives strong support to the contemporary form of eugenics. He uses “virtue ethics” — in particular, the virtue of beneficence — to argue that genetic interventions into our human biology are morally justified.

Farrelly says he has found a “joy and happiness” that is “second to none” in raising his three sons, and he also finds “profound fulfillment” in his volunteer work with children and inmates. On the other hand, he lauds Darwinian evolution by natural selection as “one of the greatest scientific insights in human history.” He declares, moreover, that our human biology is “not the product of a grand omnipresent designer” but of the “genetic lottery of life,” and it is “constantly, though slowly, changing and evolving.” Farrelly calls “illusory” the idea that there is a “natural baseline” for human biology or a “normal species functioning.” Why, he asks, should we regard as “special” what human beings are “at this moment” of our evolutionary trajectory? Why embrace the “biological status quo”? The choice before us is whether to continue evolving by the “blind and arbitrary process” of natural selection or to “consciously and purposively modulate our biology” by genetic interventions. (Note that his scientific materialism has no room for Providence.)

Farrelly wants such interventions, of course, to be guided by “virtue ethics.” But what does he mean by that term? He praises utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer as “arguably the most influential living philosopher in applied ethics,” and he warns us several times to avoid unbending principles. Instead, we are to embrace “nuanced” and “provisional” virtue ethics. He notes that when people are offered the prospect of altering our human biology by genome editing, they will react in “emotive” and “dismissive” ways, crying out, “That’s eugenics!” or “That’s unnatural!” He thinks such “firmly held principled convictions” should be set aside in favor of a “virtue-oriented approach.” Though Farrelly agrees that the genetic revolution will have risks and costs, he believes a “wise” society will avoid a “stringent precautionary principle” that would forfeit genetic modifications able to promote greater health and happiness.

Though Farrelly admits that eugenic movements of the past were wrong — for example, when the state would coerce the “unfit” into sterilization — he thinks that eugenic aspirations, when justly pursued, are good and “might actually be required” by the virtue of beneficence. He points out that we are already improving our biology with vaccinations, fluoridation, and changes in lifestyle. It is true that the new germline genetic modifications would “permanently” change human biology, but, he says, it is “likely” that those changes could be reversed if they are harmful. (Ah, but “likely” is not the same thing as “certain”!) He informs us that genome editing of our human DNA is already being done on “embryos not destined for implantation.” Note well that in light of Farrelly’s “virtue ethics,” there is nothing grotesque about using live human embryos as lab rats. In fact, he thinks so little of the unborn child’s right to life that he gives as an example of “moral vice” a polity that would prohibit abortions in order to boost fertility rates and so compromise “the moral agency, authority and freedom of women.” He sees “patriarchy” as one of the pressing problems of our time, listing it after war and poverty, and tracing it to our evolution from primates.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Farrelly finds it virtuous to utilize pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to screen embryos for genetic disorders after they have been conceived by in vitro fertilization (IVF). He says the “virtuous polity” would be to both prevent genetic disorders by using PGD and support those living with these disorders. It would also permit “sex selection” by PGD for “family balancing.” While admitting that IVF and PGD are costly and carry risks to the mother, Farrelly says they show the virtue of “procreative beneficence” in that the embryo chosen to be implanted is “expected to have the best life.” Note well his total disregard for all the embryonic human beings who are to be killed off in this process.

Perhaps the most riveting chapters in Genetic Ethics are those on the proposed genetic interventions that might theoretically extend our lifespan and modulate human memory. Farrelly rightly states that the 21st century is already plagued by “degenerative diseases” associated with an aging population. And so, the virtuous polity should not limit itself to “negative biology” — i.e., to futile efforts to cure the chronic diseases of senescence — but should resort to “positive biology,” or genetic attempts to slow the rate of aging and increase health and happiness at all stages of life.

Farrelly calls aging “unnatural” and an “artifact of human invention” because, he says, it is the result of our being protected from the perils of natural life. Reproduction rather than “indefinite survival” is what natural selection favors, but now a remedy is in sight: genetic intervention with “longevity genes associated with exceptional healthy aging.” Centenarians and supercentenarians (those who have lived to age 120) might not be so rare in the future, he says, now that “age retardation” is a “feasible goal.” This brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs, those pathetic creatures incapable of dying in Gulliver’s Travels. They are found in the Third Voyage, which is an extended satire on scientific materialism.

Farrelly complains about the political obstacles that prevent geneticists from engaging in the still “hypothetical discipline of applied gerontology.” These obstacles include “irrational fears” that aging research will produce a mass of unproductive senior citizens, lead to overpopulation, and cause the young to lose their priority. Farrelly answers that those who object to “longevity science” should instead endorse measures to curb population growth and realize that the extension of the “healthspan” of the old means that they will remain “economically viable.”

In the final chapter, Farrelly speaks of the “advances” science has made in realizing “the role genes play in happiness, memory and human nature.” Why would it make our lives less “authentic,” he asks, if scientists increase our happiness via genetic engineering? He then considers the prospect of human memory being genetically enhanced with a certain “neuroplasticity” to insulate soldiers from getting post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). He thinks this could be considered a “morally obligatory intervention” for those at “high risk of witnessing traumatic events.” Some will object that it is “unnatural,” but Farrelly responds that “memory modification” is a normal part of our “psychological immune system,” and since modern warfare has “stressors” not found in our evolutionary history, we have a duty to update our brain’s “immune system.”

To the objection that we risk “falsifying” our lives with genetically modifying memory, Farrelly replies that “such falsifying” is what our psychological immune system does anyway. We constantly recreate or edit the narrative of our lives to make ourselves “feel better.” These falsifications are beneficial and even necessary to our flourishing, he says, as a completely accurate self-narrative would lead to “negative thoughts” and “emotional pain.” In short, Farrelly’s virtue ethics invites us to choose the joy of being permanently and genetically self-deceived in preference to knowing the grim truth about ourselves and perhaps repenting of the errors of our ways.

In conclusion, Farrelly asks why people should find it “inherently problematic” to use genetic engineering to alter human behavior. Suppose it were feasible for a genetic intervention to make us “more moral” — why would that not be “desirable”? Ah, but here’s the rub: He concedes that if genetic engineering should enhance human intelligence, our moral defects might well be “amplified.” Horrors! Original Sin magnified! This would make moral enhancement an utter necessity. At this point in my reading, I had a vision of the desperate Dr. Frankenstein, at the end of Shelley’s novel, chasing his wicked creature across the ice.

Though Farrelly portrays the new eugenics as humanitarian, it has a scary underside — especially if an atheist dictatorship were to embrace it. The new eugenics is essentially a man-made religion, with a false hope of perfection and immortality.


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