Appendix O: Germline Engineering and Human Autonomy

In Chapter 8, I discuss some of the problematic implications of germline genetic engineering, both for the parents who would be attempting to “steer” the future development of their children’s traits, and for the children themselves.  Here I offer some further considerations that I omitted from the book for reasons of space.

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Difficult as the design process will be for parents, I suspect it will in some ways pose even more troublesome problems for the kids.  At the most immediate level, we might expect to see new kinds of sibling rivalries developing: “You got fantastic math skills, and I got stuck with this stupid literary flair that no one cares about.”  Or: “I catch so many more colds than you because Mom and Dad were too cheap to plunk for a decent Immune Pack when I was born: it’s totally unfair.”  The tendency to think of enhancement interventions in crudely commodified ways will probably become especially prevalent in the context of sibling relationships.  This should not be surprising, because siblings often perceive each other in comparative terms, closely scrutinizing the distribution of advantages and privileges across the members of the household.  Under these circumstances, the temptation to reify a certain trait, comparing its relative value to other equally reified traits, will be strong.

At a deeper level, moreover, we may wonder what kinds of psychological effects to expect.  What would it be like for you to imagine the conversation that took place between your parents, as they sat down to lay out the desired trait parameters for the human being who was eventually to become you?  In today’s society, parents certainly do make choices that profoundly affect the well-being of their children – which city to live in, what school to attend, what church to join (if any), and so on.  Nevertheless, the child still possesses a significant measure of autonomy in choosing how to respond to these momentous parental decisions.  She may resist, she may go along wholeheartedly, she may pretend to go along wholeheartedly – the decision is ultimately hers.  But the shaping of one’s innate trait profile is quite another matter: it affects the fundamental platform of capabilities, attitudes, preferences, and propensities that make up our identity.  If this platform has been modified by my parents, I can find myself wondering: to what extent are my very reactions, the tenor of my thoughts, my visceral likes and dislikes, partially preprogrammed into me from the start?

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas addresses this question in his book, The Future of Human Nature(1) Habermas maintains that the selection of a portion of my traits by my parents might undermine my basic autonomy in two powerful ways.  First, it would impose someone else’s preferences on my innate constitution: it thereby subjects my deepest identity to an external and heteronomous limiting factor having a human rather than natural origin.  By definition, this subordination of a portion of my being to another person’s purposes and ideas – however benevolently intended – reduces my autonomy.  Secondly, from an internal perspective, it would also probably alter my own perception of who I am and what I can aspire to be: Habermas argues that it might feel like a straitjacket on my potential to be whatever I wanted.

Thus, for example, if I were to find out from my parents what my “design specs” were, I would presumably have at least two options.  I could choose to conform, deliberately aligning my pursuits, activities, and relationships in accordance with my designated trait profile.  Or I could choose to rebel, defiantly opting for pursuits, activities, and relationships that ran counter to my alleged predispositions.  Either way, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy will have come into play: my behaviors are wrenched powerfully one way or the other by my knowledge of the kind of person I was “supposed” to become.  Whether I conform or rebel, the knowledge itself shapes me: it constrains my primordial freedom to discover who I wanted to make of myself.

It is possible, of course, that this issue will not end up being such a big deal.  For one thing, the actual shaping powers exerted by even the most eagerly interventionist and control-seeking parents will only be very limited and probabilistic in nature.  Individuals brought into being in the era of trait selection will still possess powerful grounds for exercising autonomous decisions about their own life-plans, undertakings, and behavior patterns.  The very nature of genetic causation precludes their character traits being “preprogrammed” in highly specific and deterministic ways – and many of them will understand this fact and take it into account.  At most, they will have to deal with the psychological impact of knowing that certain broad predispositions may be at work in nudging their development down certain pathways rather than others.  The difference between “shaping as destiny” vs. “shaping as possible limited influence” is a significant one.  Perhaps, therefore, the children of that era will learn to shrug off these philosophical concerns, and will simply get on with their lives the way people do today.

Perhaps.  But something profound will nonetheless have changed.  Even if my parents resolutely refused to tell me what choices they made for me, I would still face a disconcerting set of questions: Are my preferences, tastes, and achievements the partial result of the predispositions engineered into my being before I was born?  If I become an accomplished musician, for example, and love the whole enterprise of making music, I may still wonder: to what extent am I merely playing out the fact that Mom and Dad chose this for me?  Is my musical talent really my own, or is it more like a role that I have been pre-oriented to take on?  Deeper still, is my great joy in making music itself the result of certain dispositional factors inserted into my genes by a splice?  Precisely because the causal interplay between genetic and environmental factors is so complex, these are questions that no one will ever be able to answer with any certainty: the actual extent to which my phenotypic attributes are “engineered” will remain inherently unknowable.  For some, this uncertainty may feel liberating.  For others it may have the opposite effect, gnawing at them with self-doubt and second-guessing: Who am I, if I am partially designed, like a product or commodity?

At the root of all these questions lies the very nature of autonomous volition itself, which is predicated on my possessing a distinct individuality and personal identity, and a fundamental dimension of sovereignty over my own choices. (2)  My values, tastes, and preferences dictate my choices, which in turn shape my behaviors.  But where do my values, tastes, and preferences themselves come from?  In today’s world, they take form gradually over the course of my lifetime, through the dynamic interaction of my innate characteristics and my experiences as I grow up.  They form an aspect of the continuously evolving, emergent whole that is my personhood.  The influence of other people plays a significant part in shaping these elemental aspects of my being, but so do the innate predispositions arising from my unique genetic makeup.  These two causal factors, and the ongoing interplay between them, gradually co-construct my identity over time.

A key assumption, in this equation, is that the genetic component of this ongoing formative process lies beyond direct human control.  It is not subject to the pressures, preferences, and values of other people, and constitutes a basic constraining factor that limits the extent to which other people can influence my development and behaviors.  (For example: “You may do everything in your power to make me choose a career in the family business, but you will never be able to suppress the free-spirited musician in me.”)  In this sense, it is like a kind of internal ballast in the ongoing constitution of my identity over time.  It plays a key role in giving substance to my autonomy, and helps define the specific constellation of qualities and characteristics that make up what is most deeply “mine” about my selfhood at any given moment.  When I say that my values, tastes, and preferences are my own, it is to this delicately-balanced causal dance of external and internal factors, nurture and nature, that I am implicitly referring.

However, if my parents have partially designed my genome, this balance is disrupted: Mom and Dad have inserted an element of their own values, tastes, and preferences into the suite of innate causal factors that co-determine who I become over time.  Although this is only a very partial shaping – they have not totally designed who I am – it nonetheless introduces an additional element of “otherness” into the overall profile of my identity.  The balance between what other people contribute to my identity formation, and what comes from within me, has been altered.  Indeed, the boundary itself between “internal” and “external” shaping factors has been blurred, because the internal vector, which operates partly through genetic causal processes, has now come under direct external influence from other humans.

When I exercise my volition, henceforth, the set of values, tastes, and preferences that I call my own, and that determine my choices, will therefore contain a higher proportion of elements that come from other people.  In Habermas’s terminology, these will constitute heteronomous rather than autonomous elements operating in my will.  I may feel as though I am exercising my own will when I make a certain choice, but a portion of the factors that determine this choice will now be coming from decisions made on my behalf by other people before I was born.  These are certainly still “my” values, tastes, and preferences – I have no other basis from which to make my choices.  But they also bear the partial signature of the purposes my parents had in mind when they selected certain components of my genome.  My parents have inserted an additional (limited) element of themselves into an aspect of my selfhood, at a core place where my autonomy resides.  My autonomy is partially diminished, therefore, and the very boundary between “mine” and “theirs” will have been slightly but irretrievably blurred.

Another way of saying this is that, once my parents acquire these shaping powers, I become, to a new degree, a partial extension of their will.  To be sure, in certain  important ways, this is already the case today: my parents have exerted a significant influence on the process by which my identity gradually emerged, over the decades of my growing into adulthood.  For better or worse, they helped make me who I am.  But once they are also able to partially configure my genome before my conception, this element of parental influence ratchets up a few more notches.  Through their newfound ability to intervene intentionally in my development via the causal pathways of both nurture and nature, they will be reaching deeper than ever before into the formative processes of my being, into the very platform of my selfhood, from which all my preferences, decisions, behaviors, and experiences originate.  From this point forward, whenever I choose to do something, or not to do something, my choice will also indirectly reflect, in a more pronounced way, the projected will of Mom and Dad.



(1) Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Polity, 2003).  On Habermas’s philosophy see Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT, 1992).

(2) Robert Kane, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Oxford, 2002).