I read somewhere that while both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World contained dystopian futures, Huxley’s world, where humans are made in “hatcheries” and the people were kept compliant, not by the threat of Big Brother, but by the numbing of their senses with the pleasure-inducing drug “soma,” was a more plausible scenario.
After reading “In vitro eugenics” by Dr. Robert Sparrow in the Journal of Medical Ethics, I have to agree. Dr. Sparrow explores the possibility of creating embryos in the lab, then using the stem cells from those embryos to create egg and sperm cells, and then using those gametes to create more embryos. Essentially, this would take human reproduction into the laboratory not just for one generation, but for generation after generation. These embryos would be “orphaned at conception.” They “would have no genetic parents: there would be no living individual—or indeed individual that had ever lived—who could be described as the genetic progenitor of such embryos.” Sparrow calls this “in vitro eugenics”:
In particular, it might allow what I will call ‘in vitro eugenics’: the deliberate breeding of human beings in vitro by fusing sperm and egg derived from different stem-cell lines to create an embryo and then deriving new gametes from stem cells derived from that embryo, which in turn might be used in the creation of another embryo. Repeated iterations of this process would allow scientists to proceed through multiple human generations ‘in the lab’.
Unfortunately, this technology of producing egg and sperm from stem cells is no longer science fiction. Scientists have already accomplished this in mice and are discussing and developing strategies to doing the same in humans.
Sparrow goes on to discuss the practical and ethical issues surrounding “in vitro eugenics.” He also discusses possible uses. First, he says this technique will be used to study disease. But it won’t end there. This may be a “method to bring into existence children with a desired genotype.” Sparrow elaborates:
Once researchers have succeeded in creating several generations of embryos in the laboratory in the course of researching the genetics of disease, a question will inevitably arise about implanting embryos created through in vitro eugenics into the womb of a woman in order to bring a new individual into the world. Moreover, this question is likely to arise with some urgency because of the potential of in vitro eugenics to serve as a powerful technology of ‘human enhancement’. If it becomes possible to breed human beings in vitro, it will be possible to use all of the techniques of artificial selection to produce embryos with desirable genomes. In effect, scientists will be able to breed human beings with the same (or greater) degree of sophistication with which we currently breed plants and animals. Importantly, there are currently several influential bioethicists [one being Julian Salvulescu] who argue that we are morally obligated—or, at least, have strong moral reasons to—enhance future human beings. Implanting embryos that have been bred for above-species-typical capacities into the wombs of willing women would be one way to achieve this goal.
Here I will quote a passage from the first chapter of Huxley’s fictional Brave New World where a group of students are visiting the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The Director explains Bokanovsky’s Process, the technique of the mass-creation of “lower” classes of human embryos (Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons) from another embryo (fertilized egg):
One egg, one embryo, one adult-normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.
If there was a fantasy “fiction-becoming-reality” league, I would be wearing a t-shirt that says “Team Huxley.”
(The irony that Aldous Huxley’s older brother, Julian, was president of the British Eugenics Society, and now Aldous’ vision is being called “in vitro eugenics” is not lost on me. Then again, maybe it is not irony. Maybe it is just that Aldous truly understood the nature of eugenics.)
Can I just say here how right the Church was, and still is, about the dangers of separating procreation from sex? Once you sever that natural pairing, truly anything goes.
I know what you are thinking. What about safety? How can this possibly continue? Surely the concern for the health and safety of the children produced with “in vitro eugenics” will stop this from ever coming to pass?
Well, Sparrow says we won’t really care about safety. We didn’t care about the long-term health risks to the children with IVF and other artificial reproductive technologies like ICSI and PGD before we went ahead with those, so we won’t care about safety issues with “in vitro eugenics” either:
However, there are a number of reasons to believe that concerns about safety and risk are unlikely to prove an insurmountable barrier to the ethical creation of designer babies by in vitro eugenics. To begin with, as I noted above, these concerns arise regarding every new reproductive technology involving the manipulation of embryos. Until a generation of children produced by IVF (or intracytoplasmic sperm injection or cytoplasmic transfer) have lived out their natural lifespan, we will not know whether IVF (or any of these other technologies) is safe—and we certainly did not know this at the time at which those technologies were first trialled. Thus, in vitro eugenics would not raise any issues we have not confronted before.
I am afraid he is right. Soma anyone?
Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly