*subhead*Windows 95*subhead*

This is the cover of the current issue of The Economist.

I am sure this is resonating with moms and dads everywhere who are excited about the possibilities of genetic engineering. Parents want the best for their children. We spend money on swimming lessons, piano lessons, tutors, private coaches and the latest gadgets so that they will have an edge over the other kids. We want them to succeed.

But what about going beyond lessons and gadgets and actively giving children a genetic advantage with germ-line genetic enhancements. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it? Having the smartest, fastest and best-looking children on the block.

Logically, this is about as far as most people get before they say, “Sign me and my kids up!” But ask yourself what enhancing our children really means. It means being trapped forever in a dangerous biological game of “Keeping up with the Jones.”

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, in his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, outlines the trap we will fall into once we begin to enhance our offspring:

…if germline manipulation actually does begin, it seems likely to set off a kind of biological arms race….  Of course, the problem with arms races is that you never really get anywhere. If everyone’s adding 30 IQ points, then having an IQ of 150 won’t get you any closer to Stanford than you were at the outset. The very first athlete engineered to use twice as much oxygen as the next guy will be unbeatable in the Tour de France – but in no time he’ll merely be the new standard. You’ll have to do what he did to be in the race, but your upgrades won’t put you ahead, merely back on a level playing field.

…So let’s say baby Sophie has a state-of-the-art gene job; her parents paid for the proteins discovered by say, 2005 that, on average, yielded 10 extra IQ points. By the time Sophie is five, though, scientists will doubtless have discovered ten more genes linked to intelligence. Now anyone with a platinum card can get 20 IQ points, not to mention a memory boost and a permanent wrinkle-free brow. So by the time Sophie is twenty-five and in the job market, she’s already more or less obsolete – the kids coming out of college just plain have better hardware.

…The vision of one’s child as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95 should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path. But the vision gets lost easily in the gushing excitement about “improving” the opportunities for our kids. [emphasis mine]

The typical argument is that enhancements are just like gadgets. We are always upgrading those, so what’s the problem upgrading our kids. The problem is that people are not gadgets. People should never be considered obsolete. But that is exactly where enhancements will take us.

Now look and that picture on the cover of The Economist again. The thought of that adorable baby as a “useless copy of Windows 95” makes me want to vomit. This is reason why I bother blogging. I am not a trained writer. (That is obvious.) I do not particularly like it. But if no one stands in front of the genetic augmentation train and tries to stop it, I feel the human race is doomed.

McKibben warns us:

If germline genetic engineering ever starts, it will accelerate endlessly and unstoppable into the future, as individuals make the calculation that they have no choice but to equip their kids for the world that’s being made. Once the game is under way, in other words, there will be no moral decisions, only strategic ones. If the technology is going to be stopped, it will have to happen now, before it’s quite begun.

I wholeheartedly agree. Enhancing our children will be a destructive genie that once it is out of the bottle, will never relent. Enhancements will reduce our moral worth to no more than that of an old computer collecting dust in the corner of the basement. So unless you want your children or grandchildren to become “obsolete” it is time to fight enhancements well before they are a reality.

Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly