Humanity passed a milestone last month, with the first ever commercial fertility service announcing that it would allow parents to screen potential offspring for “cosmetic” details such as eye color, hair color, and skin color.
The company (Fertility Institutes) announced that it was dropping the service shortly afterward, as “we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved,” according to a company statement.
But even if this was a near miss, the fact remains that genetic research is moving steadily ahead, and its commercial aspects … in this country and in others … are moving quickly too. At some point, some level of “designer humans” appear to be inevitable.
For psychologists, and for everyone, this new era will present some profoundly new versions of old questions: How do we approach issues of identity and moral responsibility when many details of children can be chosen by their parents (or others) as never before? What are the implications for personhood? For the way we think of ourselves, and others?
Saybrook psychology faculty member Eugene Taylor says that however new the technology, the underlying folly of “the commercialization of biology” is an old one: that idea that everything can be rationally managed if we just think hard enough about it.
“Everything can be viewed as being an appendage of the head, but the forces of the unconscious are still at work below the surface,” Taylor says. “The Chinese tried to control human reproduction with their one child policy, and that has produced a present population of many more males than females. In the history of psychology we have the scientific eugenics movement, which failed; the attempt to weed out the unfit by not permitting them to reproduce, which failed; and we still must reconcile ourselves to the Nazis and their plans to produce a race of perfect Aryans. These ‘experiments’ were all failures because there are always unforeseen consequences to trying too hard to control life.”
Saybrook psychology faculty member Tom Greening agrees. “Existentially, there are always limits, complex trade-offs, indeterminate factors, no matter how much control we think we have,” he says. “The human drive for self-actualization, self-expression, power over nature and one’s own destiny take us amazing places, but they are not omnipotent.”
Taylor suspects that a great deal of damage is coming as a result of the bio-revolution – in fact “from an existential point of view, this is inevitable given the human penchant for inflicting pain, paranoia, and outright evil, and human greed for power and wealth.”
The digitizing of medical records “will definitely lead to invasion of privacy regardless of the safeguards,” while cloning will lead to the commercialization of and regimentation of biology: people could be denied insurance coverage because of their genetic codes.
But, says Taylor, the unpredictability of the creative aspects of the non-rational is also likely humanity’s saving grace against itself.
“Freedom, creativity, and the higher states of consciousness that come with spiritual self-realization make all the doom-saying moot,” he suggests, because they too will keep coming back no matter how many walls we throw up. In the end, it will not be our genes or our doctors or our medical history that defines us, but our “selves.”
The fact that we can’t control ourselves through endless rationalizations means we will … eventually … hold ourselves to a higher standard. Saybrook’s traditional emphasis on “the actualization of the best that is within us” could play a key role.