Economics Society

The Economics of Designer Humans

There is an interesting piece on the by the philosopher Jenna Thompson on a new in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technique, about to be approved by the National Health Service in the UK, called “Three-Person IVF.”


Notes Jenna:

Supporters hail the technique as a cure for the debilitating and incurable diseases caused by defective genetic material in a part of the mother’s egg cell called the mitochondria. It involves implanting the nucleus of a woman’s egg into another woman’s egg cell which has healthy mitochondria and has had its nucleus removed. The process can take place before or after the egg is fertilised using a man’s sperm.

Although the genetic contribution of the egg donor is very small (1%) and won’t be detectable in the child’s appearance and psychological characteristics, the transfer of genetic material affects the genetic constitution of the egg and the embryo. This means that changes will not only affect the child but also the child’s descendants, and there has been criticism of the risk of introducing bad traits through the generations – though there have been government assurances that the process will be closely monitored in the UK.

The advance this article notes traces its origins to the work of Mendel, of course. Mendel’s work, which for so long promised much, finally began to accelerate in the 20th Century with the discoveries of Watson and Crick, and really took off through the advances of people like Craig Venter and efforts such as the Human Genome Project. All this great science has given us the ability, in 2014, to take the first step toward re-engineering ourselves at the genetic level, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest advance in the history of human evolution. Yet I am constantly amazed at how quietly this giant step is taking place.

In speaking with ethicists, philosophers and economists, they agree that this is a “big deal,” but they seem almost afraid to tackle its implication head-on. It’s almost as if they are afraid at what they will discover when they really get into the implications of this evolutionary (and I use that word in the Darwinian sense) change will have for their own disciplines. For example, if we come to discover that most of a person’s character is laid out in general terms in the DNA, and that environment influences a “hard-wired” ethical base, then what does that mean for classical ethics, which has as a basis the idea that all people are equally able to behave ethically given sufficient understanding. What also of economics, and its recent fascination with the decisions made by individuals? What if the model of economic decision making needs to be rebuilt on the basis of biological/genetic structures, leaving aside the common dialogue about costs, benefits, and value? Indeed, what if a certain class of economic viewpoint, risk-aversion, say, or its opposite, is genetically determined or can be genetically engineered into a population?

Even more immediate are the economic and financial issues that surround these new breakthroughs. For example, how should these new techniques be priced in society? What if in a few decades, a baby’s eye color is selectable? Will blue eyes cost more than brown? Will specific eye colors be branded: parents will chose between”Pfizer Santorini Blue”  and “J&J California Aqua?” Will a desirable genotype become a luxury good, like a fine wine or fast car? In other words, will being beautiful and/or healthy in the future signal not good fortune but great wealth? There have been tongue-in-cheek calls for a “beauty tax” in the past, since studies show attractive people earn more in life; will this idea become a reality in a world where wealth=health?

These are interesting questions, and to some people, even well-educated ones, they often seem fanciful. I argue that they are not fanciful at all. Ten years ago, it was a “fanciful” idea that in 2014 babies born with the genetic material of three parents would be a reality, and yet that is exactly what is about to happen. Science, like time, waits for no one. It’s time for the issues that Prof. Jenna, and those who are dealing with the implications of these advances, describe to enter the general social debate. After all, what’s a more important topic for us to debate: what the next great social media trend is or whether a few generations from now specific human traits will be selected from a catalog?

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