Michael Sandel makes 'The Case Against Perfection'

A Harvard professor offers a philosophical rebuttal to the temptations of genetic engineering.

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Charles Darwin looked deeply into nature and realized that animal life is ever changing, evolving over time. A short mental leap from there created an uproar: Humans are evolving, too.

But why wait for nature to take its course? The prospect of genetic engineering has brought about another, equally disturbing, mental leap: Once humans are able to remake themselves, why shouldn't they do so?

The issue of human enhancement is already upon us. Athletes take steroids or human-growth hormone or they dope their blood to improve performance and bounce back more quickly from injuries. Students swallow stimulant drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall in the belief that these will improve their ability to study or take tests.

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But humanity is at the cusp of breakthroughs in genetic engineering that will make these examples seem trivial. Legislation now under consideration in Britain, for example, would allow chimeras – human-animal hybrids – to be created for the purposes of research. Although only groups of cells would at first be created, some think that, inevitably, the eventual result would be the creation of both animals enhanced with human qualities and humans enhanced with animal traits.

The (mis)uses of genetic manipulation

In the future, genetic manipulation of embryos is expected to have the potential to go beyond the treatment of diseases to improvements: children who are taller, more athletic, and have higher IQs. Gender already can be predetermined with in vitro embryos. Even eye and hair color could be chosen in advance. So what's wrong with creating progeny who are more than just disease-free, actually "better than well"?

In The Case Against Perfection, Michael Sandel argues that the unease many people feel about such manipulations have a basis in reason. These misgivings go beyond the two most obvious arguments of safety and fairness. Even if genetic enhancements were completely safe (with no unintended results) and offered freely to all (no one denied access), they would still be ethically questionable, argues Dr. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

Parents may think they are doing their children a favor by "designing" them for success. How would this differ, advocates ask, from sending children to the best schools or offering them other life advantages?

For one thing, Sandel says, such choices unfairly burden parents. Will they choose the right menu of traits? Parents have a responsibility to nurture children, but not the right to determine their futures.

"To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition," he writes. "Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes the child happens to have." Genetic manipulation represents a kind of "hubris" on the part of designing parents and "disfigures the relation between parent and child." "[T]hat we are not wholly responsible for the way we are," is a blessing, not a curse, Sandel argues.

He reminds readers that eugenics – the theory of improving the human race through selective breeding (and preventing the breeding of the "unfit") – was widely lauded in the early 20th century. It was backed by the Carnegie Institution and endorsed by luminaries such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, and feminist Margaret Sanger. Only when Nazi Germany revealed how eugenics could make a horrifying dark descent into genocide did it lose popular appeal.

Free-market eugenics?

Sixty years later, scientific advances have rekindled interest in a "liberal eugenics," in which, advocates argue, coercion would be outlawed. Governments could not tell parents what sort of children to design. Parents would be allowed to engineer in their children "only those traits that improve their capacities without biasing their choice of life plans," Sandel says, explaining the proposition. In this "free market" eugenics, parents would select freely from a "supermarket" of choices.

But even this apparently benign manipulation has dangers, Sandel says. What is to prevent governments from insisting that parents not "deprive" their children of genetic enhancement? Might anything less be considered a form of child abuse?

This beautifully crafted little book, expanded from an essay by Sandel in The Atlantic Monthly, quickly and clearly lays out the key issues at stake. One senses that Sandel realizes that the case in favor of genetic engineering is a strong one, in need of an equally robust and cogent rebuttal.

"There is something appealing, even intoxicating, about a vision of human freedom unfettered by the given," Sandel concedes. Genetic engineering can be seen as "the ultimate expression of our resolve to see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature.... But that vision of freedom is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will."

• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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