I respect Bill McKibben’s desire to create a healthy, enjoyable, and just environment for humans and other life to flourish within. I do however find that he should perhaps stick to his talking points of carbon emission reduction and corporate responsibility because in his essay “Designer Genes” he makes little positive headway and in the process confuses and trivializes the issue of germline genetic engineering. Furthermore, he offloads hurtful and smallminded ideas and postures as though they are his opponents and worst yet, he misquotes an opponent to make his own case appear stronger. In the end, the general reader is left misinformed and distanced from the pertinent debatable issues of germline engineering.

First to my title: I desire that readers of McKibben would question whether he has travelled a rigorous argument and if his conclusion is a worthy endpoint of discussion at all. I would forward that he has not. We must go past his rhetoric which is but a surface attempt to stir fear and moral antipathy towards germline engineering. Secondly, this issue concerns all of our children and our families’ children. We deserve more than smoke screens that obfuscate. 

And to the the title of McKibben’s “Designer Genes” article. We get it. The double meaning that hints at ‘designer’ meaning chic jeans, overpriced and unnecessary goods that flaunt class and prestige. This is a word-game that has been played before and unfairly so. We don’t look down with derision towards those who have artificial limbs or cochlear implants. There are literally hundreds of body modifying medical procedures that are ‘engineered’, and though unfortunately often expensive and out of reach for many around the world we do not see them as capricious or excessive. They’re simply the best that medical knowledge has to offer towards the improvement of health.

And that is what we should be focused on. The health of our children, our families and loved ones’ children. The future belongs to them and they will not only out last us, they will humble us in retrospect with their triumphs. They deserve the best we can give them. So rather than ‘designer genes’, ‘designer babies’, or ‘engineered genes’, I feel that we should focus on and use the language of ‘children in the best health’. This is not eugenics. This is about not smoking during pregnancy. This is not about a new genetic ‘arms race’ of some imagined dystopia. This is about valuing the lives we are choosing to bring into the world and raise in our world community. 

McKibben in this article takes issue with what is called ‘germline engineering’. This is the process whereby a fertilized embryo at about the first week would have a cell isolated and some of its genes modified, added to, or removed. The cell then replaces the egg nucleus before implantation in a uterus. This is a step beyond the increasingly common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis or embryo screening where genetic disorders and diseases can largely be screened out through genetic testing of an embryo.

So what dangers lie there? What should the public be aware of or consider in this issue? How should prospective mothers judge this increasingly fine tuned procedure? McKibben says a mother may want to hold out because she may think that it “might be dangerous, or presumptuous, or icky”. So taking those three in reverse order: I may think that colonoscopys are ‘icky’ should I decline them and talk others out of them? Is it presumptuous? This may go along the lines of the ‘playing God’ reasoning but I would counter that this process is much more sophisticated than the route any deity seems to have chosen through Darwinian evolution, which is arguably quite slow and frought with a lot of death and extinction.

McKibben says the mother may feel it is dangerous. Would she be right? If he feels so, he does say. Can we assume that he has no evidence that germline would pose unseen and drastic (or even minor) negative consequences? Yes, we can.
We can assume that there are no real objective drawbacks because McKibben only goes on to write how not only will germline engineering work, it will work consistently well and with amazing results. So he just leaves the reader with the image of an uninformed or moralizing mother who may feel “icky” to sell his argument. Pardon me, but I think that there will always be those who will reject medical procedures and those whose consciences or religious tenets require them to do so, God bless them. For the rest of us, however, we should be permitted (and I will argue aided and subsidized) to perform germline engineering.

Throughout, McKibben seems particularly afraid of the effects to engineered childrens’ IQs in relation to those other children whose genes have not been aided. He depicts a world where super intelligent engineered youth far surpass ‘normal’ youth. He pictures a genetic ‘arms race’ where students are pitted in a battle of the species writing:
the problem about arms races is that you never really get anywhere. If everyone’s adding thirty IQ points, then having an IQ of one dundred fifty won’t get you any closer to Stanford than you were at the outset.”
To me, this reasoning sounds very short sighted and quite a bit selfish and narcissistic. Does McKibben really wish us to believe that increasing the number of geniuses in our world population would not really “get [us] anywhere”? Is his biggest worry that a young person won’t get into Stanford? It seems McKibben is not concerned with the world’s problems that could be solved and the works of beauty that could be achieved by geniuses of any stripe. Can we expect that competition will increase in education and the workforce if we can promote ‘genius’ genes? Yes. Should we allow that to stand in the way of our children’s best interests? No.

The competition might be so steep, says McKibben, that parents could begin to envision their child
as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95″ and that “should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path [of germline engineering].”
Is McKibben expecting us to believe that any loving parent would see their child as ‘nearly useless’, like an outdated computer program? This would be a vile event, for each and every child deserves the full love and support of its community and deserves to be treated with dignity. I dare to wonder what McKibben would say to a parent of a child born with developmental delays. Would he assume that the parent sees their child as ‘nearly useless’ because of challenges they may face in the future?

McKibben seems to be from the old school of ‘biology determines destiny’. He writes of a child whose parents engineered their embryo,
“You cannot rebel against the production of that protein. Perhaps you can still do everything in your power to defeat the wishes of your parents, but that protein will nonetheless be pumped out relentless into your system, defining who you are…”
That is a bleak and incorrect portrayal of the way genes and our human lives work. Rather genes, no matter how engineered, occur in an embodied, diachronic, social being. Our environments and genes work together, influence each other, and feedback on each other over time.

McKibben calls germline a genie in the bottle not yet released. But, he says, it can be stopped and the unfortunate demise of humanity averted. To protect our children and our future, he rallies us to his call:
“It will have to be a political choice–that is, one we make not as parents but as citizens, not as individuals but as a whole, thinking not only about our own offspring but about everyone.”
If it is worthy in McKibben’s eyes that parents be legally shut out from giving their children the best, I have to wonder if McKibben would stand behind criminalizing drinking and smoking either while pregnant or around newborns. How much political might should we invest in mother’s nutrition and breastfeeding education? We know that everyday thousands of children are born in America who are unwanted, whose mothers have experienced domestic abuse, whose mothers live in toxic environments where lead and mercury are dumped by pollutive corporations. We know that there are many instances of preventable genetic and developmental damage is done to our next generations–and often with mothers of marginalized communities and exploited classes being affected also. Why is it that McKibben is rallying us to Luddite and irrational fears when horrors occur each day hidden in our communities behind a veil of damned silence?

When I read through McKibben’s article the first time, I was taken aback by a quote of McKibben’s perceived adversary Lee M. Silver, famous advocate for germline engineering and Princeton University professor. I read over it again because I felt it couldn’t be right–the words didn’t seem true to what Silver has said in other arenas. It didn’t feel right because Silver didn’t say it. McKibben misquotes Silver in his article to the result that McKibben’s argument appears stronger. Whether or not McKibben did this knowingly I cannot say. Either it is sloppy research or an outright fabricated smoke screen. The quote McKibben cites from Silver is this saying that an engineer sees a child as a ‘product’ and:
With reprogenetics, parents can gain complete control over their destiny, with the ability to guide and enhance the characteristics of their children, and their children’s children as well.”
What is should read is:
….”gain complete control over their genetic destiny….”
That is the way the cited quote appears in Silver’s “Reprogenetics: How Reproductive and Genetic Technologies Will be Combined to Provide New Opportunities for People to reach their Reproductive Goals”.

And that quote makes sense. Biology is not destiny. Silver knows that. The only control is over the genes. How the genes’ engineering would come to fruition in the life of a child is not even a betting person’s gamble.

What could germline accomplish? It could effectively eliminate Sickle Cell, Cystic Fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs to name a few benefits. Writes Nick Bostrom, 
genetic engineering holds great potential for alleviating unnecessary human suffering. Every day that the introduction of effective human genetic enhancement is delayed is a day of lost individual and cultural potential, an a day of torment for many unfortunate sufferers of diseases that could have been prevented. Seen in this light, proponents of a ban or a moratorium on human genetic modification must take on a heavy burden of proof in order to have the balance of reason tilt in their favor.” —Nick Bostrom, Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 4, 2003

Bill McKibben has failed that burden of proof, and even more to his and his argument’s discredit, he has misportrayed an opponent through misquoting.

I empathize with McKibben’s worry that a ‘genetic divide’ would be created between classes and further marginalizing those mothers who may not have access to germline engineering. I counter that in this case as in all, we people of good faith and conscience who are moved to work greater justice in the world would support subsidized or free treatment for any and all mothers who so cared to participate. Just as we today work to ensure that mothers of the world receive fair wages for their work, are free from sexual and labor exploitation, are given access to clean drinking water and housing for themselves and their families. 

Our children deserve the best health, the best potential, and the best gifts we can give them. Let us not entertain weak moralizing and fearful naivete but rather go forward with social justice, health, and excellence as our banners.

Ryan McGivern 

Bill McKibben’s Full Article of “Designer Genes” at Orion Magazine’s site:

McKibben’s original hard copy of the article:
Bill McKibben “Designer Genes,” Orion May-June 2003. Copyright 2003 The Orion Society.