Stop forgetting about somatic genetic modifications!

Monday, 9 June, 2008

I swear, some people must just have a hard time getting their head around germline and somatic genetic engineering at the same time. It is often common to hear, in a discussion about inheritable genetic modifications, that such changes would be ‘permanent changes’ to the human germline. I’ll just give a few examples of some I have seen recently:

“More importantly, as scientists themselves have recognised, genetic engineering of human babies is too dangerous to contemplate because such changes, whether in embryos, sperm or eggs, would be irreversible in a recipient and inherited by all the baby’s descendants.” – New Scientist

“But to blindly compare transhumanist-style enhancements—especially those that produce irreversible changes to the human genome that will be passed from generation to generation—to routine activities and medicines is as misguided as saying that steroids are simply a more efficient alternative to weight lifting.” – Center for Genetics and Society

“It [Genetically engineered immortality] would represent, finally, the ultimate and irrevocable divorce between ourselves and everything else” – Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003)

It’s utter nonsense. If you grow up to learn that your parents genetically engineered you to be a tall basketball player, and you don’t like that, you can just get those genes removed, or take drugs to counter it until you are fully grown (or even some to reverse it, if you only learn this later in life). If you have been genetically engineered to not age, and you end up actually wanting to die (or vice versa), you can just add the genes for ageing (or not ageing) later in life.

Because really, somatic genetic engineering is just changing the genes you were born with to be something different in all your somatic (body) cells. It doesn’t matter whether those genes you were born with were inherited from your parents or inserted as part of germline genetic engineering, if you want to change them you should be able.

And, if you do like what you have been germline engineered to be or do (even if that liking is itself a product of your genes), then what exactly would be the problem with staying that way for as long as you live?


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