The Instigator
KCParker
Pro (for)
Tied
0 Points
The Contender
The_Scapegoat_bleats
Con (against)
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0 Points

Should we pursue germline engineering?

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Post Voting Period
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after 2 votes the winner is...
It's a Tie!
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/18/2014 Category: Society
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 758 times Debate No: 46194
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (1)
Votes (2)

 

KCParker

Pro

We are approaching a point where germline genetic engineering is technically feasible.
The question now becomes, should we put this technology into practice?

First, a definition: germline genetic engineering aims to modify the genome of a gamete (sperm or egg) or that of a fertilized zygote (early embryo), thereby changing the genetic constitution of a potential child.

Two types of genetic alterations should be distinguished here. The first aim to exchange a diseased parental gene with a functional copy; in effect, this amounts to preventative medicine. The second, and more provocative, aim to enhance the offspring in some respect (i.e. more likely to be intelligent, athletic etc.).
Let's call these 'preventative' and 'enhancing' modifications, respectively.

I will argue here that, in an idealized case, we would be justified in performing both types of modifications.

The assumptions of the scenario are as follows:
1. All have equal access to the technology.
2. We understand the biology sufficiently well to both accurately control the nature of the genetic modifications and predict what the effects of those changes will be.

The assumptions serve to isolate the permissibility of the act IN ITSELF, which is really what I'm interested here. Many legitimate arguments can be made in the real world regarding access to the technology or uncertainty of outcome or any other effects ancillary to the main point itself. My hope is that these assumptions limit the discussion to the inherent aspects of the technology.

My main argument will be that if we possess the means to improve the lives of our children and theirs, not just by eliminating disease but by enhancing their capacities, we are at the very least morally permitted to do so. In eliminating the unnecessary suffering associated with disease and disability we would, on average, be happier and more content as individuals and thus stronger as a society. The same applies for modifications that enhance our abilities; we would be smarter, more able, and perhaps even more rational. This would serve our interests as a society/civilization in the long run by making us less prone to divisive ideology and better equipped to deal with the challenges we face.

I myself do not see a compelling moral, sociological, or other argument against the practice as the scenario is described here (reality is a different story, altogether). However, I know a great many will object to the practice on numerous grounds, and I'd like to hear your reasoning. If you have an argument against GGE, and preferably not of the theological variety, by all means convince me!
The_Scapegoat_bleats

Con

I accept your premise and terms.
I intend to argue on a rational basis why the practice of germline genetic engineering is unreasonable. I will also not refer to movies for examples.
Since you specified no further terms on the process of our debate, I will not present my argument in this round, so that we may have the exact same amount of rounds.
My suggestion:
Round 2: Initial arguments only.
Round 3 and 4: Arguments and rebuttals. Conclusions.

I'm looking forward to this.
Debate Round No. 1
KCParker

Pro

I'll keep it brief.

If we possess the means to increase the quality of our children's lives, and if these means have a neutral or positive effect on society at large, we should put them into practice.

Using germline genetic engineering, we can increase the quality of our children's lives. The practice has no deleterious effects on society.

Thus, we should utilize germline genetic engineering.

Remember the outline of the scenario. All have equal access and we are capable of controlling and predicting the outcomes of specific genetic alterations.

I await your attack on premise 2.
The_Scapegoat_bleats

Con

Seeing as you kept it brief, so will I. It's only fair.
I have heard your premises, and there is one I definitely cannot see grounded in reality:

"The practice has no deleterious effects on society."

I say this is not only an unproven presumption, I say it is outright wrong.

The effects of modern science and medical care clearly include an increase in life expectancy and decrease in infant mortality. Optimized genes will probably also mean a higher immunity to many diseases.

Right now, Earth is populated with roughly seven billion people, and counting: http://www.worldometers.info...

According to scientist's studies, Earth can feed around 9 to 10 billion people: http://www.livescience.com...

The point where this will no longer be possible is estimated to be reached in few decades.
http://www.livescience.com...

So if we make humans even more resilient, the population explosion will only increase, as people can now have their dream child whenever they want, and know it will be healthy. People will live longer. And how do you plan to feed these improved humans then?

In fact I was going to argue that the result of your idea would be another global war, a devastating one. Fighting for food and resources will only be one part of the reasons.

I say, if we allow people to make genetic perfection their interest, and every country has access to the technology, a genetic arms race will be the result. If we can augment humans genetically, scientists and politicians worldwide will go to the extreme to create ever "better" humans, and genetic supremacy will become the doctrine of many countries. As evidence, I offer Hitler's fantasies about a "superior" race. Surely, someone will come up with the same idea again, and genetic purgings will be the result - somewhere, sometime. All it needs is one delusional political leader, and we have fascism at its worst back on the planet. And while there are certain hereditary mental disorders that could be purged from the gene pool, there are still plenty of neuroses acquired through trauma later in life. Your genetic engineering will not be able to eradicate those.

So, I claim that tampering with human genes will lead to war and overpopulation, destroying this world for good.
Debate Round No. 2
KCParker

Pro

Your first objection to the technology rests on the premise that genetic engineering will produce a population explosion - this owing to the fact that infant mortality will fall and we'll live longer, healthier lives. Surely there is some truth in this. One has only to look at the effect of vaccines and antibiotics in the last century and the resulting effect on population.

However, I'm not convinced that this is a compelling reason to abandon the technology. If we accept it, are we not also committed to re-evaluating the many medical treatments in use now that prolong life? Should we really be treating people with Cancer and Alzheimer's, which are primarily diseases of the elderly? After all, there are millions of children starving throughout the world that would be better served by the resources the 80 year-old would consume during the balance of his life. Or should we curb the use of vaccines and antibiotics in order to cancel out the negative effects of a rising population? No. This is unreasonable. The point here is that longevity and good health do not necessarily have to come at the price of global famine. These problems are external to our medicine; they are a product of sociological factors. We currently have enough food to feed the world's population and yet a large portion of people go hungry on a daily basis. These are thus problems of distribution and equity; of rich and poor. We should not (and do not) deny ourselves better health and longer lives for these reasons.
The argument is even worse in the developing world, where GE could potentially mitigate many of the diseases that have a severe toll on health and wellness - and thus on economic development. Are we really to say to them: "Although we have the ability to improve your lives in a drastic manner, and pull you out of poverty by increasing the health of your people, we will not do so. We simply cannot afford it globally." Surely this is unreasonable, if not unethical. But if you do grant the point for genetic engineering, it seems to follow that you must do the same for vaccines and antibiotics. You must allow malaria to run it's course for the greater good.

Another point on the population bit. What you see in the world is that societies with longer, healthier lives also have lower birthrates. Look at Sweden or Denmark, two of the healthiest (and happiest) places on the planet. Here, although lifespan is long and infant mortality is relatively low, you do not see explosive population growth. In fact these countries have trouble maintaining their numbers. So, although you're probably right that GE would produce an initial rise in population, it would likely balance itself out in the long run and we would not be faced with an 'explosion,' as you put it.

Another minor point here is that GE in the agricultural world can (and is) helping to alleviate food shortages. This is another discussion entirely, but it serves to emphasize that the technology is flexible and can assist in feeding the world.

Your second objection to GE rests on the assumption that the technology will be subverted by nationalistic ends, producing a global arms-race to produce ever more superior populations. You're almost certainly right. I sought to avoid these kind of objections with my assumptions, but this one seems to be fair despite the effort. Even with equal access this is bound to occur. Point granted.
The_Scapegoat_bleats

Con

I thank my opponent for the very well-rounded evaluation of my argument.
I hope I can yet still add a new perspective to this:

"If we accept it, are we not also committed to re-evaluating the many medical treatments in use now that prolong life?"

We most certainly are. But are we not also already committed to using antibiotics sparingly? And yet, doctors all over the world wrongly treat VIRAL infections with antibiotics which only work against bacteria. The result of this is an increasing number of immune germs, making antibiotics less and less effective (see e.g. http://www.cdc.gov... ). This is the case with many other technologies, too. Since we have learned of the ill effects of combustion engines, should we not be committed to switch to electrical cars, even at the discomfort of driving a little slower f a while, until the technology has improved? Yet, we don't.
A commitment doesn't mean that people will stick to it and do the right thing. Quite to the contrary, the world seems to be full of people interested in their own profit as top priority.

"Or should we curb the use of vaccines and antibiotics in order to cancel out the negative effects of a rising population? No. This is unreasonable."

True. But germline engineering the way you depict it is a different matter. Curing diseases is reasonable enough - from a humanitarian perspective, not from a utilitarian one, but I totally agree with you in that diseases should be fought.
But how does IMPROVING genes do the same thing? You propose a sort of eugenics, creating more capable humans. That's not the same as aiding the suffering people. Hence, your comparison in that part falls short of the reality.

So what about the aspect of curing unborn children of hereditary diseases? This is an unresolvable problem, as it depends on the final clarification of when human life begins.
See, we do not treat unborn animals for diseases. You do not propose germline engineering for animals. Hence, it is a technology you do reserve for humans, by your own account. We have thus to establish whether germline engineering means helping an unborn human, or just serves to fulfill the parents' wish for a child with certain characteristics. The first case would be within your parameters, the second would not, seeing as you state: "My main argument will be that if we possess the means to improve the lives of our children and theirs, not just by eliminating disease but by enhancing their capacities, we are at the very least morally permitted to do so."
So this is not about wish-granting, it's about preventative medicine, as you state.
We cannot possibly resolve this without defining the beginning of human life. You talk of "potential children", which means at the time of the germline engineering, they aren't yet "children", hence they are not human. That means we are not practicing preventative medicine on a human being. And that in turn means your premise doesn't really cover the use of germline engineering as preventative medicine, after all.
An alternative approach could be to diagnose hereditary diseases and offer the parents the choice of an abortion, then try again. Or to reserve germline engineering for couples who for genetic reasons could not even have healthy children. I would consider conceding to that restricted use of germline engineering.

However, if we develop the technology, it will be abused, resulting in the genetic arms race we both already agree would be a problem.

You claim that it's not certain that a population explosion will occur.

I agree that nobody can know the future for certain. But would it be reasonable to take the risk? Once we start germline engineering and the technology is accessible to everyone, will we not have to re-evaluate? Even you say so, see above. So you cannot possibly take existing countries as an example, because the premise isn't given yet. We have to rely on speculation and risk assessment.
And on a global scale taking any risk that could lead to world famine is not morally defensible.

You claim that germline engineering could solve the problem of food shortage.

I am sorry, but that is just not true. All organic life is composed of carbon and hydrogen. It's called biomass. If 10 billion humans exist, a lot of biomass is bound within them, composing their own bodies. It is impossible - as carbon cannot be generated - to increase the biomass on Earth. Hence, if we plant gengineered plants to feed ten billion humans, other species will become extinct. It's a natural law that cannot be circumvented. Earth is also a balanced ecosystem. If we start eradicating other species, the balance will finally topple, thus making Earth uninhabitable even for your genetically enhanced humans.

"Nutrients and other materials, on the other hand, are continually recirculated within and among ecosystems, and by and large there are no new inputs or losses from the planet. In terms of materials, then, the earth is a closed system. Both energy and materials are essential to ecosystem structure, function, and composition." from: http://www.globalchange.umich.edu...

So, unless you find a way how to create carbon out of thin air or harvest it from other planets, your germline engineering in plants will only delay the problem of food shortage, at the expense of all life on Earth, not only the existence of human life.


None of this is morally defensible.

Thank you for your consideration, I await your reply.
Debate Round No. 3
KCParker

Pro

I'll try to deal with these objections in order.

"But are we not also already committed to using antibiotics sparingly? And yet, doctors all over the world wrongly treat VIRAL infections with antibiotics..."

Sure. But the argument is that if you object to GE on the basis that it will increase the world's population, you are essentially committed to keeping population down by any means at your disposal, including cessation of antibiotic use. The reason we have to limit our antibiotic use now is that they have lost or are in the process of losing their potency via resistance. NOT because the use of antibiotics has contributed to the population explosion of the past century. This would not be justifiable, and so the argument misses the mark.

"Curing diseases is reasonable enough....But how does IMPROVING genes do the same thing? You propose a sort of eugenics..."

This is a good point. There is certainly a distinction between curing and improving, which I outlined at the beginning. However, the outline of the scenario I proposed claimed that everybody would have equal access to the technology. This doesn't constitute eugenics, in which those deemed inferior are either eliminated or denied breeding rights. This is something different. If everyone has the ability to improve the genetic constitution and thus the capacities of their children, why shouldn't they? You still haven't provided any reason to think this is inherently wrong or why we shouldn't use this ability.

"So what about the aspect of curing unborn children of hereditary diseases? This is an unresolvable problem, as it depends on the final clarification of when human life begins."

I'm not sure I see your point, here. Regardless of when life begins, replacing a defective gene in a zygote will prevent disease in the developed child. As far as I can tell this still qualifies as preventative medicine.

"...Population explosion...But would it be reasonable to take the risk?"

If we discovered the cures for Alzheimer's, Cancer, and AIDS tomorrow would it be ethical to deny the world access simply on the basis that the global population would increase? I don't think you want to cede this point. Again, the discussion of population should not enter into our discussion about medical practice.

"All organic life is composed of carbon and hydrogen. It's called biomass... It is impossible - as carbon cannot be generated - to increase the biomass on Earth."

This is mistaken. First of all, it is certainly possible to increase the absolute biomass of the planet, even apart from GE. Think of irrigation. We can create farmland where only sand existed previously. This constitutes an increase in absolute biomass. Remember, plants derive their carbon from carbon dioxide, which is certainly not in limited supply. Likewise, we can obtain P,N,K, S,Na,Fe and so on from inorganic sources ('by and large there are no new inputs or losses from the planet..."). So, although there is not an influx of material, we are unlocking it and utilizing it where it would not have been otherwise. So, we can increase biomass in this manner. But this is ancillary to the point. We don't need to discuss absolute biomass here. What we need to look at is whether we can increase the output of existing agricultural land. We can. GE has done so in a remarkable fashion. Much of the produce we now consume is more resistant to pests and has better growth profiles than that of our grandparent's generation. Agricultural output has increased because of GE technology. In this way, it certainly has a role to play in feeding the world. And this need not come at the expense of other species, as you claim. In fact, only by not utilizing GE would that be true. Here's why. We can increase food production in two ways: increase productivity or increase farmland. If we do not utilize crop GE, agricultural productivity suffers. This will come at the expense of more natural land, and thus more species. Perhaps by producing more from less, we can stop, and possibly reverse, the relentless encroachment of farmland on natural ecosystems. I digress.

You have presented several objections to germline GE. At this point, I remain unconvinced that we should avoid the technology. In the scenario outlined, the eugenics argument is invalid and the global catastrophe theory is wildly overblown. I do think that the competition scenario is valid, however, in which states compete for genetic supremacy. Maybe we should wait for a global state to emerge before this can be feasible in reality.

It seems we are in agreement regarding preventative GE, and most will accept this as acceptable practice. It seems I am in the vast majority, though, when it comes to GE used for enhancement.

Thanks for the discussion.
The_Scapegoat_bleats

Con

I thank my opponent for this little battle of the wits.

Let's see what he has saved up for last:

"if you object to GE on the basis that it will increase the world's population, you are essentially committed to keeping population down by any means at your disposal, including cessation of antibiotic use. ... This would not be justifiable, and so the argument misses the mark."

No, it doesn't. If we are COMMITTED to something -for whatever reason - we are obligated to follow that commitment. And yet people don't, with ill side effects and REGARDLESS of these ill side-effects.
You argumentation does not hold.
Germline engineering would actively increase world population and is - as you conceded - morally ambiguous AT LEAST in the respect that it would lead to war. You cannot equate this to "keeping population down by any means at our disposal", to prevent it from its current growth. Introducing a technology that will most probably lead to an increase in population is actively endangering the future of the human population and our planet as a whole, as shown above. We are, by the Declaration Of Human Rights, committed to keeping all humans well ( http://www.un.org... ). Bound by this declaration, we may not keep medicine away from suffering people. But introducing a technology that will inevitably lead to world famine and war would be the exact opposite. You are thus equalling opposites. That is a logical contradiction, making your argument void.

"This doesn't constitute eugenics, in which those deemed inferior are either eliminated or denied breeding rights."
You again contradict yourself.
"Your second objection to GE rests on the assumption that the technology will be subverted by nationalistic ends, producing a global arms-race to produce ever more superior populations. You're almost certainly right. I sought to avoid these kind of objections with my assumptions, but this one seems to be fair despite the effort. Even with equal access this is bound to occur. Point granted."
Producing superior populations means eliminating inferior ones. So you already conceded that eugenics will be the result on a global scale. Sorry to have to point this out.

"First of all, it is certainly possible to increase the absolute biomass of the planet, even apart from GE."
It is evident that you have no proof of this presumption. You cannot provide any scientifically sound source to back your claim, while I presented one. It is thus evident that you are not able to defend this point of view.

While I accept that there is an amount of unaccessed carbon, this can only be harvested by forestation, binding it inside plants. But with an increase in world population and a higher demand in food, less area will be there to plant the trees necessary without destroying the natural habitat of other life forms, thus eradicating them. Building new land will not help this, as it takes up place in the oceans which are right now via algae one of the largest source of oxygen and a large factor in binding carbon out of the air. It's impossible to increase the absolute biomass. Science does not bend to your fiction.
Especially since you outlined the borders of your germline engineering as a technology applied to humans. You did not specify germline engineering for other life forms in your premise, you can't just ad-lib "magical" new properties to the technology discussed ad-hoc as you go along.

I am a little bit insulted by the fact that you claim we agree on preventative germline engineering, as I clearly stated that I potentially object it and the matter cannot be resolved, as it doesn't necessarily involve "humans". By the law of many countries, human life begins months after conception, making it logically difficult to decide whether your technology may be applied to a fetus. If you go by the reasoning that it would later be beneficial for some individual, you would also have to apply this technology to any other species. You would have to make every plant the carrier of a panacea drug, so that potential humans will never be sick again. This is an infinite regression. Unless you constrict your technology to humans, you would have to play god, checking every living being whether it will be harmful to any potential human. You seem to believe that any potential human has the same right as a real human being. If that were the case, we wouldn't be allowed to use your technology in the first place, because treatment is administered without consent. The case you are opening and carelessly discarding here is unfathomable in its moral implications, which is exactly what you wished to discuss here.

That aside, however: Enhancement is not morally defensible, as it would lead to an arms race and possible war.

You talk about "overblown" theories on my part, while your premise is as far-fetched as science-fiction's, politics', sociology's and medicine's farthest dreams reach: a world in which humans have decoded the genome to an extent of total control - which is highly unlikely ever achievable since the blueprint of our brain in encoded inside a tiny fraction of the DNA, which means the complexity of our brain could never surpass the complexity of the DNA, making it a concept genetically too complex for us to ever fathom.
This is a highly speculative matter to begin with.
I stick to experiences we've made with technology before. We have seen a population explosion due to better medical conditions, we're facing the consequences in form of world famine right before us, and we've seen every technology abused for selfish or nationalistic ends. We've seen technology abused for war, too.
So where are my concerns "overblown" based on your premise of a potentially highly destructive technology in the hands of EVERY NATION - no EVERYONE - without any indication of a control instance, any authority to keep abuse in check and with you agreeing that the technology WILL be abused to nationalistic ends?

No, my dearest opponent. My concerns are very realistic in a scenario like the one you propose.
And knowing that alone makes the thought of germline engineering to the extent you desire an immoral enterprise, as you're playing with the fate of the world just out of the human need for genetic superiority.
Morality entails keeping in mind the greater good. There is no greater good in this technology.

It is of no concern anyway. You have already conceded that an arms race and war are very realistic outcomes of your scenario. You cannot condone a technology that will lead to war and call this decision morally defensible. So you have already conceded one instance in which your scenario leads to an intolerable result, and that by the laws of deduction is sufficient enough to render your argument invalid by your own moral standards.

Seeing as you also failed to present any evidence for your idealistic dreams, going even so far as casually dropping the "united world" thought as if it was an inevitable course of future history without any corroboration, I see my point as proved.

This discussion was tremendous fun, and I hope to have others like this one. You were a fair and formidable opponent.
Thank you for this.
Debate Round No. 4
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by bluesteel 3 years ago
bluesteel
Con argument: see GATTACCA
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by iamanatheistandthisiswhy 3 years ago
iamanatheistandthisiswhy
KCParkerThe_Scapegoat_bleatsTied
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Reasons for voting decision: I am not convinced by either arguments as I think both debaters conceded multiple points in the debate. I was leaning towards Pro, as Cons argument relies on betterment of humanity which GE will give. However Pro conceded multiple points which made me call arguments a draw. S&G was great and conduct is tied. Regarding sources, I have given this as a tie as well.
Vote Placed by Actionsspeak 3 years ago
Actionsspeak
KCParkerThe_Scapegoat_bleatsTied
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Reasons for voting decision: I hope this is a tie it truly deserves to be, great debate.