Zen and the Art of Genetic Manipulation

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

All parents want the best for their children. They want them to be safe, happy, and healthy. What if you were able to ensure all of these things for your child through genetic manipulation? The scary part about altering one’s genes, as explored in Gattaca, is not in the prevention of future disease and illness. Because of racially motivated political movements, eugenics has been historically tied to cruel notions about the superiority of certain ethnic groups. This fear of the misappropriation of genetic alteration is reflected often in science fiction, in films like Gattaca and short stories such as Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain.

As a parent, contemplating the birth of your child, a malleable, fragile being that you are responsible for shaping, would you elect to give your child the gene for altruism? Often people seem inherently selfish – we make decisions based on sudden self-involved impulse, without considering the larger ramifications of our actions on others. It is easy for us, the few who were lucky enough to be born into a relatively affluent and secure society, to neglect and ignore the needs of the larger community. What if you had the ability to give your child the gift of giving?

When a rabbi wrote to Albert Einstein, asking for advice on what to tell his daughter about God after the death of her sister, Einstein wrote the following in response:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

American society is based on the foundation of selfishness. Capitalism is a competition – it functions on the basis of individuals fighting to advance their own personal desires. Communism in its purest form is unselfish and altruistic; it is the imposition of human selfishness and greed that corrupts the system and leads to its failure. If it were possible to free ourselves from the fetters of self-obsession, maybe we could elevate ourselves as the human species and work together to eliminate social injustices.

However, if it was me faced with the decision of altering my own baby’s basic makeup and forcing this altruism into them, I would probably balk. On an evading-the-point-of-the-question level, the gene would probably just expose them to abuse by other children who had no such physiological compunctions to avoid selfishness. On another level, Einstein concludes his statements by writing that nobody is perfectly able to eliminate self-interest, but that it is “the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” I think that this kind of genetic manipulation is too much like playing God – attempting to alter basic human nature. Maybe some things have to be left to chance. Maybe we need to trust in the basic good intentions of people, and aim for improvement.


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§ 2 Responses to Zen and the Art of Genetic Manipulation

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