Blog 4: The Unselfish Gene

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a parent, I’d be damned if I were given the option to genetically engineer my child to be predisposed towards altruistic behavior since – quite frankly – I wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation. An examination of the nature of altruism, the biological requisites for gene coding, as well as virtue-based ethics reveals that the very idea of an ‘altruistic gene’ is misguided indeed.

First, to what extent must the child be altruistic? Not too much, I hope. Since concerning for others’ welfare necessitates detracting from time spent guarding one’s own welfare, an excess of altruism results in a reduced chance of survival. To frame it in mathematical terms, altruism and personal welfare are inversely proportional, and there must be some fine line dividing reasonable selflessness from reckless self-sacrifice. Ironically, in order for altruism to fully blossom, personal survival must be of top priority since the caretaker needs to be alive and well before he/she can take care of others. Such a paradox abounds in careers with high risk factors; for example, as an emergency medical technician, I was trained to take care of patients only if there existed no serious threat to my own safety. Call me self-centered, but I firmly believe that the ideal altruistic attitude takes the form of equal parts selflessness and selfishness.

At this point, we’ve come to a rough understanding of the ideal extent of children’s altruism. The next problem we face stems from biology. When writing the genetic code for altruism, we must already have in mind a fine balance between genuine concern for others’ well-being and dumb self-sacrifice. Assuming we have already elucidated this balance, its very abstract nature makes it difficult to code into discrete sequences of nucleic acids. The issue at heart is analogous to that of emotions: if all emotion is based on electrochemical impulses in our brain, then what permutations of such impulses correspond to each emotional state? There are countless emotional states – as well as countless ethical dilemmas concerning altruism – to the point that it is nearly impossible to encode every possible response to such situations into a 4-letter alphabet. Even if our ideal altruistic state were not situation-based but rather rule-based, I bet it would still take researchers years to figure out how to genetically code for altruism.

Finally, what do ethics have to say about the prospect of genetically modifying children to become more altruistic? Let’s consider the vantage point of virtue-based ethics, in which we must act in strict accordance with a given ‘ideal’ regardless of the situation. In deciding whether to endow my child with the altruistic gene, I must consider two opposing ideals. On one hand, if the goal is to maximize individual liberty, then genetic manipulation would be simply out of the question as I essentially would force my child into becoming altruistic without consent. Granted, he/she can neither talk nor respond to human stimuli yet, but that’s a whole different story. On the other hand, if the goal is to maximize the amount of good deeds performed in this world (here I use the term ‘good’ in a very general sense), then genetic modification would be proper not only for my child but for everyone else’s child. Indeed, a brief analysis of virtue-based ethics stymies me: which ideal must be upheld?

Clearly I’ve opened a huge can of worms when I decided to bring biotechnology and ethics into the mix, but at this point I adamantly believe that the premise of ‘forced altruism’ via genetic modification is unfair. It’s biologically unfeasible. It’s ethically confusing. And I just don’t know what to do if I were faced with such a conundrum.

Sean Justin Lee


Why getting rid of “bad” is bad

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

B4: Ironically, altruism can be a pretty contentious term.  In fields ranging from philosophy to biology to economics, people have very different perceptions regarding the origins and motivations of selfless behavior.  Regardless, altruism is almost universally esteemed in our society; actions exhibiting an “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others,” as Merriam-Webster puts it, are seen as making the world a better place.

However, if afforded the option to give my child an “altruistic gene,” my answer would absolutely be “No.”  All practical consequences aside, my opposition to this notion is based first and foremost on moral grounds.  I realize this represents something of a paradox since morality is concerned with the principles of right and wrong, or good and bad, where altruism represents the desired right or good.  But let me explain:

Take a child endowed with the hypothetical altruistic gene.  As this child grows up, he performs only good actions.  He shares his toys, looks out for bullied peers, gives his birthday money to charity.  Yet, this whole time, he does not realize he is doing good.  In fact, he has not even the slightest concept of good (or, for that matter, bad).  He is a slave to his altruistic instincts.  He simply does.  While the selfish actions of others strike him as utterly perplexing and irrational, he likewise cannot conceive of them as bad.  The very purpose of his exceptional gene is lost upon him, because by taking away the choice between good and bad, one takes away the crux of morality, destroying it entirely.

And this is no small thing.  As it is, humans are constantly presented with choices that, whether on a large or small scale, pertain to morality, and over time, these decisions fuel personal growth and shape our outlooks on life.  Maybe we don’t share toys sometimes, or we don’t always stand up to bullies, or we prefer to treat ourselves when we receive some extra cash.  In any case, we learn.  By observation and reflection, we develop and continually refine our sense of good and bad.  Rather than simply constituting a result of our interactions, this moral code comes to shape how we interact with the world around us, allowing us to at least partially escape the biological drive to survive.

In my opinion, one aspect that defines the human experience and sets it apart from that of all other living organisms is precisely this extraordinary capacity to operate outside the jurisdiction of instinct and evolution.  To be certain, this power can be used for good or bad.  But the duality of good and bad, too, is essentially human.


Grumpy the Dwarf

September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

As I approach the ripe old age of 21, I can look back fondly on some wonderful moments in my life; however, those truly unforgettable memories are often dark ones.  Like any other average Joe, I have seen enough violence and betrayal to question the kindness of other people.  After seeing some of my closest friends go through living hell, who can blame us for wishing for a better world?  What if we could prevent all this selfishness in the future by genetically engineering our children into altruistic beings?

Altruism seems like an all too appealing concept. Merriam-Webster defines it as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”   Biologically speaking, there’s evidence for altruism in ecological communities such as bee hives, where worker bees selflessly gather nourishment for the queen bee.  But with humans, things get a bit complicated.  We’re self-motivated beings, and we often times seem to be living testaments to the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality.

One of my favorite extracurricular activities is Alternative Spring Break, a week spent with 11 strangers doing community service.  On my trip, I got to spend my time learning about Tibetan culture and assisting a community of Tibetans in St. Paul with their day of protest.  Although my group provided service and gave them open minds, there was still an innate “selfishness.”  For me, doing this kind of cultural service makes me feel really happy; I have so much fun learning about other cultures and find gratification in seeing my work come to fruition.  Even though my intentions weren’t purely altruistic, does this diminish the quality of the assistance we provided?  I don’t see it that way.

My Chinese mother always scolded me for being tai lao shi.  Too honest. Too naive.  It used to be too easy for people to walk all over people like me.


So if we could make our children purely selfless beings, we would have to impose this new genetic modification on every child.  Bring on the ethical dilemmas, please.

But let’s pretend that we could actually convince every parent to agree to this genetic makeover.  One possible repercussion from this is quite simple: grumpiness.  I’m reminded of the character Elva from the Inheritance Trilogy by Christopher Paolini.  She was accidentally coerced by magic into becoming a completely self-sacrificing person after birth.  Although she selflessly protected every person around her, she was unhappy all the time from taking on everyone else’s problems.  So would we really making the world a better place?  To me, it seems like we would just become a horde of grumpy people, quietly suffering from our “goodness.”

My final verdict? I’ll pass on having Grumpy the Dwarf as my kiddo, please.

-Angela L. B4

Controlling the Altruism Gene — Going Too Far?

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s a very intriguing concept.  An “altruism gene.”  A gene that determines how much money you will drop into the homeless man’s cup as you walk by.  Or at least how predisposed you will be to give to him.  I’m not sure if we have found an “altruism gene” or if any such gene really exists, but if we were to find it, we would be faced with one of the most difficult ethical dilemmas imaginable.  Should we genetically alter unborn children to ensure that they have this altruism gene so that they are as predisposed to altruism as possible?

On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to be a dilemma at all.  Altruism is an enormously beneficial quality that leads to better societies and better individuals and makes everyone happier.  It is one of the foundations of society itself and the more we encourage it the better.  Assuming that we have found a safe way to genetically alter a child’s DNA shortly after they are conceived, genetically predisposing them to altruism doesn’t seem to be hurting them in any way, and is only helping them as well as society as a whole.

However, upon further consideration, I think the issue is much more complicated than a cursory examination would reveal.  Curing diseases is one thing.  But genetically altering a child in order to give him a greater amount of a certain characteristic such as altruism is really a different thing altogether.  One of the problems with this kind of genetic modification is that it treats the lack of this natural altruism as a “disease.”  It is fairly easy to see why something like diabetes is a “disease,” because it causes the human body to act in a counterproductive and self-destructive way.  We have very good knowledge of the chemical and bodily imbalances that are present with diseases like diabetes and we know why they are making the body work contrary to how it is supposed to.

However, characteristics like altruism are much harder to understand, and it is a lot more difficult to explain why a lack of genetic predisposition to altruism is a “disease” that must be eradicated.  Perhaps those who grow up with less of a genetic predisposition to altruism learn to be altruistic of their own accord and for the right reasons.  Perhaps they learn to give to others not because that is what comes naturally to them but because they see that it is the right thing to do and choose to do it for that reason.  Real altruism is a difficult thing to understand, and we should not be quick to assume that we know exactly how our genes affect how altruistic we are or even to assume that altruism can be completely explained by genetics.  Automatically characterizing altruism as a “disease” is a dangerous thing to do, and has the potential to lead to many disastrous situations.

We are always quick to assume that we know exactly what our genes should be like to maximize our happiness and “perfection.”  We are quick to take control of the genes of our children, assuming that we can make them turn out better than they would naturally.  But in reality, the human person is still largely a mystery to us.  We should not seek to control and manipulate human beings, or pretend that we understand exactly what their genetic material “should” be, or we may find ourselves in one of the science fiction horror stories that we so often read.

PJ Jedlovec (pjjed) — Blog 4

Selflessness, as it applies to trees and people, among other things

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

As evidenced by my latest blog post, my favorite children’s book of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This is the heartwarming story of a boy who is best friends with a tree. The boy loves the tree, and the tree loves the boy. The tree loves the boy so much that though he has outgrown his days of playing hide-and-seek in her branches, she is still willing to give up a part of her, literally, to help him in his times of need. She ends up letting him take her apples, branches, and trunk for his personal gain. Even in the end, when she is a mere stump, she gives herself to the boy (now an old man) as a place to rest. To this day, whenever I hear a touching story about someone who has made sacrifices to help others, I am reminded of the tree and her complete selflessness. And, yes, I cry a little.

What is altruism? Is it simply taking care of a sick friend, or leaving the last cookie for someone else, or something more? Need one give up an appendage or vital organ, as the tree did, in order to be considered altruistic? Altruism, to me, is the practice of always putting others before oneself. I don’t believe that one can be pre-conditioned to be altruistic. Altruism is a mindset, a way of thinking. If genes could truly be manipulated to the point of creating habits one should naturally acquire through upbringing, then that is grand science indeed. Surely, one can be predisposed towards alcoholism, or depression, or heart disease, but altruism?

Let’s step away from this dilemma for a moment and imagine that yes, it is possible to genetically manipulate aspects of a yet-unborn human being’s personality. If I had the opportunity to make my children altruistic, would I? The answer is no. A deep, resounding no. I believe that altruism isn’t something that should be forced upon a person. And, call me a pessimist (I’m actually not, I promise!), but altruism simply isn’t natural. Species have not propagated on this planet due to selflessness. They have gone forth and multiplied because the fittest animal was the one who won over the mate and created the next generation. I have seen animals fight over mates, but never have I seen one animal bowing out of the competition because he wanted his friend to get the girl and be happy instead.

I also believe that personality traits should be learned, not bestowed. Your personality is a result of your upbringing, the surroundings into which you were born. If your personality means that you’re naturally altruistic, the props to you! So, given the opportunity, I would pass it up. I don’t want to have such a profound influence on my child before their birth. I would think higher of a parent whose child’s good personality was due to a warm and loving growing environment rather than a series of chemical reactions carried out in the sterile catacombs of a laboratory.

Do I still love The Giving Tree and its noble message? Yes. Would I want to make my child that way? No. Though I greatly admire and respect those who continually put others before themselves, that is a choice that they have made, not their parents. But sometimes, it just makes you happy to see others happy. And that’s what makes altruism worth it.

’”I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something—but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.”

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did.  And the tree was happy.

~Shel Silverstein


For the Lack of a Toy

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Of all the toys available, none is better designed than the owner himself. A large multipurpose plaything, its parts can be made to move in almost any direction. It comes completely assembled, and it makes a sound when you jump on it.”        -Stephen Baker

There could be several different outcomes if children could be genetically manipulated into having an “altruistic gene.” At the best possible outcome, the children would be slightly less disposed to consider themselves first, leading to more sharing of toys, both literally in childhood and figuratively in adulthood. These children would still be motivated for personal gain, but they would be more disposed to sharing their wealth for the betterment of the lives of others. However, there is also the possibility that the new altruistic gene would cause the child to have completely altruistic tendencies and no selfish tendencies. Often young children even learn by focusing completely on themselves, learning whether a certain thought or action has a positive or negative affect on their lives, and thus learning whether or not they should keep the thought or repeat the action. If children no longer have the ability to be selfish, it is possible they would not learn to take care of themselves, instead learning how to take care of others. If this is so, how will they have the instinct for survival?

For example, say there were two young children, Annie and Timmy. Annie was born with the altruistic gene. Timmy was not. Timmy grows up playing with his toys and Annie’s, because Annie felt the compulsion to share all her toys. Timmy is too young to understand how to share, so he takes Annie’s toys, and Annie does not learn to play with toys. As Timmy plays with all the toys, he learns different lessons from them, such as spatial manipulation and problem solving. Annie has no toys, so she cannot learn from them. Annie and Timmy grow older and go to school. Timmy finds many of the problems he is presented with understandable and is able to manipulate his perception of them until he finds a solution, just as he did with his toys. Annie, though still able to learn how to manipulate the problems, has a harder time learning how to do it because her brain is not yet conditioned. As Timmy and Annie grow older, Timmy continues to excel in school, as does Annie, though Annie must work much harder to understand everything, which frustrates her. In middle school, Annie’s altruistic gene again comes in to play when her schoolmates complain about hating their homework and how it makes them unhappy and “sick.” In order to increase the happiness of those around her, Annie feels compelled to help them with their homework. To some, Annie’s help is beneficial. Others see that Annie is easily manipulated and complain until Annie feels she must do their homework for them. Timmy, an average boy of great intelligence, also will gladly help his classmates understand their homework, but he never feels any compulsion to do their homework for them, as they will not learn that way. Time goes by, and a big test comes up. Annie and Timmy both do well, and are satisfied with their results. The people whose homework Annie did for them, however, fail. This test was very important and because they failed these people must drop out of school. Annie realizes that because these people dropped out of school so young they will have a very hard time in life, and feels responsible because she allowed them to scrape by without learning. Annie is devastated because she feels she failed at her internal drive to help people, and instead harmed them. Because there is no self in Annie’s world, other people are her entire world. While Timmy might have been able to say I’ll do better next time, Annie has no I. The purpose of her I is to offer her services to others. She cannot nurse her wounded ego, and she feels her world is falling apart. Desperate to feel better, she tries to make others happy in any way she can, and being in middle school, it is very difficult to make others who are often so self-centered happy. Annie’s happiness depends on the happiness of others. Annie is very unhappy, and therefore is not very healthy. Timmy, though perhaps saddened by the failure of his classmates, must continue to focus on his own survival and continues to learn. He is happy and healthy. As Annie continues through school, she is exposed to more and more of the hard topics of the world. She learns of the suffering of people in third world countries, of minorities, of the poor, of the sick. She feels overwhelmed by all the hurt in the world, and feels compelled to help them all. Timmy is also exposed to all of the suffering, and Timmy is moved to help as well. Timmy, however, choses to help because he has empathy. He can imagine himself in the situation and what he would and would not want, and therefore can understand what would and would not be helpful to the people he is trying to help. Annie only knows she must alleviate their suffering, and throws money at the problem, as money is the only toy Annie has to share. Timmy does research to figure out the most effective way of aiding the people, and his solution to the problem is much more effective, as he manipulated the problem until he found the best possible result, just as he did with his toys. Timmy is satisfied and happy with his action, finds pleasure in it, and continues to use his toys, his abilities, to manipulate the situation and continue finding new ways to solve the problems of those who suffer. Annie finds that her money is being wasted and that she is not really helping very many people, and is overwhelmed by how much “work” must be done. It is her world, her life, her meaning, to help these people, and she is not succeeding. She still struggles to see multiple perspectives on the issue, just as she did in school, and though she has the ability to figure it out, she becomes so unhappy and overwhelmed by her failures she can only see unhappiness all around her and does not have the strength to find a solution. Her life has lost meaning. She has no purpose in life. All for the lack of a toy.

This is only one possible (and somewhat exaggerated) outcome of giving children an altruistic gene. There is the possibility that the children would only become mildly more altruistic, rather than ultimately, as I described above. However, our genes determine who we are as an object in space and time. If our genetic code is manipulated from what “nature intended,” we are changing who we are. If we make an addition to nature, it follows that we make a large change in how the individual perceives and reacts to the world. How would we know definitively how extreme the change in perception would be? Only through human trial and error. Are we willing to have ultimately altruistic human guinea pigs?


To alter, or not to alter, that is the question

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Through advancements in modern science, the possibility of ‘designer babies’ who have had their genetic makeup artificially selected to ensure certain characteristics or genes is becoming more realistic. Specifically, genetic modification could affect a child’s susceptibility to disease, allow parents to choose a specific gender, determine personality traits, or even establish appearance and IQ. But if you had the choice to pre-determine everything from the color of your child’s eyes to the score he or she will achieve on the SAT, would you?

Gene altering is an extreme ethical dilemma. What if you could ensure that your child wouldn’t die from or contract any disease that can be determined by an individual’s genetic makeup? Selecting against these genes seems like a very attractive option, because you would help your child, hopefully, live a long life with. However, these genetic alterations have implications for the children of parents who decide not to tamper with genes. In the movie GATTACA, parents can ensure that their children won’t have certain diseases or characteristics through gene alteration, providing them with the best start possible. However, this leads to discrimination against natural birth children. If doctors, as in GATTACA, can alter genes to reduce or eliminate the risk of heart disease for an individual, that person would most likely to be hired over an individual who could possibly die from a heart disease. Also, opportunities may be closed off to natural birth children because companies wouldn’t want to take the risk of an individual dying young when they could be relatively well-assured that the genetically altered individual will live a longer life. In my opinion, if genetic altering were used to reduce the risks of contracting certain diseases, individuals who do not have their genes altered would get stuck with extremely high health care premiums and extra costs, such as the mental toll of discrimination, solely because they choose to allow nature run its course. Selectively altering genes for diseases, when not applied to the entire population, does not seem like an ethical action because it would most likely produce a divide between those who have had genetic modification and those who haven’t.

If selecting against genes for diseases is an ethical dilemma, what about providing your child with genes that make him or her more altruistic to other people? How would this affect their life? I believe that pre-determining a child’s personality traits is unethical, and that personality and characteristics should be allowed to develop naturally for an individual. Parents shouldn’t be able to ‘design’ their child like a toy – for if anything turns out different than what they tried to design or change, then they are likely to be dismissive toward the child and possibly see him or her as an ‘experiment gone wrong’ if they act against altruistic behavior. Furthermore, although children provided with altruistic genes would be disposed to help others and be caring, individuals without these genes would be likely to take advantage of the genetically altered individuals with the knowledge that they are pre-disposed to help others.

Overall, I believe that gene altering is unethical and in most situations could lead towards discrimination. However, if technology is developed that can alter the genes of an entire population to reduce the risk of certain diseases (and there wouldn’t be a divide between individuals with the genes who won’t get sick and individuals without the genes who have a higher probability of getting sick), then I think that this instance would provide the right setting for ethical gene alteration because it would make everyone better off.

-Lexi Zarecky, Blog 4

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