BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio
follow-up
:


Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon

Life and Death in the 21st Century:
Designer Babies

BBC2 8:00pm Thursday 6th January 2000

Designer Babies? NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): In the 21st-century genetics will dominate our food, our health, our environment. Now scientists are beginning to talk about the final taboo: hand picking the genes of our children. Ordering up designer children has long been the subject of science-fiction, but can it, and should it, ever become reality?

PROF. GREG STOCK (UCLA School of Medicine): In the future we are going to be entirely transformed. Humans are now becoming objects of conscious design.

DR. TOM MURRAY (The Hastings Center of Bioethics): The power to genetically manipulate our offspring will challenge us in ways that I’m not sure many technologies in the history of humankind have challenged us.

DR. DEAN HAMER (National Cancer Institute): How much is it going to cost to make a designed baby? Do you want retail or wholesale? I don’t know, $20,000 or 30,000, something like that, so this is not cheap.

PROF. LEE SILVER (Geneticist, Princeton University): Designer babies actually cause a future that is much more horrible than anything that Huxley could have imagined in his book Brave New World because it’s going to increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

NARRATOR: This sperm is unique. Of the thousands that reach a woman’s womb no two are exactly alike. Each one carries a set of chromosomes with the unique combination of the father’s genes. Any one of these sperm could end up fertilising the woman’s egg, fusing with her chromosomes. It’s nature’s random way of making babies, but now some scientists are talking about removing the element of chance and improving on nature. They’re talking about creating the perfect baby by choosing exactly which genes to put into human embryos. Some people even believe that we may be heading towards a future of genetically created super-humans.

LEE SILVER: I would say that within 50 years it will be easy to add 100 genes into an embryo at a time. If you go over 10 generations with 100 genes you’re talking about 1,000 genes that have been added in to the human species over a period of 200-300 years, it’s 1,000 genes.

NARRATOR: If we were able to change thousands of genes in an embryo it would have a profound effect on the human species. Babies born with all the new genes would be a race apart from ordinary humans.

LEE SILVER: Now if you look at the difference between us and chimpanzees, most scientists think that we don’t differ in more than 5,000 genes and so we’re talking about taking human beings a step above, sort of equivalent to the difference between chimpanzees and humans and one can’t even begin to imagine what that would be.

NARRATOR: Creating a world of super-humans may seem impossible, but the first tentative steps have already been taken. At this fertility clinic in America babies are now being created with design in mind. The first foray into the world of designer babies has started with the most basic choice parents can make. For $2,500 they can choose the sex of their child.

WOMAN: Hi, welcome to Microsort. Can you please sign in and go ahead and add your cycle day.

NARRATOR: The idea is simple. Of all the chromosomes a sperm carries only one determines the sex of a baby. If the sperm is carrying an X chromosome the embryo becomes female; if it’s a Y the embryo is male. This machine can detect tiny differences in size between the two different types of sperm and separates them out. No single piece of machinery has ever given parents so much power to choose the kind of child they’d have, but some people worry that this freedom of choice will go far beyond sex selection.

TOM MURRAY: It gives parents potentially the power to choose a crucial aspect of their child. I think we need to ask ourselves whether that kind of choice and control is, in fact, a good thing for parents and children, or whether it is maybe a step along a path where we don’t wish to go any further.

GREG STOCK: It is an important step towards designer children because it’s making clear to everyone that this realm that did not have the possibility for human intervention and human control is now becoming subject to it and it means that we’re going to have a lot of very difficult choices to make.

NARRATOR: But soon this extraordinary ability to select the sex of babies will pale into insignificance. We are racing towards an era when new technologies may offer parents even more control over the kind of child they have, not just genetically perfect health, but more. Beauty and brains might one day be on every couples shopping list. But how exactly would parents go about getting the child of their dreams and when, if ever, will it be possible? This white molecule is the key to it all. It’s the very stuff of life: DNA. Our genes are made of DNA. To design our children we’ll have to understand and take control of their genes, manipulate them at will, and scientists are gradually becoming masters of nature. They’ve already tried mixing together the genes of different animals and they’ve come up with some truly bizarre combinations. The gene that makes jellyfish glow was put into some mouse embryos. When the mice were born they, too, glowed in the dark. If we are ever to have the same extraordinary power of creation over humans, the complex world of our genes must be teased apart.

PROF. LEROY HOOD (Geneticist, University of Washington): 50 years ago we had no idea what the material of heredity was. In 1953 with the discovery of DNA a whole new horizon opened for biology and in that time the advances have been absolutely incredible.

NARRATOR: The structure of DNA is beautifully simple. Strands of DNA, called chromosomes, are actually long chains of molecules. There are just 4 different types of these molecules, known by their letters - T, A, G and C. A gene is made up of thousands of these molecules linked together in a particular order and humans have tens of thousands of genes. The full set is called the human genome. Right now scientists are chemically breaking down the entire human genome to identify every one of those genes. It’s the biggest biology project known in history and it’s called the Human Genome Project. No-one knows exactly how many genes we have, but it’s thought they’re made up of 3 billion letters. Fuelled by the power of robots and computers, the sequence of all those letters will be known in just 4 more years. When the project is finished it will tell us exactly what genes it takes to make a human being.

LEROY HOOD: The Human Genome Project has led an absolute revolution in biology. We, for the first time, stand on the threshold of really beginning to explore what it really means to be human.

NARRATOR: But identifying every gene in the human genome won’t tell us what those genes do. Working that out is an immensely difficult task, but it’s a crucial step towards designing babies. It’s so difficult to understand how our genes work that changing even basic things in our children, like their eye colour or hair colour, will be an enormous challenge.

LEE SILVER: We actually know very little about the genes for looks because the way that we look is actually very, very complicated. There are probably hundreds of genes that are involved in the shape of our face and the size of our nose. There isn’t a single gene that even controls eye colour or a single gene that controls hair colour. It’s a whole complex of genes that control each of these aspects, as well as every other aspect of the way we look and we have very, very little understanding of how genes control these kinds of attributes in human beings today.

LEROY HOOD: As we get more and more powerful tools it’s going to become easier and easier to do the genetic mapping and as these tools get more automated, more geneticists will be able to use them, so quite naturally geneticists will be interested in traits that relate to normal physiology. Hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, taller, short and even interesting traits such as longevity so I see the push toward the analysis of these traits as being absolutely inevitable as the tools of science march on.

NARRATOR: So designing our babies; looks is not possible yet and it could be decades before we know which genes are responsible, but the gene detectives have made other breakthroughs. Some of the most startling and most disputed claims are for genes that affect our behaviour.

DEAN HAMER: If you grind up all the different parts of the human body and ask how many different genes are there, the winner by a long shot is the brain so there must be a lot of genetic importance to the way our brains work and of course our brains control our behaviour.

NARRATOR: If genes that affect behaviour can be identified, parents of the future would have a whole new range of choices before them, and Dean Hamer has found a gene that parents might be very interested in a gene that affects a person’s mood.

DEAN HAMER: We found the gene was like a natural Prozac. Some people are born with a long version that’s as if they were taking Prozac their whole life long. Other people are born with the short version that’s like they have never had the Prozac and so that raised the question what effect would this have on the personality, would the gene really act like Prozac, would it make some people less depressed and less anxious, or would it have no effect at all?

NARRATOR: Hamer analysed the personalities of hundreds of different people and checked which form of the gene they had long or short. He found one type of personality was dramatically affected by the length of the gene: the neurotic type.

DEAN HAMER: People with a lot of neuroticism are as if they had gotten up on the wrong side of bed every single day and there we found a big connection with the gene. People with the long form were low in neuroticism, they were feeling good about themselves, optimistic about their future. People with the short form of the gene were just the opposite. On average, they were more depressed, they were more worried about things, they were more pessimistic. This was really exciting because even though we might have expected this result, it was one of the first clear demonstrations that one single gene could make a big difference in a person’s personality.

NARRATOR: It’s quite a claim, a gene that contributes to happiness, but there’s still a long way to go before we can produce a child that is genetically programmed to be happy.

DEAN HAMER: We’re very confident this gene is involved, we’re equally confident that it’s not the only one. There are probably at least 10 other genes, there could be 100 or 1,000 different genes, so like all complex human traits, whether it’s happiness or body weight or the shape of your nose, many many different genes are involved.

NARRATOR: It took Dean Hamer several years to research just this one gene. At this rate parents would have to wait centuries before they could pick and choose the perfect genes for their children. However, there’s a techno-logical revolution on the horizon and it could change everything. This machine is carefully painting tiny fragments of thousands of genes onto glass slides called DNA chips. Within decades, these chips could be made with every gene found in humans. One day master chips like this might pinpoint genes involved in any human trait. Want to know which genes might contribute to intelligence? Take a sample of DNA from a genius and drop it onto the master chip. Genes from the genius will only match certain genes on the chip. Those matches are detected with a laser. Take another chip and drop on DNA from an ordinary person and their genes will match different genes on the chip. The two chips can be superimposed and any genes unique to the genius would show up in red and a potential candidates in the hunt for the genes for intelligence.

LEROY HOOD: It’s difficult for the lay person to realise what a revolution the DNA chip is going to constitute. For example to discover the cystic fibrosis gene there were probably 40 groups that worked over a period of 8-10 years and perhaps this cost $100 or 200 million. It’s conceivable that we could put together a DNA chip of all human genes and discover the same defective gene for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars and do it in an incredibly short period of time.

NARRATOR: Even with the chips, the way our genes work is so fantastically complicated that we may never fully understand them, but slowly the trickle of knowledge is turning into a flood. Bit by bit, the human genome is giving up its secrets. If we can find out what our genes do then we could put that information to work to create the perfect child.

LEE SILVER: A man and a woman that want to have a child will walk into a fertility clinic and the doctors will take 100-200 eggs out of the woman. They’ll be fertilised with the man’s sperm and then they’ll do a genetic profile on all 200 embryos and choose the embryo that has the combination of genes from the two parents that the parents want to see in their child. That’s where they’ll start.

NARRATOR: If the idea of selecting perfect embryos seems improbable, it shouldn’t. It’s already being done, but not to create some kind of beautiful or intelligent super-human. It’s only done now for medical reasons, to produce genetically healthy embryos. Doctors are trying to prevent children from dying appalling deaths. Thousands of children are born each year with devastating genetic diseases that will eventually kill them. Maigon Abshire was one such child. When she was just a few months old a doctor told her parents that she had a genetic disease called Taysachs.

RENEE ABSHIRE: And I just kind of looked at him and that absolutely meant nothing to me and he said that you know that she’ll look like that she was in the end stages and I, I said to him, I said well what kind of medicine will you give her and she’s going to get better, right, and he said oh no, I think you’ve misunderstood and I said what do you mean, and he said this is a fatal genetic disease.

DAVID ABSHIRE: It’s hard to accept you know someone telling you that your beautiful child that you held in the hospital and you gave her her first bottle and changed her first diaper, that now that beautiful gift that you had’s now going to die, you know because at that point all we knew from what they had told us she didn’t have very long to live because the first physician who gave her the diagnosis said something like 6 months. Of course she lived to be 3½.

RENEE ABSHIRE: It’s the central nervous system disease which means that all of the effects will begin from the central nervous system and she completely lost all motor skills, she could eventually she could not even, you know, move an arm she barely could move her little head and she could not speak. You don’t think when you have a child that your dream is going to be: God, just let her breathe one more breath, you know. It became our desire just to see her, just to be able to open her eyes and look at us at that day, you know.

DAVID ABSHIRE: After our daughter had died we had made a decision that because we couldn’t have any more children without the chance of having another child affected by Taysachs, that we wouldn’t have any more children. That we would just go on with our life, but children wouldn’t be a part of our life because we just couldn’t take the chance. It’s too great.

NARRATOR: About a year after Maigon died, the Abshires received a phone-call from a clinic in Virginia. Doctors there wanted to try out a brand new technique to give them a child free of Taysachs.

DR. WILLIAM GIBBONS (Jones Institute): In the mid-1980s there were more and more medical illnesses serious deadly illnesses that were being recognised as genetic and more importantly, the precise genetic abnormality was being recognised so that we could ask specific questions to diagnose it. Also in vitro fertilisation techniques that were evolving to the point that we’re more comfortable with our abilities to handle early embryos. So I began talking to my genetic colleagues about the possibility that we could put these two techniques together.

NARRATOR: The technique that was developed in both Britain and America is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Some of Renee Abshire’s eggs were fertilised with her husband’s sperm in the lab. They were allowed to divide until each embryo was just a small cluster of cells. Then acid was used to etch a hole through the membrane, and one cell sucked out. Even with a cell removed, this embryo could go on to develop into a normal baby, but before it was allowed to do so, the DNA of the cell removed from each embryo was tested for the Taysachs gene. The first 3 embryos tested were healthy, so they were implanted into Renee, but the fourth embryo had the disease, and it was discarded. In the end just one of the 3 healthy embryos developed into a baby. Brittany Abshire was the first child in the United States to be born through PGD.

DAVID ABSHIRE: She was beautiful. I mean the moment was beautiful.

DEAN HAMER: The birth of Brittany Abshire was the culmination of the dreams of nearly a decade of work. To hold Brittany in my arms was a lifelong dream.

NARRATOR: Since Brittany was born 5 years ago, hundreds of babies around the world have been conceived through PGD free from a variety of terrible genetic diseases. Most scientists agree that medicine is the only legitimate use of this technique, but as we learn more about our genes there’s a chance that some parents will go beyond choosing embryos for health and select them for more trivial reasons.

LEE SILVER: I have no doubt that in the future people are going to want to use this technology for uses that go beyond medicine, for uses that are cosmetic, for things like eye colour and height and other things that are on the border of medicine like longevity. I have no question in my mind this technology is going to be used to provide people with these kinds of, of genetic choices in their children.

TOM MURRAY: I’m not sure exactly where the line is drawn, but clearly on one side are terrible diseases like Taysachs which are, you know, lethal. On the other side would be hair colour, eye colour. Does it really matter whether your child will have curly red hair versus straight black or blond hair?

DEAN HAMER: PGD is energy intensive, it’s work intensive, it’s emotionally intensive process. We use this technique to try to help parents have healthy children. It’s not about designer babies, it’s not science-fiction. It should not be used to prevent conditions that are not considered illnesses.

NARRATOR: And yet it may be. Tampering with embryos is always a sensitive issue. In Britain there are strict rules about how PGD can be used. In America it’s left to the ethics of the doctor concerned. In theory, any gene could be targeted. As the information about our genes racks up embryo selection could be used to present short children, deaf children, even dyslexic children being born. Who has the right to decide that these lives are not worth living. It’s deeply controversial whether parents should ever be allowed to select embryos just because they’re genetically different. Even if some parents and their doctors were willing to use PGD to make designer children, the technique is limited in a crucial way. PGD can only select an embryo with genes inherited from the parents.

LEE SILVER: None of these embryos have genes the parents themselves don’t have and so if the parents want their children to be very tall or to have a particular talent that’s not present in their heritage then they’re not going to be able to get it just by choosing among their embryos, but they will be able to get it by adding genes into the embryos.

NARRATOR: One day parents may be able to pick any gene they desire from a range of bottled genes and have it put into their embryos. It’s strictly against the law to do this in humans and yet scientists have been quietly perfecting the art of adding genes into embryos for years - in animals.

LEE SILVER: The very first gene that was added to an embryo was the gene coding for growth hormone. It’s a gene that causes an animal to grow larger and a growth hormone gene from a rat was placed into a mouse embryo and when the mouse was born and it grew up it grew to twice the size of a normal mouse. This had a horrifying, incredible effect on society at large and this was the first instance of genetic engineering actually occurring in an animal.

NARRATOR: This is how they made the super-mice. Thousands of growth hormone genes from rats were injected directly into fertilised mouse eggs. As the eggs divided this new gene was copied into every single cell of the developing pup, including its egg or sperm cells, the so-called germ cells. The offspring of these mice would also be giants, their genetic blueprint changed forever but scientists knew genes could never be put into human embryos this way. The risks are far too great.

LEE SILVER: The process is very inefficient and so perhaps one out of 100 mice will be born with the appropriate genetically genetic engineering occurring and so I can breed 100 mice, take the one mouse out of 100 that has the correct gene change and get rid of the other 99 mice. You can’t do that with human babies and so as long as the efficiency was so poor it wasn’t conceivable to do this with humans.

NARRATOR: Babies can’t just be discarded if scientists make a mistake. A breakthrough would be needed if genetic engineering could ever be used in humans. In February 1997 that breakthrough happened. When the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced to the world that they had cloned an animal the reaction was frenzied. So far cloning humans is absolutely taboo and no scientist has yet dared break rank to clone a child. The incentive is there. Some people are willing to pay vast sums of money for the ultimate in designer children: a clone of themselves, but cloning can do more than produce genetic photocopies. It could be used to add genes into human embryos, genes for height, genes to prevent obesity, genes for greater memory and it can add them with near certainty that the baby eventually born will be genetically engineered. We know this can be done because the scientists who brought us Dolly the clone have done it to create Polly, the designer sheep.

DR. KEITH CAMPBELL (Roslin Institute 1991-1997): Polly’s very important because she’s the first demonstration that we can actually add genes to animals using the new technology and she contains a human gene which clones for a blood-clotting factor, Factor 9, which she produces in quite large amounts in her milk.

NARRATOR: To make Polly the Scottish team took millions of ordinary cells from a sheep and tried to add the human gene. Only 1 in 10,000 cells takes up the gene in the right way, but the cloning technique can take that single cell and turn it into a lamb, and this is how they did it. The DNA was sucked out of another sheep’s egg. The genetically engineered cell was injected into this emptied egg giving it a whole new set of DNA. This is where the magic comes into cloning. Normally an egg would stay an egg until it’s fertilised with the sperm. Only then does it turn into an embryo, but in this case the engineered egg was briefly zapped with electricity. Something about this process brought the egg to life. No sperm were needed. Five months later Polly was born along with 3 identical sisters. More than clones, they each had a new gene in every cell of their body, including their eggs The new gene would automatically be passed on to their offspring. In bringing alive this technique in animals the team in Scotland may have hit on the way to make designer humans.

KEITH CAMPBELL: The potential way of doing genetic manipulation of, of humans is, is the same as in animals and I personally am opposed to it. The technology’s still in its infancy. There are large parts of it we do not understand and we do have some abnormalities during development. We lost a lot of lambs during gestation. I feel that with all these abnormalities it would not even be ethically right to consider trying this in humans.

NARRATOR: But the sheer speed at which the technology had advanced in just 2 years is phenomenal. Scientists around the world are now practising cloning and they’re getting better at it. As their ability to tinker with the genes of animals improves, the era of designer babies gets closer. But adding one gene here and there will never be enough to make the dream child. To create the looks, brains and health parents may want it’ll mean juggling huge clusters of genes. Until recently that seemed impossible. This is how nature does it - chromosomes. Each chromosome carries thousands of genes and scientists have just learned how to mimic nature. They put the basic building blocks of DNA needed to make chromosomes into some cells. The cells then stitch the DNA together forming the very first artificial human chromosome. Compared to normal chromosomes, seen here in blue, the artificial chromosome was tiny. A speck of pink amongst the blue giants. So far it’s only been designed to carry a single gene, but in principle, an artificial chromosome carrying any number of genes could be built.

LEE SILVER: With the creation of an artificial chromosome in the laboratory we can create an brand new chromosome which has hundreds of new genes and we can take that entire chromosome, put it back into the embryo whole and it gives us much, much greater capacity to modify the genome.

NARRATOR: One day it might even be possible to buy artificial chromosomes off the shelf. A chromosome with all the genes for perfect physique, another one designed for long life. Some even think a chromosome for added intelligence could be possible. But before we put an artificial chromosome like that into children, it would have to be tested in animals, perhaps on chimpanzees.

LEE SILVER: Because chimpanzees share 99% of their DNA with human beings they’re essentially identical to us, we can test the safety of the human artificial chromosome by placing it into a chimpanzee embryo, many chimpanzee embryos and making sure that the chimpanzee babies that are born don’t have any birth defects. If we’re trying to increase the intelligence with this artificial chromosome we actually might end up with a chimpanzee that has human, or greater than human, intelligence.

NARRATOR: As a by-product to designing babies we could end up facing a truly terrifying situation: chimps with human traits. Genetic freaks could happen. They have happened. Our technological ability has raced far ahead of our real under-standing. Although we can now endlessly tinker with the genes of animals we know frighteningly little about what may result. Occasionally disturbing mistakes have been made. At one research centre in America pigs were the object of desire, bigger, leaner pigs for the livestock industry so the researchers added a new gene to the pig’s DNA. It was a human gene that tells the body to produce growth hormone, but the experiment backfired. The gene ran out of control, pumping growth hormone into the pig’s bloodstream. The hormone crippled them. It made their hearts, livers and glands swell up, it gave them stomach ulcers and pneumonia, it left them infertile. An accident of this kind in humans would be disastrous. For some critics the lesson to be learned from this experiment is clear.

PROF. PHIL BEREANO (Council for Responsible Genetics): We should read some more Greek tragedy, that’s what we should learn. We should read that humans can’t always predict what the future’s going to be and that our arrogance and our pride very often leads to disasters.

NARRATOR: To avoid disastrous mistakes being made in our children we must be able to predict every possible outcome, but this may be impossible. Geneticists are constantly taken by surprise, even when they experiment with animals they know better than any other.

DEAN HAMER: There’s another example of where genes go awry or do different things than we expect also from animal research, where scientists changed the gene that controls muscle development and the resulting mice grew up very big and muscular. They had almost two times the muscle mass of a normal mouse, they were sort of the Arnold Schwartzenegger of mice but for some reason completely unexpected this genetic change also altered the personality of the mice and made them very meek, passive, sort of laid back. They wouldn’t even defend themselves, so you might think hey, I’m going to make my son into a real, you know, Schwartzenegger, a real muscle man, and end up with somebody who couldn’t even defend themselves. That’s because one gene can do a lot of different things and we might think that we know everything about a gene but if we are missing even one little aspect of what it does we could, we could really mess up some people. This would not be a good idea.

NARRATOR: If genes were changed in human embryos the mistakes could be horrifying. Nightmare scenarios like this have provoked strict regulations absolutely forbidding this kind of designer baby. Two years ago those regulations were challenged for the very first time. This man at the forefront of medical genetics may inadvertently take the first step towards changing the genes of the human species. Dr. French Anderson has been trying to cure fatal genetic diseases of the blood for decades. So far a cure has been elusive, but he’s just proposed a radical new technique. He wants to enter the fragile world of the womb and inject healthy genes directly into a 15-week-old foetus. The genes should make their way into factory cells which would then produce healthy blood, but this revolutionary new treatment may have dramatic consequences. There is no sure fire way of knowing which cells the genes will end up in once they’re injected into the foetus. They could go somewhere where society has so far prevented scientists from putting genes in humans. They could make their way into the egg or sperm cells developing in this tiny foetus. If the baby went on to have children of its own, they would automatically be born with the new gene in them. They would be the start of a never-ending line of designer babies.

DR. FRENCH ANDERSON (USC School of Medicine): If we go into the foetus we might inadvertently transfer some genes into germ cells, the egg and sperm, the so-called germ line. This is something that really does affect society as a whole and so we brought this to the government regulatory committees basically 3 years before we anticipate being ready to actually do a clinical protocol and, as expected, there was considerable interest in this topic, as we did not expect there was a considerable amount of hysteria about this topic.

LEE SILVER: The problem is that once we tinker with the genes in the sperm and the egg we give somebody the ability to be able to pass on these new genetic elements that have never been present in human beings before and they get passed on to the generation, next generation. They can get passed on to generation after generation for untold number of generations and so in a sense it gives us the ability to completely change the human species.

NARRATOR: Allowing French Anderson to put genes into foetuses would mean the concept of accidental genetic changes in eggs and sperm will have been accepted. The fear is that if that happens it would seem almost unreasonable to prevent technologies that create designer animals being turned on humans.

FRENCH ANDERSON: Many people seem to feel that our honest statement that there might be a very low level of inadvertent germ line gene transfer might really be hiding that we’re trying to get into the germ line, we’re trying to redesign babies.

PHIL BEREANO: It’s immaterial whether he intends it or not. Society has to deal with the reality of the consequences and whether this one person intended those consequences or not is immaterial to either the ethical issue or, or the social reality of what’s going to be produced from them.

NARRATOR: The reason why this causes such heated debate is that this is a turning point. This is the moment where we might really start to alter the human species, but it’s not a new idea. In the past it was called eugenics. Eugenics had its heyday early this century. The aim was to improve the human species by controlling who had children. Competitions were held to encourage some people to have large families. Laws were introduced to have thousands of others forcibly sterilised. The idea culminated in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

TOM MURRAY: The concept of designer babies is, in the broad sense of the term, a eugenic idea. It certainly creates the possibility for uses that we would regard as downright irresponsible, or morally questionable.

FRENCH ANDERSON: The reason that we are all concerned about putting genes into eggs or sperm is because of the potential for attempts to redesign human beings, to have designer babies. It might start with something as simple as putting in a growth hormone gene for greater height, but then it’ll go to putting in a gene that increases memory and then it goes to the next step of maybe something that produces slightly different personality. Basically starting to try to manipulate who we are as human beings to the point where we’re no longer human beings, we’re manipulated genetic robots.

NARRATOR: Could we really end up creating a world of super-humans? The technology is there and laws can be changed, but there is one thing that could defeat the whole idea - the basic concept has a fundamental flaw. This town in America is a mecca for geneticists. Every year hundreds of identical twins gather together to celebrate the power of genes. Identical twins share identical genes and they’re a goldmine for scientists looking at the genetics of everything, from eye colour to instinct.

DEAN HAMER: Identical twins are fascinating to scientists because they have exactly the same DNA, but anybody who knows identical twins knows that they are distinct individuals and many times they have their own idiosyncrasies and really their own whole personality. Sometimes they can be remarkably different. For example, I know a pair of twins where one of them is gay and the other one is straight. That’s a pretty big difference in their behaviour and their personality. Genes in biology are important, but they’re only about 50% of the story. Experience, learning, what your parents tell you to do, what you pick up at school, those are important too, but ultimately it’s the mixture of nature and nurture together that mould the person’s behaviour. So you can change a person’s genes all you want but you have no way of definitely predicting exactly what’s going to happen.

LEE SILVER: There are no guarantees for parents that they will get a child out that’s going to be happy and successful. What you can give with this technology is increased profitability, but if we look at what parents are willing to do for an increased chance of happiness and success it is phenomenal. Parents will spend $100,000 over a 4 year period to send their children to Princeton University and if people are willing to spend $100,000 to send their kids to Princeton they’re going to be willing to spend $20,000 to give their children an increased chance of success in life at the genetic level.

NARRATOR: And here’s the final irony. The expense of genetic engineering means that only the rich could buy disease-free super babies. Class differences between the rich and poor would become genetic differences. Some think that eventually humans could even split into 2 different breeds.

GREG STOCK: There are going to be individuals that embrace these technologies and they will reap the benefits of them: enhanced lifespan, increased intelligence, all of the possibilities that become available and there will be those who choose not to take advantage of these technologies and they will remain at the same level that we are today and over a short period of time this may not have a large impact, but if you start to move forward a century or two centuries these kinds of differences are going to become very, very obvious.

LEE SILVER: The problem with this technology is that it will disadvantage every child whose parents are unable to afford it and so the bottom part of society is going to be the place where all of these diseased genes lay out and the top part of society is going to get rid of them, and then the question is: will our government, will our society which is controlled by the richest people of society, care about these diseases which are just floating around the lower class?

NARRATOR: Whether we like it or not, genetic engineering is advancing with every year that passes. The technology that may finally put us in the driving seat of evolution is now falling into place.

DEAN HAMER: the question isn’t whether we’ll be able to do it the question is what genes are we going to change, how are we going to use this technology, how are we going to try to engineer people?

PHIL BEREANO: The more powerful the technology is and its proponents tell us it’s very powerful, the more likely that the screw-ups are going to be very, very serious.

FRENCH ANDERSON: The only thing that’s going to protect our society from the power of genetic engineering is public awareness and the public basically drawing the lines and saying we’ll go this far, but no further.

LEE SILVER: In a society based on market principles I don’t think there’s any way to stop the use of this technology by those who have money.

Back to the Designer Babies programme page.

Read Prof. Gregory Stock's article "Humans: Objects of Conscious Design".

Transcript of online chat with Prof. Gregory Stock.

Information on repeats Information on video copies Back to homepage