Oxford ethicist says parents have ‘moral obligation’ to use genetic screening: expert disputes
BOSTON, August 23, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute has responded to statements by Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu that “genetics determines” personality and character, and that parents have a “moral obligation” to use genetic screening.
Putting the moral question aside, Dr. James Sherley told LifeSiteNews.com today that Savulescu’s scientific claims are “absolutely false.”
“Our understanding of the contribution of the human genome to human psychology is not nearly advanced enough to make such a claim,” he said in an interview.
Savulescu raised a small storm of controversy this week when he said that parents should screen out undesirable personality traits and choose positive characteristics for their children. “If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should,” Savulescu said.
In the past Savulescu has also argued that there is a “moral obligation” to use IVF to select only the most intelligent babies.
However, while the argument is centering on Savulescu’s ethical and moral foundation, little has been said about whether his scientific claims are accurate.
One award-winning bioengineer who works in regenerative medicine, told LSN today that so many factors go into the makeup of human personality that only “fools and egotists” could think it is genetically predetermined. Dr. James Sherley is a one-time professor of Biological Engineering Division at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that the reality is far from such sensational headlines.
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“Since my genome has been sequenced, if he were correct,” Dr. Sherley continued, “I would now know all about my own psychology. Such characteristics were not even considered during the scant evaluation of the ‘meaning of my genome’ that is currently possible.”
“Even if the genetics of human psychology were sufficiently advanced,” he continued, “given the vast diversity of human existence and experience, only fools and egoists would profess that they know better than Nature which traits are ‘positive’.
“When fools and egoists makes such statements, their sources should be demanded and reviewed with extreme scrutiny.”
Asked if current genetic sciences are close to such levels of precision, he replied bluntly, “Not a chance.”
Dr. Sherley’s work has been in precisely the field for which Savulescu and other proponents of the New Eugenics have made their claims. His work, however, has steered away from the use of embryos and focused on the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of adult stem cells. He has been a vocal opponent of embryo research. In 2010 Dr. Sherley launched a suit challenging federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that succeeded in halting much of the research on embryos formerly funded by the National Institutes of Health.
In his article, Savulescu names specific genes that have been discovered, he claims, to control an array of personality traits. But Sherley said that his take on the science is mechanistic and unsophisticated.
“His mistake is in thinking that linkage equals causation and prediction,” he said.
“I’m not familiar with these particular genes, but there are many gene loci in which variants are statistically associated with certain human disorders and perhaps even human ‘traits’.
“But that does not mean that we are any position to genetically manipulate these loci by either genetic engineering or trait selection with any level of confidence in predicting what the outcome would be.”
He added, “For complex traits like cognition, behavior, or even skin color for that matter, suggesting that we can determine human characteristics by either manipulation or selection of single gene loci is completely unfounded. It’s science fiction.”
Asked if it is even possible to “splice” specifically selected genes into an existing embryo, Dr. Sherley said that gene splicing is being investigated but not yet used on human subjects. “The technology does exist for mouse embryos.”
“Exclusion of embyros with known deleterious gene mutations for specific disorders is practiced in some IVF clinics now. However, I’m aware of no groups engineering human embryos by incorporating exogenous gene sequences.”
There is “no doubt” in his mind, he added, that the public is being misled into an overly deterministic view of the science of genetics by these kinds of assertions.
“The inherent uncertainties of genetic determinism are difficult to understand even by scientists.”