The age of the designer baby isn’t here yet, but it’s getting close. Chinese researcher He Jiankui triggered outrage last week with his announcement that he’d created the world’s first genetically altered infants, having tweaked their embryos to make them resistant to HIV. (See Best Columns: The U.S.) Whether or not He’s claim of a breakthrough is true—his data hasn’t been published or peer reviewed—the vital point is that it could be. For the past decade, scientists around the world have been modifying the blueprint of human life with the genome-editing tool CRISPR. A U.S. team last year altered the DNA of embryos to replace defective genes that cause a hereditary heart condition. (Unlike He, they did not implant their experimental embryos in a woman’s womb.) This technology could eventually wipe out all hereditary diseases, including Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis. But you don’t have to be a science-fiction writer to see how prospective parents might use it to gift their offspring with other advantages in life. Gene editing could be used to boost IQ and athleticism. Discrimination against the short of stature and dark of skin is still rife, and so parents might choose to make their children tall and light-skinned. In a genetically modified future, society could be even more divided between the rich, who would be able to afford “perfect” designer offspring, and the unenhanced poor.
The bonds between parent and child could also be irrevocably changed. When I look at my son and daughter, I get a small thrill when I spot hereditary traits: my wife’s eyes, my hair, my mother’s quiet stubbornness. Familiar imperfections are no less endearing. How will it feel to look at your child and instead recognize features you’ve ordered from the Acme Super Kid catalog: Husky-blue eyes with guaranteed 20/20 vision, Michael Jordan’s leaping ability and wingspan, Einstein’s brainpower. Would you feel the pride of a parent, or the pride of an engineer marveling at his latest creation?