December 09, 2002
Johns Hopkins Genetics Public Policy Survey Released

Johns Hopkins has released a survey on public attitudes toward cloning, genetic engineering of offspring, and other uses of biotechnology related to reproduction.

Washington, DC, December 9, 2002 -- Americans are both hopeful and fearful about the rapidly advancing power of scientists to manipulate human reproduction, according to a new survey released today by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, a Johns Hopkins effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The survey explored the knowledge and attitudes of 1,211 respondents about reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and genetic modification and preferences about government regulation. "These technologies give us the power to manipulate the most personal and profound of human activities --beginning a new human life," said Kathy Hudson, director of the Center.

Highlights of the survey:

  • Most Americans oppose (76 percent) scientists working on ways to clone humans. Of those who support human cloning research, men outnumber women by more than two to one (26 percent; 11 percent).
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents believe a human has already been cloned, with young men most likely to believe it (31 percent).
  • The public draws clear distinctions between health and non-health related applications of these technologies. Two thirds of respondents approve of using reproductive genetic testing to help parents have a baby free of a serious genetic disease. An even larger number, over 70 percent, disapprove of trying to use these technologies to identify or select traits such as strength or intelligence.
  • Overall, men were twice as likely as women to be highly supportive of reproductive genetic technologies (25 percent; 12 percent).
  • Most respondents think the government should regulate the quality and safety of reproductive genetic technologies and limit human reproductive cloning. Notably, the majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents support government regulation of these technologies.
  • Fifty-four percent think about these technologies primarily in terms of health and safety while 33 percent view them in religious or moral terms. Of the variables explored in the survey, this viewpoint is most strongly correlated with approval or disapproval of reproductive genetic technologies. Those who view these technologies in terms of religion and morality are more likely to disapprove of reproductive genetic technologies
  • The biggest fears are that using these technologies is too much like "playing God," (34 percent) or that they can be easily used for the wrong purposes (35 percent). The greatest benefits are being able "to wipe out certain genetic diseases forever" (41 percent) and improving parent's chances their baby will be healthy (27 percent).
  • The public's knowledge about these technologies is not keeping pace with the steep growth in genetic science. Only 18 percent of respondents were able to correctly answer 6 or more of the 8 knowledge questions.

Most people answering this survey disapproved of the use of genetic techniques to select for higher IQ in offspring. But it seems unlikely that once it becomes possible to influence progeny IQ that the level of resistance will remain as high. A lot of technologies are easy to oppose when their use is still hypothetical. But imagine what happens once selection of offspring traits becomes possible. When a pair of prospective parents can be handed a report of their DNA sequences that shows them all the possible combinations of their DNA can create a viable child and when the IQ and personality types of each possible combination can be spelled out in advance there is going to be a strong desire on the part of many people in that position to choose the combinations that will result in offspring characteristics that they feel are most appealing.

Note that it will be possible to boost offspring intelligence without introducing genetic combinations that neither parent possesses. Each person has two copies of every chromosome. In many cases one chromosome will have better genetic variations for intelligence than the other chromosome. By controlling which of each pair of chromosomes one passes along to one's offspring many (probably most) people will be able to have smarter children. A step beyond that will be the ability to take a genetic variant from one of a pair of chromosomes and put it on the other member of the pair. Again, this still restricts the choices to those genetic variations that each person has but it allows the creation of combinations of genetic characteristics in offspring that would be unlikely to happen in practice. Essentially, genetic technology will allow people to load the dice and produce offspring that have the best combinations of characteristics of their parents but the parents will be much more satisfied with the results.

I believe that the ability to produce better outcomes using just the DNA sequences of a couple will go a long way toward reducing popular opposition to genetic engineering of offspring. The other factor that will reduce public opposition will be the identification of large numbers of harmful mutations. Given the option of not passing along harmful mutations most will opt to edit out those mutations from the DNA that they pass alog to their children. This ability to make smaller steps to control offspring genetic endowment will seem less unnatural to most people and the benefits will seem great enough to overcome their fears. Therefore in spite of these latest results I still expect offspring genetic engineering to become commonplace once it becomes possible.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 December 09 02:35 PM  Biotech Society


Comments
John Brothers said at December 10, 2002 9:08 AM:

I'm really, _really_ concerned about the eventual genetic homogenation that will be caused by tailoring - the reduction in genetic variation caused by selecting "preferred" traits. We all know the classic examples of the impact of viruses on homogenous populations. I can foresee many ugly iterations on this possibility. Unfortunately, I don't see any way to "organically" prevent this destruction (organic meaning managed by physics and biology, not human laws), so therefore, that reduction in genetic variation is inevitable.

I will try to take solace in the possibility that our super-smart ubermensch children will discern a way to maintain genetic variation that I, with my primitive Homo Sapiens brain, cannot.

Randall Parker said at December 10, 2002 10:16 AM:

John, You are missing one important piece of the future puzzle: Once individual genetic sequencing becomes cheap (probably in 10 years at most) all variations will become known. Using that data along with huge amounts of data about each individual's size, shape, medical history, and mental characteristics (intelligence, personality typing, etc) it will be possible to figure out what all the human variations are and what they do. Future generations will be able to reintroduce any variations that do not get passed on via reproduction by those who have those variations.

Also, we are not going to witness homogenization. As it becomes possible to make computer models to model new variations people will look for variations that do not yet exist in the human population. Offspring will be created that have variations that no human now living possesses. Even existing humans will get these variations thru organ transplants and stem cell reseeding.

John Brothers said at December 10, 2002 10:41 AM:

Interesting point - but lets use sickle cell anemia as an example - clearly the benefit and drawback can't be separated because they are physically the same thing in different environments. And I would imagine that many beneficial mutations appear to be malign right now - they only become beneficial when the environment changes dramatically.

Here's an example - lets say that there is a variation that makes ones eyesight quite poor, but has the side effect of protection from cosmic radiation. No one would rationally choose to endow their child with that mutation, but if the magnetic poles shift, and the Van Allen belt gets destroyed, it would be a wonderfully valuable variation to possess.

Another example would be a virus that only people with food allergies have a natural resistance to (because of the layout of their DNA) Again, no one would rationally choose their child to have food allergies, but in the long run it might be valuable - no one can predict that this variation will be valuable down the road.

---

Also, I suspect people are going to vary things like hair color & style, eye color, and perhaps facial styles. Virtually everyone will want their custom children to be brilliant, beautiful, athletic, hardy, fast-healing, pain resistant, dextrous and sharp-eyed. Optimal for the individual, bad for the genetic heritage.


Don't get me wrong - I think that a lot of good things can and will come from genetic engineering (and already have). I'm just worried about how it will scale over time.


Randall Parker said at December 10, 2002 11:25 AM:

John, I agree. Some variations will be selected against. Also, some variations provide a benefit in one way and a detriment in another way. For instance, are there genetic variations that predispose one toward depression but which give people greater creativity? Will we have a happier but less interesting society? Or will scientists find other variations that enhance creativity that do not cause mental illness? Hard to say.

Variation though, is not a good in and of itself. There are variations that are not any benefit or detriment. They are just differences. Also, some variations will be found to be just plain harmful. Everyone has some purely harmful mutants that haven't been selected out yet. So the loss of that portion of diversity will not be a loss.

Also, some variations provide benefits that we don't need any longer. For instance, high cholesterol might have been selected for as a buffering mechanism against the toxins produced by the bubonic plague. Well, a lot more people are suffering from circulatory problems due to high cholesterol than are suffering from the plague and that is highly likely to continue to be the case. Also, we will be about to find smarter ways to enhance the immune system. Robert Freitas argues that we will eventually be able to produce nanotech machines that will work as a super immune system.

Appearance: Well, if there are fewer ugly people around I don't view this as a great loss. We can always look at pictures.

I predict there will be many more genetic blondes.

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