August 07, 2012
Worries On Genetic Doping For Athletic Enhancement

What's wrong with gene therapy to boost athletic performance? Yet another worry article about what could be a very positive development.

Officially, UK Anti-Doping, the body which oversees the control of performance enhancing drugs in Britain, says genetic manipulation as a form of performance enhancement "is currently a theoretical rather than a proven issue".

But Andy Parkinson, UKAD's chief executive said: "I wouldn't be surprised if someone out there is trying to do it, and I think that's very worrying."

My worry is that gene therapy is such a hard problem (e.g. cancer risks, difficulties in delivering genes to enough cells, difficulties in delivering genes to only the desired types of cells, etc) that gene therapy won't make much difference to athletic performance any time soon. But as I've recently argued a gene therapy arms race to enable genetically less well endowed athletes to compete with the genetically fittest athletes would generate many medically useful spin-offs. If organizers of athletic events allowed biotechnological enhancements for athletic performance the rest of us would benefit from a faster rate of progress in the development of medical treatments for many diseases of old age.

So why the opposition to all manner of athletic doping, including gene therapy? I think some of the opposition stems from a desire to believe that athletes win by a more determined and sustained exercise of willpower. We want to see people succeed by doing large amounts of hard work aimed at a lofty goal. But I think this desire is based on wishful thinking. The outcome of Olympic sporting competitions hinge greatly on relative athlete genetic fitness. Those lucky few who have a low burden of harmful mutations have big advantages. Those who have still other genetic variants that make them fast distance runners (or other genetic variants that make them fast sprinters) will win the races.

None of this is meant to say that individual effort does not matter. Of course the drive and effort of the athlete plays a role. But individual effort in elite sporting events only matters among those genetically most well endowed. If athletes could use gene therapies to boost their athletic performance then the effect might be to close the gap between the genetically most and least well endowed. Then with genetic differences lessened we'd get mores sporting contests whose outcome would be decided individual efforts and judgments of peers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 August 07 10:21 PM  Biotech Athletics


Comments
Nick G said at August 8, 2012 7:32 AM:

There is a good argument for not allowing medical experimentation on athletes, though I'm not sure it's the argument of the sports establishment. It's fairly similar to the argument for preventing medical scams.

I'd argue that we're already exploiting athletes mercilessly, and that it's not really fair to use them as experimental subjects.

Not that I wouldn't love getting the results of such a process..

Andrew said at August 8, 2012 7:50 PM:

"Willpower" and "individual effort" are highly determined by genetics. The reasons most people have for being opposed to gene therapy for athletes don't hold up to scientific scrutiny.

PacRim Jim said at August 9, 2012 11:27 AM:

Why not cut out the annoying Homo sapiens altogether and switch to a never-ending virtual Olympics?
That seems to be the trend.
Call it the Olymatrix or Neo Olympics.

solaris said at August 13, 2012 2:45 PM:

If athletes could use gene therapies to boost their athletic performance then the effect might be to close the gap between the genetically most and least well endowed.


So what you are saying is, once a small scientific elite makes everybody physically equal, we'll have better athletic competition among equals?

By the same token, once we genetically engineer everybody to have the same intelligence, everybody will be able to compete equally in the intellectual sphere.

And once we genetically engineer everybody to have the same work ethic, the same physical abilities, the same intellectual abilities, the same level of physical attractiveness and the same emotional tendencies, then it will be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. You're a radical egalitarian of the sort the old Marxists would admire. Of course, that makes you anti-human.

solaris said at August 13, 2012 3:03 PM:

The outcome of Olympic sporting competitions hinge greatly on relative athlete genetic fitness.

You could say that about ALL life outcomes, not just sporting competitions. I'm not sure if you have failed to think your ideas through to their conclusions, or if you have done so and are being coy about those conclusions for fear they will scare people off. All people must be able to run the 100 meters in the same time. All people must be able to swim equally well. All people must possess the same capacity to do math. All people must look the same. What one person is capable of, all people must be capable of. People must be made as interchangeable as other mass-produced items such screws, nails, or bits of plastic. Failure to do all this would be "unfair".

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