In ancient Greece, people of superior beauty and physical prowess were encouraged to marry and bear children for the benefit of society, similar in practice to agriculture and animal husbandry. Meanwhile, in modern times, some couples undergo prenatal diagnosis to screen their embryos for hundreds of potentially debilitating and deadly genetic diseases, selecting only the healthiest for birth and aborting the rest.
Whether encouraged at the societal level or by the individual couple, this ever-present urge to do right by our future children, to give them the advantages we never had, is often the prime motivator for parents to make use of ever more invasive and controlling tools and techniques to perfect their children.
Unfortunately, this urge can also become a slippery slope.
With the groundbreaking new medical technologies becoming available over the next decade, future parents will have everything they need to remove chance and risk out of the childbirth process. They can create designer babies made to order.
But what does it mean to give birth to a healthy baby? A beautiful baby? A strong and intelligent baby? Is there a standard the world can adhere to? Or will each set of parents and each nation enter into an arms race over the future of their next generation?
Erasing disease after birth
Picture this: At birth, your blood will be sampled, plugged into a gene sequencer, then analyzed to sniff out any potential health issues your DNA makes you predisposed to. Future pediatricians will then calculate a "healthcare roadmap" for your next 20-50 years. This genetic counseling will detail the exact custom vaccines, gene therapies and surgeries you'll need to take at specific times in your life to avoid serious health complications later on—again, all based on your unique DNA.
And this scenario isn’t as far off as you’d think. Between 2018 to 2025 especially, the gene therapy techniques described in our Future of Healthcare series will advance to a point where we'll finally cure a range of genetic diseases through the genetic editing of a person's genome (the total of a person's DNA). Even non-genetic diseases, like HIV, will soon be cured by editing our genes to become naturally immune to them.
Overall, these advances will represent a massive, collective step forward in improving our health, especially for our children when they are most vulnerable. However, if we can soon do this after birth, the rationale will naturally progress to parents asking, "Why can't you just test for and correct my child's DNA before they're even born? Why should they suffer a single day of illness or disability? Or worse …."
Diagnosing and guaranteeing health before birth
With a prenatal diagnosis, parents have their fetus' DNA tested for genetic markers known to lead to genetic diseases. If found, the parents can choose to abort the pregnancy, thereby screening out the genetic disease from their future child.
With preimplantation genetic screening and selection, embryos are tested before the pregnancy. This way, parents can choose only the healthiest embryos to progress to the womb via in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
In contrast to both of these screening techniques, a third option will be widely introduced between 2025 to 2030: genetic engineering. Here the fetus or (preferably) embryo will have its DNA tested same as above, but if they find a genetic error, it will be edited/replaced with healthy genes. While some have issues with GMO-anything, many will also find this approach preferable to abortion or the disposal of unfit embryos.
First, there are hundreds of rare genetic diseases that only affect a few members of society—collectively, less than four percent. This large variety, coupled with the small number of people affected, has thus far meant few treatments exist to address these diseases. (From the perspective of Big Pharma, it doesn’t make financial sense to invest billions into a vaccine that will only cure a few hundred.) That’s why one in three children born with rare diseases don’t make it to their fifth birthday. That’s also why eliminating these diseases prior to birth will become the ethically responsible choice for parents when it becomes available.
On a related note, genetic engineering will also end hereditary diseases or defects that pass to the child from the parent. In particular, genetic engineering will help prevent the transmission of fused chromosomes that lead to trisomies (when three chromosomes are passed on instead of two). This is a big deal since the occurrence of trisomies is associated with miscarriages, as well as developmental disorders like Down, Edwards, and Patau syndromes.
Just imagine, in 20 years we could see a world where genetic engineering guarantees all future children will be born free of genetic and hereditary diseases. But as you may have guessed, it won’t stop there.
Healthy babies vs extra healthy babies
The interesting thing about words is that their meaning evolves over time. Let’s take the word ‘healthy’ as an example. For our ancestors, healthy simply meant not dead. Between the time when we started domesticating wheat up to the 1960s, healthy meant being free of disease and able to perform a full day’s work. Today, healthy generally means being free of genetic, viral and bacterial disease, along with being free of mental disorders and maintaining a balanced nutritional diet, combined with a certain level of physical fitness.
Given the rise of genetic engineering, it’s fair to assume that our definition of healthy will continue its slippery slope. Think about it, once genetic and hereditary diseases become extinct, our perception of what’s normal, what’s healthy, will begin to shift forward and wider. What was once considered healthy will gradually be considered less than optimal.
Put another way, the definition of health will begin adopting more ambiguous physical and mental qualities.
Over time, what physical and mental qualities are added to the definition of health will start to diverge; they'll become influenced heavily by tomorrow's dominant cultures and beauty norms (discussed in the previous chapter).
I know what you’re thinking, ‘Curing genetic diseases is all well and good, but surely governments will step in to ban any form of genetic engineering that’s used to created designer babies.’
You’d think, right? But, no. The international community has a poor track record of unanimous agreement on any topic (ahem, climate change). To think that the genetic engineering of humans will be any different is wishful thinking.
The US and Europe may ban research into select forms of human genetic engineering, but what happens if Asian countries don’t follow suit? In fact, China has already begun editing the genome of human embryos. While there will be many unfortunate birth defects as a result of initial experimentation in this field, eventually we’ll reach a stage where human genetic engineering becomes perfected.
Decades later when generations of Asian children are born with far superior mental and physical abilities, can we really assume that Western parents won't demand the same advantages for their children? Will a particular interpretation of ethics force generations of Western children to be born at a competitive disadvantage against the rest of the world? Doubtful.
Just as Sputnik pressured America to enter the space race, genetic engineering will similarly force all countries to invest in their population’s genetic capital or be left behind. Domestically, parents and the media will find creative ways to rationalize this societal choice.
Before we get into the whole designing the master race thing, let’s just be clear that the technology behind genetically engineering humans is still decades away. We still haven’t discovered what every gene in our genome does, let alone how changing a single gene impacts the functioning of the rest of your genome.
For some context, geneticists have identified 69 separate genes that impact intelligence, but together they only affect IQ by less than eight percent. This means there could be hundreds, or thousands, of genes that impact intelligence, and we’ll have to not only discover all of them but also learn how to predictably manipulate all of them together before we can even consider tampering with a fetus’ DNA. The same is true for most physical and mental attributes you can think of.
Meanwhile, when it comes to genetic diseases, many are caused by only a handful of incorrect genes. That makes curing genetic defects far easier than editing DNA to promote certain traits. That's also why we'll see the end of genetic and hereditary diseases long before we'll see the start of genetically engineered humans.
Now to the fun part.
Skipping to the mid-2040s, the field of genomics will mature to a point where a fetus' genome can be thoroughly mapped, and edits to its DNA can be computer simulated to accurately predict how changes to its genome will impact the fetus' future physical, emotional, and intelligence attributes. We'll even be able to accurately simulate the appearance of the fetus well into old age via a 3D holographic display.
Prospective parents will begin regular consultations with their IVF doctor and genetic counselor to learn the technical processes around an IVF pregnancy, as well as explore the customization options available for their future child.
This genetic counselor will educate parents on which physical and mental traits are necessary or recommended by society—again, based on the future’s interpretation of normal, attractive and healthy. But this counselor will also educate parents on the selection of elective (non-necessary) physical and mental traits.
For example, giving a child genes that will allow him or her to more easily build a well-developed musculature may be a favored by American football-loving parents, but such a physique may result in higher food bills to maintain and hamper physical performance and endurance in other sports. You never know, the child could find a passion for ballet instead.
Likewise, obedience may be favored by more authoritarian parents, but it could lead to a personality profile that features risk avoidance and an inability to assume leadership positions—traits that may hamper the child's later professional life. Alternatively, an increased disposition towards open-mindedness may make a child more accepting and tolerant of others, but may also make the child more open to trying addictive drugs and being manipulated by others.
Such mental attributes are also subject to environmental factors, thereby making genetic engineering futile in some respects. That's because depending on the life experiences the child is exposed to, the brain may rewire itself to learn, strengthen or weaken certain attributes to better adapt to changing circumstances.
These basic examples highlight the strikingly profound choices future parents will have to decide on. On one hand, parents will want to take advantage of any tool to improve their child's lot in life, but on the other hand, trying to micromanage the child's life at the genetic level neglects the child's future free will and limits the life choices available to them in unpredictable ways.
Ideal human form
In the last chapter, we discussed the evolution of beauty norms and how they will shape human evolution. Through advanced genetic engineering, these future beauty norms will likely be imposed on future generations at the genetic level.
While race and ethnicity will remain largely unaltered by future parents, it’s likely that couples who gain access to designer baby tech will opt to give their children a range of physical enhancements.
For boys. Basic enhancements will include: immunity to all known viral, bacterial, and fungi-based illnesses; decreased aging rate after maturity; moderately enhanced healing abilities, intelligence, memory, strength, bone density, cardiovascular system, endurance, reflexes, flexibility, metabolism, and resistance to extreme heat and cold.
- An increased average height, between 177 centimeters (5’10”) to 190 centimeters (6’3”);
- Symmetrical facial and musculature features;
- The often idealized V-shaped shoulders tapering at the waist;
- A toned and lean musculature;
- And a full head of hair.
- An increased average height, between 172 centimeters (5’8”) to 182 centimeters (6’0”);
- Symmetrical facial and musculature features;
- The often idealized hourglass figure;
- A toned and lean musculature;
- An average breast and buttocks size that conservatively reflects regional beauty norms;
- And a full head of hair.
As for your body’s many senses, like vision, hearing, and taste, altering these qualities will be largely frowned upon for the same reason parents will be wary of altering their child’s personality: Because changing one’s senses changes how a person perceives the world around them in unpredictable ways.
For example, a parent can still relate to a child that's stronger or taller than them, but it's a whole other story trying to relate to a child that can see more colors than you can or even entirely new spectrums of light, like infrared or ultraviolet waves. The same is true for children whose sense of smell or hearing is heightened to that of a dog.
(Not to say that some won’t opt to enhance their children’s senses, but we’ll cover that in the next chapter.)
Societal impact of designer babies
As is always the case, what seems outrageous today will seem normal tomorrow. The trends described above won't happen overnight. Instead, they will occur over decades, long enough for future generations to rationalize and become comfortable with genetically altering their offspring.
While today’s ethics will advocate against designer babies, once the technology is perfected, future ethics will evolve to endorse it.
At a societal level, it will slowly become immoral to bare a child without the genetic enhancements guaranteed to protect his health, not to mention his competitiveness within a genetically enhanced world population.
Over time, these evolving ethical norms will become so widespread and accepted that governments will step in to promote and (in some cases) enforce them, similar to mandated vaccinations today. This will see the beginnings of government regulated pregnancies. While controversial at first, governments will sell this intrusive regulation as a way to protect the genetic rights of the unborn against unlawful and dangerous genetic enhancements. These regulations will also work to reduce the incidence of illness among future generations, and reduce national healthcare costs in the process.
There’s also the danger of genetic discrimination eclipsing racial and ethnic discrimination, especially since the rich will gain access to designer baby tech long before the rest of society. For example, if all qualities are equal, future employers may opt to hire the candidate with superior IQ genes. This same early access can be applied at the national level, pitting the genetic capital of developed countries vs. developing or deeply conservative countries.
While this initial unequal access to designer baby tech could lead Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, over a few decades, as this technology becomes cheap and universally available (largely thanks to government intervention), this new form of societal inequality will moderate.
Finally, at the family level, the early years of designer babies will introduce a whole new level of existential angst for future teenagers. Looking to their parents, future brats could begin saying things like:
“I’ve been smarter and stronger than you since I was eight, why should I keep taking orders from you?”
“I’m sorry I’m not perfect okay! Maybe if you focused a little more on my IQ genes, instead of my athletics, then I could’ve made it into that school.”
"Of course you'd say biohacking is dangerous. All you've ever wanted to do is control me. You think you can decide what goes into my genes and I can't? I'm getting that enhance done whether you like it or not."
“Yeah, okay, I experimented. Big deal. All my friends do it. No one’s gotten hurt. It’s the only thing that makes my mind feel free, you know. Like I’m in control and not some lab rat with no free will.”
“Are you kidding! Those naturals are beneath me. I’d rather compete against athletes at my level.”
Designer babies and human evolution
Given everything we’ve discussed, the trendlines are pointing to a future human population that will gradually become physically healthier, more robust, and intellectually superior than any generation that preceded it.
In essence, we are accelerating and guiding evolution toward a future ideal human form.
But given everything we discussed in the last chapter, expecting the entire world to agree to a single "future ideal" of how the human body should look and function is unlikely. While most nations and cultures will opt for a natural or traditional human form (with a few basic health optimizations under the hood), a minority of nations and cultures—that follow future alternate ideologies and techno-religions—may feel that the human form is somehow antiquated.
This minority of nations and cultures will begin altering the physiology of their existing members, and then that of their offspring, in such a way that their bodies and minds will noticeably differ from the historic human norm.
At first, just as how wolves today can still mate with domesticated dogs, these different forms of humans will still be able to mate and produce human children. But over enough generations, just as how horses and donkeys can only produce sterile mules, this fork in human evolution will eventually produce two or more forms of humans that are different enough to be considered an entirely separate species.
At this point, you're probably asking what these future human species might look like, not to mention the future cultures that might create them. Well, you'll have to read on to the next chapter to find out.