Mitochondrial donation. These two words are poised to create a firestorm of controversy around the world, as some governments are considering allowing parents who use in-vitro techniques to have children, to allow mitochondrial DNA from a third donor to replace some of the existing mitochondrial DNA in the egg. Based on a procedure called cytoplasmic transfer pioneered in the 1990s, the method is intended to prevent the passing on of inherited and incurable diseases through mitochondrial DNA, which is carried from mother to child.
But naturally, when most people hear anything about this, they picture Khan:
Here’s a better question: If we are at the forefront of a eugenics program… should we really expect to get “genetic supermen” taking over the world and culling the rest of us? I’d say, no more than we worry about, say… fanatic religious terrorists taking over the world and culling the rest of us. The fact is, it takes more than a dedicated group of people, whatever abilities they have, to take over the world today. The world is not only too interconnected, but too fearful of its neighbors, to allow that to happen. I think we can dismiss the blatantly simplistic suggestion that genetically superior beings will somehow take over our world.
So, looking at this more practically: What we are talking about is eradicating the threat of some diseases in newborn children, something we have been working on in other ways for the last few decades. Scientists have been experimenting with the manipulation of DNA to prevent genetically-inheritable diseases (like sickle-cell anemia) for years. Mitochondrial donation is yet another way to accomplish this, and it shows great promise.
But the mitochondria do not control things like hair color, eyes, build, weight or skin color. In other words, you cannot use this method to “tailor” the look or abilities of your child. Nor is this “cloning,” the use of a single parent’s DNA to birth a genetically-matching child or children. If done properly, a parent will end up with a child less likely to develop the diseases their parents were susceptible to. And that’s it. After that, “nurture” takes over, and the child will become what their parents and environment make of them.
What about the “genetic superman” threat… is it that far-fetched? Maybe not completely; but it’s not likely to come from this direction of DNA experimentation, which is too slow and too likely to be impacted by other factors to be effective. Then should we expect that from some other vector?
Well, you might want to give a hard look at your local pharmacist’s counter… as well as your nearest GNC. Oh, and the internet. The fact is, more and more drugs and compounds are being developed, designed to build stronger bones and muscles, develop better brainpower, speed up reflexes, etc, every day. The catch, so far, is… they pretty much don’t work. The human body has proven it is more capable of developing better physical and mental condition through recognized and presently available diet, exercise and mental activities than anything that comes out of a pill, shot or powdered drink. (With the exception of steroids… but steroids are basically synthetic variants of the hormones already in the human body, not completely new chemical compounds.)
But we develop new drugs every day, refine others, and occasionally find that a drug developed for one thing is very good at doing or preventing something unexpected and beneficial. At some point, some of those new drugs just might turn out to be very safe and effective at what they are intended for. And if there turns out to be a demand for it, it will be almost impossible in today’s world to prevent people from getting access to it.
If we’re lucky, the first of such drugs will do things like quickly cleaning and repairing arteries, repairing heart or lung damage, containing cancers and restoring brain functions lost to age or degeneration or injury. If we get those, we will all end up healthier, smarter and longer-lived.
But will that make us susceptible to some zealot’s entreats to beat down our inferiors and take over the world? The good and bad news is: Humans hardly need genetic superiority to listen to zealots. If you’re worried about some group trying to rule the world, my advice would be not to wait until modern medicine makes us better and stronger to look for them.