‘I am not my sister’s keeper’ is a movie that narrates the ordeal of a test tube girl whose sister had cancer. She was genetically manufactured to be a ‘donor’ of organs to the dying sister.
Genetic engineering, and its wide implications are gaining momentum. Scientists know how to “edit” DNA, and do so regularly with mice. Not yet with humans, though.
In theory, we could change the DNA of a human fetus and replace genes that will cause disease in the future with healthy ones while choosing for ourselves what our babies will look like. The issue is unquestionably controversial.
Maybe that’s good. But I find it totally wrong. We can never be entirely sure about the consequences of such power until we try it. All we can do is try to predict the outcome, by applying what we know about human behavior.
So let’s brainstorm a little about what might result from parents’ ability to customize their child and let’s focus on appearance for now. What if everyone was beautiful? What if there simply weren’t any ugly people? And by ugly people I mean those who have a visible feature that is considered unattractive, preventing them from attracting desirable mates.
Perhaps you’ve heard the fairytale that says there’s somebody for everyone and that there’s a right person for you who will find you attractive, no matter your appearance. Everyone’s attractive to someone.
Not so! We may like to think that’s true, but deep down we all know it isn’t. There certainly are people who have low self-esteem, depression, and have an extremely hard time finding companionship, due to generally unattractive physical features.
But what if we nipped it in the bud; took care of it before they were born, and made sure they turned into physically attractive people? No longer would anyone have to feel unattractive because of how they looked. No longer would anyone be discriminated against based on their appearance.
But if everyone became attractive by today’s standards, wouldn’t our standards simply adjust, canceling out the progress made in attraction? Yes, and no. Standards would adjust - to different shades of attractive. There will of course still be relative ugliness, but the standard deviation will be much smaller, making many more people compatible.
We’ll still have different preferences. Not all men like tall and thin girls, and not all women prefer muscular guys. Whatever there a “market” for would show up. Just like the way your neighborhood shop carries many different sodas to accommodate the many different tastes, people will still be unique to satisfy a demand for “niche” looks.
But if everyone’s physically attractive, how do we decide who’s really attractive and who isn’t? I guess we’d have to go by personality. Finding out who we think is attractive based on their character, who they are, not how they look.
Would that be such a bad thing? If everyone’s beautiful, looks won’t mean as much. That’s good news for ugly people with winning personalities, and bad news for those who are “just a pretty face”.
I’m sure most of you will agree that our society highly values physical beauty. We all want to be physically attractive. But if attractive became the norm, we’d have to shift our focus from enhancing our appearance to improving our personalities.
Imagine a society in which people strive not to satisfy some fleeting beauty ideal, but to grow into better human beings. We could concentrate our efforts on something profound instead of something shallow. Think about what sort of potential that would unlock.
So would we be playing God? Again, I think it is a definite yes! The same reasons I think that the main selling points of genetic engineering should shift focus from the superficial to the significant and increasing levels of compatibility.
Then again, I am sure a wide range of unforeseen complications might result from genetic customization.
Emmanuel Nyagapfizi is a Management Information Systems manager