The business of playing God — Part 2

Read part 1 here

From a business point of view, human genetic manipulation is more interesting than cloning, since there is likely to be a somewhat larger market for it.
Scientists say it is likely that in about five to 10 years, around the same time that human cloning becomes feasible, we will be able to manipulate the genetic makeup of an embryo to eliminate genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia or Down’s syndrome.

It is important to note, however, that there is a very great difference between being able to manipulate an embryo genetically so that it does not develop an inherited disease and the much more complex process of curing it entirely — i.e. so that it does not pass the disease along its own descendents.

The cost of even the simpler sort of treatment is likely to remain equivalent to that of cloning, perhaps $200,000 initially, which will limit the market for such manipulation. Testing embryos for such defects, and aborting those which bear them, is likely to be much cheaper than this, and hence to be the preferred solution. Although such procedures are likely to be less controversial than cloning itself, some disability groups are already working to oppose what they see as eugenics.

Nonetheless, it is likely that a demand will eventually arise for such treatment to be covered by insurance and national health schemes. Fortunately for actuarial and fiscal responsibility, cases where an ironclad argument can be made for genetic manipulation rather than simple testing and abortion are likely to be fairly rare.

We are probably still at least 10-15 years away from being able to manipulate the genetic make-up of an embryo to increase the intelligence, athletic abilities or beauty of a child. It is worth pointing out, however, that scientists have an unfortunate capacity for wishful thinking in terms of their projected timelines for scientific breakthroughs. But however long it takes, by the time genetic enhancement becomes possible, the cost of such techniques is likely to have declined. Compared with cloning, therefore, this technique — at an all-in cost of perhaps $50,000, not much more than that of a car — will be available to a much wider spectrum of the population.

The political and religious opposition to genetic enhancement may well be less than that to cloning. Genetic techniques will be more familiar by this time, and the number of potential beneficiaries will be larger, and not limited to the super-rich.

How great the demand will be depends largely on how much can be accomplished by a manipulation that retains the baby’s genetic makeup in other respects, so that even if more athletic, beautiful or intelligent, it is recognizably the child of its biological parents. If this can be guaranteed; if the potential enhancement is substantial; and if the technique is without significant risk of adverse side-effects, then the demand is likely to be very considerable.

The breakdown in demand between different types of enhancement is likely to depend on the reliability and degree of enhancement available. However, there is no reason to believe that intelligence will be the predominant quality enhanced. Beauty and athletic ability — particularly if, in the latter case, the enhancement is substantial and rare enough to increase the child’s chance of success at a “major-league” level of sport — both have a substantial market value.

Since there are currently about 4 million births per annum in the United States — and the potential cost of genetic enhancement at $50,000 is no more than 25 percent of the cost of a fairly modest child upbringing — there would appear to be potential for maybe 200,000 genetic enhancements per annum in the United States, 5 percent of total births. This would give a market of $10 billion per annum.

As with cloning, there would probably also be an incremental market for special schooling to develop the child’s enhanced skills.
There is also a possibility of an interesting second-order economic effect produced by the enhanced children themselves as they grow up and enter the workforce. This is unlikely to be apparent in the case of aesthetic or athletic enhancement, where the financial returns are more or less zero-sum — i.e. the enhanced child merely displaces some unfortunate un-enhanced competitor. (One does, however, secretly hope that these advances are initially concentrated around Boston, so that the first Franken-ballplayers can be signed by the Red Sox and can end the Curse of Babe Ruth by winning the World Series!)

The greatest second-order effect would be produced by the enhanced-intelligence children, if the enhancement is substantial. Since productivity advances arise from new ideas and techniques, as well as from new scientific discoveries, the arrival each year of say 50,000 additional very clever people in the workforce should have a highly beneficial effect on the economy. Thus genetic enhancement, even more than the Internet, may cause a secular increase in U.S. productivity that would put the country on a permanently higher track of growth and prosperity.

Many are appalled by the possibilities inherent in genetic engineering; I find them exhilarating. Either way, if the United States and other developed nations retain a political tradition that is predominantly devoted to personal liberty, and an economic system based on the free market, it is more than likely that in the next generation these new businesses will appear, and will dramatically alter the way we live and think.


This article originally appeared on United Press International.