Designer Babies and Artificial Wombs

I don't usually refer to either of these topics, but a question was asked on Quora about Designer Babies and Artificial Wombs so I took it as an opportunity to answer. It offered a good opportunity for a discussion that says something about what I see coming but more fills in the larger picture in a way that shows the moral context that is so important to all discussion of genetics and human reproduction. These were my answers.

These are both moral questions as much as technical questions.

I hate the term Designer Babies, but in a way, we will certainly have to go down that path. The world has changed. Humanity has made decisions. We use medicine and other things that reduce natural selection. We call that human progress, but natural selection is what keeps the genes of a species healthy by removing the ones that inevitably break every generation. It's made worse because parents are older now and with age, they have more mutations in their sex cells, especially the mothers. What makes it even worse is that we have smaller families than we used to. We've sort of gone from a strategy of quantity to a strategy of quality where we invest more in each child than we did back when life was simpler and shorter. Natural selection has fewer people to operate on. What this all means is that we will rapidly develop a genetic load of broken genes that will destroy our civilization until we are back in a situation where natural selection operates normally, perhaps a feudalism. It will be a time of disease, short lives, high infant mortality, starvation, ignorance, and war. Or… we could use pre-implantation artificial selection to replace natural selection. It would be ethical and economical. It would also help us adapt to the rapidly changing world. It would help us deal with the smarter and more complex machines we are making. I'm not sure if it's about "designer babies" but it is about ensuring that your children inherit the best genes of you and your mate instead of the horrible random system nature uses. It's about making sure that they don't inherit broken genes. It would be a powerful tool. Eventually, everyone could have superior health, beauty, and brains. This is different than most references to "designer babies" which are about using CRISPR or some other technology to change the genes or make new ones. The technology I refer to is only about making sure that the best genes of the parents are inherited by the children. We may use technology to make change the genes or make new genes eventually, but we have a fantastic genetic wealth already available. Also, my perspective is only about surviving the transition from the old ecology to a new one. We can do that with the genes we already have to work with. We just need to husband them. We're not smart enough right now to make any plans for any distant future let alone do it safely. We need to be working on surviving the disasters we face now just trying to adapt to a new ecology. If you want to read my book about it, check out Genetics For A New Human Ecology. There is far more in it about how humans can adapt to the future strategically as well as genetically. Currently, I'm working on a book about how we can strategically adapt as well. It's called Strategy For A New Human Ecology. Eventually, when we know far more than we do now, yes, parents will have to make profound moral decisions about the nature of their children. They will be advised by experts and AI expert systems, but eventually they will have to make decisions about their children's nature.

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Artificial Wombs are certainly as much a moral problem as a technical problem. Just the issue of using formula instead of Mother's milk is a current technical problem and there seem to be some clear advantages to Mother's milk in terms of antibodies that are transferred to the child a well as other factors that are not well understood. This issue would be multiplied in terms of an artificial womb. It's not just the chemistry, it is stimulus from outside the womb such as movement and sound as well as hormones. At the same time, there might be advantages as the fetus might be safer and better nourished, but how do you figure out if a fetus should be exposed to some testosterone at a certain stage or the other innumerable hormones humans produce? How do you figure out what is important? I think these problems can be solved in a couple of hundred years... which in the scheme of things I do not consider a long time. One must consider the extreme stress and physical effects of pregnancy on a woman. Not always, but often pregnancy takes a physical toll on a woman. I've already said that due to the problem of giving birth to large headed babies (which can cause a 25% mortality rate) I think that one practical modification to human genetic nature would be that women become bigger so that child bearing and birth would be easier.

There is another critical issue to consider, mother and child bonding, which actually is a bit of a chicken and egg issue. If a fetus is raised in an artificial womb, would there be an adequate bond between mother and child? It's not just about how the hormones and actions of the Mother effect the fetus. It is also how the hormones of the fetus effect the Mother. Also, carrying a baby is an overwhelming experience. This is about the essence of morality and survival... Approach with caution. In part, I will defer to a very smart lady that has talked about this, McMaster Bujold, who wrote the SciFi stories about Miles Vorkosigan. She is the only writer that I thought gave the issue of artificial wombs some serious thought. Her consideration is smart and from a very moral perspective. I also defer to her as a woman. I have to believe my view as a man is limited on this topic. In any case, she thought it was a good idea... I interpret that in terms of family strategy (morality) though she also discussed it in terms of emergency medicine as well. That is all that needs to be said right here, but there are some other points to consider.

Becoming dependent on artificial wombs would be very dangerous. Our civilization and technology is something we have constructed. It can go away and if we had been careless enough to let humans evolve to where they were incapable or even widely incapable of a "body birth", that would be an existential danger. Maybe if humans are widely distributed through space, this would be less of a consideration, but that is far off.

I'll add one consideration to this because without it, this discussion could not be complete. I view all questions like these in the far larger question of strategy and how humans can survive in the changing world. We are entering a completely new ecology. The changes are greater than are easily imagined. One change is very profound though it may not seem so. Do we value what we have not worked for? A woman that has gone through pregnancy really really has reason to value the baby she produces. Would it be lessened if she didn't have to go through the pregnancy? That could be a moral danger. Humans have some reproductive instinct, but not a lot. Maybe women tend to have more than men even. We certainly do have quite a powerful instinct to have sex though and the result of that naturally tends to be pregnancy and babies. That in turn naturally releases instincts and behaviors related to children, child raising and the whole long complicated process of reproduction that is the basis of the survival of a species. Birth control technology breaks that sequence at its start, sex does not necessarily lead to pregnancy. That is going to lead to a few changes. It already has. One profound change though will relate to two moral issues. Survival will belong to those that have the moral instincts to survive and the moral instinct to have children. In a sense, I expect the population to drop some because many people are going to decide not to have children. It is very difficult and demanding and now it is a choice. Many will choose and have chosen not to have children. As time goes on, the people remaining though will be the people that have strong instincts of some sort to have children. I think that will be a good thing. Human survival must be a moral issue and a choice. How animals have done it is not going to work in the future. Humans that have families by choice though will not be in the moral danger that artificial wombs could present.