Ethical debates about genetic cognitive enhancement: Time to broaden the discussion


SIENNA findings show that attitudes to human enhancement technologies and research on the genetics of human intelligence vary greatly across different economic, cultural, and social landscapes. One potential way to enhance human abilities, including our cognition, is by interfering in IVF processes. So far, the ethics debate has centred on gene editing using the CRISPR technique. However, there is not as much talk of embryo selection as a method for genetic human enhancement. In a recent publication, Marcelo de Araujo emphasises the need fill this gap. 

The debate about what is ethical in relation to cognitive enhancement needs to develop at the same pace as the technology. Recently, the process known as in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG) has created a convergence between gene editing and embryo selection, begging the question whether it is time to discuss human enhancement in embryo selection. Especially when the technology already exists,  and is likely to become a commercially available for human enhancement before the public gets access to gene editing of embryos..

We can expect both technologies to develop to a stage where they can be to assist human reproduction, and with this comes the possibility of using them to modify embryos with to enhance abilities. In his paper, Marcelo de Araujo focuses on using gene editing for the purpose of genetic cognitive enhancement. His contribution to the cognitive enhancement debate about is an attempt to compare the different ethical issues that arise from each procedure: Gene editing by means of CRISPR on the one hand, and embryo selection combined with in vitro gametogenesis, on the other.

Using findings from a survey of public opinion on human enhancement in 11 countries, Marcelo de Araujo argues philosophers should be cautious and not rely solely on their own moral intuitions. When assessing the ethics of genetic cognitive enhancement, academics should also consider the broader societal debate on how to regulate new technologies like CRISPR and IVG.

According to Marcelo de Araujo, the ethical debate around technology that can be used to enhance human abilities is largely one between philosophers in the academic context. He suggests that this discussion can be informed by public opinion, broadening and opening up the discussion. Philosophical arguments, he writes, cannot be the only source of reason in this debate.

By Anna Holm & Josepine Fernow

de Araujo, M. The Ethics of Genetic Cognitive Enhancement: Gene Editing or Embryo Selection? Philosophies, 2020, 5(3), 20

About In-vitro gametogenesis and CRISPR

In-vitro gametogenesis (or IVG for short) is an assisted reproductive technology that can create gametes from any cell in a human body with undamaged DNA. It could be used to create biological children from any two people, regardless of age, sex or fertility. The technique has not yet been applied to generate human gametes intended to start a pregnancy, but proved successful in a Japanese study on mice in 2016. CRISPR, on the other hand, was (reportedly) used for human reproduction for the first time in China in 2018. Despite this happening under circumstances the Chinese government deemed illegal, and the international community found ethically unacceptable, it demonstrates that gene editing of human embryos is possible.

SIENNA’s public opinion survey on human enhancement

As part of the SIENNA project, Kantar (Public Division) conducted an exploratory public opinion survey by phone in 11 countries: seven EU countries (France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden) and four countries outside Europe (Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, USA). In the results, all countries were given equal weighting. The survey aimed to determine self-reported levels of awareness of human enhancement technologies among the public and to assess the level of public acceptance of these technologies in relation to a range of applications.

Read more

Marie Prudhomme. (2020). SIENNA D3.5: Public views of human enhancement technologies in 11 EU and non-EU countries (Version V4). Zenodo.

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