Tortured Genius

May 9, 2011

Torah Kachur

It is now possible to test embryos before they are born and select against undesirable traits like genetic diseases, predispositions to cancer and even brown eyes.  This isn't news, but it makes me ponder a bit about our world.  Our ability to perform pre-implantation diagnosis (or PGD) as an add-on to the traditional in vitro fertilization (IVF) process allows scientists to remove a single cell from the early embryo, with no harm to the embryo itself, and test it for genetic 'abnormalities'.  Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is cool..... in theory, but the technology is just not there yet to know what we are missing.  I'm going to stay neutral in the debate over what is ethical, moral, stupid or sensible and just mention two words.....


Stephen Hawking.


Stephen Hawking is a rare genius.  He joins the likes of Einstein, Mozart and DaVinci as one of the greatest minds the documented world has ever known.  His contributions to theoretical physics underlie our understanding of the universe including predictions that black holes emit radiation - a prediction that was shown to be true.  Contributions also include further describing general relativity and gravitational singularities...not to mention a book that has sold over 10 million copies that changed the public's understanding of 'our' universe.


If PGD is the future of our world, then Stephen Hawking would never have been born.  The current technologies of PGD only exclude negative traits - like amylotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's disease) that has been progressively degenerating Hawkings control over his body. 


Preimplantation genetic diagnosis PGD


Genius comes in many forms, and often in less-than-perfect packages, but it is just those struggles that perhaps bring out the genius within.  I don't suggest that struggle and overcoming genetic diseases is desirable in life, but it is life nonetheless. 


Before you go and select your Aryan child, or the spelling bee champion of your dream with the promise of PGD... I have a few words.


Van Gogh and his bat-shit crazy ear-chopping mental states


Edgar Allen Poe and his infinite darkness


John Nash and his schizophrenia.


And Stephen Hawking with his degenerative, painful and ultimately fatal motor neuron disease.


We benefitted from their genius.  They probably also benefitted from their life.


Ryan Shannon on May 10, 2011
You raise an uncomfortable and excellent point, Torah, although I don't know if someone with the potential of Hawking outweighs the anguish the parents of a child with Tay-Sachs must feel watching their child die before age 2. I know, arguing a lethal condition against one that permits life is a bit of a cheap shot, but my point is this:

The debate over the use of genetic screening techniques to select against traits in early embryonic development and terminate a pregnancy (because, let's face it, that's what we're talking about - not the couples that use the screening to plan to deal with the challenges of any potential illness) is virtually identical to the same old abortion debate.

Whether you intended to or not, this blog entry touches wholly on the ethical/moral choice to continue a pregnancy or not. And at the end of the day, would it matter if you're aborting a Hawking or an average person? Is someone like Hawking inherently more valuable than anyone else? What makes a person special? Conversely, what is an acceptable expectation of burden for a parent?

Doesn't matter if we try to frame such things from a scientific viewpoint on technology or not, this is not a discussion that will ever be decisively settled by science.
Torah Kachur on May 10, 2011
New technology such as PGD avoids the sacrificing of an embryo in the process, but rather selecting the dozen or so eggs that are often fertilized from a routine IVF procedure. Although it may ignite the abortion debate for some, the potential for life is not removed from the 'selected-against' embryos and they will live on in a vat of liquid nitrogen until someone implants them.

This is almost a wholly philosophical question about the rights of selection and the right to select. There is no judgement on the value of a person's life other than I personally appreciate the life of Stephen Hawking over Joe Blow in Indiana or India - it is my preference that an embryo like Stephen Hawking not be selected against because of his condition - regardless of what you are selecting for. This is less of a value judgement but rather an appreciation for Hawking's contributions to my world (his valuation for contributions as a whole is impossible to determine)

It's interesting that you mention Tay Sachs. Children with Tay Sachs are never even given a chance to live or be 'normal' humans but are sick and in pain for much of their short lives. They have been at the center of the 'selection' debate for a long time with many parents of affected children wishing they didn't have to see their young child suffer. Diseases of adulthood pose a different problem because a short life is still a life.... and after all, only the good die young.



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