Dynamist Blog


In a lucid exchange with Bill McKibben, Ron Bailey addresses the common charge (made also by conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza) that parents will deprive their children of freedom if they alter their kids' genes. The exchange is short and everyone should read it in full. That way, I can justify commenting on a side issue. Ron writes:

The mechanism for genetic tyranny, according to McKibben, is cells pumping out proteins specified by the genes selected by a child's parents. As an example, he asks us to imagine "duplicating the effects of Prozac but permanently, by altering the serotonin balance in the brain with DNA alteration." Does a person who is "naturally" serotonin deficient choose to be depressed? Does a high-serotonin person choose to be happy?

Given that all human brains have some level of serotonin that influences their moods and outlook on life, the question is what balance a reasonable child would want. Applying our reasonable person standard, would a child consent to being endowed with a gene that prevents her from becoming morbidly depressed? I think yes. This is no more tyrannical than a randomly conferred gene that boosts the production of serotonin, giving a person a naturally sunny outlook on life. Again, freedom cannot consist of random genes.

With all due respect to Ron, it is possible to have "a naturally sunny outlook on life" and nonetheless become "morbidly depressed." In fact, that's me. Would I have been a different person if I'd never been depressed? Sure. And I would have been a different person if I'd never been near-sighted or suffered from migraines or had a serious case of the mumps in first grade.

But as far as I'm concerned, the "real" me is the sunny one, not the depressed one, just as the "real" me is the one without a fever or blurred vision or a sharp pain through my left eye. Prozac (or, to be precise, its cheaper generic equivalent, fluoxetine) does not, to use McKibben's words, nag at my sense of identity. Prozac doesn't make me happy. Steve makes me happy. Writing makes me happy. Walking in the sunshine makes me happy. Prozac simply makes it easier to remember that I am happy and to continue to do the things that make me happy rather than becoming paralyzed with despair.

That people who are supposedly criticizing genetic alterations constantly bring up Prozac suggests that their objection isn't to genetic medicine at all. What really creeps them out--and this is particularly true among conservatives--is the notion that human consciousness emerges from the complex interplay of chemicals in the brain. They want a humunculus, an authentic self we alter only at the peril of losing our identity.

This is an oddly modern desire, Freudian perhaps. Back in the days of the four humors, people had no problem believing that temperaments emerged from the balance, or imbalance, of chemicals in the body. The people who gave us Hamlet and the Reformation believed that melancholy came from too much black bile. That belief didn't stop them from having identities.

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