Science - October 17, 2009

Grunberg: There's nothing wrong with messing with the gene pool

There is nothing wrong with manipulating the genes of humans, plants or animals. That was what writer in residence Arnon Grunberg claimed during the talk he gave to mark the end of his residence in Wageningen.

Arnon Grunberg: humans are weak but not bad
Reproduction is a genetic lottery. There is nothing wrong morally speaking with fixing that lottery a little to our own advantage, says Grunberg. In an impressive essay, the writer denounced 'idle sermonizers disguised as politicians or comedians' who preach to us reprovingly about what we are, or are not, able to do, allowed to do and duty bound to do.
Call
Grunberg considers reproduction to be a frivolous absurdity. It is a game of chance where we are both the players and the stakes. A card game, in which we are increasingly able to influence which cards we are dealt. What is wrong with that, says Grunberg. 'Interfering with the genetic lottery doesn't mean you are abolishing the lottery as a whole. We shouldn't reject out of hand all attempts to make the game of chance a bit less like a game of chance as being immoral.'
What is fundamentally wrong with wanting to have children who are good at tennis or able to see in the dark? Not much, thinks Grunberg. 'Humans are capable of tolerating and understanding diversity.' In fact, Grunberg calls upon us to manipulate, to 'occupy the open position of the gods'. Freely translated: Scientists of Wageningen - carry on with your tinkering and beat the dealer.
Optimistic
Grunberg takes a fairly optimistic view of humans' moral sense. 'Humans are not necessarily inclined to behave irresponsibly by definition. I doubt whether an increase in the range of options will lead the human race to go crazy.' Would there be many parents stuffing their children with growth hormones if that made them taller? Grunberg doesn't think so for one moment. 'We underestimate parents' sense of moral responsibility.'
Rector magnificus Martin Kropff was visibly - and audibly - delighted with Grunberg's message. There was a second message for him that evening when he questioned Grunberg's ten students on the podium. One of them made a penetrating remark to Kropff about the absence of philosophy and ethics in the Wageningen teaching programme. And if a major writer comes along, he only attracts ten students.

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