Babies seem like small miracles to new parents. Eager parents wonder whether their baby looks more like mom or dad. They wonder if their newborn girl will develop their mother’s intelligence or their father’s charisma. Will she have her uncle’s height? Or her aunt’s sense of adventure?
Whole genome analysis will never tell us exactly how children will turn out—a substantial role will always be played by random environmental forces and non-random parenting and schooling. But genomic sequencing will eventually give us a sense of the range of personality traits and cognitive ability our children are likely to develop.
Decades of research in behavioral genetics—which uses twin studies to infer the heritability of traits—has revealed that genes account for about half of the differences between individuals in personality traits like conscientiousness, openness, and empathy. Genes also account for about 80% of the differences between individuals in intelligence. Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) use genetic data from large numbers of people to correlate genes with life outcomes ranging from the likelihood of developing cancer to the amount of educational attainment we’re likely to achieve. The predictive capacity of genomics will only increase in the coming years.
What does this mean for parents?
If we can partly predict our children’s traits and capacities we might worry that parents will use this knowledge in ways that will close off opportunities or options for children. For example, the bioethicist David Reznik raises the objection that if children have the right to an open future, “parents who excessively impose their own choices, values, and life plans on their children may violate this right. For example, parents who decide to have a son castrated in order to make sure that he becomes a good singer close off many choices and plans that he could have made as an adult, e.g., having children through natural means.”
However, as Reznik argues, most parents would not castrate their son simply to allow him to continue to hit high notes in a choir. And it would be morally wrong to use knowledge of their children’s genetics to manipulate their children into pursuing an idiosyncratic goal at the expense of all other goals. What seems more likely to happen—and more ethically justifiable—is that parents will use genetic knowledge to help their children develop the latent talents they have. If we found out that our child had a propensity to learn music especially easily, emphasizing musical education early on would presumably be welcomed when our child became an adult.
There are at least two moral principles at stake: counterfactual consent and human flourishing. Using knowledge of our children’s genome in order to help them develop their unique abilities would presumably be welcomed by our child to the extent that they would have consented to us doing this if they were mature and prescient. This way of thinking about the ethics of nurture is not especially novel. We think it’s a good idea to feed our kids a healthy diet in part because we think they would thank us later for putting more carrots than cake on their dinner plate. They would thank us because enabling them to develop their natural abilities and avoid diet-induced disease is part of a good life.
Accepting Fate or Creating the Future?
Some philosophers worry about “hyper-parenting.” Michael Sandel, for instance, criticizes the attempt to exhibit master over our children rather than appreciating “life as a gift” to be accepted rather than controlled or molded. He worries that parents might exhibit this vice either by using embryo selection to enhance the traits of our kids, or by using our knowledge of their genetically influenced capacities to dominate them in some way.
Sandel has a point. Parents shouldn’t use their power to manipulate or dominate their children. But taking account of their genetic potential is more likely to do the opposite. Genetic predictors will help parents understand their children’s unique capacities so that they can nurture their talents and mitigate their risk of developing diseases of psychopathologies later in life.
An example of this is Type 2 Diabetes (T2D), which occurs when carbohydrates lead susceptible people to insulin spikes and eventually insulin resistance. This can result in cardiovascular disease and often leads to amputations and even premature death. Although T2D is highly heritable, and is especially common among Indigenous Americans, dietary and exercise interventions can prevent it from manifesting later in life. There may be no clearer case than T2D in which knowing we are highly susceptible to a disease can help parents alter the environment of children in ways that makes them better off.
The goal of Traitwell is to figure out how we might use our burgeoning knowledge of genetics to make human life better. One aspect of this is to give parents the ability to promote a more open future for their children, whatever their genetic endowments may be.