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Competing against Mutants


In a recently broadcasted documentation about gene-doping, multiple award winning Swiss science journalist and author, Beat Glogger, reflected the issue of gene-doping in a sensitive and objective manner. In this Swiss-German co-production Andy Miah, a bold British Bioethicist, argued that gene-doping is supposed to be a natural friendly method of performance enhancement, whereas many other practices in the past weren’t. Simultaneously, he considered athletes no more as natural creatures by arguing: “We have to get rid of the imagination, that athletes are natural human-beings” (freely re-translated from the German version). Despite the fact that this statement is rather an anti-thesis than a substantiation for his strident position, I have to admit that the current development in gene technology tends to construct a sort of athletic hybrid. No doubt, this is a serious future issue we have to face. Nevertheless, Andy Miah’s declaration implies that athletes might kind take on a pioneer role regarding the subject of genetic enhancement. Therefore, is that an issue worth considering or even to achieving?

Appreciated human test tubes

The ambitious and (usually) healthy athlete seems to be the perfect target for gene-scientists to promote and improve their research, which might be capable to heal patients from diseases like Duchenne muscle dystrophy one day. In this regard, elite athletes are an open-minded community. Whenever they recognize the opportunity to enhance their abilities, they’re constrained to take it into account, because of “professional interests”. Indeed, this success oriented life-philosophy actually has the potential to lead several athletes to their deaths. To substantiate my thesis, I’d like to consider the so-called “goldman dilemma”. In this respect, fifty percent of elite athletes agree to undergo a performance enhancing procedures, which guarantees an Olympic medal, but ends up with death within five years. This behaviour, to my mind, implies a certain pathologic trait, which is predestined to be abused by the pharmaceutical industry. Subsequently, I’d like to cite Torbjörn Tännsjö, himself Professor of Practical Philosphy at University of Stockholm:

In elite sport we can test out the results of such enhancements and see, not where the limits are of the (given) human nature, but how far we can push them. We can enjoy what we see at the competition, and we can feel admiration for all the scientific achievements that have rendered possible the performances. And we can thank the athletes for taking the inconvenience to test them out before us.

(Human Enhancement (edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, Oxford): Ch. 14 – Medical Enhancement and the Ethos of Elite Sport)

Although, Professor Tännsjö did not write this passage in connection with genetic enhancement, it reveals the gratitude or even the relief to finally have found volunteers, who are willing to serve sciences for the welfare of humankind. Just, athletes do enhance themselves primarly to get an advantage in regard to the next competition and thus in order to serve egocentric interests, certainly not out of social chivalry. In this perspective, Andy Miah’s statement about „athletes do not belong to the natural human species“ may be interpreted in a total different manner. By denying athletes as being human, he paves the way to equalize elite sportspersons with lab-mice and thus justifies testing on them. If that’s really what he had in mind while pronouncing this quote, of course I (we) have to strongly oppose.

Brasil, 2016 – The first Mutant climbs the podium?

According to S. Frankel, Director of Ethics and Law of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gene-doping might already become reality during the Olympic Games in Brasil in 2016. In contrast to this prognosis, research of Professor Max Gassman, a Swiss EPO-specialist at the University of Zurich, proves that we’re still far away from launching serious genetic treatment into daily medical (and enhancing) reality. In fact, Prof. Gassman implemented EPO-genes into mice and ascertained a range of serious side-effects. For instance, the life expectancy of his mice tended to be not more than 50% compared to the average. Furthermore, mice suffered from liver and kidney failure and degeneration of muscle and nerve cells.[1] Consequently, genetically enhanced athletes at the Brasil Olympic Games would be the outcome of a science which has been pushed by monetary and egocentric interests and therefore might be badly practiced and applied in a still unproved state.

In the case I was wrong and genetic enhancement is going to be practiced safely until 2016, it might rather turn out as a moral disaster than a sporting one. As a matter of fact, in a genetically enhanced society everyone will be able to make use of the advantages of this kind of performance enhancing method. As a result, sports would be lifted to another level, but the relations between the different performances would actually remain the same. So in this respect, genetic enhancement does not at all guarantee success in any case, because the personal outcome is going to be measured with enhanced scales, as well.

Society acts, Sports reacts

In reference to the last paragraph above, genetic enhancement in sports requires previous genetic enhancement in society. This thesis is of course not in harmony with Andy Miah’s point of view. Nonetheless, I’m persuaded that there’s a social strainer, where things such as inventions or enhancing methods have to go trough. In other words it’s society itself (or in the case of commercialized sport – the market), which decides whether a new issue is going to be accepted or not. That means, as long as we do not boycott specific disciplines which obviously provide doping, we’re no longer in the position to argue against, because we tend to accept this practice. Presumably, we underestimate the moral state of society and its capability to remain critical on certain issues. To come to a conclusion, it’s is not sport which is in charge to take on a pioneering role towards genetic enhancement. It’s us.

[1] Admittedly, arguing on the behalf of animal-testing, might be in a kind similar (but vice versa) to Andy Miah’s argumentation, which I used to disagree a few lines before. Nevertheless, animal tests seem to be more or less generally and socially accepted.

[1] Admittedly, arguing on the behalf of animal-testing, might be in a way similar (but vice versa) to Andy Miah’s argument, which I used to disagree with a few lines before. Nevertheless, animal tests seem to be more or less generally and socially accepted.
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7 Comment on this post

  1. Is it unfair for a genetically enhanced person to compete with those who aren’t? Isn’t this a matter for the employer or competition sponsor to decide? Recall that talents are unfairly distributed, as are the opportunities to develop those talents. If the customers (e.g. the audience and sports fans) are happy, then what’s the problem?

    This post is, to a large degree (when not talking about perfectly rational choice to trade years of life for the pleasure of being glorified) a great capstone to the other posts about performance enhancement drugs and whether their use is “cheating”. Somewhere in the dispute lies the mysterious concept of the “natural” and “unenhanced” person. Now we have a person who is enhanced, not by drugs but by gene therapy, which fiddles with those things that produce the real or natural person.

    The gene therapy now is not terribly advanced beyond the cruder attempts at gene manipulation — selective breeding by people to assure particular kinds of offspring. Some parents push their children to marry persons who are intellectually well-endowed. Some evolutionists think that women are set to select physically imposing men with whom to mate (not necessarily marry) because the event will produce better offspring. But the same women often marry (or are already married to) more steady if less imposing men for security.

    Is this fair to those less endowed? Many young men and women think it isn’t. I did, but some of us got lucky.

  2. To be fair, I have yet to see this documentary but a few things strike me as quite puzzling. To start, what on earth does “natural friendly method of performance enhancement” mean? This may be somewhat cheeky, but unless we posit super-natural entities capable of producing enhancement, then all enhancements are de facto natural. As alluded to in the previous comment, the criteria for “naturalness” suffers a lack of substance.

    Also, I have concerns about your conclusions regarding the goldman dilemma. Exactly what is pathological about the underlying trait in the 50% of the athletes that sacrifice a portion of their life to win a competition? Mind you, this is already the case since for every athlete that makes it to the N.1 podium there are countless scores of less fortunate competitors who are defeated at best and injured to the point of disability at worst (discounting death, which is also a real possibility). And even the winners have effectively given up their lives in the pursuit of their goal. They are not dead, sure enough, but beside sport and victory they have little else.
    Furthermore, I fail to see how this trait (pathological or otherwise) is “predestined” to be abused by Big Pharma and their ilk. This is stated in the form of a logical consequence and yet I see no necessary connection there. (a little picky, I know, but justifiably so) And why abuse? Perhaps you have in mind the potential for exploitation? But again, this is far from the obvious consequence. Will the athletes be coerced into becoming enhanced? I don’t think this line of argument stands up to criticism.

  3. I know I’m being a pain now, but I would also question the accuracy of the title of this post. If and when gene-doping becomes a reality it will most likely be modification of genes in the adult organism through viral vectors. New gene sequences will be introduced into the DNA of the somatic cells of the athlete by means of appropriate viral vectors (Now if only I could remember my Microbiology course). Alternatively, RNA viruses could be used to alter the protein synthesis within the cells without altering the nuclear DNA.
    In either case, such enhancement therapies would not make the the athletes mutants. Mutations, so far as I understand the term, refers to inherited, if not necessarily inheritable, traits.

  4. First of all, thank you for your critics. Furthermore, I suppose to be in charge to explain some points of my essay. First and in reference to Dmitri Pisartchik’s wonderment according the “natural friendly method of performance enhancement”, I presume what Andy Miah had in mind by saying that, was to emphasise the fact that gene-doping is not going to require externally applied substances anymore. Instead, altering your genes would mean that your body is able to produce all the necessary substances by itself (without external intervention, what WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) actually defines as conventional doping). Second, I’d like to explain myself refer to the “Goldman Dilemma”. In my mind, accepting death as an inevitable result of success and glory is much more than “to sacrifice a portion of my life”. Rather this practice represents a method of committing suicide. I’m persuaded, we do not have the right to justify the way how someone creates his/her life, but with respect to suicide I think we’re bound to scrutinize at least the motivation of such behaviour (without judging it). In this concern, it’s also questionable where to draw the borderline between (drug-) addiction and extraordinary will to reach the top of the podium. What’s the difference between a heroine-addict and a (patholical) ambitious elite athlete? Both of them endanger their health (even their lifes) for a temporary sense of delight.
    Third and admittedly a striding argument is the potential of exploitation of athletes by the “Big Pharma”. Nevertheless, according to Sandro Donati (anti doping activist) in Italy the pharmaceutical industry produces six-times more EPO than patients actually need (Reference: Dopium fuers Volk, by Hans Lenk, p. 11, Denkperlen 06, 2007 by merus verlag, Hamburg). So, there’s a strong suspicion that sports-industry has something to do with it.
    Last but not least, I’d like to legitimate my choice of the title “Competing against Mutants”. I agree with Dmitri Pisartchik at least partly. As far as I know, there’s a differentiation between germ-line mutation which can be inherited and somatic mutations in somatic cells like muscle cells, which does not affect your offspring.

  5. Allow me respond once more. This time to Roman’s elaboration on the Goldman Dilemma. First, I would challenge the distinction between sacrificing a portion of one’s life and suicide. So far as I can the two are equivalent. Suicide is just a particular case of sacrificing a portion of one’s life, usually that portion which you would rather not live through.

    But let me turn to the Goldman Dilemma more directly. As it stands now many professional athletes (without resorting to doping) undergo such stress and hardship during training and competition that it effectively shortens their life-span. What is the principled difference between this and someone undergoing gene therapy session that would yield the same consequential profile? Consider the following comparison.

    Case 1: Athlete 1 puts forth virtually inhuman efforts in training and gives his all in competitions. At the age of 35 he reaches his dream of standing atop the Olympic podium with a gold medal. However, the stress and punishment he endured has so abused his body that he will die in the next 8 years from the wear and tear.

    Case 2: Athlete 2 undergoes gene therapy enhancement that (within reason) guarantees a gold medal at the Olympics, given some training by age 35, when the maximum benefit of the therapy will be manifest. The side effect of the therapy is that the athlete will die 8 years after his peak.
    NOTE: even with gene-therapy one would have to train and prepare for competitions. Nature must always be complemented with Nurture.

    To my mind judging (attributing pathology is judgmental/normative) Athlete 2 to be pathological implies that Athlete 1 is similarly pathological. I presume that few of us would be comfortable with this conclusion and yet I see no way to differentiate the two cases. Both athletes are, assuming informed consent to their training/therapy, willingly sacrifice a portion of their lives in order to attain a highly desired goal. I would even have no problem in saying that they both effectively commit a kind of future-suicide. But how is this pathological? What is wrong with this? I see nothing principally wrong with either case.

    Finally (at least for this particular comment), Roman’s mentioning of the heroine addict is interesting. Is there a difference? I would contend that the most commonly held difference is one of social acceptability. As I see it, society is tolerant of some forms of self-destruction and not of others. We tolerate a football player dying of a heart attack but look down upon an addict dying of an overdose.

    However, I would say that there is something more to the difference between the heroine user and the determined athlete. While it may be true that both strive for “a temporary sense of delight,” they do so in fundamentally different ways. The athlete improves himself to achieve the desired sensation, while the drug-user most plausibly self-destructs to achieve the same. In the case of the athlete, future health is sacrificed not only for the moment of glory but also for the intermediate increase in capabilities which are the means to that glory. Arguably, the heroine addict makes a more direct trade-off between his future wellbeing and current state of bliss, with no tangible improvements as a consequence.

    So far as I understand sport, from personal experience as well as observation, it is at least 1 part journey to 2 parts goal. The athletes do not simply endure the hardship of training and the pain of competition, they love doing it. I doubt that the analogy extends to drug addicts. I do not know of any heroine users who enjoy the process of injection. With this in mind I would have to raise the specter of pathology for those who would sacrifice their wellbeing for exclusively for the end-goal of a gold medal. Alas, I do not think that such people merit much discussion as they are not proper athletes and are obviously pathological.

  6. In reference to Dmitri’s two example-cases, I’d like to set another comment on the issue of the Goldman Dilemma. In my mind it doesn’t make any difference if an athlete is conveniently doped or even enhanced by artificial genetic alteration. As long as a substance (or a mutation) does not affect your cognitive capacities or even your mind, it won’t alter your intention to reach the top of the podium no matter what it costs. Performance enhancing methods just lift you to another level of excellence, but does not change your disposition to take risks. Therefore, the pathological trait I had in mind was actually not the fact to abuse drugs, even more it was the obvious lack of self-esteem, which other people preclude themselves from doing harm to their own body. So, maybe the question whether masochism is pathological or not, might be another issue worth to think about?

  7. It seems to me that there is an essential difference between masochism per se and the willingness to make sacrificies in pursuit of a goal. This is also a much wider issue than doping (genetic or otherwise). Ultimately this comes down to what we see as our ultimate purpose in life. Is it merely to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible, or are there pursuits for which it is worth sacrificing one’s health, even one’s life?

    Those familiar with my previous comments will no that I do not believe there is a “right” answer to this question: it is a choice. But by the same token, I would hesitate to describe as “pathological” those who make such sacrifices.

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