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How not to save the world

By Charles Foster

Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.

This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’

It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds –  (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.

If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that?

There are typically, and very broadly, two types of reasons given:

1.            ‘Why not?’

This is not a reason for doing something, unless doing it can be justified as scientific inquiry. If there is a prima facie basis for characterising an action as scientific inquiry, then it might be possible to characterise the reason for the action as ethical if either; (a) scientific advance is of itself a good thing; and/or (b) there is reason to believe that from the action other good things might spring (such as a cure for disease).

Contention (a) is problematic. The problems are for another day. Contention (b) is better. And of course often wholly unexpected practical benefits result from scientific inquiry that seem, at the start, to be of purely theoretical interest. TVB technologies might have unforeseeably good spin-offs other than TVB. But it seems unlikely.

In the case of TVB itself there’s a potential future ‘good thing’ – the survival of the human race.  That itself might be a reason for allowing TVB. But it’s not a reason to revise our distaste. If it’s needed in the future we can sensibly say then: ‘This is abhorrent, but it is less abhorrent than the elimination of the human race’.

For the most part, ‘Why not?’ type rejoinders are not arguments at all, but simple invitations to an opponent to provide a response. The response ‘Why?’, to ‘Why not?’ is a better attempt at an argument, since ‘better the devil you know’ has at least some force. ‘Why not?’ assumes, illogically, that if you can do something, you should. It gets what force it has from an unreasoned prejudice against the status quo.

2.            ‘If you don’t accept this, you’re being inconsistent’

In the context of TVB, it is likely to be suggested that to oppose TVB means that one must, to be consistent, oppose (for instance), a single woman conceiving a child by anonymous semen donation. Since most of us won’t oppose such conception, this type of argument is supposed to embarrass us into acknowledging that there is no good reason to oppose TVB.

Each such argument has to be considered on its own merits, but all the cases that one can imagine being deployed in the TVB context can be distinguished easily from TVB. Few single women conceiving by donor insemination will contend that that’s the way they would like it to be. It’s better than not having a child at all, but it’s not the ideal. Most would prefer the context of a relationship. And even if they wouldn’t, most people would agree that, other things being equal, the child would be better off being brought up by a couple (gay or otherwise – this isn’t a ‘traditional family’ point).

If ‘normal’ conception were possible (by the conjunction of an egg from X and a sperm from Y – whether ‘donated’ or otherwise), it is hard to argue convincingly, in most foreseeable circumstances, that TVB would be better. TVB is a repudiation (strident if it’s unnecessary) of the usual benign contexts of human reproduction: a systematic denial of the relationality that is at the heart of so much that we are. This isn’t to say that because something happens naturally in a particular way, it’s unethical for it to happen in any other. It is merely to acknowledge that most of us were conceived in a relationship of sorts, and all of us are at least partly constituted of the relationships in which we have been joyfully or joylessly entangled ever since.  To adopt TVB when we’re not forced to do so would legitimatize a selfish, atomistic, non-relational practice. There would be ethical fall-out in territory a long way from synthetic sperms.

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17 Comment on this post

  1. Three quick comments.

    First, the idea that the Y chromosome is on its way out in humans isn’t, by any means, universally accepted: And even if it is on the way out, it’ll take millions of years – by which point, humans will almost certainly be long gone anyway.

    Second, the idea that a Y chromosome is necessary for sexual reproduction – even within mammals – is false. After all, the Rykyu spiny rat does perfectly OK without one: (

    Third, let’s allow that humanity would disappear. So what? It’s hard to understand how any existing human might be harmed by the absence of distant descendants; and those descendants themselves plainly won’t be harmed by not coming to exist.

    Given all that, your 1(b) at least seems a bit iffy…

  2. Iain: many thanks. Very helpful. Re your third point: I’d contend (although the full contention would be long and tedious), that the elimination of, of failure to avoid the elimination of, humanity would be a wrong although probably not, as you say, a harm. In this case, the harm/wrong distinction doesn’t seem to me to alter the case for TVB. If it’s all that can save humanity, it ought to be done. It doesn’t follow from that that we should revise any of our views about how humans ought or or not to reproduce now.

    1. I’m curious to know how it’s a wrong – can you give a sketch?

      I mean: imagine that (mirabile dictu) people all over the world decided to become celibate, or some other phenomenon causes the birth rate to fall massively. Eventually, the population is unsustainable. Would they have an obligation to start having sex for the sake of the species? To take one for the team (or give one, natch)? I think that’d be a strange thing to argue. Not impossible, perhaps, but strange.

      And let’s not forget that there’s more than one way for a species to vanish. It’s not necessarily the case that we’d be losing whatever it is that makes token members of the species h. sapiens valuable – it might just be that, over the course of 5 million years, we evolve into one or more successor species, just as our hairier and stronger-jawed ancestors did. (In fact, it’s more than that we might: it’s more or less certain that we will.) Thus: no more humans. Would that be so bad? So wrong?

      Fancy collaborating on a paper…?

      1. I’m all for the human species to go extinct… by gradually (or suddenly) voluntarily turning into some posthuman species that continues the worthwhile aspects of our culture and existence. The species itself does not have any value. The problem is that if we go extinct in the usual way there would be no more of the goods associated with human existence (whether you count consciousness, culture, creativity, intelligence, what have you) and plenty of human preferences for the future would be unmet (what was the point of all that work for future generations if there are none?)

  3. Iain. Very many thanks. Yes, let’s do a paper. Will email you about it.
    It’s a wrong because diversity, with some rather obvious caveats, is a good. To eliminate a specis is to make the world a less varied plcce. A world without a particular species of Amazonian earwig is a less diverse world and therefore a worse world. The wrong isn’t avoided by preserving human characterisitcs in another biological vessel. The vessel and the contents aren’t disiinguishable. In what sense is diversity a good? Several: aesthetic, certainly. Multipotency? (Although I grant that you’d have to ask whether the continued existence or enhanced condition of existence that might be conferred by multipotency was itself a good thing).

  4. Diversity as a good sounds suspect to me. If this to be true we would have a moral obligation to reproduce wih different partners constantly, or constantly genetically engineer new corn strains simply because we could.
    Perhaps another way of looking at it, since humans are responsible directly for the lack of diversity in the ecosystem, it would be good to eliminate humans so that diversity can properly flourish.

  5. Many thankss, Wayne. This is where I’d wheel in my caveats, several of which you’ve anticipated.
    Do you think there would be anything wrong about eliminating humanity? And if so, why? I’m genuinely interested and trying to find my own way here.

  6. It seems to me that TVB might actually be a beneficial technology because it does allow more options. Not just presumably for lesbian couples, but also for handling unforeseen disasters (say, somebody bioengineering a virus that messes with the Male-specific lethal 3 homolog in humans in order to trigger a male gendercide). Having more reproductive options seems to be quite useful.

  7. Many thanks, Anders. As I noted above, it doesn’t seem to me that you can preserve the characteristics of humans that you think are valuable without also preserving the species. We are not only quintessentially embodied animals, but quintessentially en-speciesed animals. The species isn’t merely a vessel for the characteristics you admire: to a large extent at least it is those characteristics.
    As for TVB allowing more options: you’d only need those options in the sort of genetic Doomsday scenario envisaged by Prasad.

  8. I think there is something wrong with eliminating humanity… I don’t think that there is anything wrong if humanity failed to continue. If humanity fails to continue because of defective genes then we fail. That is no more wrong than the dinosaurs going extinct. Tragic… Maybe… But not morally wrong.

  9. Charles, It seems to me that there is a transhumanist subtext beneath the research of TVB, artificial wombs, and the ‘pimp-my-genes’ endeavour to pull humanity from the brink of extinction. For me transhumanism as an idea (a technological/eschatological attempt to fulfill Nietzche’s ubbermenchen perhaps) suggests the relative value (0.1?) of our incumbent species set against some distant future super-human species (0.9?) – something along the lines of the calculus of an evolutionary preference utilitarianism. There is something intuitively disturbing about the growing acceptance of the inevitability of these advances(??), as if the science were an unstoppable tide, immune to the ethics of academics or the moral compass of the lay man or woman. What an extraordinary myopic approach, from an otherwise intelligent scientist, that would have the tyranny of the womb and humanity’s “prejudice” toward sexuality cast into oblivion without a thought for the relationality (as you have put it) at the heart of our species and its continuation.

  10. Wayne: many thanks. If there’s something wrong with humanity being eliminated, but nothing wrong with humanity being extinct, how do you describe the wrongness of the eliminator?

  11. Michael: many thanks. I tend to agree. But what do you think would be lost if humans became extinct? And would the corresponding benefits to the planet of eliminating the ecological vandal that is man outweigh any losses?

  12. Charles, Thanks for the reply. In answer to your first question, with Alasdair MacIntyre I would see the usefulness of reintroducing a telos into moral reason. I would suggest that it is an easier task for that system to discover what would be lost if humans became extinct, than the remnants of systems post MacIntyre’s ‘moral catastrophe’. In this case, whatever we agree (through narrative) that telos may be – “human nature as it could be if it realised its telos”. Having said that, I read your first question and the first thing that came to mind as an answer was “that which knows what it is to lose”. —– On your second question, Fermi’s paradox (the strangely quiet sky) might suggest an approach. This thinking species is unique (or at best extremely rare) in the cosmos. I see no benefit of an utterly silent cosmos (never mind planet) if we were to become extinct. But I would admit an implied ‘telos’ and the good of human exceptionalism in my response. Anyhow, I think it might be too soon to attribute the culpability of vandalism to our species as a whole, though of course there is an argument for a culpable subset right now. When we’re far enough down the road and remain obstinate, perhaps then it may be fair. The wheels of ‘change’ turning slowly and all that…

  13. I don’t understand your claim in the last paragraph that “normal” birth with a sperm (including through sperm donation) is better than TVB. I could understand an argument that sex is the conception method that keeps us most connected with either humans, and that labratory methods of conception are “a systematic denial of the relationality that is at the heart of so much that we are.” But you say that sperm donation is still in the context of a relationship, and TVB is not? Why?

    The extremely high expense of conceiving a child in a lab means that no one does it lightly. If TVB does become feasible on the scale that sperm donation is, I would expect it to be used much as sperm donation and in-vitro fertilization are currently used: by couples (and, more rarely, individuals) who really want to be parents and weren’t able to conceive in the usual fashion. I imagine TVB would be especially popular among lesbian couples who both want to be genetic parents of their child. I don’t understand how this is a “selfish, atomistic, non-relational practice.” Why privilege one lab method over another?

  14. Thanks Julia: my point is simply that a conjunction of a gamete from X and a gamete from Y necessarily connotes a relationship (that between X and Y), however mediated that relationship may be by technology. The conjunction of two gametes, both of which come from X, connote no such thing. I’d contend, getting all metaphysical for a moment, that there is something quintessentially human about being brought into existence in an X meets Y type of way. The reasons for that contention are for another time. My objection doesn’t apply, of course, to TVB being used by lesbian couples, where an artificially engineered sperm from X is used to fertilize an egg from Y.

  15. Michael: many thanks. I’d dearly love to be able to answer the question without a telos: but I have a nasty suspicion that you may be right.

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