When light from the surface can no longer permeate the water around our body modification iceberg, and we enter our murkiest water yet, we’ll find the experimental procedures of the near future. There have been many writings on how gene editing could provide any number of practical benefits to humans in any number of scenarios, but the majority have not discussed the aesthetic augmentations these technologies could be used for and the ethical concerns that arise from them.
Currently, one of the more prominent forms of gene-editing is CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which through DNA sequencing is able to attack specific strands of DNA. When coupled with the Cas9 enzyme and a gRNA, researchers have found that one can get far more specific with your edits than was previously thought. This work was what gave Jennifer Doudna and her colleague the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.
Let’s look past the diseases that could be eradicated and think purely of a more vain use of this technology, and the many missteps it could cause. Envision that a person is in their earliest stages of pregnancy, and they are offered the ability to ensure their child will be six feet tall. They take it, as do the majority of parents during this time, and a whole generation of kids are born who will grow to be six feet tall. Now let’s say that five years later, the parents are having a second child, but now they are able to ensure that the new child will grow to be six foot four. Let’s say that other advancements have been made over this time period as well, and the child born five years later also has much better chances of having striking blue or green eyes, or a fuller head of hair. An entirely new group of humans are born who will all be noticeably “more attractive”, effectively making the slightly older section of their generation obsolete. Is this an ethical choice by the parents? They simply did all that they could while each child was an embryo to ensure they would be “attractive”, but in doing this, they also ensured that the younger child would have more advantages literally by design than the older.
Another misstep this kind of gene editing makes is its rejection of diversification, and in regards to this article, diversified beauty. Do we really want to see people born with such similar traits? For the first few generations, we likely won’t notice, but as these designer babies grow up, mingle, pass on their DNA to one another, and then go on to get their children’s gene’s edited as well, the effect will become apparent, and disturbingly uncanny. If a singular beauty standard is promoted as it is today, then similar choices will be made for each unborn child, and they will all grow up to share comparable features. Does this not go against the push today to diversify beauty standards and against the recognition that whether someone is attractive or not will always be subjective? There is not and cannot be a singular definition of what makes a person beautiful, and putting this type of science behind such a foolish stereotype is dangerous and could result in a regression in all the work that has been done to combat such an opinion.
The issue of cultural disenfranchisement arises with gene-editing. Humans will grow much more separated from the generations above them as gene-editing allows a far more abrupt physical change between you and your baby. Differences that would have potentially taken generations and would have had no way of ensuring to begin with would now be able to be reached just by selecting them on a clipboard at a doctor’s office. This could result in even the most isolated of communities having their population replaced with people with qualities that could have only come from across the world. Now, this could be considered a positive or a negative. The world is already naturally becoming more and more of a melting pot, and in hundreds of years, physical differences between cultures will already begin to blur further. Knowing this, you can argue that gene editing will simply exacerbate the process. However, it’s the issue of artificiality that receives pushback from those against gene editing for such reasons. Just because nature will play its course and humanity will, to put it crudely, congeal, that does not mean humanity should race ahead to arrive at some undefinable point as fast as possible, especially if our unnatural arrival will push a singular “look” over another, as previously discussed.
Then there’s the economic issue that will come with this technology. Just as how anything works in America, it will only be available to those who can afford it. Due to most people being painfully dull and having some degree of insecurity over their dullness, public displays of affluence are a common way that the average person tries to one-up their fellow human, as for some reason, monetary wealth is valued above everything. Today that’s a gaudy LV monogram purse, and tomorrow it’s through gene editing. While the middle class may only be able to afford several gene-edits and choose to make sure their child has a minuscule risk of developing cancer or contracting HIV, the elite will be able to afford “the full package”, and on top of being as healthy as their augmentations allow them to be, will get any physical feature science allows them to. On top of this, they will get slightly exaggerated features to make it obvious to the world that they have access to such modifications, as evident through current trends in cosmetic plastic surgery. One can easily make the argument that the rich already pay to live longer and look better through access to medicine, nutrition, or any number of the resources that come with a fat bank account, but purchasing DNA that allows you to perfectly metabolize fat just seems too easy and too unfair if it’s not available to everyone. As we have explored earlier in this article, as time goes on, it is likely that those with access to the most up to date cosmetic modifications will, over the course of several generations, begin to look more and more like one another, while those who only choose to get some will “progress” at a lower rate. As previously mentioned, not only will this limit diversity in beauty, but it will also likely cause those with specific genes and the ability to purchase certain genes to only become interested in one another. This could lead to new eugenics, perhaps the most glaringly obvious issue that could emerge from rampant gene editing. New eugenics leaves the choice to the parents as opposed to the government, yet could still result in harsh societal divides in those that have and those that have not.
One is able to hypothesize about the effects of gene editing on beauty standards because of how new of an area of study it is. They are the most modern of body modifications, and the repercussions discussed here seemingly only scratch the surface of ethical conversations about how far humans should alter nature to their whims. Though despite the many reasons to be cautious, there is cause to be ecstatic at the idea of this kind of freedom. Ideally, generations from now, this technology will have grown to be readily accessible and affordable, and will have evolved past simply being possible during the beginnings of a pregnancy, instead available at any point in a person’s life. Outside of a healthier human race, this technology could wholly enable us to express ourselves through our appearance in a way that hairstyles, tattoos and piercings, and plastic surgery never could.