Reprogenetics is a term referring to the merging of reproductive and genetic technologies expected to happen in the near future as techniques like germinal choice technology become more available and more powerful. The term was coined by Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, in his 1997 book Remaking Eden.
In Silver's formulation, reprogenetics will involve advances in a number of technologies not yet achieved, but not inherently impossible. Among these are improvements in interpreting the effects of different expressions of DNA, the ability to harvest large numbers of embryos from females, and a far higher rate of reinsertion of embryos into host mothers. The end result, according to Silver, is that those parents who can afford it will be able to pick out the genetic characteristics of their own children, which Silver says will trigger a number of social changes in the decades after its implementation. Possible early applications, however, might be closer to eliminating disease genes passed on to children.
According to Silver, the main differences between reprogenetics and eugenics, the "science" of improving the gene pool which in the first half of the 20th century became infamous for the brutal policies it inspired, is that most eugenics programs were compulsory programs imposed upon citizens by governments trying to enact an ultimate goal.
Reprogenetics, by contrast, would be pursued by individual parents, who would be trying to improve their children with the same motivations that compel them to purchase expensive courses in preparation for standardized testing (e.g. the SAT).
Eugenics would have required a continual selection for breeding of the "fit", and a culling of the "unfit" while, according to bioethicist James Hughes, universal access to reprogenetics provided by a welfare state would permit the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level. However, he shares Silver's concern that unequal access to reprogenetics could create a two-tiered society of "GenRich" and "GenPoor", genetically-engineered "haves" and "have nots" (see the film Gattaca for a fictional depiction of the latter scenario).
Towards the end of Silver's book he speculates that the GenRich and the "Naturals" could, over time, even become separate species, unable to interbreed. However, Silver now accepts the criticism made by many evolutionary biologists that speciation cannot occur without strict reproductive isolation and is therefore extremely unlikely to happen.
The other contrast is that it is now known that the concept of genetic purity through eugenics is misguided: this form of genetic purity, insofar as it is meaningful, is effectively inbreeding and results in poor health and infertility while the end result of reprogenetics on the gene pool would be reduced incidence of genetic disease and potentially increased genetic IQ.
Skeptics think that the latter is rendered less likely by the very great complexity of the genome with respect to intelligence (half of all genes are expressed somewhere in the brain), not to mention the environmental influences from conception to adulthood. However, in a recent study of hundreds of American child geniuses, Robert Plomin of London's Institute of Psychiatry found specific genes on chromosome 4 that only the genius children have. Although research in the area of the inheritance of intelligence is still fairly contentious, these findings and others accumulating evidence give support to the idea that there is a finite number of genes that determine general intelligence, and not just separate genes determining individual intellectual capacities such as memory, spatial visualization or verbal skills.
Some argue that genetic disease will never be eliminated, since mutations and chromosomal errors, e.g. Downs Syndrome, will always arise. However, some bioethicists, such as Julian Savulescu, argue that this fact would not alter the existence of a societal and parental obligation to provide genetic and non-genetic health to children. Also, pre-natal screening techniques are not limited to reprogenetic methods only capable of detecting inherited conditions—combined with tests such as those currently used to screen embryos harboring Downs Syndrome, Spina bifida and similar pathologies, both inherited and incidental genetic disorders can theoretically be prevented from reaching the phenotype stage.
More importantly, critics think that heterozygote advantage means that elimination of a genetic disease might lower the fitness of the majority or at least a significant number of people, well meaning though it might be. Silver counters that this argument assumes that all members of a species function together in genetic terms. According to Silver, this assumption has no basis in reality, since the concept of a gene pool was invented as a tool for developing mathematical models by biologists who study populations of animals or plants. It is calculated as the frequencies with which particular alleles at particular genes occur across all of the members of a population that interbreed with each other. However, genes do not function in human populations (except in the virtual sense imagined by biologists), they function within individuals. And there is no species-wide knowledge or storage of particular alleles for use in future generations.
- Walter P. Kistler. Genetics in the New Millennium: The Promise of Reprogenetics. 2001
- Peter McGuffin, Brien Riley, Robert Plomin. Genomics and Behavior: Toward Behavioral Genomics, Science Magazine. 2001
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