Hazel McHaffie

Nature, nurture and genetic engineering

So, what did I make of Peter James‘ book on designer babies, Perfect People, which I mentioned last week? Well, to begin with, I realised fairly soon that I’d actually read it before, and indeed reviewed it on my blog in February 2014. Whoops! But given the topic (very much in my bailiwick) and because I certainly didn’t remember the detail, I continued anyway.

The plot in a nutshell …

John and Naomi Klaesson are devastated when their son Halley dies aged just 4 years old. He has Dreyens-Schlemmer syndrome, a rare condition carried on recessive genes. John is a scientist himself and feels a terrible weight of responsibility for the welfare of his family. Now he knows they both carry this faulty gene, he’s desperate to find a way of eliminating the possibility of a repeat. His research leads him to the work of billionaire geneticist, Dr Leo Dettore: a man who claims to create embryos free from all diseases. Oh, now you’re talking!

But … it comes at a price! Eye-watering sums. Fees non-refundable. And in pretty bizarre circumstances to boot.

But John and Naomi are prepared to borrow the dollars – it’s only money. They’reĀ  willing to fly out to a ship in the Atlantic Ocean outside of the jurisdictions that prohibit engineering human genes, where they’re to remain until the embryo is created and successfully implanted. They’re desperate enough to endure a gruelling selection process, hours and hours of questioning and difficult choices – not just relating to faulty genes that might predispose to certain medical conditions (diabetes, ovarian cancer, manic depression), but also to physical attributes (height, intelligence, athleticism), and character traits (calmness, compassion, sensitivity). Three thousand options!

Detorre is clearly unimpressed by the meagre list the Klaessons select, but John and Naomi just want a healthy child with a few advantages, not a superhuman son who will never fit in with his peer group. Conceiving any child is always a gamble, a random throw of the genetic dice; they just want the odds reduced. What’s wrong with that? Would you take a different option?

Having choice in the matter, though, creates its own dilemmas, major challenges that haunt them day and night. Is this really the science of the future?
If they had known Halley would be afflicted by the terrible disease that ended his life after four short years, would they have had him?
If they were to rely on nature a second time would they be willfully denying their child the advantages available – for mere money?
Have medical and scientific advances actually weakened the human race – had a bad influence on human evolution?
Will naturally-produced children become a form of genetic underclass in the future, never reaching the heights of the genetically engineered children?
The questions are endless.

Once back at home, with Naomi now pregnant for the second time, things quickly start to unravel. She suffers from hyperemesis and is severely depleted by it. An ill-advised interview by John makes their news public knowledge and overnight their world is turned upside down. The press are relentless in their pursuit of interviews and photos. A fanatical religious group, Disciples of the Third Millenium, violently (and I use the term advisedly) opposed to science, target first Dr Detorre and then the families he treated. Eliminating them. And the Klaesson’s are definitely in their cross-hairs.

Meanwhile Naomi’s pregnancy continues inexorably. But … one after another tests reveal facts Dr Detorre had not mentioned – was he really the genius he claimed to be? … when he couldn’t even get the sex of the baby right? … when he didn’t diagnose a biological anomaly? … when he implanted two embryos not the one requested? Then, after the birth, the results of Detorre’s interventions take on a whole different dimension … bewildering, terrifying, inexplicable.

This is clever writing, with enough of reality to suck us in. Which of us doesn’t want the best for our children? But what constitutes too high a price to pay? I’m not surprised that Peter James took an age to write this story, and often despaired of finishing it. It’s immensely complicated, laden with medical and scientific detail, and deeply disturbing. And the ending is simply heartbreaking.

As Einstein said, Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere. This author’s imagination has been given free rein! But his research has been meticulous, his logic perfectly credible, which all adds to the sense of plausibility.

Disturbing enough for me to draw comfort from the ongoing humdrum knitting keeping me anchored in present normality.


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