Breaking evolution's chains: The prospect of deliberate genetic modification in humans

Russell Powell, Allen Buchanan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Many philosophers invoke the "wisdom of nature" in arguing for varying degrees of caution in the development and use of genetic enhancement technologies. Because they view natural selection as akin to a master engineer that creates functionally and morally optimal design, these authors tend to regard genetic intervention with suspicion. In Part II, we examine and ultimately reject the evolutionary assumptions that underlie the master engineer analogy (MEA). By highlighting the constraints on ordinary unassisted evolution, we show how intentional genetic modification can overcome many of the natural impediments to the human good. Our contention is that genetic engineering offers a solution that is more efficient, reliable, versatile, and morally palatable than the lumbering juggernaut of Darwinian evolution. In Part III, we evaluate a recent attempt to ground precautionary enhancement heuristics in adaptive etiology. Our problem with this approach is two-fold: first, it is based on the same "strong adaptationist" interpretation of evolution that motivates the flawed MEA, and second, the etiological concept of function on which it relies provides indirect and potentially misleading information about the likely consequences of genetic intervention. We offer instead enhancement criteria based on causal relationships in ontogeny. We conclude that rather than grounding a presumption against deliberate genetic modification, the causal structure of the living world gives us good moral reason to pursue it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6-27
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Medicine and Philosophy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptationism
  • enhancement
  • evolution
  • genetic modification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Philosophy


Dive into the research topics of 'Breaking evolution's chains: The prospect of deliberate genetic modification in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this