Scientists first developed gene therapy techniques in the 1990s, exploring ways to treat disease by modifying malfunctioning cells. In 1997, a team at John Hopkins University edited genes to create what the media called “Schwarzenegger mice,” which had twice the normal amount of muscle.
The researchers’ goal was to develop treatments for muscle-wasting conditions, including old age, but the same technique could theoretically be used to add muscle bulk to athletes, a concept called gene doping. Doctors could, theoretically, inject cells with enhanced genes into the relevant body part or use a benign virus to deliver modified cells. These superhumans could be the elite athletes of the future — athletes who perform faster, higher, and stronger than any “natural” human ever could.
Given the drive for perfection that governs elite sports, is enhancing performance all but inevitable?
There’s no evidence that anyone has tried this procedure — which has never been tested — but in 2003, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) proactively banned gene doping. The ban includes any use of polymers of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) or analogues, gene-editing agents designed to alter genome sequences or gene expressions, and normal or genetically modified cells. Like other drugs and methodologies banned by WADA, these techniques are prohibited because they have the potential to enhance performance, could represent a potential health risk to the athlete from an unproven technology, and violate the “spirit of sport.”
But is it right to dismiss gene doping in sports so quickly? What if gene-doping techniques were intrinsically different — and safer — compared to other doping techniques? And given the drive for perfection that governs elite sports, is enhancing performance all but inevitable?
In a new paper entitled “Enhancing Evolution: The Transhuman Case for Gene Doping,” British bioethicist Andy Miah explores the question from a philosophical perspective, rather than a legal one. The first fallacy…