There has been much speculation about the future of human procreation in both the literary and scientific world. Science fictions, in print and film, portray a bleak, post-apocalyptic scenario where babies are designed by an institution and “farmed” in large quantities. In contrast, the scientific community is not so far behind, especially with the advent of genetic engineering. As the synthetic biologist and futurist Andrew Hessel claimed at the Techonomy 2011, we will be able to create and edit synthetic genomes for babies in the future, thus essentially engineering our babies. (Christina Agapakis has an awesome piece debating the humane component of such engineering)

Perhaps synthetic genomes are a bit too much of a stretch with the current technology, but this brings up the question of selective breeding. Selective breeding has been employed by farmers and breeders over the ages to gather the best of the gene pool of a particular species and manipulate the genes according to their need, which did not always correspond to environmental adaptive pressure. Essentially, it is this selective breeding that marked the beginnings of genetically modified organisms. While it is true that recombinant DNA technology has become pretty recently available for commercial use, one cannot deny that what the farmers were doing before the discovery of genes and DNA was  genetic modification, albeit a lot slower and clumsier than what current technology allows. The animosity towards GMOs then is somewhat misplaced, especially on the basis of biodiversity and gene flow. The accusations that GMOs are disrupting the natural gene flow then should have probably made centuries ago, but this recent rise in animosity could be a reaction to the increasingly negative impacts humans are making on Nature.

Selective breeding in humans, especially through genetic modifications, can most probably be labeled as blasphemous. But if looked deeper into the matter, one can see that in case of humans, we are actually restricting our gene pools through intraracial marriages. Insitutions such as religion and ethnicity govern much of the gene flow within our populations by dictating our reproductive behavior. One could even argue that we are reducing the adaptibility of the future generations by compartmentalizing the gene flow. Fortunately, there has been a steady increase in interracial marriages over the 20th century which has allowed for abundant gene recombinations resulting in the variety of appearances and mixed ethnicities we see today.

What is interesting is that in both interracial and intraracial marriages, selective breeding is taking place, but in a more sophisticated and complex way. The courtship ritual or the pairing of mates among humans involves more than expression of sexual intent or secretion of pheromones and so, selective breeding is not really apparent. But considering the facts that mating decisions are also largely based on social factors of the mates, it could be said that these social factors are what is driving our selective breeding. With in vitro fertilization coming into the picture, selective breeding has been more exposed, especially when it involves appearance and inheritable diseases. Choosing among thousands of sperm and egg donors does allow a lot more choices available for interested couples, thus essentially humanizing the process of selective breeding. Because of the genetic information available to us, it is relatively easier for us to predict the design of an offspring, which really is not much different from predicting and then creating GMOs. Because our reproductive behavior is intermingled with the social dynamics, it cannot be denied that such selective breeding is also affecting our social evolution.

The rise of the middle class, throughout world economy, can be represented by a stabilizing selection model, which indicates a certain change in the biological interactions humans have. Although it is not apparent, the different economic classes do exist within different biological environments and have different interactions with the environment around them. As for example, a poor individual would be more exposed to harmful chemicals and less access to healthcare, whereas a rich individual will have more access to healthcare and medical technology and less exposed to toxic agents. Thus the changes in the genomes of these two distinct economic classes over time can be attributed to their living environments.

What would Jane Austen say about all this? The author, who portrayed poor governesses pairing up with rich gentlemen, was perhaps indicating to this particular stabilizing selection as shown by the growing middle class. This social evolution, combined with plummeting cost of genome sequencing and rapidly progressing field of genetic engineering, could result in the bleak picture of human reproduction that is still confined within fiction and fantasy. Or is it really confined within just fiction?