Is Sex for Reproduction About to Become Extinct?
There are lots of great reasons we humans have sex. We mostly do it to pair bond, realize our primal urges, and feel good. Once in a while, we also do it to make babies. As the coming genetic revolution plays out, we'll still have sex for most of the same reasons we do today. But we'll increasingly not do it to procreate.
Protecting children from harm is one of the core responsibilities of parenting.
Most parents go to great lengths to protect their children from real and imagined harms. This begins with taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy and extends to having children immunized and protected from exposures to various diseases and dangers. Most of us look askance for good reason at mothers who abuse controlled substances during their pregnancies or parents who choose to not immunize their children. Protecting children from harm is one of the core responsibilities of parenting.
In the United States today, up to two percent of babies are estimated to be born with rare genetic diseases caused by single gene mutations. Sickle cell disease, Tay-Sachs, and Huntington's disease are among the more well-known examples of these, but the list runs to the thousands. Many babies born with these disorders suffer terribly, some die young, and nearly all spend big chunks of their lives struggling through the medical system.
Increasingly, however, many of these single-gene mutation diseases and other chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome are being identified in non-invasive prenatal tests performed on expectant mothers at the end of their first trimester of pregnancy. Knowing the hardship that children born with these types of disorders will likely face, majorities of these women in countries around the world are choosing to terminate pregnancies once these diagnoses have been made. Whatever the justification and whatever anyone's views on the morality of abortion, these decisions are inherently excruciating.
A much smaller number of prospective mothers, however, are today getting this same information about their potential future children before their pregnancies even begin. By undergoing both in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), these women are able to know which of the eggs that have been surgically extracted from them and fertilized with their partner or donor's sperm will carry the dangerous mutations. The in vitro embryos with these disorders are simply not implanted in the expectant mother's womb.
It would be monstrous to assert that an existing person with a deadly disease has any less right to thrive than anyone else. But it would also be hard to make a case that parents should affirmatively choose to implant embryos carrying such a disease if given the option. If prospective parents are already today choosing not to implant certain embryos based on our preliminary understanding of disease risk, what will happen when this embryo selection is based on far more information than just a few thousand single gene mutation diseases?
Our ability and willingness to make genetic alterations to our future children will grow over time along with our knowledge and technological ability.
When the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the race to uncover the mysteries of human genetics had only just begun. Although we still know very little about our genetics relative to the complexity of the genome and even less compared to the broader ecosystem of our biology, the progress toward greater understanding is astounding. Today, the number of single gene mutation diseases and relatively simple genetic traits that can be predicted meaningfully from genetic data alone is already significant.
In the not-distant future, this list will grow to include complex diseases and disease propensities, percentage probabilities of living a long and healthy life, and increasingly the genetic component of complex human attributes like height, IQ, and personality style. This predictive power of genetic analysis will funnel straight into our fertility clinics where prospective parents choosing embryos will be making ever more consequential decisions about the genetic components of the future lives, health, and capabilities of their children.
Our understanding of what the genes extracted from early stage pre-implanted embryos are telling us will be only one of the rocket boosters driving assisted reproduction forward. Another will be the ability to induce adult cells like skin and nucleated blood cells into stem cells and then turn those stem cells into egg progenitor cells and then ultimately eggs. This will not only eliminate the need for hormone treatments and surgery to extract human eggs but also make it easy and cheap to generate an unlimited number of eggs from a given woman.
The average woman has around fifteen eggs extracted during IVF but imagine what generating a thousand eggs will do to the range of possibilities that could be realized through pre-implantation embryo selection. Each of these thousand eggs would be the natural offspring of the two parents, but the variation between them would make it possible to choose the ones with the strongest expression of the genetic component of a particular desired trait – like those with the highest possible genetic IQ potential.
Another rocket booster will be the application of gene editing technologies like CRISPR to edit the genomes of pre-implanted embryos or of the sperm and eggs used to create them. Just this week, Chinese researchers announced they had used CRISPR to edit the CCR5 gene in the pre-implanted embryos of a pair of Chinese twins to make them immune to HIV, the first ever case of gene editing humans and a harbinger of our genetically engineered future. The astounding complexity of the human genome will put limits on our ability to safely make too many simultaneous genetic changes to human embryos, but our ability and willingness to make these types of alterations to our future children will grow over time along with our knowledge and technological ability.
With so much at stake, prospective parents will increasingly have a stark choice when determining how to conceive their children. If they go the traditional route of sex, they will experience both the benign wisdom and unfathomable cruelty of nature. If they use IVF and increasingly informed embryo selection, they will eliminate most single gene mutation diseases and likely increase their children's chances of living a longer and healthier life with more opportunity than their unenhanced peers. But the optimizing parents could also set up their children for misery if these children don't particularly enjoy what they have been optimized to become or see themselves as some type of freakish consumer product with emotions.
Conceiving though sex will come to be seen more and more like not immunizing your children is today, a perfectly natural choice that comes with a significant potential risk and expense.
But although there will be pros and cons on each side, the fight between conception through good old-fashioned sex and conception in the lab will ultimately not be fair. Differences and competition within and between societies will pressure parents and societies to adopt ever more aggressive forms of reproductive technology if they believe doing so will open possibilities and create opportunities for the next generations rather than close them.
Conception through sex will remain as useful as it has always been but lab conception will only get more advantageous. Over time, only zealots will choose to roll the dice of their future children's health and well-being rather than invest, like parents always have, in protecting their children from harm and helping optimize their life potential. Conceiving though sex will come to be seen more and more like not immunizing your children is today, a perfectly natural choice that comes with a significant potential risk and expense to yourself, your children, and your community.
As this future plays out, the genetics and assisted reproduction revolutions will raise enormous, thorny, and massively consequential questions about how we value and invest in diversity, equality, and our own essential humanity – questions we aren't remotely prepared to answer. But these revolutions are coming sooner than most of us understand or are prepared for so we had better get ready.
Because where this trail is ultimately heading goes well beyond sex and toward a fundamental transformation of our evolutionary process as a species – and that should be everybody's business.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”