Stem Cell Ethics and Controversy in Human Genetic Engineering

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Stem Cell research is a highly controversial and emotive subject that is, more often that not, misunderstood, misrepresented and fraught with ‘ifs and buts’. There are fears that science is moving too fast without giving proper consideration to potential impacts and to ethical concerns. The subject is a confusing and complex one that is difficult to grasp and constantly changing. Governments around the world struggle to develop policies and guidelines at the same time as individuals struggle with their conscience and beliefs.

There are two key areas of debate:

The scientific debate; what is proven, what is debatably proven, research results that are received with skepticism.

The ethical/moral debate; some people base their objections on religious beliefs, some on ethical grounds, others believe simply, that changing or ‘messing with’ the human genome is simply not right, against nature and a highly dangerous path to follow. Others harbour concerns about the directions in which stem cell research can be taken.

Significantly much of the debate is held at an emotional level with scientific facts often overlooked or conveniently ignored. So with that in mind lets first look at the issues that are currently facing scientist in the field.

Exciting claims are regularly reported by scientists with their findings published in reputable science journals with all the relevant data and background information, the media, picking up on these stories, repackages the findings for public consumption and dutifully supplies the splash headline:

Brain stem cells to cure diabetes
Giant leap for the ‘secret of long life

Unfortunately the fine detail is the thing that is often lost leading to much misconception, once you get to the small print you discover that all is not as it seems. Sentences like ‘hold much promise’, ‘seems to suggest’, ‘has the exciting potential to be’, ‘it is reasonable to assume’ abound in reports of advances in genetic engineering and stem cell research.


As rapidly as the field of stem cell research is developing new questions and problems arise, with each new discovery another set of problems seems to arrive. Scientist really don’t fully understand why embryonic stem cells can proliferate successfully in the laboratory without differentiating but adult stem cells are not so easily controlled or proliferated. As yet there is no reliable and reproducible way to create stem cell lines. For experimentation to continue successfully it is essential that results can be reproduced repeatedly, at present this simply doesn’t happen. Scientists have yet to agree a set of test to confirm that the fundamental properties of a stem cell exists in a set of laboratory stem cells. Even the test that are used are not wholly reliable and accurate.

In actuality scientist don’t really know exactly how the process of stem cell differentiation takes place, whether the stem cell be embryonic or adult. Differentiation occurs when a stem cell becomes a specific cell type, this happens when the stem cell receives signals telling it to start to become a cell. Scientists barely know what those signals are and how they affect the process. Directing the differentiation of stem cells has developed over the years but is still not an wholly exact science. It seems likely the process relies on a series of complex interactions. Controlling the differentiation is proving to be a major difficulty, how to make a stem cell become the exact cell type you want is not so easy and certainly not reliably reproducible in all areas.

Scientist simply don’t know how many different types of adult stem cells exist and where they exist. They also don’t know how adult stem cells come to exist or how they know where to go to do their repair and replacement functions. The question of just how flexible different adult stem cell types are is still unknown. Some scientist claim that adult stem cells can differentiate into many kinds of cells outside of their specialism, others argue that this is a fluke of the laboratory.

One of the major goals for scientists is to develop a way to use stem cells to repair damaged tissue. To do this they require a large amount of cells. Embryonic stem cells are the easiest to proliferate but are not a genetic match for the patient, adult stem cells are a match but are not easy to grow or control in large numbers. The recent announcement from Seoul University is being seen as a major step forward in this area.

There are many other problems that face the scientists; the laboratory process requires the use of some animal products that leave residue, how long a laboratory created cell survives in a human is an unknown. There has been significant progress in the field but there are still many unanswered questions.


The biggest problem with the ethical debate is that the potential for stem cell research to produce cures for some of the worlds most deadly and debilitating diseases is pitted against fervently and deeply held moral and faith based beliefs.

The issue that gets the most attention and is often the focus for opponents of stem cell research is the use of embryonic stem cells. This is because during the process of stem cell line creation the embryo is destroyed, opponents argue that this is the taking of human life – murder. Opponents argue that, as every embryo has the potential to become a human being that each and every one is sacrosanct. Proponents argue that even under natural conditions not all embryos go on to form a baby, that unused harvested embryos would anyway be destroyed and that, ultimately the ends justify the means. Many opponents of Embryonic stem cell research put forward compelling arguments for more vigorous experimentation and research into the use of Adult stem cells. They see this as an answer to the dilemma of the potential for disease relief. In reality this debate is quite clear cut, either you believe that embryonic stem cell research is fundamentally wrong because it destroys a potential human or you believe embryonic stem cell research is acceptable because the embryo will never become a human even if it has the potential to do so.

But this argument is merely a very vocal, media fed argument that only scratches at the surface of far deeper and potentially more impactful debates. There are big questions regarding the potential directions in which stem cell research can be taken; designer babies and eugenics, cloning, chimera. What of the rights of the women who donate their eggs for research and just how much attention is being paid to the health risks? What are the potential impacts of research on the future?


A chimera is an organism constructed out of living parts from more than one biological species. Many scientist see the creation of chimera as a useful tool for the observation of stem cell behaviour.

The Science

The use of chimera is seen as a way to overcome some of the hurdles outlined above. Basically it allows the scientist to test what happens when stem cells are introduced into a patient, without experimenting on humans. For experimentation purposes what happens is that human stem cells are implanted into an animal host, either an animal embryo or an adult animal. Most commonly used are mice and monkeys. Some of the experiments that have been done already involve implanting brain cells and creating mice with entire human immune systems. It is also worth noting that this is not an entirely new idea and that human-animal chimera also exist in the form of animal tissue implanted into humans; pig heart valves are commonly used as replacement organs for people with heart disease. The extent to which the implanted human stem cells affect the host animal is dependent on the stage at which the material is introduced. If the human stem cells are introduced into an early stage animal embryo then they have a much more profound effect because the stem cells of the host are less differentiated. If the stem cells are introduced into an adult animal the effect, in theory is much less profound because much less differentiation is taking place so the stem cells are more of an addition. But just how far should we go with the use of chimera? Where should the boundaries be drawn? When does the ‘yuck’ factor kick in?

The Ethics

The ‘yuck factor’ is the point at which our reaction to a piece of information or something we see makes us squirm. If we see a monkey running around a cage, we’re unlikely to squirm even if we know that a percentage of that monkeys brain is made up of human cells. But what if we saw a sheep with human feet? Although there is no proof that this has happened, it is theoretically possible. In fact there are a lot of theoretically possible outcomes of chimeric experimentation and many of them may not be so evident to the naked eye. It is the mixing of animal and human cells that concerns the ethicists that have bothered to notice this element of stem cell research. For example how human would a monkey with 20% human cells be, is it human or monkey? Some might say that 20% human cells does not make a monkey human but where is the line to be drawn? These are some of the issues that the bioethicists are fighting with.

For more information on the chimera debate a good starting point is The Other Stem-Cell Debate

For a Christian Perspective: The Stuart Little Syndrome


There are two basic types of cloning Reproductive cloning and Research cloning. Reproductive cloning means to recreate a genetic duplicate of a human being and in itself raise a great many ethical issues, therefore it is dealt with separately on this site. Research cloning is the use of cloning techniques to create an embryo for research purposes only.

The Science

The technique can be used to produce stem cells for research. The technique used is called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer: SCNT, what happens is that nucleus from a body cell is transplant into an egg. Using electricity or chemicals this entity is triggered into producing an embryo. The resulting embryo can then be used to obtain embryonic stem cells. This process is also know as embryo cloning or therapeutic cloning. Some of the uses for this technique include producing patient specific stem cells, the genetic material of the patient is implanted into a donor egg thus producing stem cells that are a genetic match for the patient. This stem cells could then be used for therapeutic cell transplant. Another proposed use is that stem cells could be created with genetic disorders allowing research of that disorder to be carried out. There are however a few scientific problems; the cost of therapeutic patient specific cell production may make it a non-starter or at least only available to the very rich; the very specificness of the cells means that they can only be given to the patient they were grown for, unlike conventional drugs which can be given to almost anyone. Even though recent research has improved the efficiency of cell line production it still takes a lot of time and eggs to produce very few usable lines. Also lets be clear the technique is still only useful for research purposes and there are many hurdles to be overcome before any real human use is possible.

The Ethics

Lets not forget that cloning in itself uses human embryos whether created using the in vitro fertilization method or using donated eggs, so already we have the ethical difficulties previously outlined. But there are yet more ethical problems arising out of cloning cells. There are fears that research cloning will open the door to human cloning. With the proliferation of cloned embryos the chances of a few hundred embryos going astray becomes more possible. One of the major concerns is the treatment of the women who donate their eggs. How informed is the consent they give?


Whichever method is used to obtain stem cells at some point or other an egg is needed. Adult stem cells are near to impossible to proliferate outside of an egg, embryonic stem cells are taken from an embryo. So a donor is needed; enter the women. Eggs are often donated by women who seek fertility treatment, they give their spare eggs to science. Some women are paid to produce eggs for research. As far as it is know all women give ‘informed’ consent for the eggs to be taken. But there are big questions being asked as to exactly how informed that consent actually is.

The Science

Cloning and stem cell production requires an enormous amount of eggs. Initial attempts at cloning needed 242 eggs to produce a single usable embryonic line, since then that figure has been reduced to 20 eggs for one embryonic line. During a normal cycle a woman produces just one egg so inevitably women are treated with drugs to stimulate multiple egg production. The process requires a two stage drug programme, firstly to shut down the ovaries and then to stimulate them to produce the eggs. A woman treated with drugs to stimulate multiple egg production can produce about 10 eggs.

The Ethics

At its simplest the procedure for egg extraction is painful and invasive. However the drugs used to stimulate multiple egg production can produce serious health risks. Whilst most women suffer only minor symptoms such as headaches or nausea some can develop much serious problems such as severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can lead to dangerous fluid buildup, clotting disorders, renal failure, infertility and even death. One drug that is used in the procedure is called Lupron (leuprolide acetate) a drug that is not approved or tested for this purpose, although it is being legally used because it is approved for other purposes. Lupron has caused many problems which have been reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) including chest pain, nausea, depression, emotional instability, loss of libido (sex drive), amblyopia (dimness of vision), syncope (fainting), asthenia (weakness), asthenia gravis hypophyseogenea (severe weakness due to loss of pituitary function), amnesia (disturbance in memory), hypertension (high arterial blood pressure).

A woman who donates spare eggs from fertility treatment has a clear motive for wanting to undertake such a procedure, she wants a baby. However those choosing to voluntarily donate eggs will have different motivations; possibly they believe they are helping to find ways to cure disease, but how many realise just how far into the future those cures are? Maybe they are doing it for the money, tho’ laws exist preventing excessive payments in some countries, in other poorer countries that money can be more than useful, but how aware are the women of the risks they are taking ?


There are issues associated with the connections between stem cell research, eugenics and designer babies. It is within the area of stem cell research that information will be found that will enable scientists to pursue eugenics, the betterment of humanity and the ability for parents to choose not only the sex but also physical and character traits of their offspring, designer babies. Because these are such big issues they are covered elsewhere on this site.

Stem Cells and Human Genetic Engineering


There are a number of different kinds of stem cells.

After sperm fertilizes an egg a single celled zygote is formed. This cell is a Totipotent stem cell which means that it can become any kind of human cell. This includes the cells needed for the formation of the placenta, the formation of the embryo and the development of all other fetal tissue and organs. Totipotent stem cells divide to make more totipotent stem cells which can themselves become fetuses; which is where identical twins come from.

4 days after the formation of the zygote the totipotent stem cells stop dividing and begin to form the Blastocyst. A Blastocyst is a mass of cells consisting of three parts; an outer layer of stem cells called the trophoblast or trophectoderm, which form the cells of the placenta and other tissue needed to support the fetus, a hollow area and Inner Mass stem cells which form the cells that become the fetus. These stem cells are Pluripotent meaning they can become almost any kind of cell. Inner Mass stem cells are not totipotent because they cannot make trophoblast cells but they can make any other kind of human tissue cell.

stemm cell diagram on hte future human website

The Pluripotent stem cells of the Inner mass then begin to specialize into Multipotent stem cells which can become different kinds of cell depending on their specialism, for example blood stem cells can become red or white blood cells or platelets. This process is known as stem cell differentiation

Multipotent stem cells are also found in the formed human and are commonly known as Adult Stem Cells. Whereas the role of pre-birth multipotent stem cells is to form, build and develop the new human, the role of the adult stem cell is one of repair and renewal.

Adult stem cells are know to exist in a several areas of the bodies organs and tissues. Some of the earliest stem cells to be discovered, in the 1960′s, were those in bone marrow. Bone marrow contains at least two types of stem cell, those for the formation of blood related cells and those for the formation of bone, cartilage, fat, and fibrous connective tissue.

The body is known to hold stocks of stem cells in various other places including; the brain, the skin, skeletal muscle and liver.

Until relatively recently it was thought that multipotent stem cells were only capable of differentiating into cells for use within their specialism. The stem cells multipotency had led scientist to believe that this meant that stem cells which live in a specific place could only differentiate into cells related to that organ or tissue, it seems that this may not be true. Recent experimentation suggests that certain adult stem cells may be pluripotent and capable of Transdifferentiation, the ability to differentiate into other cell types outside of their specialism. It has been shown that already differentiated cells can transdifferentiate and more particularly can be induced to transdifferentiate. Whilst some evidence seems to exist for transdifferentiation there is a big debate regarding how exactly it happens, some scientists have suggested that a process of fusion occurs that gives the appearance of transdifferentiation. At this time there is no accepted conclusive proof either way.

Finally stem cells are found in one other place, the umbilical cord. These stem cells are also multipotent and more specifically only make blood cells.


While we bear in mind the debate about transdifferentiation and the nature of adult stem cells, certain aspects of stem cell morphology are held to be true. This is a basic overview of these ‘knows’.

From Stem to Death.

Stem cells sit around in the zygote, embryo, fetus or the birthed human, dividing. The division of stem cells into new stem cells is known as self-renewal, the division of a stem cell into a new, specialist cell is know as differentiation. The stem cells are waiting for a signal to start to differentiate. Differentiation is the process of becoming a specialist cell.

The stem cell receives the signal telling it to turn on certain genes and make the required proteins. Part of this process is the continuing division of the cell. The differentiation process is complete once the cell stops dividing. It is now a specialist cell. This cell then makes its way to the required spot where it continues to function until death. The point of death varies from cell type to cell type



TypeBehaviourFound In
Early EmbryonicTotipotentZygote
Blastocyst EmbryonicPluripotentInner Mass of Blastocyst
Umbilical CordMultipotentUmbilical Cord
AdultMultipotentBabies, Infants, Children, Adults


Scientist mainly use two types of stem cells, blastocyst embryonic and adult which they obtain from either animals or humans. In the main scientist steer clear of using totipotent embryonic stem cells because of the controversy caused by their use. A totipotent stem cell has the total ability to become a human, i.e. it cannot only make the tissue required for human life but also the tissue necessary for the placenta. As the embryo develops the stem cells become less pluripotent so fetal stem cells are less versatile. Umbilical cord stem cells have so far only been found to hold blood stem cells. Adult stem cells were thought to have formed their specialism and therefore only be able to produce cells that fit the specialism; evidence is beginning to suggest that this may not be so. And lets not forget the transdifferentiation experimentation here.

The Variety of Life:

There are a lot of different kinds of cells that go to make up the body. The different kinds of cells have hugely differing life cycles.

Two examples:

Skin Cells

The Skin needs Keratinocyte cells for repair and renewal. The stem cells recieve the signal to start to differentiate into a Keratinocyte cell deep within the skin layers. As it differentiates it moves towards the surface of the skin.Before the cell reaches the surface it loses it nucleus and dies. As a dead cell on the outer layer its job is to protect the living cells underneath until it finally flakes off to become dust. As you can see this process requires a lot of stem cells to be available for differentiation as the skin is continuously repairing and renewing itself.

Nerve Cells

Image courtesy of National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Nerve cells come in two basic forms, Neurons and Glia. Neurons transmit information and are supported by the glia cells. They are mostly created during the embryonic and fetal stages ergo they are from embryonic or fetal stem cells. When a stem cell starts to differentiate for use within the nervous system it can do one of three things; it can self-renew, it can become an astrocyte, a type of glia cell, or it will produce neurons or oligodendrocytes. By the time we are born most of our neural stem cell activity has finished. As children we probably grow a few more neurons that are used to create neural circuits. The jury is still out on how much activity happens after birth, there is evidence to suggest that the brain can and does make new neural cells from adult stem cells. The death of a neural cell is infrequent and happens after a long and active life.


Stem cells are some of the most interesting cells in the human makeup. They possess three key features that make them eminently useful and fascinating for scientists.

1. Stem cells are cells that have yet to have their specific role in the formation of tissue determined.

2. Stem cells can become almost any other kind of cell. They are waiting for a signal that will tell them what kind of tissue cell to become.

3. Stem cells have the ability to divide – proliferate over long periods of time.

The pluripotent nature of embryonic stem cells – the ability to become almost any other kind of cell makes it one of the favourites with scientist. Also embryonic stem cells are more easily grown in the laboratory and are generally more abundant. But this is the stem cell that causes most controversy. The argument is fundamentally about when human life begins; at birth or at conception, and the right to life. Using adult stem cells is basically uncontroversial but at present adult stem cells are seen as less versatile; they are rarer and they proliferate less readily.


Embryonic Stem Cells

Firstly the scientist needs to have a blastocyst from which to extract the Inner Mass Stem Cells. The Inner cell mass is then transferred into a plastic dish that has been coated with, most commonly, mouse embryonic skin cells and contains a soup of nutrients and growth factors. These initial stem cells divide over a period of a few days to fill the dish. Once the dish is full the stem cells are removed from the dish and transferred into new dishes where they continue to divide. This process is repeated for about six months. After 6 months the initial batch of 30 stem cells has become several million. These cells are all still pluripotent. During this six month process periodic tests are made to ensure that the stem cells are still healthy, genetically normal and have not started to differentiate.

If the batch passes all the test then it can be called an embryonic stem cell line. There is no accepted standard for these test and scientist admit that the tests do not in fact give a clear indication of the stem cell lines fundamental properties and functions.

The scientists keep the stem cell lines from spontaneously differentiating by controlling the conditions under which the stem cells are grown. When they need to start the differentiation the conditions are changed. To produce a stem cell line for the creation of specific types of cell the scientist adjusts the chemical composition of the culture or the surface medium or inserts some specific genes. At present this process is not that reliable.

Adult Stem Cells

Adult stem cells are already specialists, but specialist waiting for their signal to start to work – differentiate. There are some important aspects of adult stem cells that need to be borne in mind; they do not exist in large quantities and they do not divide until they are activated by disease or injury and are required for a repair or renewal job.

The biggest challenge to scientist in the field of adult stem cell research has been how exactly to produce enough adult stem cells to make it viable as a therapeutic option. So far there has been limited success in the field of stem cell proliferation and control. A regular check on the news will show monthly if not weekly hopeful articles describing ‘promising’ new discoveries.


Disease Elimination and Cure

Most of the more lethal diseases such as cancer are caused by faulty cell differentiation and division, as are birth defects. If scientist can understand, unravel and control the complex processes of differentiation it will be a huge step towards finding ways to eliminate and cure such diseases, birth defects and genetic disorders.

Drug Testing

Rather than rely on animals for testing new drugs and therapies scientist are attempting to create stem cells line that can be used to produce cells for testing drugs and therapies. Cancer cell lines are already used to test anti-tumour drugs. To be able to test drugs on different kinds of tissue requires the scientist to be able to produce consistent stem cell lines and have them differentiate to exactly match so that each drug type has ‘level playing field’ for comparison.

Tissue and Organ Replacement and Renewal

Experimentation has shown that it may be possible to use stem cells to create new cells that can be used to repair damaged tissue or even eventually to grow new organs. Some of the injuries and diseases that scientists are concentrating on are; Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The idea is that healthy cells are generated in the laboratory and then transplanted into the patient where they will replace and renew the damaged tissue.


It is highly likely that stem cell research will be a major player in the future. The possibilities for the manipulation of the human form, making the adjustments that might prove necessary, are likely to be achieved using stem cell engineering. Taking stem cells and manipulating them for alternative cell production could hold possibilities for changing organ or tissue function. Growing genetically manipulated organs could also be a possibility. Who knows what kind of new organ might be feasible this way?.


This article scratches only the very surface of the subject of stem cell research. There are many hurdles for the scientists to overcome and many ethical issues to be debated and resolved. These issues are discussed more fully in other sections of this site.

If you would like more in depth information on the subject of stem cells a good starting point is the National Institutes of Health (USA) stem cell site.

Human Genetic Engineering and Physical Attraction

Physical attractiveness refers to the perception (appearance) of an individual as physically beautiful and desirable by other people. Some aspects of how a person is judged beautiful are universal to all cultures, whereas others are restricted to particular cultures or time periods. What is at the root of physical attractiveness? It is theorized that people are attracted to people possessing those traits which convey an ability to enhance one’s own survival and those traits with which they wish to imbue their offspring. Whether this theoretical root cause occurs consciously or subconsciously (perhaps through evolutionarily development) is also a matter of debate.

Physical attractiveness can have a huge effect on how people are judged people tend to attribute positive characteristics such as intelligence and honesty to attractive people without consciously realizing it. This fact lends credence to the “hard-wiring,” evolutionary development theory. Regardless of the origins of the positive attribution, and as methods for altering one’s appearance become more common place, there may well be an increasing trend to improve one’s lot in life through artificial manipulation. In fact, this trend is already quite apparent in the case of plastic surgery which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. And there is no reason to believe that people will not afford themselves the benefit of such alterations on behalf of their children as germ-line engineering becomes more prevalent.

With which physical characteristics will people choose to imbue their offspring as the genetic engineering technology becomes readily available and inexpensive? Let’s examine a few specific concepts around beauty and physical attraction.

Quicklinks on this Page

1 Judgment of physical attractiveness
1.1 Universal correlates of beauty
1.2 Facial symmetry and the golden ratio
1.3 Determinants of male physical attractiveness
1.4 Determinants of female physical attractiveness
1.4.1 Waist-to-hip ratio
1.4.2 Proportion of body mass to body structure
1.4.3 Prototypicality as beauty
1.4.4 Other determinants of female beauty
2 Historical variations
3 Social effects of attractiveness
4 Bibliography

Article Scope

This article discusses some possible reasons behind appearance-based physical attraction which do not necessarily relate to the ability or even likelihood of one person developing a relationship with another. Relationship factors (trust, friendship, love, commitment, etc.) are more a matter of personality, compatibility, and behavior than are looks, and are not the subject of this article. Similarly, many studies suggest that there is a chemical component to the overall attractiveness of one person to another in face-to-face interactions. Pheromones and hormones carried aerially and received via the olfactory system may have a compelling effect on two people. This “chemistry” is also outside the scope of this article which focuses solely on personal appearance.

Judgment of physical attractiveness

One’s own culture has a strong effect in determining who a person considers as physically attractive. As children grow up, they learn what their culture considers attractive. Movies and cartoons, frequently portray the villain as being ugly, whereas the protagonist is depicted as attractive. Children are shown examples of what is considered as beauty, in the form of dolls and pictures on magazine covers. Perception of what is considered as attractive and appealing is also very heavily influenced by other dominant cultures and the impact of its value system.

Universal correlates of beauty

That said, cultures tend to agree on what is attractive. There is a strong correlation between judgements of attractiveness between cultures. Furthermore, infants, who presumably have not yet been affected by culture, tend to prefer the same faces considered attractive by adults. This implies that a large part of attractiveness is determined by inborn human nature, not nurture. Social and biological norms also play a significant role in our perceptions of attractiveness: any particular attribute of a physical feature too far outside the normal range denotes abnormality and may be seen as unattractive.

Facial symmetry and the golden ratio

Facial symmetry is seen as a universal determinant of health and therefore of beauty. A person of either gender who is considered as attractive in various cultures has been found to have facial symmetry based on the golden ratio of 1:1.618. Plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt developed an ideal beauty mask marked with various outlines of facial features based on the golden ratio. The faces that are judged as most attractive are found to fit the mask.

Determinants of male physical attractiveness

According to studies conducted by M.R. Cunningham in the 1990′s, sexual attraction for a man by a woman is determined in part by the height of the man. From many women’s perspectives, the man should be at least a few inches taller than her in order to be perceived as physically appealing. It would be preferable if the man is at least a little above the average in height in the given population of males. This implies that women look for signs of dominance and power as factors that determine male beauty. Other properties that enhance perception of male attractiveness are a slightly larger chest than the average, and an erect posture. Women seem more receptive to an erect

Today, certain characteristics are generally accepted throughout the Western world as signs of physical attractiveness. These are, of course, far from universal:

1) A muscular physique is a sign of athleticism and good health- heritable characteristics women want their offspring to possess. Today, muscular physiques are generally desired by most men in the West, but extreme over-development can be viewed as undesirable to some women due to a natural aversion to body dimensions grossly outside of a generally accepted norm. Male physiques which are not viewed as attractive by large sectors of society are – obesity (often perceived as a sign that the man is either lazy or in poor health) and overly slim bodies (seen as indicative of the man not engaging in sports or exercise or of being in poor health).

2) A unique hairstyle can signify individuality which presumably sets the male apart in an attractive manner. There is an analogous phenomenon in nature: that of unique plumage in some bird species (i.e. the Peacock) used to attract the female. This factor is still subject to the biological and social range norms, however.

3) A facial structure which accentuates skeletal features. In Western societies, men and women of all races often agree that a face with pronounced cheekbones and often a heavily-set jaw is physically attractive. These are currently viewed as indicative of a masculine personality. These skeletal features in addition to a slightly elongated face can make the masculinity more heightened and the male much more attractive.

Not within the realm of physical attractiveness, but included in the discussion to support the proposed root driver of the attraction phenomenon, are material wealth and social signs of success. Women generally find these characteristics attracive as they indicate the ability of the male to care for the female and her offspring.



Determinants of female physical attractiveness

The determinants of female physical attractiveness include those aspects that display health and fitness for reproduction and sustainance. These include correlates of fertility such as the waist-hip-ratio, mid upper arm circumference, Body mass proportion and facial symmetry.

Waist-Hip Ratio and female attractiveness

Strong correlations between attractiveness and particular physical properties have been found, across cultures. One of the more important properties is symmetry, which is also associated with physical health. Large clear eyes are also important. In women, a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of about 0.7 ratio (waist circumference that is 70% of the hips circumference), is typically considered very attractive.

Proportion of body mass to body structure

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most important and most universal determinent of the perception of beauty. The BMI refers to the proportion of the body mass to the body structure. However, in various cultures the optimal body proportion is interpreted differently due to cultural learnings and traditions. The Western ideal considers a slim and slender body mass as optimal while many ancient traditions and Asian societies considers an embonpoint or plump body-mass as appealing. In either case the underlying rule applied in determining beauty is the BMI and hence displays how cultural differences of beauty operate on universal principles of human evolution.

Besides, the slim ideal does not consider an anorexic body as attractive just as the full-rounded ideal does not celebrate the over-weight or the obese. The cultural leanings are therefore just social emphasis on specific phenotypes within a parameter of optimal BMI.

The attraction for a proportionate body also influences an appeal for erect posture.

Prototypicality as beauty

Besides biology and culture, there are other factors determining physical attractiveness. The more familiar a face seems, the more highly it is judged, an example of the mere exposure effect. It is seen that when many faces are combined into a composite image (through computer morphing), people find the resultant image as familiar and attractive, and even more beautiful than the faces that went into it. One interpretation is that this shows an inherent human preference for prototypicality. That is, the resultant face emerges with the salient features shared by most faces and hence becomes the prototype. The prototypical face and features is therefore perceived as symmetrical and familiar. This reveals an “underlying preference for the familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous” (Berscheid and Reis, 1998). However, critics of this interpretation point out that compositing computer images also has the effect of removing skin blemishes such as scars and generally softens sharp facial features.

Classical conceptions of beauty are essentially a celebration of this prototypicality. It celebrates the extra-ordinary (from the latin root meaning over or extremely-ordinary) as the prototype or most beautiful.

The phenotype of ones own mother during the early years of childhood, becomes the basis for the perception of optimal body mass index (BMI). This shows the importance of prototypicality in the judgment of beauty and also explains the emergence of similarity of the perception of attractiveness within a community or society, which shares a gene pool.

Other determinants of female beauty

Although it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, studies have shown that there are many other universal or near-universal qualities which make human females attractive to males. Among these other determinants are:

1. Symmetry of features: an indicator of lack of disease or injury

2. Clear complexion: indicator of health

3. Contrasting colors and features: such as well-delineated eyebrows, dark lashes, dark eyes/light face or light eyes/dark face; these heighten the features of attraction, perhaps a holdover from primitive forebears with less acute vision

4. Large, symmetrical, white teeth: indicator of reproductive vigor and ability to defend young; also health and contrast

5. Prominent zygomas (cheek bones), especially with a blush of color: paired, rounded forms, especially if pigmented, stimulate the same male response as the flushed buttocks of simian females in mating position

6. Thick, vivid lips which may also have an analogous phenomenon in nature (see 5, above)

7. Large, symmetrically spaced eyes: paired, rounded forms

8. Proportionate nose, straight bridge devoid of signs of breakage or physical damage

9. Ovoid face, small chin, lack of facial hair perhaps clearly signally femininity and fertility

10. Thick, lustrous hair: an indicator of health, and perhaps reminiscent of the analogous phenomenon in nature (i.e. the plumage and the perception of uniqueness correlation)

11. Soft, higher pitched voice: indicator of non-maleness and therefore fertility; perhaps suggestive of submissiveness to a degree sufficient to facilitate mating

Historical Variations

Peoples’ views of attractiveness have differed from culture to culture throughout history. In Mediterranean societies such as Ancient Egypt, men with muscular physiques were considered attractive as it was thought to be the natural state of the male body. However, being fat was considered more attractive, as it indicated that the person was rich enough to afford a lot of food and avoid physical labour. During the Middle Ages in Europe, having tanned skin was considered deeply unattractive amongst men and women, as it was a sign that the person had to work outside in the fields. Consequently, rich men and women sought to maintain very pale skin (to the extent that they would completely cover their skin when outdoors) as a way of showing that they were wealthy and could avoid working outside. Traditionally, some Japanese people dyed their teeth black (ohaguro). It was thought that the blacker the teeth is, the more beautiful; a view which died out in the early Meiji period. A similar phenomenon occurred in Renaissance Europe – sugar was very expensive and only the rich could afford it, thus serving sugary food become a major status symbol. Contemporary accounts reveal that people were aware of sugar’s ability to rot the teeth, and as a result many rich, fashion-conscious Renaissance people (particularly English women) took to deliberately blackening their teeth to prove how much sugar they could afford. In nineteenth-century Germany, it was considered attractive to be fat (again as a symbol of wealth), whilst young men often participated in duels simply in order to gain facial scars, which were viewed as symbols of masculinity.

At certain periods in history, emphasis has been focused on a particular area of the male body. In Renaissance Europe, the codpiece, a popular fashion accessory, led to emphasis on the thighs, and fashion-conscious men strove to maintain muscular thighs. From the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, the popularity of stockings led to men striving to attain muscular calves. In more recent times, a growing acceptance of displaying large areas of flesh has led to appreciation focusing on developed pectoral muscles, biceps and triceps, and abdominal muscles, which enjoyed popular appreciation in 1990′s Western nations. Different societies generally have significantly different perceptions of male beauty:

In pre-industrial societies, having a muscular physique and tanned skin was attractive, but signified that the man had to work in the fields all day, and was consequently likely poor and uneducated. Having pale skin and/or a fatter physique was considered highly attractive, as a symbol that the man was rich or educated enough to avoid manual labour in the field.

In industrial societies, having a pale body was considered unattractive, as it was a sign that the person worked in a factory and lived in dense, polluted urban areas with weakened sunlight. Being tanned and muscularly-defined instead of fat or undeveloped muscularly became attractive, as a symbol that the man lived in the countryside, which was far healthier than the cities, and performed “good honest” agricultural labour as opposed to working shifts in a factory.

In post-industrial societies, being pale and/or fat or especially thin is may be viewed as a sign that the person has little regard for his physical state or health. Having tanned skin is viewed as naturally attractive, and as a potential sign that the person takes foreign holidays. False tans, however, can be the subject of humour.

Having a fit or muscular physique is considered highly attractive, as a sign that the person takes care of his body and health, and has both the time and money to frequent a gym. However, having especially large, highly-developed muscles is viewed by some as naturally unattractive, and possibly indicating undesirable aggressiveness or obsession with muscles. In recent decades, a backlash against social stereotypes of male physical attractiveness has increased variation in physiques, hairstyles, fashion trends, etc, often as an expression of individuality in place of conformity to arbitrary stereotypes.

Social effects of attractiveness

When a person is seen as attractive or unattractive, a whole set of assumptions are brought into play. Across cultures, what is beautiful is assumed to be good. Attractive people are assumed to be more extroverted, popular, and happy. There is truth in this attractive people do tend to have these characteristics. However, this is probably due to self-fulfilling prophecy; from a young age attractive people receive more attention that helps them develop positive characteristics.

Physical attractiveness can have very real effects. A survey conducted by London Guildhall University of 11,000 people showed that physically attractive people earn more. Less attractive people earned, on average, 13% less than more attractive people, while the penalty for being overweight was around 5%.

Interestingly, cultures differ in the details of how attractive people are seen. In Western cultures that value individuality, attractive people are seen as assertive and strong. But in some more collectivistic Asian cultures, attractive people are seen as being more sensitive and understanding.

Both men and women use physical attractiveness as a measure of how ‘good’ another person is. Typically men tend to value attractiveness more than women. But in terms of behavior, most studies have shown very little difference between men and women.


• Ellen Berscheid and Harry T. Reis. “Attraction and Close Relationships”. In Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, editors, Handbook of Social Psychology, pages 193-281. New York: McGrawHill, 1998.

• Harper, B. “Beauty, Statute and the Labour Market: A British Cohort Study”, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 62, December 2000, pp773-802. Press release and summary (

• Fisher, Helen. “Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love”, Henry Holt and Co., February 4, 2004

• Cash, T.F; Gillen, B; & Burns, D.S; (1977) Sexism and ‘beautyism’ in personnel consultant decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62, 301-310.

• Clark, M.S; & Mills, J. (1979) Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and social psychology, 37, 12-24.

• Cunningham, M.R. (1990) What do women want. Journal of personality & social psychology, 59, 61-72.
Singh, D; (1993) “Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: role of waist – to – hip ratio”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 65, 293 – 307

• Cunningham, M.R; Roberts, A.R; Barbee, A. P; Duren P.B; & Wu, C.H; (1995) “Their ideas of beauty are, on the whole, the same as ours: Consistency and Variability in the cross cultural perception of female physical attractiveness”. Journal of Personality & social psychology, 68, 261 – 279.

• De Santis, A; and Kayson, W. A; (1999) Defendants charactersitics of attractiveness, race, & sex and sentencing decisions. Psychological reports, 81. 679 – 683.

Human Genetic Engineering and Adaptability:
The Ultimate Weapon of Survival


At the moment adaptation of the human form is purely speculative and like most scientific advances, in the realm of the imagination. All of those things we experience in our dreams: leaning into a gently blowing breeze to be taken aloft and soar, free of our mammalian land-dependent reality; A dive into the deep blue-green waters, warm and inviting to discover we can breath and explore and be at peace. Whatever the human mind can conceive, it can achieve.  Pair that up with necessity is the mother of invention and not only do you get a cliché laden paragraph, but a roadmap to the future survival of the human race.

My inclination is to jump straight to the stars, so clear is the reality and necessity of that eventuality, so varied the environments to which we must adapt. But let’s start here and develop a worst case scenario. On earth. The next 50 years. Global warming continues. Perhaps we surpassed the tipping point. Oceans rise, land dwindles. The planet, our spaceship earth, becomes hostile to humans… in their present form. Investment has not been made sufficiently in extrasolar planet expeditions or colonization efforts.

Who among us, so long as the subjective “humanity” could be preserved to your satisfaction, would not opt to alter the physical shell of the human to preserve humanity?  Nomadic to Agrarian to Industrial to Informational to Aquatic.


Of course, at present we do not have the technology or the knowledge to make these kinds of radical changes to ourselves, but it could happen with genetic engineering, gene and stem cell therapy. We could create the desired human using genetically engineered cells to produce the necessary tissue or organs. DNA could be cloned and the genes manipulated and used to create the future human. Stem cells manipulated and implanted, possibly with the help of some nanorobots and a little AI thrown into the mix. What about tissue or organs from animals, developed for human use. We could grow new, different organs altered to suit a particular purpose. Gills, blow holes, regenerative limbs and appendages.

All of these theories are speculative with very little research or experimentation to back up any of these ideas so prevalent in the science of tomorrow, i.e. science fiction. In 1957 James Blish wrote a collection of science fiction stories that were published in ‘Seedling Stars’. These stories introduced a new word ‘Pantropy’, meaning ‘to change all’, which encompassed the idea of changing the human form to survive on other planet. Of course at the time little was know about just how extreme the environments could be!

What if we could develop wings? Survive underwater? Or completely adapt for survival in currently hostile environments; places of extreme temperature, where gravitational pull is higher or lower, the air unbreathable – i.e. other planets. Maybe we would want to adapt ourselves to have very long limbs or to be very short because it suited our chosen profession. Or what about getting the eyes of a hawk or the skin of a rhino, all of these adaptations have their potential uses.

The same process would apply to adaptation to whatever new environment we found ourselves in; identify the changes needed, sort out which genes to change and engineer the changes. But what if we started out on our long space journey, uncertain of the conditions at our final destination? How would we survive the possibly centuries long journey?


Space travel

We set out on our journey in search of a new home planet; we’re not entirely sure what the environment will be like once we get there, but we have some ideas about what we’re looking for, we’d like it to be as close as possible to earths atmosphere. Our volunteer crew choose their role:

  • To be initial crew members those that start the journey, running the ship for the first 200 years. We have of course perfected longevity by this time. These crew have specialist skills and have been genetically modified for those task.
  • To be placed in a state of suspended animation awaiting the time when they will be needed as replacement crew.
  • As above but available for genetic modification once the new planet has been found and the modification needs identified.
  • A bank of frozen embryos will be waiting for the time when the planet has been found. They will be appropriately modified to meet the needs of the new planet.

There’s a couple of nuances (or not so much) that should be addressed in our fanciful foray into the future:  First, the need for a bullet proof immune system must be created. Not evolved, created. But perhaps using the principles of evolution. Antibiotics, the wonder of our age is one of the greatest threats to mankind. Rather than making we the host stronger, we create a Darwinian hot house for the development of the super bug. Let’s get back to what ought to be basics.  Make the human stronger, not the environmental threats.

Second, and this is no small thing, when redesigning a human vessel for an environment, we have a long way to go in understanding the threads of evolutionary psychology and its affect on perception and attraction. If you’ll recall (or please go see) the article on How Evolution Works, then you’ll understand that it is the mating factor that multiplies genetic traits. Assuming the idea of attraction has at least some genetic predisposition (not a guaranteed assumption), then we would need tweak that predisposition. In the case of a heavy gravity planet, for instance, individuals would need to be hard wired to appreciate short and stout. And perhaps sing I’m a little tea pot.

All very easy really, when’s the next ship out?

Expanding Human Capabilities via Genetic Engineering

Building Better Humans

The human body is a remarkable thing with enormous natural capabilities and capacity that we can choose to develop as we wish. We can develop our muscular capacity to lift more than three times our own body weight, we can train our minds to recall thousands of facts or numbers. Record books are full of these amazing feats and achievements. Not only that but when faced with danger to ourselves or others we can reach into our reserves and use as yet untapped resources and skills.

And we can do all this without the assistance of science or medicine. Add into the mix genetic engineering and it’s associated sciences and the potential for human endeavor is extraordinary and controversial.

For centuries we have been performing genetic manipulation; as a species we learned early to identify the healthiest, strongest plants and animals- those with the traits that were most desirable and to use them for producing the next generation: genetic engineering at its most basic.

As humans we may choose our breeding partners for very similar reasons, though perhaps less consciously. Many theories suggest that we seek mates that we perceive as advantageous to us and our offspring. The characteristics we measure (many times unconsciously) are many and varied and are based not only on our personal experiences (nurture) but with the added influences of evolutionary psychology (nature). It may be we want or are attracted to someone with high emotional or logical (or other)intelligence, physical fitness/ability or attractiveness, an artistic flare, the mechanically inclined, the famous, the list goes on. Theories suggest that we presume a natural inheritable (i.e. genetic) foundation upon which better lives for ourselves and our children can be built.

So it is easy to see, at the micro (familial) level the impetus for improving one’s own lot. Current societal structure and its supporting laws and cultural practices encourage the building and preserving of the most significant reinforcing factor of not only keeping up with the Jones, but being better than – wealth: the heretofore ever-present reality of the fight for the distribution/possession of limited resources. He who has the best genes wins, may be how we may subconsciously behave.

A not so insignificant side note, and notably missing from our list of desirable traits above is the obvious “wealth” attribute.  An argument could be made that we perceive those with wealth as having superior genetics, and that our subconscious assessment of the possessor’s underlying genetic canvas is that it is fit to benefit future generations.  A counter argument could be made that wealth is an isolated and primary factor sought after in a mate in and of itself, in recognition that the possession of wealth is increasingly less dependent on genetic advantage than on the inheritance of wealth- the well documented fact that wealth is becoming more centralized and polarized, based on one’s already having it to begin with (I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage, “the rich get richer”!). The truth lies all along the spectrum between the two extremes, as with all things in life and reality.

But I digress. Although a fascinating subject, I’ll tackle that somewhere else- perhaps in the Political Philosophy section. Currently there really are economic and social advantages to be had for the fastest, smartest, most talented, hardest working (yes, it is quite likely that stamina and perseverance do have genetic components) individuals in society. And as long as that is true there is motivation to continually improve those characteristics that we as individuals target as being the most advantageous to us and ours.

Previous versions of this article posed several potential controversies regarding exactly what human capacities we as a society would select to improve once human genetic engineering is readily available. How do we measure intelligence? IQ tests, for example, only measure a certain kind of intelligence. There are other types of intelligence both highly desirable and beneficial to society overall. Conversely, what about undesirable traits such as criminality?

The truth is, there is little question as to what we will choose to improve (in general). See two paragraphs above. So long as individual mindsets, supported by social acceptance and the resulting laws we allow to exist that favor the accumulation of “stuff” by individuals and families to the detriment of the greater society, we will generally speaking and most likely overall, choose those traits that favor individuals who can better accumulate “stuff”. If ever we evolve socially to a point to where we perceive all of humanity as family we will choose to emphasize and enhance traits that benefit our family. They are not necessarily the same traits as those so significant today.

But we are here, today. Most certainly the time is fast approaching when we will be able to genetically modify, using stem cell engineering, our major organs, heart, lungs, liver etc. At present this research is aimed at organ repair and renewal and at creating ‘designer babies’, embryos that are chosen and/or engineered for specific traits. Potentially these techniques could be used for organ enhancement; a heart that pumped more efficiently would increase an athletes performance. Genetically modified muscle cells, introduced into the person would increase their strength. The list of opportunities for modifying humans for enhanced capacity is enormous and the possible usage limited only by our imagination.

The major organs have relatively simple, specialist functions, ergo; the genetic engineering of these organs is relatively simple. It is when we get to the brain, behavioral proclivities, and intelligence types, that the story gets a little more complex.

Researchers believe they have begun to identify the genes that give us certain types of intelligence, the nature/nurture debate notwithstanding, genetic similarities exist among those gifted with the types of intelligence being studied. Taking that a step further, what if we can identify the ‘genius gene’?  It may be possible to far outweigh the influence of our environment. We could use present technologies such as Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) to choose only those embryos that demonstrate the desired gene sequences or we could genetically engineer embryos to include certain chosen traits, say musicality or enhanced language skills. Another avenue might be to use stem cells to implant the required genes into an adult to enhance there mental capacity. Experimentation is quite advanced in the area of treatment for neurological disease and disorder and it is not such a huge leap to foresee the use of this technology for the enhancement of brain functions.

As we look into the future, and as we assume we survive the pummeling of spaceship earth long enough to seek our destiny among the stars, the environments encountered will require a great deal more out of human capacity than presently exists. Sheer physical survival on planets of greater gravity requiring more muscle mass and bone densities, lung and liver capacities to filter out toxins not encountered in the same quantities (or perhaps ever) in our human history on earth may need to be engineered. Skin able to reflect or absorb harmlessly varying levels of radiation. Immune systems rivaling that of the creature(s) in Alien, impervious to every potentially invasive foreign life form may be possible.

Not far out enough?  Blowholes or gills for aquatic planets- why not here on earth to alleviate overcrowding on land? Gas planets afford the opportunity for human flight: wings and feathers, hydrogen pouches.

Tentacles for appendages for more effective maneuvering inside weightless spacecraft traveling between the stars. Add to that vacuum and radiation-impervious skin and a large lung capacity and you have the perfect space-faring species able to work inside and outside the craft as easily as waking the dog, immune to the occasional hull breech caused by undetected debris.

I do believe we have officially arrived at FAR OUT, MAN!

Well, not exactly a scientific extrapolation of a future human genetically engineered for flight on a gas giant,  but an inspiring image nonetheless...