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Science and the Child

Stephen L. Talbott

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in the Winter, 2004 issue of The New Atlantis. I had been invited to write a response to a report of the President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness—and specifically to the chapter entitled "Better Children." The chapter deals with attempts to improve children through genetic engineering and through the use of drugs to control behavior. You will find the report at

Why do leaves turn red? Where does the sun go at night? What made Whiskers die? Will Mommy die sometime, and, Daddy, will you die, too?

Children are notorious for posing naïve and perplexing questions. When one of our sons was four years old, he asked, "Why did God make poisonous snakes?" I do not recall our answer, but very much doubt whether it was helpful. And who among us can do justice to the most perplexing question of all—the one incarnated in every newborn child: "Who are you, and for what purpose have you entered our lives?"

The child's large and difficult questions arise, not from complex theoretical constructions, but from simplicity—"childish simplicity" we are tempted to say, with a slightly patronizi