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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 2

"Hawking Selection"

written by


“How do we know we’re not throwing away the next Stephen Hawking?”

“What, you don’t think Stephen Hawking’s mother wouldn’t have chosen his health over his scientific achievements?” she said across the kitchen table to her husband. “You don’t think she’d rather her son could walk?”

“I think you’re misunderstanding this,” he said. “It’s not that Hawking would have turned out differently, it’s that there’d be no Stephen Hawking.”

“Okay, but who’s to say the person born instead wouldn’t have been just as brilliant but without being confined to a wheelchair?”

“Anyway, this isn’t about Hawking. It’s about us.”


She checked the wall clock. One hour nine minutes until their appointment. They had three weeks to talk it over and still hadn’t made up their minds.

“So,” he said, making the chair groan as he shifted, “do we choose the embryo with all inheritable diseases edited out, or do we leave it as a black box and select an embryo from random?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m downplaying the role of suffering as a muse. I just think—”

“But that is what you’re doing.”

“Please. Let’s not fight. We can figure this out rationally.”

“Sorry. This isn’t easy for me either.”

“I know,” he said.

“Pain does stir something powerful in people, but I can’t say for sure the world would be better off overall without any disabilities.”

“But you’re pretty sure we would be better off.”

“That sounds so selfish when you say it like that.”

“That’s why I think it’s better left to chance.”

Eyes fixed on the blank wall behind her husband, she shook her head. “If so, why try and prevent anything? You don’t leave it to chance when you build a house. You make sure it has a good foundation.”

“You’re talking about building the house somewhere that never experiences floods or tornados or hurricanes or—”

“Wouldn’t that make sense?”

“Sure, if such a place existed.”

“It does. That’s what this embryo clinic is.”

He sat back, ran his hands through his hair and after a tired sigh said, “Having a child is not the same as building a house.”

She nodded softly. “It’s just an analogy.”

“Do you think we’re overthinking this?”


He said, “We’re not going to be the only couple faced with this choice, you know.”

“But we’re the first. Our decision matters. The media’s going to want to hear our reasoning. The momentum of public opinion starts with us.”

“Flip a coin?”

“Not a chance.”

He folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “We agree that suffering drives us to innovate and create, right?”

“To a point,” she conceded, now fiddling with the hem of her skirt. She looked up. “Plenty of folks create things without being driven by disease, though. The Beetles and Stones, Salvador Dali and Van Gogh, Charles Dickens and Stephen King, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates …”

“Are you suggesting drugs can fill the creative void left behind by a world without pain?”

“Not at all.”

“Then what?” he said.

“Point is, pain isn’t humanity’s only muse.”

“So you’d inflict pain on a healthy child to spark creativity?”

“Very funny.”

“I’m kind of serious,” he said. “Not pain, but, you’d have to make up for it with some kind of hardship.”

“Well, yeah, I think that’d be important.” She brushed non-existent crumbs off the table with the back of her hand. “Kids need adversity to grow strong.”

“I guess that’s why people put their kids in sports.”

She cast him a wry smile. “That’s why I’d put our kid in sports. You’d do it to live vicariously through your son, hoping he’ll succeed where you failed.”

“Ouch. That’s not fair.”

“You’re right. We don’t know if it’ll be a boy or a girl.”

“And that’s not something we’re able to choose anyway.”

“Or would want to.”

“Then we agree on that, too,” he said.


“I still can’t help but wonder what we’d be missing without people like Stephen Hawking.”

“And I can't help but wonder what else he would have achieved if he hadn’t been held back by ALS.”

“It hardly would’ve mattered,” he said as he stood. From the kitchen, he called, “ALS hits the nervous system, not the mind.”

He brought them each a glass of iced tea.

She took a sip and set it down with an unintended clunk, ignoring the bit that splashed out onto the table. “I think if it were me trapped in that body, the sheer frustration of it would make me less productive. ALS, Multiple Sclerosis—or think about your mom. The arthritis probably isn’t the most dominant aspect of her life, but the daily struggle of dealing with it has to be physically and mentally draining.”

“Sure. Of course.”

“I mean, how much of her energy is diverted into coping with the pain and inconvenience? Hawking was unique. He’s not just famous for black holes and space-time. He was an extreme outlier, the way he could refine his mental focus. How many would-be Hawkings have we lost because they didn’t have quite the same level of mental strength? Not to mention all the support he got. How many people could afford that special chair and that eye-tracking computer interface? How many people would have a team of nurses and attendants to help get their thoughts out? How many locked-in people have the ideas of a Hawking or Einstein but can’t do the mental math or don’t communicate it because they don’t want to burden their families to write it down?”

“Okay, but without his disease, he might never have even developed that kind of a mind. A young, smart, handsome man running around Oxford—who’s to say he wouldn’t have wasted his genius on chasing girls and playing tennis.”

“So maybe he would’ve turned into a good physicist instead of a great physicist.”

“Exactly,” he said, and almost knocked over his glass as he gestured. “That distinction could’ve been the difference between understanding the fundamental nature of reality and letting it slip by.”

“But Hawking did not understand the fundamental nature of reality. That was his goal—he called it the Theory of Everything—but the disease took him before he could complete it.”

After downing his iced tea, her husband said, “Hawking wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without ALS. He said it himself, that being able to zone out and think about things helped his work.”

“Einstein said the same thing, and he was disease-free.”

“Right, but Einstein’s brain had extra folds; more capacity than other people’s. Not a disease, but still a kind of mutation. Would you want to make Einstein ‘normal’?”

“Now you’re way off base. That’s not at all what this embryo selection is for!” She was ready to leap from her chair. “It only targets what we define as diseases.”

He craned his neck to check the clock. Eyes closed, he rubbed his temples while saying, “And what do you define as a disease?”

“Look,” she said, and reached out across the table for his hand, which he readily accepted, “I do not deny there are benefits to society in having so-called disabled people, and I can totally see how people with disabled family members or disabled people themselves would squirm at the idea, but don’t confuse this with something it’s not. Nobody living today is affected by this technology.

“And parents of tomorrow will always pass down their own unique, wonderful, beautiful quarks and traits to their children. Children of the future will still go through their own trials and tribulations and develop their own personalities. There will always be love and desire, heartache and grief, regret and envy to inspire them. They’ll still have a million unknown paths to walk down. It’s just that now, we can close off the paths that we know lead to suffering.”

When he said nothing in reply, she continued: “Far more creativity is restricted by disease than is liberated by it. Without disease, our children will be less restrained, and we’ll be less restrained as a species. Yes, it is absolutely true that many disabled people channel their pain into art, and the drive to relieve their suffering results in innovations that help us all, but it is far from being such a major source that we’d be morally justified in holding back the tool of relief.”

“But what kind of humanity are we creating if we engineer our children?” he said, but the conviction had escaped him.

“What kind of humanity are we creating if we refuse compassion on the grounds that a suffering child may one day channel that pain into something we can take advantage of?”

“Okay,” he said after a long pause. “We’ll do it then.”

Kaz Morran is a 39-year-old Canadian based in Sendai, Japan where he writes suspense and dark science fiction. His first novel is 550AU Buried in Stone, a tale of astronaut trainees stuck in a flooded cave with a crocodile. He was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis affecting the spine and joints) at age eleven and the disease remains active today. Though wholly unqualified, he teaches university and business English to aerospace engineers, nuclear physicists, pro-wrestlers, yakuza cops, corrupt managers, and more. He's been to 23 countries, mostly solo in Asia, and rarely without a brush with death or disaster. He is married and has a son in second grade.

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