Saturday, January 06, 2007

Build A Baby

Suppose a pharmaceutical company created a fantastic new drug that could eliminate the chances that a fetus will suffer from birth defects. The usefulness of this miracle drug, however, commands a high price so only the very wealthy can afford. Despite that barrier, I doubt the average citizen would complain that the drug exists. Indeed, they would be far more likely to demand that the government subsidize the drug.

Contrast this with genetic engineering--for all intents and purposes a better version than this hypothetical drug. It is very possible that in the next ten or twenty years human beings will have the ability to genetically improve their offspring, transforming the average person into an athlete genius. In an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent I saw recently, the main characters encountered a suspect that was on his way to perfecting such a process. The characters actually complained that the technology would increase the gap between the rich and the poor thank to additional advantages the child would gain.

For some reason, people are very averse by genetically altering someone to make them better than average. They are fine with altering their biology to make them average and it is expected that parents do everything they can to elevate their children above average, but people can't stand the thought of starting that improvement process before birth. I am not sure why.

This little story exposes a disturbing reality about how people think about their relation to the economy. If science makes a person better than she would be otherwise it not merely a gain for that person and her family. It is a gain for the whole of society. The reason why the genetically improved would be richer is because more people than before would decide that this person betters their life. To conclude genetic engineering only benefits those who can afford it demonstrates a poor understanding of how the economy works.


Anonymous said...

The first rule about power is "don't loose it". The second rule is "get more of it". Since genetic defects can be fatal or can give you expensive medial problems the rest of us have to pay for, it makes sense to have a way to eliminate these problems.

But the same logic doesn't apply to improving people; not just on economic grounds either. Sure, society would be enriched with a genetically superior people. But who do you think will get the treatment first and do you really think this treatment will be accessible to everyone?

Let's look at some real world examples of how people acted instead of theory of how you think people should act. How much have improved medicines, given to those who can afford it, improved the lives of everyone? Clinics in poor neighborhoods and countries are still starving for funds and basic medicines while billions are spent on plastic surgery.

Or fancy private schools? Public schools are paying the cost for helping private schools when many private schools aren't doing their job apart from having a snooty name.

We're not seeing a "trickle down" as a "trickle on" effect. I'm not saying people shouldn't spend their money on private schools or frivolous medical procedures. But let's not kid ourselves that they improve society as a whole.

As for non-economic reasons, genetic engineering on people leads to lack of diversity (and therefore strength) of humanity's genetic code. That allows super-viruses to thrive and can increase the risk of inbreeding-like genetic defects. Consider the cheetah, its lack of genetic variation has made it more susceptible to disease because once a disease manages to crack the biological defenses of one cheetah, it's easy to do the same to another.

I also suggest remembering history and what happens when one group feels they are superior to another. Think of how bad it will be when their superiority is actually real instead of a delusion.


David said...


It is not that this is how I think they should act. This is how people act given the institutions in play. The long story of humanity is told in this way over and over again.

An improvement in the humane genome is, for our purposes, an improvement in technology. If some people are genetically altered to fly (and fly others around), it is analogous to training pilots and building airplanes. If people are immuned to disease, it is the same as inventing a vaccine to all diseases. If someone is altered to be a better learner, that acts in the same way as someone who goes to a "fancy private school" (and for the record, I'm confident that my private school education served me well; people complain about public schools for a reason).

I doubt that you would deny that technology lifts all boats. Of course, it lifts some boats higher than others. And to be sure, some are screwed in the short run (human flight hurt the train business). But to stop at the most immediate of events is to demonstrate a gross simplification of how the world works.

Sometimes it is difficult to notice how technology can even better the lives of those who cannot afford it. So consider this historical example: the power loom. Though many people in the late 1700s and early 1800s had their own hand loom, very few of them could afford the power loom and by your logic could not benefit from the invention's creation. But they did. Power looms (paired with the cotton gin and other labor-saving devices) made clothes cheaper--a lot cheaper--and people could afford to buy them instead of spending countless hours making them at home. They all clearly prefered it, which is why even today we have clothing stores.

And if there is any doubt that technology and genetic enginneering are so similar then think of it this way. Perhaps the most valued attribute parents would want for their custom-made kid is intelligence and intelligent people are a hell of a lot better at making new inventions.

Your Nazi reference (and you were referencing Nazis when you mentioned one group of people thinking they are genetically better than another) is a cheap shot and has nothing to do with this article. Nazis thought they were inherently genetically superior. I am saying that society rewards some individual genetic traits more than others. In most circumstances being smart, attractive, socially apt and healthy will serve a person better than if they lacked those attributes.

All things being equal, a useful assumption for understanding a complex world, a lack of diversity is a sign of weakness. But in the real world you are so fond of speaking of, all things are not equal. The happier, wealthier society that would emerge using genetic engineering will be technically more prone to disease (or course it would also be filled with really smart people who would probably cure said disease). To understand why we shouldn't care to much about this doomsday scenario, remember the same truth holds for societies that travel a lot. Moving around the world exposes people to organisms they've never encountered (and thus have no immunity for). These are places for the disease to survive and thrive (read: reproduce) and thus mutate. It also allows the disease to spread easier. A good and recent example is HIV.

Would you now ban travel to ensure a new disease does not arise? I doubt it, given all that we would loose. Acknowledging the risk of the disease isn't nothing but it is hardly grounds on which to sacrifice the obvious benefits the whole of society would reap.