"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Human Genetic Modification

Ross Douthat has written today (6.10.12) in the New York Times on the past and future of eugenics http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/douthat-eugenics-past-and-future.html?_r=1&ref=opinion:

Eugenics is the applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population, usually referring to the manipulation of human populations (Unified Medical Language System Psychological Index Terms National Library of Medicine).

The term is used today only in a negative, pejorative way because of its link to the Nazis and association with racist fringe groups who would similarly like to purge populations of anyone but whites; but the core idea – improving a genetic stock - has been around for millennia.  Arranged marriages have always been ways of improving the genetic stock of families.  While the match between Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, and England’s King Henry VIII was an excellent one because of the power and wealth of the two nations, it was also a way of preserving the genetic purity of the European aristocracy.  Of course this intention could never have been articulated as such, but it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of Shakespeare’s plays or Roman and Greek philosophers to understand that there was a belief in the fundamental superiority of the aristocracy.

In arranged marriages in India and elsewhere, families select on the basis of their indicators of genetic success; and they, like parents everywhere screen for material wealth (as for our Calvinist fathers, a sign of good things to come, both material and spiritual), fairness of complexion (a sign of high birth), education (a sign of intelligence, drive, ambition), and religion and respect (indications of both breeding and character). While parents were choosing social characteristics, they always believed that there was something far deeper and organic going on even if they did not have the language to express it.

American families have always wanted their children to marry someone who is successful, attractive, and intelligent, and comes from a good family.  A ‘good catch’ would be someone more intelligent, attractive, and wealthy than the other.  It would be a step up the social scale, and would add to the possibilities of more intelligent, ambitious, and attractive grandchildren.  The genetic makeup of the family line would be improved.  Although parents might say, “As long as you’re happy, dear”, they don’t mean it.  A daughter who selects a potential mate who not only does not resemble the genetic ideal the parents have in mind, but resembles its opposite, is in big trouble with Mom and Dad.

What surprises the author of the article, is that good people could believe bad things:

The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the “unfit” — defined variously as racial minorities, low-I.Q. whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined — is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment. On the one hand, these American eugenicists tended to be WASP grandees like Fisher — ivory-tower dwellers and privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position.

But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement.

Why did these ‘good people’ believe in this stuff? The answer seems obvious.  Every family has been concerned about genetic purity.  Not only do we not want to pollute our lineage with less than desirable characteristics, we want to improve it.  If pre-WWII parents rejected prospective suitors whose parents were ‘mentally and physically handicapped’, or had a criminal background, or were from what were considered inferior races and sought only the best and the brightest, why is it such a reach to conclude that they applied these very basic beliefs to society as a whole?  It took Hitler’s National Socialism to see where this assumption could lead, but before that, genetic improvement was considered quite acceptable.

Human genetic modification has been a done deal since Watson and Crick discovered the Double Helix.  It was only a matter of time before scientists could decode DNA, determine which bits were on which strand, and begin tinkering.  The age of the modified human being – a desire which has existed for millennia – would soon be a reality.

Last week brought a remarkable breakthrough: a team of scientists mapped nearly an entire fetal genome using blood from the mother and saliva from the father.

The procedure costs tens of thousands of dollars today, but the price will surely fall. And it promises access to a wealth of information about the fetus’s biology and future prospects — information that carries obvious blessings, but also obvious temptations.

Douthat is concerned about the possible negative implications of such a finding, and fears a resurgence of Nazi-era eugenics.

We know what the elites of a bygone era would have done with [genetic] information: they would have empowered the state (and the medical establishment) to determine which fetal lives should be carried to term, and which should be culled for the good of the population as a whole.

He is also concerned about the personal and family genetic cleansing that is already practiced today.

Given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale.

Unfortunately, the train has left the station, and Douthat understands neither how and why families have always chosen mates for their children (i.e. choosing grandchildren); nor, as importantly, the very American trait of wanting to be someone we are not.  Anyone would, if they could, want their unborn daughter to come out looking like Scarlett Johansson, with the brains of Einstein, and the physical talent of Michael Jordan.  ‘American Idol’ is just that – we idolize the rich, famous, and beautiful; want to be like them; and in a better world, want to be them.

It is disingenuous at best for Douthat to decry the number of abortions for Down’s Syndrome.  Why is he surprised when Nature herself expels unfit human beings through spontaneous abortion?  Why does he arrogantly assume that people would automatically deny 25,000 years of genetic programming to assure survival of the fittest and the best?

At the same time, he does not understand that in the future of genetic modification, there will be no such thing as Down’s babies; nor will babies be born with heart defects, mental anomalies, non-working limbs.  Abortion for genetic reasons will no longer be necessary.

Not only that, but health care costs will come down (who will be sick?), teaching a generation of brilliant children will be easy and cost-effective, and talk about American enterprise – imagine a country filled with ambitious, goal-oriented, over-achievers. 

Douthat worries about an Evil Empire who will use genetic engineering to create an army of super-soldiers, organic Robo-killers with telescopic vision, no morality, always steady nerves, and a slavish obedience to superiors’ orders. 

He also worries about a Hollywood America gone wild – Midwest cities filled with the most beautiful starlets ever seen.  Gorgeous Ukrainian beauties everywhere.  Stunning and sculpted athletic Adonises everywhere.  A dumbing down of America on a scale never imagined. An America without ‘real’ values, cutting and culling from our genetic stock without a thought to diversity or the Christian values of tolerance and suffering.

The point is that we have always tried to improve our particular genetic lot, whether within our children, our family, or larger social groupings.  Now that genetic modification is a reality, we will not only continue to make self-interested choices, we will accelerate the process.  Our choices will be socio-cultural ones – we want our children to resemble those held in highest esteem; and if we tend to choose the beauties over the eggheads, so be it.  Genetic choice is a fait accompli. The age-old adage applies": ‘If a new technology is discovered, it will be used'.

Douthat ends his article with a whimper, and hopes that we will take all this seriously.

First, [we must recognize our] relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

The ‘relentless desire’ is obvious, but I am not so sure about the ‘goodness’ part.  Human history is nothing if it is not a tale of self-interest, expansion of territory, and acquisition of wealth, power, and dominance.  Just as we have managed to rein in and otherwise control the worst of these instincts in the past, we will do so in the future.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no stopping him.  Human beings, human society, and even human nature will be changed in the not-so-distant future.  It will be a new world, and just as we have regulated our society to assure its support to our own interests, we will do so in the future.  It is foolish to assume that the same configurations of human society as we see today will always exist.  How can they?  If we are entering a genetically-modified and virtual world, then everything must change.  Our institutions, aspirations, interactions, our views on equality, class, race…everything….will change fundamentally and irretrievably.  A time traveller zapped to America 1000 years hence will not see the same country, except that we will be toddling about in flying cars and defying gravity; but will see an unrecognizable race, one that is as different from him as a Neanderthal.

Finally, we really have human destiny in our hands.

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