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  • Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

    Posted on June 5th, 2019 Helian 2 comments

    It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

    This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not.

    This criterion certainly seems relevant to the question of designer babies. Let us focus on just one of the possible applications of the technologies that are now available or soon will be available, namely intelligence. There is no question that natural selection has heavily favored higher intelligence in the evolution of our ancestors over the last few million years. It seems reasonable to assume that it will continue to have a selective advantage in the future, at least in the long term. However, in the case of designer babies, there will be a radical change in the method of selection. It will occur on a much shorter time scale, and will be artificial rather than natural. Some articles by Brian Wang that recently appeared on the Nextbigfuture website provide insight into just how short that timescale will be. For example, according to an article entitled Future of Gene Sequencing, Genome Editing and Intelligence Enhancement, the heritability of human intelligence is likely from 50% – 80%. To date the increasingly powerful tool of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) has identified the source of 21% – 22% of this heritability, associated with a very large number of genes, each having a small effect. According to Wang, techniques such as embryo selection and gene editing combined with continued advances in our ability to pin down the genetic sources of heritability will make it possible to achieve average IQ gains of as much as 25 to 30 points within the next decade. In separate articles he notes that Human Gene Editing of Embryos Will Be Safe and Effective Within Two Years, and that shortcuts to higher intelligence may be achieved by adding genes to our DNA as opposed to modifying existing ones. He adds that “armies of students” at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen are now developing these and related technologies.

    Supposing Wang’s estimates of the speed of technological advances that will enable enhanced intelligence are anywhere near accurate, application of the criterion described above becomes relatively straightforward. Let us assume that no attempt is made to alter the emotions that motivate our behavior in a similarly radical fashion. In that case, we will continue to perceive others in terms of “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup. Intelligence will become an increasingly important criterion for distinguishing between the two. The intelligent ingroup may deem it useful to keep some of the less intelligent outgroup around as workers to perform the decreasing number of menial jobs that can’t be done more efficiently by robots, or as pets. Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine that they would perceive them as other than a useless burden and a threat to the environment and hence the sustainability of life on our planet if allowed to survive in large numbers. The chances that they would concern themselves with the “human flourishing” of the outgroup are vanishingly small. In the long term, it seems probable that the intelligent ingroup would survive, and the more “virtuous” outgroup, having rejected the relevant technologies as “immoral,” would perish.

    If, then, we choose to apply the criterion of survival to deciding how to act in response to our emotions, so that our behavior is “in harmony” with the reasons the emotions exist to begin with, then we “should” embrace the rapid development and application of intelligence enhancing technologies. If we choose to ignore the survival criterion, we may reject these technologies. There is no objective reason for preferring survival to the alternative. We may, for example, prefer to be happy as long as we’re around to survival in the long term, or we may decide that our moral emotions point to the “true good” and the “true evil,” and that it is better to be “good” than to survive. Nature doesn’t care one way or the other, and there is no objective basis for making these decisions. In the end, it boils down to whether your personal emotional whims include assigning value to such things as survival, reproduction, the survival of biological life in general, etc. or not.

  • “Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

    Posted on April 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

    I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

    Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

    Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

    …for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

    It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

    The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

    In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

    As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

    Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

    Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

    The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

    Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

    The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

    Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs