Personal Genetic Testing – One More Step

Personal genetic testing began mainly as a tool for genealogists. The next step, testing for health risks, has already been taken. As the technology continues to develop, individuals will gain increasing control over their own genetic futures. They will, that is, unless the many who, for one reason or another, are opposed to these developments are able to stop them. The only viable way to do that is by enlisting the power of the state. They will certainly make the attempt. It will be interesting to see if they succeed. The forces that have driven human evolution for hundreds of thousands of years have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. The outcome of the battle will determine what they will be in the future.

Genetic Engineering and the Brave New World of Transhuman Machines

I’ve been reading through a collection of essays on the future of science entitled “What’s Next,” edited by Max Brockman. Today I’ll pick up where I left off in an earlier post, and look at a piece entitled “How to Enhance Human Beings,” by Nick Bostrom.

Once upon a time, in the days before the Nazi paradigm shift, eugenics used to be a topic of polite conversation. Now, of course, the Holy Mother Church of public opinion has spoken on the subject, and only the obvious evildoers among us dare to use the term any more, especially when children are present. Nevertheless, there were some spirited debates on the subject before it became obvious that it was necessary to restrict freedom of speech on the matter for our own good. I have unearthed a few interesting examples, both pro and con, in my archaeological peregrinations, and will post them for your amusement and edification one of these days.

In any event, the subject is now moot. Eugenics has gone the way of the horse and buggy. We are now, or will soon be able to vote with our feet, or genes, as the case may be. Depending on whether our tastes run to biological or mechanical tinkering, we are promised a range of options for ourselves or our offspring to enhance everything from intelligence to lifespan. The emerging possibilities have already turned up in the popular culture in video games such as Bioshock, movies such as Gattaca, and the novels of James Patterson. As one might expect, ethical debates are raging over these technologies. As Nick Bostrom puts it in his essay,

The belief in nature’s wisdom – and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature – often manifests as diffusely moral objections to enhancement. Many people have intuitions about the superiority of “the natural” and the troublesomeness of human hubris. Some might base these ideas on theological doctrine, but often there is no such underpinning; often there is nothing more than a discomfort with altering the status quo.

To a large extent, these debates are also moot. Parents are incredibly competitive when it comes to putting their children in better schools, or even on cheerleading squads. Offered the choice between having their children become the enhanced movers and shakers of tomorrow, or the unenhanced restroom attendants and parking valets, they are likely to choose the former. This will be especially true in developed countries where the number of children one chooses to have is often limited by their expense, and in countries like China that legally limit the size of one’s family. Under the circumstances, people are likely to be as indifferent to moral arguments against enhancement as they were to moral arguments against alcohol during Prohibition. The new technology may be used above or below the state’s legal radar, but it will be used.

Bostrom has devoted some thought to the question of whether particular enhancements are advisable or not, considering the matter more from a practical than a moral perspective. He has come up with a system of rules which he calls the evolutionary-optimality challenge. They are discussed in a paper he has posted at his website, and seem a reasonable start on a subject that is likely to attract a lot more attention in coming years.

In the final paragraph of his essay, Bostrom takes up the more speculative question of building “entirely artificial systems of equal complexity and performance” to the human organism. Continuing along these lines, he writes:

At some stage, we may learn how to design new organs and bodies ab initio. Someday we may no longer even rely on biological material to implement our bodies and minds. Freed from most practical limitations, the task would then become to make wise use of our powers to self-modify. In other words, the challenge would shift from being primarily scientific to being primarily moral. If that moral task seems comparatively trivial from our current vantage point, this might reflect our present immaturity.

One hopes he is merely indulging in some end of article hyperbole here. If not, one must ask the question, “Whose morality?” In other words, this is another example of the “objective morality” fallacy I have referred to earlier, consisting of assuming that, because we perceive morality as real and objective, it actually is real and objective. Morality is an evolved characteristic that exists in human beings because it has promoted our survival. Bostrom makes the common mistake of assuming that, because he perceives it as independent of his mind, morality actually is independent of his mind, floating out there in space as a real, objective, thing in itself. He makes the further error of confusing his conscious mind with his genetic material. Morality did not evolve because it promoted the survival of conscious minds. It evolved because it promoted the survival of genetic material. As I have noted earlier, nothing can be reasonably considered more immoral than failing to survive. The idea that one could somehow serve a profound moral cause by accepting genetic death and transferring the mind, an ancillary characteristic evolved only because it, too, has promoted the survival of that genetic material, to a machine, is a logical aberration.