Human Genetic Enhancement

This is going to be another post that gets me called Orwellian, but here goes.

Some people seem to want human genetic enhancment (hereafter HGE) to not happen. I think that’s rather beside the point: it clearly is going to happen. If we need a more specific argument, I’d suggest that any organisation with sufficient power to actively prevent millions of people from making use of such a technology would be the sort of organisation that would itself enthusiastically use HGE to make itself stronger. Opposing HGE in general seems a bit like throwing oneself in front of a steamroller with ‘History’ written on its side in pink with some glitter.

Moreover, I don’t think it has to be a bad thing. And I don’t just mean for dealing with genetic illnesses and stuff, I mean for ‘enhancement’. We don’t really have any idea in advance what HGE would be able to do. It might be able to iniate a new golden age of culture, when we’re surrounded by creative geniuses at every turn. It might be able to triple the speed of scientific discovery. It might be able to double life expectancies. Or it might do none of those things.

More interestingly, it might turn out that much subtler variables have a genetic component. What if we could give the average person a 5% increase (however that’s measured) in empathy, sensitivity to other people’s feelings? That effect, summed over millions, could cut away the oxygen from a lot of the more vicious communal conflicts. What if we could give the average person a 5% increase in courage – and then have injustice being challenged more, difficult personal decisions being made and stuck to more, lives collapsing from cowardice and confusion less? What if we could make people physiologically more vulnerable to pleasure – and then find that they have less hatred and anger, lower rates of depression and suicide?

Again, maybe none of these things is remotely possible. Maybe they would only be possible with outweighing side effects. But we can’t know in advance. And if we don’t want to be taken by surprise by history, we should consider how to respond if it were.

So if it’s going to happen,  how can it be made to work best? I can see four prospects that we want to avoid.

One is that HGO is used by governments to further develop their capacity to devastate rivals and suppress dissenters. Perhaps people could be produced with an artificially suppressed capacity for independent thought, or with suppressed empathy. Super-soldiers. Racial homogeneity. Children born without the ability to question orders. Etc.

A second is that HGO is used to re-inforce class divisions. If you’re rich, you can get your children to be healthier, smarter, more organised, more attractive, etc. This then makes them much more likely to stay rich, and reduces the prospects for the children of those who couldn’t afford the same treatments.

It should be noted that this kind of thing does already exist in various forms. The children of rich people have more going for them in terms of health and intelligence because of the environment they’re exposed to. There’s also a big nutrition issues: many of the world’s poor have brain damage from malnutrition during childhood. Nevertheless, HGE could take this to new levels.

The third is that HGE is used to shape all individuals into conformity with social norms. This might mean that everyone has the desired hair colour, or that everyone thinks in the same way. Perhaps there are genes whose expression is linked with heterosexuality: they could be targetted so as to breed a society exclusively composed of homosexuals. In place of the difficult, stressful, and never quite successful attempt to merely suppress difference, which can be fought back against, it could be cleanly, non-violently swept away.

The fourth worry isn’t so concrete. It’s the fear that if we find that it is possible to manipulate a person’s personality, we would come to see people as objects to be designed and bought. On the other hand, there is something perhaps equally worrying in the idea that we preserve our respect for individuals only by our impotence, our inability to manipulate them – that any sense of shared humanity depends ultimately on ignorance. Nevertheless, there is a lot of concern here.

Now of course I, like any thinking person, believe that ultimately justice can only be acheived by radical feminist anarchist communist. But it might be thought unhelpful to presuppose such a difficult prospect, so I’ll imagine that we still languish under patriarchal statist capitalism, although perhaps in one of its more mild and benign forms.

Given that, I think HGE will add further weight to the arguments for partially removing reproduction from the individual sphere (earlier argued here and here). Firstly, I think individual parents shouldn’t control over the ‘amount’ of HGE of their children, and secondly I don’t think they should have control over the ‘type’ either.

The reason why the ‘amount’ of HGE should be taken out of parental hands is principally that, as I said above, if people can buy this, then it will allow for new genetic castes to emerge. Perhaps even into separate species. That to me seems perhaps the single most threatening possibility.

But equally, there is the problem of those who decide not to have their children enhanced because of, say, religious objections. If many other people are being enhanced, this – well, it seems unfair to me. If I was that child I would probably resent my parent’s decision, just as much as I would resent a decision to not send me to school or not teach me how to read. The claim of parents to have the right to decide what happens to “their” children is secondary to the welfare of those children. I anticipate some people will object strongly here, of course.

So I think if HGE happens it will need to be universal, and socially funded (just like education is, largely, socially funded today). I don’t know what would happen if two people decided they wanted to have an unenhanced baby – outright stopping them would be vastly invasive, and any kind of deterrent would simply punish them and their children. Very difficult issue, I don’t have an answer.

That said though, the control over how its used will have to be removed as far as possible from government, because the second most threatening possibility is some insane politician (that’s an tautology of course, all politicians are a little insane) getting their hands on that kind of power over their population. But with sufficient will, I think it is possible to make organisations that are government-funded operationally independent of government. One good way to do this is to give them their own independent mandate – or even to give them a separate taxation power.

So since talking in generalities sucks, let’s speculate. I envisage, first of all, a sort of ‘Difference Committee’. This would be a group of representatives from as wide a range of person-types as possible. They would be elected, but since the goal is to privilege difference, not all votes would be equal. E.g. representatives of people with autistic spectrum disorders, representatives of various sorts of disabled groups, representatives of different ethinicities, different regions, different sexualities, different gender identities, different body shapes. The formation and boundary-fiddling of this body would obviously be very fraught, and would depend on a lot of self-organisation and self-assertion by various minority groups. But then, any respect for difference will depend on a lot of self-organisation and self-assertion by various minority groups. Indeed, hopefully the existence of such a committee would encourage such self-organisation, because it would offer a definite and acheivable goal that such a group could exercise.

This body would then both fund research and HGE techniques, and have a veto over new techniques that became available – probably a supermajority would be required to vote that a given technique was “of objective benefit to society” as opposed to “representing the subjective preferences of one segment”. If a technique for making people less likely to die of cancer comes along, it gets voted for by everyone on the committee, and can be used. If a technique for making people less likely to have puffy nipples comes along, a lot of people object and it doesn’t get used.

That would be the first layer. The second layer depends much more heavily on a general socialisation of childbirth. If such a socialisation exists, then I think it would be very natural for something like a ‘local assembly’ to make specific decisions on enhancements. That is, the thousand-or-so people in a certain area meet periodically to have input into the creation of children in that area (the number of children being determined by environmental constraints on the one side and how many people want to raise children on the other side). That group then has the deciding power of which enhancement techniques and how many are used. For example, if ten children are being born, then it might be decided to give all of them enhanced life-spans, half of them a technique that raiss IQ and memory by 25% but reduces creativity by 5%, the other half a technique with the opposite effect, raising creativity over IQ, and nobody gets given the ‘blue-eyes-blond-hair-skinny-big-boobs’ genes because they didn’t get past the difference committee.

If it was felt advantageous, the distribution of genes to the children might then be put behind a ‘veil of secrey’, i.e. the people who then carry, care for and raise the children don’t know which specific genes they were given.

The reason I think it would be better to vest this power in a group is that individualism is actually not always the best friend of diversity – which is why On Liberty is entirely framed in collectivist arguments. If you have to choose for a specific child, who you want to excel over everyone else, then you’re likely to want the most normal/normative characteristics – let everyone else have the diversity. My child can be gorgeous, and we can avoid erasing other sorts of appearance by making other people’s children ugly, so they can suffer the weight of social prejudice. Etc. Similarly, in a society where whiteness is privileged, there are likely to be a lot more individual parents of colour who want their child to be white, because of the benefits it brings, than there are white parents who want their child to be non-white.

Larger groups, on the other hand, can take into account the general goal of supporting and maintaining different racial groups, different sorts of face and body, different personalities, and the benefits this brings to the whole group, without considering whether they want their child to be on the privileged or oppressed side of a particular issue.

Also, I’ve deliberately tried to make these institutions relatively independent of government – which has the added advantage that they can be more easily expanded across national borders (perhaps even funded by the UN, or something). Because inequality between countries is potentially just as problematic as inequality within countries.

If a reader is very uncomfortable with the idea of socialised reproduction, then they might want to ignore the second idea and just consider the first, the difference committee. Or not, I don’t know.

As I said, I think HGE is going to happen. If it’s done in the socially-funded but restrained way I describe, I think black-market HGE will remain a very small issue, because illegal private laboratories will have difficulty competing with huge legal mega-funded labs, and won’t be able to offer as good services. If they’re the only ones offering any HGE, they will probably get a lot of custom from rich bastards who want their children to get the best start, and consequently will prosper.

And equally, I think that socially-funded but restrained HGE has the potential to improve society, to make people happier, smarter, better able to get along without physical or psychological violence. Or it may turn out that it can’t, in which case the whole issue is irrelevant.

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