Thursday, February 13, 2003

Genetic Disagreement with People I Normally Like

The always invaluable Kevin Drum has posted a dissent from the opinion of Caroline S. Wagner on the issue of genetic tailoring. While he acknowledges the potential for abuse, he is, overall, in favor of the practice, even though it is at least a decade or so away yet.

Now, where he has to preface his comments with the disclaimer that he is "in favor of moving deliberately and carefully on this kind of thing," I need to preface mine with the disclaimer that I am in favor of moving forward -- speedily -- with genetic research, for both pure knowledge and practical use. However, I have to disagree with his essential dismissal of the potential for this procedure to permanently widen the gap between rich and poor.

The crux of his argument is "if the next Einstein or Shakespeare is born to wealthy parents, that's OK with me - we'll all benefit." I do not disagree with this. The problem, though, is that genetic engineering is not necessarily going to give us the next Einstein or Shakespeare. What it is going to give us is people who are smarter, healthier, and better looking. There is no "genius gene." While certain parts of Einstein's brain were indeed physically different from that found in the general run of humanity, there is no proof that it was this abnormality that we have to thank for General Relativity. While there is the distinct possibility that the composition of his brain allowed him to more easily comprehend higher mathematics, there is so far no evidence that the intuition that allowed Einstein to originally make the leap from A to B to E=mc2, or Newton from a falling apple to gravity, or Shakespeare from technical knowledge of English structure and a large vocabulary to Hamlet, has a basis in genetics. The general concensus when it comes to geniuses like them is that, while the genetic dice were loaded in their favor, it was a combination of their innate talents, their environment, and a building on what had come before that allowed them to make their "leaps."

But even this ignores the larger implication: that genetic tailoring will lead to an objectively superior race, and the members of that race will come from the ranks of those families that are wealthy at the time of its introduction.

Before I continue, I must state the major premise of my argument: Superior strength, intelligence, and appearance, on average, advance one on the socioeconomic ladder, while inferior strength, intelligence, and appearance generally do the opposite.

Genetics is one of the Great Equalizers. Since the beginning, a wealthy family has had the same chance of producing an ugly, physically weak fool as everyone else. In every generation, some of the poor will rise up and make themselves wealthy, and some of the rich will lose their fortune and become poor- not necessarily in equal proportions, but enough to level the playing field so that a transition either way is possible. As time goes on, the probability that a specific family will remain wealthy through the next generation decreases. In the Western world, are there more than a handful of old (mostly royal) European families that have remained consistently wealthy for the last four hundred years (this is an honest question, as I do not know...although I strongly suspect the answer is no)? The point is, the genetic factors which cause a family to move up or down on the socioeconomic ladder do not persist past the next generation- the only thing that keeps them and their descendents at a higher level is wealth, and that is only a few mutations or a dose of bad luck away from disappearing. The net result is that the human race has never been split into superior and inferior branches, at least not for a historically significant amount of time. A wealthy family will arise (usually due to the superior strength, intelligence, or looks of one or two members), remain essentially seperate from those lower on the ladder for a time, and eventually, through chance or poor genetics, the fortunes of the family (or families) will decline, and their genes will rejoin the greater mass of homo sapiens.

In effect, the blue-blood conceit that those with money are genetically superior is most likely true to some (small) degree, but that superiority only applies (if at all) to whoever initially made the fortune. Their heirs roll the dice like everyone else.

Genetic tailoring changes all this, because when you engineer your kids for one trait or another, you alter their descendents forever. Because the procedure, for at least the first few decades of availability, will be available to only the wealthy and upper middle class, the human race will split into two branches: the superior and the inferior, and membership in the group will be determined by the socioeconomic divides in place when the procedure becomes available. Those from the "good" branch, already financially advantaged and now physically superior, will have a vastly higher chance of, if not moving up the ladder, at least staying in the same place. In contrast, those from the "bad" branch will be subject to the same ebb and flow of genetic fortune as before. Consequently, an increasingly large proportion of people from the "good" branch will advance in status, while the "bad" branch will decline, especially as the bar is raised by the increasing numbers of the "good" branch. Transition from one to another will become more and more diffficult, if not actually impossible.

The end result is the creation of very real superhumans, which makes everyone else, by default, subhumans, a possibility which any rational person would rightly view with utter horror.

The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that of the three qualities Drum hails as the desired result of genetic modification -- intelligence, compassion, and problem solving -- the one that is absolutely necessary to prevent such a dystopia, compassion, is the one that cannot be granted to children through genetic modification.

Is this the only possibility? No, of course not. But it is a possibility, and therefore should be considered very carefully, by very intelligent and compassionate people, for a very long time.

Edit: After re-reading this post, I see that I have omitted two qualities that are key to advancement on the class ladder - will and charisma (does anyone else feel like I'm discussing a role-playing game?). I submit that will and charisma are mostly related to environmental factors (nurture, not nature) , and cannot be engineered into a child, except through the elimination of factors which might lead to decreased will and charisma, such as a predisposition towards depression or other mental illness. Therefore, while willpower and charisma are one of the things that would allow members of the bad branch to make the jump to the good, the good (engineered) branch will even here have an advantage, as the reduction of those limiting factors will, on average, increase their will and charisma.

Also, I need to emphasize the fact that I am not saying that anyone who does not make themselves wealthy is genetically inferior...making the leap from one class to another requires a combination of nature, nurture, socioeconomic standing, and a good sprinkling of luck. This means that even if you are genetically superior, you aren't necessarily going to make the leap. When you take the whole species on average, though, those with good genes have a better chance.

Update: Drum has been kind enough to respond to this post, and I have modified my argument accordingly.

No comments: