Friday, February 14, 2003

Tailoring an Argument

CalPundit was kind enough to respond to my dissent from his opinion on genetic tailoring (actually, more like a disagreement about the odds of various possibilities coming to pass), and poked a few rather large holes in my argument. The frustrating thing about it is the fact that I agree with almost everything he said in his response...which means that I didn't present my ideas as well as possible the first time. Well hell, that's what this blogging thing is all about, right? So let's go about admitting errors and plugging holes, shall we?

CalPundit: What you say at the beginning about genetics being an equalizer (over time) is true, but it's a lot less true than it used to be. In the past century, for the first time in history, the biggest component of success has become intelligence, and this is a strongly (about 50%) heritable trait. And since smart people tend to marry smart people ("associative mating"), we're already in a situation where successful and unsuccessful families are becoming more and more entrenched.

This is true. And no, I'm not against smart people marrying each other. I'm not against anyone marrying each other (except for siblings. The entire VeryVeryHappy staff disapproves of that with vigor). However, genetic tailoring presents the possibility of making that entrenchment even more pronounced, and permanent, because it is exactly those smart, successful people who will be able to have their children Tailored, while everyone else is left farther and farther behind. Not inevitably, but very possibly.

CalPundit: There is no gene for genius, but there probably *are* genes for various components of intelligence. If we find a way to increase these components, it doesn't guarantee another Einstein, but it certainly raises the odds a lot.

As soon as I read this one, I slapped myself in the head. I'd really kind of like to go back and remove the entire "Einstein paragraph" from that post- it's not relevent to the overall idea, and it led me to make a logical error which made me look foolish. I don't like looking foolish, but I hear it builds character, so the post remains unedited. Besides, I run an honest operation here. No archive-editing chicanery on this site (except to correct spelling and typos).

CalPundit: Genetic tailoring probably doesn't alter traits forever. More likely, it acts just like a normal genetic difference. This means that your kids might inherit it and they might not.

We don't know the answer to this one way or another yet, but it's a strong possibility. My point still stands, however- the first group of Tailored kids will reach maturity at almost exactly the same time, as everyone who can afford it will rush out to get the procedure the second it is made publicly available. As these kids will generally be each other's peer group ( a wealthy community will have nearly 100% modified offspring, and even a lot of middle class communities- Tailoring their kid will be a lot of families' most important investment), most will likely end up mating with fellow 'modifieds' (they will belong to the same socioeconomic class, be extremely gifted, and as I've said, attractive. Powerful incentives not to stray from the fold). This will, of course, lead to a reinforcement of the original engineering, and as time goes on, and the differences become more distinct, modifieds will be less and less prone to breed with 'unmodifieds.' Which again leads us to the two branches of humanity scenario.

CalPundit: I think we're all going to be surprised by what traits turn out to have a partially genetic component. I'm willing to bet that will, charisma, and compassion will all turn out to have some genetic component.

This is where we disagree. While There may be a little genetic predisposition when it comes to will, charisma, compassion, and other personality traits, by and large, I am firmly convinced that it is environmental factors during childhood development that are the real key.

CalPundit: Once the price of genetic tailoring comes down, wouldn't everyone benefit? I mean, just for selfish reasons, if it's cheap to do this wouldn't it be to everyone's advantage to make sure that everyone's babies turned out to be good citizens?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. I cannot agree with this more.
The point that I'm trying to make, though, is that, when genetic tailoring does come around, it needs to be made available as widely as possible as quickly as possible to avoid the good branch/bad branch nightmare. If it became realistically available to everyone within, say, 5-10 years of its debut, then there wouldn't be time for it to grant a significant advantage for the wealthy relative to the poor and middle class.. My problem is that I don't see how such a thing could be possible. Let's go with the model of personal computers, one of the quickest-advancing consumer technologies out there. Before the early eighties, only the really wealthy and the uber-geek owned a PC. Now, they're cheap and they're everywhere. But even now, with the technology advancing so fast that price has a half-life of 9 months (which is probably an impossible price target for genetic technology), there is still a huge chunk of the population that does not own a PC. Now, with computers, that's morally acceptable. When you're talking about people having superior babies vs. regular babies, that's when you get into extremely scary territory. You run the risk of developing a truly inferior minority group which, unlike any modern or historical minority group, really cannot say it is as physically or mentally capable as the majority. And that's just if the technology advances rapidly. What if Tailoring remains expensive for a generation, or indefinitely? Then you get the opposite problem, the one I described in the original post, of an elite group of superior humans with a permanent advantage.

CalPundit: I can't help but think that engineering positive qualities will genuinely improve both humans and the overall human condition. Overall, if we have a chance to improve ourselves, it seems foolish not to try it.

I agree. I am actually a huge proponent of genetic research and its practical applications. And I very much hope that genetic tailoring can be implemented fairly and equally; I am too old for it to be an issue with my children, whenever I get around to having them, but I am holding out serious hope for my grandchildren. I just think that when you get around to tinkering with our genetic code, if such a fundamental change is not undertaken with the utmost of care, consideration, and realistic planning, it could potentially lead to a disaster that the human race might not recover from; or if it does, it might do so in a form none of us want to seriously contemplate.

Thank you to Kevin Drum, for keeping me on my toes, and my apologies for accidentally mischaracterizing (through awkward sentence structure) his original post as being somewhat against the speedy development of genetic technology.

Edit: After a quick perusal of this post, I realized that it gives the impression of being an active, back and forth interview with Kevin. This was not my intention. Everything credited to CalPundit in this post was included in a single, itemized response he sent me. I broke it up into chunks to avoid confusion. Apologies to anyone who misunderstood (if anyone did).

Update: Ampersand of Alas, A Blog fame makes some very good points, following up on this discussion. Something that stopped me dead in my tracks: Genetic engineering will very likely decrease the number of Shakespeares in the world, because, with the removal of mental illness, everyone will essentially think the same way. No more of our "mad geniuses." That's a damn good point. How many of the great geniuses of the past were mentally ill in some way? Now what if they had been normal? Would they still have accomplished what they accomplished? Something to consider...

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