Friday, August 15, 2008

Genetic Engineering and our Dependence on Technology

I haven't done enough reading in the ethics of genetic engineering to have any real sense for the issues that are being discussed in that field. But I've been thinking this thought for a while, and I've never actually heard it addressed, so I thought I'd toss it out.

One of the things that people worry about with human genetic engineering is that we'll be mucking with our gene pool in artificial ways, a prospect most people find unsettling for reasons that aren't generally specified, and perhaps aren't specifiable.

I don't know what the right answer here is, but one thing that should be noted in any discussion of human genetic engineering is that we're already mucking about with our gene pool in ways that are obvious once they're pointed out. The 20th century advances in medical technology have allowed lots of people to survive who would previously have been weeded out of the gene pool.

Lest I appear hard-hearted, let me hasten to point out that I'm one of these: I've had trouble with my ears all my life, I've had numerous surgeries to (partially) correct these problems, and I've been told by various doctors that were it not for these surgeries, it's quite likely that the mastoiditis which has given me such trouble would have eventually spread to my brain. In addition, I have a susceptibility to strep throat that, were it not for modern antibiotics, would probably have had me pushing up daisies some years ago. I'm very grateful that I'm not now six feet under, but from a genetic, evolutionary perspective, folks like me are precisely the problem. A hundred years ago, a set of genes like mine would have died out before they could get passed on, with the result that the next generation wouldn't have to put up with these problems. But these days, because of our dependence on technology, problematic genes are getting passed on routinely, ensuring that the next generation will be even more dependent on technology than we are today.

I should note that this particular tendency has been observed in other settings. According to Fred Lanting, wild dingoes are almost completely free of hip dysplasia: natural selection ensures that this particular trait doesn't get passed down. But a colony of wild dingoes bred in captivity for 40 or so years (without the pressure of natural selection) showed that a "substantial portion" of the captive dingoes suffered from hip dysplasia. I can't think of any reason why the same thing isn't happening to human beings.

I can't swear that this analysis is correct, though it makes sense to me. I don't know how quickly our gene pool is degrading, but it seems likely that it is in fact doing so, and that it's just a matter of time before the vast majority of human beings will be all but incapable of surviving without significant technical assistance. Entropy always tends to increase, Newton said, and without the pressure of natural selection, the entropy inherent in the human gene pool will increase more quickly than we expect.

Assuming for the moment that this is accurate, what are our options here? None of them sound particularly appealing, but for very different reasons.

  1. We can continue down the current path, letting the human gene pool deteriorate, constantly supplementing its decline with increasingly sophisticated "external" technologies (such as surgery, antibiotics, artificial limbs and organs). In a dozen or so generations, the human race would be nearly cyborg in reality, if not appearance.
  2. We can address the problems in our gene pool by letting survival of the fittest take its course. This isn't really even thinkable, of course: if we can help someone with medical problems, we're morally obligated to do so.
  3. We can address the problems in our gene pool through genetic engineering. Presumably this wouldn't be through "eugenics", but through appropriately targeted gene therapies. The practical problems are many, of course: we don't have words to describe just how complex the human genome really is. We're at least decades and maybe even centuries away from being able to diagnose and fix the sort of "minor" genetic problems that I suffer from, let alone the sort of body sculpting you read about in science fiction novels. But there is at least one theoretical advantage: once we fix a particular problem, it will more-or-less stay fixed: the fixed genes will automatically get passed on to the next generation. If we ever get the technology figured out, we could presumably fix the decline of the human genome.

Not many folks are really passionate advocates of this last approach: human genetic engineering is a technology perched atop a rather slippery slope. It's not real likely that we'd be able to stop with "fixing the decline": as Ellul pointed out, technology that can be used almost certainly will be used. If we have the ability to give our children (never mind ourselves) super-human intelligence, super-human strength, or greatly extended lifespans, I think we certainly will.

But even if you don't buy the idea of a normative human nature (which I think I do), nobody really likes the idea of their genetic makeup being deliberately and specifically programmed by someone else. Written well before genetic engineering became a possibility, I think C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man is nevertheless a fairly accurate prophecy of what will happen if we aren't very careful with these technologies. If we can meddle with our descendants' intelligence, will we also choose to meddle with their sense of morality? On what basis would we do so if we're convinced that morality is just a combination of social and evolutionary pressures? From this perspective, what would constitute a better or worse morality, and on what basis would we decide?

"If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have preordained how they are to use them… The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future…. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men." (The Abolition of Man, pp. 68-69)

But as morally ambiguous as the third option is, I know of even fewer people who would be advocates of the first or second.

I'm not here trying to decide which of these approaches is the right one. I don't like any of them. But if I have any contribution to make to the argument, it would be to point out that the debate isn't about "genetic engineering" in the abstract. It's a choice between various unpalatable options: we have to pick one of these three. There is no neutral choice.

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