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Mention of eugenics inevitably results in whoops of horror, gnashing of hair, rending of teeth, and discussion of Hitler. Occasionally, however, matters of importance merit discussion even if they lead to Hitler. If by “eugenics” is meant both the selective breeding of humans and genetic manipulation of ourselves, we will shortly have to discuss it, Fuehrer or no Fuehrer. Google on “Designer babies.”
To the gnashers and renders, eugenics always involves the killing of genetically inferior children, preferably by uniformed Nazis. A better term for this might be “first-degree murder.” Usually it would be.
On the other hand, medical ambiguities exist. What does one do in the case of genetically-related anencephaly? These babies, literally having no brain, can perhaps be kept alive forever at enormous expense, but nobody is there. What is the correct policy?
Eugenics can mean many things other than the killing of defective babies. Many of us already practice an informal, jackleg, shade-tree eugenics. If kids at CalTech, who are very highly selected for intelligence, marry each other partly in hopes of having intelligent children, this is eugenics. How terrible is it? (Oh god, I shouldn’t have said that. We’ll end up with federally mandated genetic affirmative action.)
In a sense, the concentration of high intelligence in good universities and elsewhere, where marriage almost certainly will occur, amounts to inadvertent eugenics. In general, the bright seek each other out. Eugenics.
Other examples can be found. If a couple discover that they are genetically likely to have hemophiliac children,, and to adopt or use a sperm bank, they engage in eugenics. Should they be prevented from doing this?
A woman who goes to a sperm bank and asks for an intelligent donor is practicing eugenics. Is this not completely her business?
All of the foregoing are informal and pretty much under the radar. However, anyone who even casually follows the technical literature knows that we are rapidly approaching the point of being able to manipulate human genetics at the level of DNA. The thing to watch is what is being done with animals, such as the production of super-strong dogs in China by excising the gene for myostatin.
(CNN)”In a medical breakthrough that is as terrifying as it is extraordinary, scientists in China say they have created dogs that are twice as strong as they would be naturally, through genetic engineering.”
The pooches above are proof of principle. What can be done sometimes, sort of, and riskily in animals today will one day be possible with humans, safely. It is a classic case of not whether but when, and “when” is “real soon.” When “when” arrives, what then? (If you like technoglop, this on CRISPR research at CalBerkeley.)
The progression can be guessed. The advocates (who will not call it “eugenics”) will first argue for the elimination of genetic diseases. It will be hard to argue against the idea. Such things as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia have limited charm.
Next (I think) will come calls for the elimination of genes correlated with cancer, macular degeneration, atherosclerosis, and so on at great length. These too could go away without generating torrents of nostalgia.
Eliminating genetic errors will quickly be accompanied by calls for re-engineering the genome for desirable traits: athleticism, superb vision, and….
Here is where things will get sticky. Or begin to. There will be worse.
Intelligence beyond question is largely genetic. Yes, I know: The politically correct argue that intelligence doesn’t exist, and they are themselves compelling evidence for the thesis. Most people who actually have brains think that intelligence is a good thing.
Here uneasiness at Playing God enters the picture. Preventing disease seems pretty much like a vaccination. Nothing wrong with that. Editng ourselves for better hearing or athleticism? Maybe a bit creepy but, well, what’s wrong with having a better jump shot? Intelligence, though….
If increased intelligence meant ten or fifteen points of additional IQ, maybe not too much would happen. But if we designed people with IQs of 300, or mean IQs of 300, they would presumably regard the rest of us as little more than pets. I do not know where the upper bound of genetically engineered intelligence might lie. I don’t think anyone else knows either. It is certain that IQs extreme by our standards would instantly dominate the race. Given humanity’s instinctive immersion in corruption, egotism, psychopathy, war, slaughter, totalitarianism, torture, murder and thievery, caution might be advisable in producing people better than we are at these things. It could be a case of finding out what you asked for after getting it.
Here we encounter other thorny problems. A great deal of evidence suggests that behavior is substantially genetic in origin: twin studies, the ease of breeding dogs to be aggressive or pacific, similarities of neural responses in conservatives and other responses in liberals. This would explain why blacks, whites, Jews and the Chinese have exhibited their characteristic personalities over milennia and most of the planet.
Would we then design people to have desirable behavior? Who would decide what was desirable? The virtuous at NPR would want nice, sensitive people with an appreciation of diversity, safe spaces, and opposition to guns, along with an inability to recognize reality. Conservatives would want stern, wary people yearning to fight to the death against nonexistent threats.
Predictably, militaries already are salivating at the thought of phenomenally strong soldiers with Terminator characteristics: (Daily Mail) supertroops who could run over large distances while carrying extremely heavy loads, go for days without sleep, and so on.
Militaries attract men who seem to be genetically disposed to war and to subclinical paranoia, much in the manner of dogs who are alarmed by every passing stranger. The said genetically-modified soldiers would of course need the pugnacity of pit-bulls, and the Pentagon, which sees existential threats in pretty much everything, will warn that we have to develop such myrmidons as otherwise the Chinese will do it first. A psychopathy gap will loom.
For the thoughtful, the question of playing God is…unnerving. Are we to be modeling clay, shaped by whatever shapers to be whatever they want us to be? Will the State control the design? To what ends? Idealists may dream of brilliant, pacific philosophers living as one with nature and thinking deep thoughts. Is that what (See? We are back to Hitler) the Fuehrer would create? Do we have any foggy idea of what we apparently are about to get into?
Does this sound ridiculous? Alarmist? Wait ten years.