Thursday, February 02, 2006

The onward march of human nature

Being something of a future techie, I was fascinated by this article in the Guardian. Madeleine Bunting says that the future she's "outlined... [is]the most benign" she could imagine? Do I think it is? Yes... and no... I'm certainly not convinced by:

The other thing that concerns us is that many of the children in my grandchild's school have had much better enhancement programmes.... she'll be lucky to get to a good university. The one hope I've got is that they might introduce quotas for "naturals" or "near-naturals" like her.

The purpose of Offa (or OffToff) is for clever people with a poor education NOT so less academic people can go to Oxbridge. In Madeleine Bunting's future, academic elitism is a dirty word. So what are the main issues with performance-enhancing drugs and genetic engineering?

How would this technology be distributed?

Three main 'extremes':
  • Can we close Pandora's Box? The international community bans or seriously limits the technology - it would be used illegally in 'rogue states' by a few unscrupulous/rich people. In the short term, this would restrict access to a technology that could improve the lot of humanity. In the long-term the ban would *leak* - starting with genetic illness/disability and moving into 'softer' problems such as depression and problems with concentration/motivation.
  • Every communist's wet dream. The government regulates the technology and controls who accesses it. Technologies develop incrementally so initially only small, unimportant changes could be made to children (e.g. eye colour). But as the technology matured, it would exaggerate all current political debates about centralised planning, equality, health tourism, parental choice, dictatorship of the majority, postcode lotteries, corruption, etc. And those are just the nice things - think how much power over life and death would be concentrated in one place...
  • Corporate dystopia. A free market operates. As with all new technologies, the rich would be able to engineer their children first. This has produced films about dystopias such as Gattaca where society consists of a under- and over-class.

Banning completely has a couple of ethical issues: should we do ethically difficult things for the collective benefit of humanity? Is it fair for a few decision-makers to keep potentially beneficial technology away from the people? Going ahead with genetic engineering has other ethical issues:

Technology moves on and trickles down

Most technology (e.g. plasma screens, digital cameras) starts expensive and exclusive and then becomes popular and cheap. People have a longer productive lifespan than your average telly so older people would be still knocking about in the workplace but would be less enhanced than newcomers into the job market. They would be more experienced but demonstrably less able.

Do your parents have a right to determine who you are?

If I'm a gifted artist, do I have a right to impose that skillset on my children? Does the government have more right to enhance my child than I do? Although the child may have free choice with their career - their strengths, weaknesses and overall ability have been directly determined by their parents or by the government. How many parents would want that responsibility? Can we trust the government with that responsibility? And if other families were engineering their children, would parents feel they could opt to 'go natural'?

The rich forming a permanent overclass

This isn't as likely to happen as the dystopiacs would have you believe.

It depends who 'the rich' are - David Beckham is unlikely to want the same things for 'Barnsley' as a corporate CEO or Tracey Emin would want for a child.

There's no reason why government should not intervene to assist the disadvantaged (as they do now). Charities are also likely to help. Even under a pure 'free market' system - businesses would probably sponsor families to engineer their children to tackle future skills shortages. Uptake of such schemes would be disproportionately skewed towards the poor (the rich would have the money to 'design' their children as they wanted). There would not be a clearly demarcated 'over-class' that the poor were unable to enter.

We already have a genetic over-class. It's accepted that attractive people tend to marry each other (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt). Beautiful people marry talented, rich, ugly people. Intelligent people tend to marry each other. People with healthier lifestyles have healthier children. Children's abilities and appearance are pot-luck but the probability of having a clever child is higher if both parents are (intelligence is apparently 50% heritable). Given today's unequal genetic inheritance, equality of opportunity is a political goal. There is no reason that it should not remain so in the future.

All a bit knotty ethically...


  • At 3:26 pm , Anonymous David Duff said...

    Yes, it's me again! As persistant as the 'KLEEN-EZE' rep but half as useful, I know, but you do bring me down on your own head. I started to read your post and got as far as this:

    "The purpose of OfToff [Who? What? Can I ring a friend?]is that economically disadvantaged people [the poor?] with equal potential [you can't have "equal potential because 'potential' is an unknown factor incapable of measurement] get into university, i.e. to compensate for disadvantages in opportunity [being poor] NOT to compensate for disadvantages in merit [you cannot have a "disadvantage in merit", that is meaningless, but you could have, say, 'a difference in academic ability, or economic resources].

    Or let me put it this way, I could not continue past that piece of atrocious English not least because I couldn't understand it. Which university did you go to?

  • At 3:54 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Now edited. I was writing after lunch, had an idea and was in a hurry to get back to my PhD.

    I am an Oxbridge graduate with a particular and unique gift which makes my ideas moderately intelligent but my means of expressing them poor.

  • At 5:37 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

  • At 5:52 pm , Anonymous David Duff said...

    A charming response, dis-arming me instantly, and making feel ashamed of myself.

    (Bloody women! How do they do that? Is it, perhaps, a genetic 'ADvantage in merit?)

  • At 10:38 am , Anonymous David Duff said...

    Vivienne, I have just flicked over to the link you provided and after struggling through the first paragraph, I gave up. He stands as an example of everything you should ignore when writing.

    I beg you, please, go to this, print off a copy and have it by your keyboard everytime you write:

    You have lots of ideas and no trouble expressing them if only you would avoid that ghastly 'social science gobbledy-gook' and just stick to plain English. ("economically disadvantaged people", Grrrrh!)

  • At 11:45 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    My first degree was almost entirely in social science. This probably explains it. I'm disappointed that they succeeded in training me to write pretentious garble.

    I've never worked out if the pretentious garble is to make very simple things seem complex (so increasing the apparent intelligence of the author).

    Or whether it's part of the 'I wasn't born in a council estate in Grimsby and now must self-flagellate forever more' tendency of Grauniad writers and Marxist academics. This makes them squeamish about writing directly about things like poor people so they have engage in hand-wringing and convoluted euphemism.

  • At 3:07 pm , Anonymous David Duff said...

    Don't worry, I think there's hope for you! At least you're aware.


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