Friday, June 15, 2007

David Brooks on Genetic Enhancement of Progeny

New York Times columnist David Brooks weighs in on human genetic engineering with some pithy points and a disturbing passivity. (No link available.) First, the pithy points:

[A]Harris poll suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically. If you get social acceptance at that level, then everybody has to do it or their kids will be left behind.

Which means that sooner or later reproduction becomes a casting call for ''Baywatch'' and people like me become an evolutionary dead end. For centuries my ancestors have been hewing peat in Wales and skipping school in Ukraine, but those of us in the low-center-of-gravity community will be left on evolution's cutting-room floor. People under 5-foot-9 can't even donate sperm to these banks, so my co-equals are doomed, let alone future Napoleons.

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.
Brooks' point is that being less than a perfect specimen often drives people to achievement. Moreover, the drive to genetically enhance, contrary to the utilitarian presumptions of the transhumanists, would mean the end of true diversity. Imagine the stultifying sameness if every man was as handsome as Brad Pitt. If you doubt it this would happen, just follow the fashion tyranny among the young.Now for Brook's passivity:
I'm not under the illusion that any of this can be stopped. Conservatives like me think that if you want your kids to have Harvard genes you should have to endure living with a Harvard spouse. But the rest of the country is not with us. There's no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics. ''I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time,'' one potential mother told Jennifer Egan of The Times Magazine last year.
Baloney. I grow weary of learned pundits shaking their heads, sighing, and saying nothing can be done. Such pessimism merely establishes a self-fulfilling prophesy. And it isn't true. Humans have the capacity to choose and we have the capacity to persuade and to be convinced. If you doubt it, look how in a very short time smoking has gone from a largely participated in activity to a socially disfavored activity which leaves smokers close to becoming pariahs.

People haven't thought about this deeply yet because it is still a science fiction fantasy. Polls today mean nothing. Shallow people, as the one quoted about skin color, should not drive our culture or public policies. What matters is furthering the cause of universal human rights and intrinsic human value, and explaining to people the tremendous benefit we all receive from the infinite variety of the human species.



At June 15, 2007 , Blogger HellKaiserRyo said...

I think one should blame people such as Linda Gottfredson, Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, and Richard Lynn for this because they actively (except Herrnstein as he's dead) promlugate the message that psychometric intelligence is everything and it is not a malleable entity as most of the variance in the human population is associated with genetic variance.

At June 15, 2007 , Blogger HellKaiserRyo said...

I am simply saying that one has to understand the mindset that these people operate with. I must also add that I most certainly do not abide by the philosophical tenets of "human exceptionalism" too.

Take Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's book, for example. They argue that low intelligence
is correlated with every (or most) social malady in American society. Next, consider the work the work of Richard Lynn. Like Herrnstein and Murray, Lynn find that intelligence is correlated with national prosperity, but Lynn expands the analysis of Herrnstein and Murray to a global perspective (see IQ and the Wealth of Nations and IQ and Global Inequality.) Most importantly, these people should not be deemed as people who advocate fringe hypotheses, but their ideas are the mainstream consensus of the psychological community. In short, these people view people who of low intelligence as a burden to society.

In contrast, they provided evidence that high intelligence is correlated with economic success and social prestige.

Lastly, I must add that I generally agree with their analysis of the evidence. However, I wished I never read their work in retrospect as they work fueled an inveterate odium for humanity in me.

At June 15, 2007 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Hi, HellKaiserRyo: Thanks for stopping by.

It sounds as if the psychological community is embracing eugenics. If so, what a corruption of a profession that is supposed to help people thrive emotionally.

If we reject human exceptionalism and its corollary of moral equality, we come naturally to such beliefs. It is the logical consequence of rejecting human worth based simply and merely upon being human.

The elite are economically successful and have social prestige, and a basic tenet of eugenics thought is that its adherents see people like themselves as being superior.

But don't give up on humans. We have much about which to be proud. We just need to keep pushing to prevent the kind of thinking you describe from poisoning the well.

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger Lincoln said...

Wesley: "Moreover, the drive to genetically enhance, contrary to the utilitarian presumptions of the transhumanists, would mean the end of true diversity."

I see no evidence for this. To the contrary, where humans are more empowered over their identities, diversity tends to increase. An excellent example of this is the virtual world of Second Life, where there is extraordinary diversity in avatar appearance, despite users' empowerment to appear exactly like each other, if desired.

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Lincoln: Virtual worlds are games, in which part of the point is to do as you described.

No evidence? Look at fashion. Look at how tens of millions of men now wear ear rings, when about ten years ago, only very few did. Look at how older men now dye their hair and women pursue a standard of beauty that would have been considered scrawny during Marilyn Monroe's hay day.

We tend to follow herds. Most of these changes can be undone because they are superficial and cosmetic. But imagine if they were genetically programmed!

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger John Howard said...

Also, with cosmetics, you can change your look gradually, and change back, you aren't under pressure to make lifelong choices all at once. Parents will feel enormous pressure to have their chld enhanced with all the possible enhancements, because they can't be added in later.

I'm glad to see you say that you think it can be stopped. I think a federal "egg and sperm law" could be passed releatively easily, especially if part of a compromise granting same-sex couples federal recognition. All the candidates are saying they favor Civil Unions right now, and we ought to be able to get the issue of same-sex conception entered into the debate. If we could then get an egg and sperm law passed as part of the deal to recognize civil unions, we'd have done it.
(And it would make it easier to stop eugenic gamete donation too. If we can't stop donation completely, perhaps we can just stop the eugenics part, no screening allowed. So people could stil buy sperm, but it might be from that short little drunk guy on the corner...

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger Lincoln said...

Wesley, I will not argue against the existence of fads and styles; however, I wonder whether they, too, are not more diverse than in the past. How often did styles change 2000 years ago? Surely they changed, but I suspect they changed much more slowly and that there were fewer co-existing within immediate communities than is now the case.

By the way, I think games reveal deep things about us. It is in games that we tend to feel most free to express ourselves.

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger Lincoln said...

John, technologies are coming that will allow not simply change, but also reversible change -- much like cosmetics.

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Exactly, Lincoln. We do things there that we would never do in real life.

At June 16, 2007 , Blogger John Howard said...

Lincoln, how can an engineered genetic change be reversed? Or genes will always be our genes, they can't be altered once the egg is fertilized or re-nucleated.

What is your source for new technologies that are coming?

At June 17, 2007 , Blogger HellKaiserRyo said...

"Putting it all together, success and failure in the American economy, and all that goes with it, are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit."

By Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray...

Tell me if that quotation from The Bell Curve isn't an endorsement of eugenics. Since some people believe that genes determine economic success, wouldn't people want to give their offspring the best genes for it?

Psychometrics will fuel the new eugenics.


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