October 01, 2002
NYTBR reviews Gregory Stock's Redesigning Humans

In an article entitled 'Redesigning Humans': Taking Charge of Our Own Heredity writer Gina Maranto (herself author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings) reviews Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future by Gregory Stock.

Gregory Stock is an optimist about the effects of genetic engineering of offspring. Maranto makes clear that she is more worried than Stock about what humans will do with the ability to genetically modify future generations:

But even if evolution could be steered in a positive direction, why presume that humans have the wisdom to do so? ''Redesigning Humans'' is an act of both boosterism and reductionism. It admits but then ignores the enormous complexity of biological systems; it places biology firmly above social, ecological and economic considerations; and it reduces concepts like success in life to the purely physical, as if health and longevity were the only issues that mattered. Isn't it pretty to think so?

It is perfectly legitimate to have such concerns. Surely any technology can be put to uses that are dangerous. However, what is lacking in the vast bulk of the more pessimistic writings about human genetic engineering is any real analysis of exactly which types of genetically engineered characteristics would pose great threats to civilization. What real dangers to civilization might arise as a result of genetic engineering? The stereotype some critics cite (and an old theme in science fiction) is of clone armies willing to obey the orders of their masters. However, even that stereotype is typically presented without a precise description of which personality characteristics, engineered into human fetuses, would lead to that dystopian future.

Genetically Engineered Dangerous Personality Types Are Greatest Potential Danger in Human Genetic Future

The ability to control personality type of offspring poses the largest potential danger of human genetic engineering. But here we have to be precise. Not all imaginable personality types are a threat to civilization. Many people will choose personality types for their offspring that are unlike the personality characteristics that they themselves possess. However, there are many different personalities that one will be able to choose for a child that might simply make them happier or less socially awkward while not in any way making them into people who are greater dangers to the rest of us.

Why do most of us choose to respect the rights of others? Why don't we all do so all of the time? Obviously, details of our personal experiences during upbringing play a role in determining just how fair or how compassionate each person wants to be or is able to be. But there is plenty of evidence (e.g, from comparative studies of twins raised apart) that biology plays a big role in causing differences in human behavior. For instance, men and women have radically different rates of commission of most types of crime. Another example is roid rage. Its caused by steroids that body builders take and it demonstrates how hormones can boost the propensity to commit violent acts.

Its clear that biochemistry can affect personality and behavior. Since that is the case ways will be found to manipulate biochemical states of the brain thru much genetic manipulations. Most drugs that alter mental state have to be taken continuously to maintain a different mental state. By contrast, genetic manipulations will create enduring changes in metal state because the genes are there throughout a person's life. So genetic engineering will allow permanent changes in offspring personality and in behavioral tendencies.

If, for some reason, a small number of people decided they wanted to genetically engineer their kids to be lacking in empathy, compassion, and conscience we'd face the risk of genetically engineered psychopaths living among us. This might even be done by tyrants who want to create progeny who will rule as they do. Imagine someone like Saddam Hussein choosing to make sure his kids are absolutely brutal and manipulative by genetic design.

Human Genetic Engineering Opponents Rarely Articulate Greatest Danger

In most diatribes against human genetic engineering there is a lack of specificity as to what forms of genetic engineering would be most threatening to human civilization. I see this lack of specificity in part a result of a reluctance to accept the degree to which human personality types will turn out to be determined by genetic variations. After all what other types of genetic changes to humans have the potential to causes problems for society at large on the scale the cognitive genetic engineering will be able to cause? Lots of people are really tall or really short with assorted colors of skin, hair, and eyes. Some people are thin and others naturally more muscular or heavy set. Most of these differences are not absolute obstacles to the maintenance of human civilizations. It seems obvious to me that variations in physical shape are not as important as differences in goes on in human minds.

Let us illustrate that last point by looking at lions and tigers. Imagine someone genetically engineered lions to be as smart as humans. Imagine the lions could even talk. Would you want to have lions living in your neighborhood if they still had strong instincts that caused them to look at all other species (including humans!) as something to hunt down and eat? I hope your answer is "NO!".

To acknowledge the key role of genetics in personality formation forces one to confront a number of derivative admissions about the nature of us each personally (what, I'm genetically fated to be [fill in something you don't like about yourself here]?) and also about why some people are more dysfunctional and socially pathological. One result of this unwillingness to accept the genetics-personality link is this rather sterile and unproductive debate about the dangers posed by human genetic engineering.

In future posts I will explore some of the dangers that we will face when genetic engineering gives us the ability to finely control progeny personality types and behavioral characteristics. When we gain the ability to determine progeny personality types we will no longer be able to afford to ignore these dangers.

Aside: to be fair, I haven't read Maranto's book and so I can't say whether she addresses these dangers there.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 October 01 07:39 PM  Dangers Mind Engineering


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