June 02, 2003
Bill McKibben Thinks Genetically Improved Children Will Be Robots

Bill McKibben, author of the book Enough argues that a genetically engineered children would be more akin to robots than to humans with free will.

But I've tried also to raise a deeper set of issues: the meaning of a human life will disappear if we make these changes. To understand what I mean, imagine yourself an 'improved' child. Is your intelligence your own? Is your mood your own, or the result of some protein pumped out by your cells in response to a particular stretch of commercial DNA added by your parents before your birth? Would your accomplishments, your hopes, your dreams mean anything in the way we reckon it now in such a world? Or would you be more akin to a robot?

Here is my problem with that argument in a nutshell: there are aleady people walking around who have genetic variations that make them far more prone to be happy or sad than the average person. Do these people have free wills? There are also people walking around who have genetic variations that make them brilliant. They can sit down and as easily read and understand a math book on real analysis or complex analysis or topology like most people can read a junk novel. Are these brilliant people lacking in free will?

Most of the genetic variations that parents will first try to give their offspring via fetal gene therapy will be genetic variations that will be identified in the already existing human population. The reason is simple: it will be far easier to figure out what the existing genetic variations do than to design and test new genetic variations. But whether a person inherits a genetic variation from parents or from genetic engineering if it is a naturally occurring genetic variation then will the person be any more or less human? If so, why?

To argue that the introduction of an existing variation into a particular fetus will rob that fetus of free will one would have to be willing to accept the idea that there are existing humans walking around with the same variation who have either only partial conscious control over what they do or no control at all.

I'm personally willing to consider the idea that some people have compulsions and desires that are so strong that they can not control themselves. I'm also willing to consider the idea that there may be genetic variations that effectively prevent a person from developing much of a conscience or empathy toward others. But if such variations already naturally exist in the genetic code of some humans then is this an argument against genetic engineering of children in general? Or is it perhaps an argument against allowing people to have progeny that possess those variations which give them uncontrollable impulses?

If there are genetic variations that, for instance, make people more violent or devoid of any sense of fairness does it matter whether those genetic variations are passed down by sexual reproduction or fetal genetic engineering? If so, why?

McKibben does get one thing right:

A political debate is coming, therefore a political debate on what it means to be a human being.

But that debate is not just a political debate. It is a debate about the scientific basis for human nature. Scientifiic discoveries will demonstrate a great many ways in which genes influence personality, desires, conscience, compassion, empathy, intelligence, and other mental attributes. Our practical problem will be that there are many naturally occurring combinations of the extent to which people possess each of these human attributes. One person might have a strong conscience, out-going personality and enormous spatial intelligence with less verbal intelligence. Another person might have less of a conscience but more compassion and more verbal reasoning and yet less spatial ability. When all these things become controllable using genetic engineering we will be faced with the question of whether some combinations of attributes will cause us problems if too large a fraction of humanity possesses them.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 02 04:10 PM  Biotech Society


Comments
Rob said at June 2, 2003 6:39 PM:

I think this stuff is necessary, though. Rodney Brooks thinks machines will never take over humans because we will always stay one step ahead of them by manipulating our genes or augmenting our abilities through brain implants.

And my impression from what neuroscience I have read is that we don't have freewill in the sense most people mean it anyway. We have free will in the sense that we are such complex chaotic systems, it is not feasible to predict an outcome given a set of inputs.

Kelly Parks said at June 3, 2003 1:54 PM:

McKibben is a blinkered old man who has been future-shocked out of his wits. He says any desperate, non-sensical thing he can to try and keep these changes from coming, which he opposes in a very fear-of-change, knee-jerk fashion and justifies after the fact.

The media doesn't help. Of course stories where things go wrong are more dramatic so endless stories and movies about genetic horrors only reinforce the fears of science conservatives like McKibben.

More than a debate is coming. A split is coming, between the early-adopters and the stay-human-at-all-costers. I can't help but point out that in the Star Trek storyline, this split was the cause of their WWIII.

Bob said at June 3, 2003 2:25 PM:

Back in the 1970's, most people feared computers. There were lots of apocalyptic movie plots about computers taking over the world.

WWIII? Heck, we're already on WWIV!

Charlie Martin said at June 4, 2003 2:14 PM:

I happen to be one of those people who need chemical help for a brain-chemistry problem (ie, Prozac for chronic depression.) I maintain that it has not only not made me a robot, it has expanded my free will -- now I can do things that in the past were sometimes unthinkable.

Like get out of bed.

Britney Killea said at May 9, 2007 4:55 AM:

i think that all of your comments are good. but i personally think that genetically altering things is wrong. now if it is being used to save ppls lives then that is fine and i support that. But using this would make normal ppl look dumb. and who would end up with all of the jobs and higher positions. not us. not the ones who are not genetically altered.

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