genetic perfection

Imagine a society where complete genetic engineering is possible. Imagine that you and another person can go to a fertilization clinic and pay them to find the combination of your genes that will minimize the chances of major diseases and disorders. Pay them a little more, and they can remove high-risk factor genes entirely in your offspring and replace them with genes that minimize or eliminate the chances of any “prejudicial” conditions that you might have a tendency for: shortness, baldness, nearsightedness.  Pay them even more, and you can request the substitution of custom tailored genes, so that regardless of the genetics of either parent you can request a certain hair color, a certain adult height (assuming you feed the child properly), a certain level of intelligence (again, assuming good parenting and upbringing), or even the enhancement of specific personality traits.

What would that society, viewed writ large, look like?

One detailed and fascinating picture of the resulting society can be found in the movie Gattaca.  Gattaca is a fantastic and haunting movie in which society begins to stratify as a result of this technology: the genetically superior are given better job opportunities, are preferred in dating, and are generally considered an elite caste in society. People of lower genetic stock, either by bad luck or because they were too poor to be able to afford enhancements and screenings, become a massive “underclass.” One of the famous tag-lines for the movie says: “They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.”

Part of the power of the film is the stunning visual portrayal of this society, and particularly of the cultural elite. Everyone is attractive, everyone is in perfect physical health. The image becomes actually quite eerie when you see a crowd of employees passing through the entrance to a building, all looking so very identical. It is an obvious callback to the dreams and fears of the eugenics programs of the Nazi’s: the idea that if everyone was “perfect” then everyone would be the same.

This is a very common view of eugenics, and of what a “world with genetic engineering” would look like.  It is creepy, and people naturally don’t like it. This view is something that is usually used as part of the emotional argument against genetic engineering.

But I would like to introduce you to an alternate vision of a post-genetic-engineering world. That is the world envisaged by Robert Reed in the novel Black Milk.

The novel is set at a time when the first generation of children who have had the opportunity to be the subjects of true genetic engineering are just entering elementary school. Because the science is very new, of course there has been no time for society to become stratified or for the “elite” to become homogenous; however, already in the children you can see that this is not the direction things are going.

You see, parents are still individuals. And although everyone wants what is “best” for his or her children, everyone’s idea of what is “best” is a little different. So although you can find the competitive rich parents who tailor their son within an inch of… well, his life (“This is how tall you will be when you are eight, and this is how tall you will be when you are nine…”), this was the exception, not the norm. Instead, you have: the girl who is “filled with old actress genes” because the parents are big fans; the boy who was tailored to have a perfect memory (although this had the side-effect of making it difficult for him to concentrate); the girl who is too beautiful and symmetrical that she looks like a doll; and the daughter of a lesbian couple, who is stronger and better at sports than all of the boys.

In this world of genetic engineering, from parents with different priorities come children with different gifts.  And the end result, interestingly enough, is that nobody gets teased for being “different” on the playground any more. How could they be, whenever everyone at the school has something that makes him or her different?  There is nothing homogenous about these children.  These are children who meet on the first day of school with the greeting, “So what’s your Special Thing?”

So the next time you hear someone make the argument that they are against genetic engineering because it will remove differences and make everyone “the same,” remember this: there will always be just as many different types of “perfect children” in the world as there are different types of parents to guide them.  That is true now, and it will still be true in a world with genetic engineering.

Gattaca



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  1. Josiah Jennings says:

    This was a very controversial topic in a medical ethics class I had some time ago during my undergraduate philosophy degree. My arguments in favor of genetic engineering were always at best looked upon with skepticism, and at worst outright disgust and vitriol. In sum, I believe the pros far outweigh the cons, even in the case of a Gattaca dystopia (or the makings of a utopia, depending on who you ask). As with so many other things in society, problems will always manifest themselves as economic disparities–the “haves” and the “have-nots.” But I think even in the case of a superior race or class of human beings, the positive long-term effects justify the negative short-term effects, so even in a worst case scenario like the Gattaca world that so many people fear, humanity will be better off in the long-run, and our survival may even depend on it. I don’t think we really have that to worry about, though. I think humanity’s transition into using such technology will produce more of a Black Milk scenario if anything. As you are no doubt aware, we’ve already started doing this sort of thing a long time ago, just not yet to the extent that it is laid out in science fiction novels. Of course, there is always the stigma of the Nazis that lingers over the field of eugenics, but the way they engaged in eugenics was done in a completely inhumane way with an ignorant and distorted ideal. There are humane, beneficial ways to go about eugenics, and I think it is one of the most important fields of our time. With respect to some of the other cons that have been cited, well, like many other things in science, we’re just going to have to be careful, but I think it can and should be done. After all, we haven’t managed destroy the world with nuclear technology yet, but I could be speaking too soon.

  2. Greg says:

    Josiah, thanks for your comments and you and I definitely agree on this. One of the reasons I really enjoyed the story “Black Milk” is because the author, Robert Reed, has such a creative imagination and was able to really illustrate an alternative to the “Gattaca” scneario in a very vivid way. It’s one thing to make the abstract argument of the scientist–the argument that you and I both make, that science is just a tool that can be used well or used poorly–but it’s nice to be able to see the vision of the alternative “future universe” painted so clearly. I think a lot of people are so used to the “Gattaca” image of genetic engineering they forget that there CAN be an alternative.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts, as always!



Pings to this post

  1. [...] Just imagine Assume a society where complete genetic engineering is possible. Imagine that you and another person can go to a fertilization clinic and pay them for finding the combination of your genes that will minimize the probability of major diseases and disorders. Pay them a little more, and they can remove high-risk factor genes entirely in your offspring and replace them with genes that minimize or eliminate the chances of any “prejudicial” conditions that you might have a tendency for: shortness, baldness, nearsightedness. Pay them even more, and you can request the substitution of custom tailored genes, so that regardless of the genetics of either parent you can request a certain hair color, a certain adult height (assuming you feed the child properly), a certain level of intelligence (again, assuming good parenting and upbringing), or even the enhancement of specific personality traits. What would that society, in the long run, look like? The movie Gattaca provides us with a detailed and fascinating picture of the resulting society: [...]


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