Who’s Afraid Of Superhumanity?

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CRISPR Cas9 Genome Editing

 

A little over two years ago CRISPR-Cas9 was developed, the genome-editing technique that reignited the perennial public fear and mistrust of genomics. And in a phenomenal recent piece by the MIT Technology Review, the practice was introduced on social media with this unfortunate quote: “The fear is that germ-line engineering is a path toward a dystopia of superpeople and designer babies for those who can afford it.”

There are of course a great many risks when altering the structure of human DNA. This is not a game of Jenga. If mistakes are made, lives could be lost. But lives are lost every day on operating tables across the globe, and what scientist would be taken seriously who stood and called for cessation of open heart surgery on grounds that sometimes people die? People are already dying. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix. 

Our DNA isn’t perfect; it’s just what we were born with, and aspects of it are killing us. With germline engineering, a world is conceivable in which the genes for strong disposition to heart disease are removed from afflicted men and women long before they’re ever born, in which Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and sickle cell anemia are deleted from the human story.

There are risks with the application of every new technology, and some of them are quite scary. But the risks have been mitigated by research and practice, and the only crime against humanity here would be ignoring our potential to improve — yes, to make better — the human body.

Many biologists in the moratorium group want access to the technology to identify and mitigate risks themselves, and so clearly understand that mitigation of risk is possible. So what’s the real motivation for our current hysteria, then, and for the parade of doomsaying bioethicists, reading from the panicked book of Michael Crichton, and calling for the termination of an incredibly important, if nascent technology? As it turns out, science has nothing to do with it.
For NPR, Rob Stein wrote: “The big worry is that CRISPR and other techniques will be used to perform germline genetic modification… And that’s something that’s always been considered taboo in science..” Full stop.
In the New York Times, on the problems with germline engineering, the true fear was very well distilled with: “…which could be used to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence. The latter is a path that many ethicists believe should never be taken,” but why? No one ever expands, here. 

What’s to stop a very small group of people, now enhanced genetically and well beyond the average human in every way imaginable, from winning at the zero sum game of life?

Taboos are things that exist in place of reason, where popular social tastes determine human action. There’s nothing rational about them. They may not all be seen through to unjust or calamitous political conclusion — as too many of them are — but certainly every one of them should be questioned. And this one here is roughly: it’s morally acceptable — maybe — to bring a child into the world without a crippling weight around her neck, but to give her some perceived advantage over the rest of us, the genetically typical? Never.

Here, the detractors of germline engineering are betrayed by their true opinion: We can probably get the technology safely working, but what about the cultural ramifications?
What’s to stop a very small group of people, now enhanced genetically well beyond the average human in every way imaginable, from winning at the zero sum game of life? They’d just take all the resources, right? The superpeople would be super capitalists — Donald Trump with a mind twice as formidable as Einstein’s, and we would all be made his slaves. The Trumpettes, he would maybe call us. The Trumpkins. The Trumped.

This is of course insane, and the problem is mostly fiction. From Brave New World to Gattaca, we’ve not heard a story that deals in the genetic enhancement of humans that doesn’t end in gross inequality or disaster. But the inequality piece is the most pernicious. So we’ve arrived at the politics of class, the primary motivation behind most criticism of technology, genetic or otherwise, as one could read plainly from the very start of the now-defunct Valleywag. But Gattaca isn’t real. It’s just a horror story that we’ve told ourselves.

Let’s take the most incorrigible rich people alive. Let’s take the worst Bravo! reality television stars in history (so just, like, any random five I guess), and give them superchildren with superintelligence. Twenty young people are affected at the start, and 20 years later?

With the additional cognitive ability, they’ve cured every known disease and solved the aging problem. They’ve cracked sustainable nuclear fusion, and solved the energy problem. They’ve cracked gravity, and freed us for the heavens.
Techcrunch:  http://tcrn.ch/1JdjJUX

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