Monday, September 19, 2016

Designing People



More On Eugenics: What Fun!

By Fred Reed

Most considerations of eugenics, before wobbling off into discussions of Hitler, deal with intelligence and physical characteristics, notably health and strength. By those who constitute the best argument for eugenics, eugenics is usually interpreted as a means of oppressing the poor, maltreating the more bedraggled minorities, and euthanizing the retarded. Most commentators on the matter would be endangered by the latter, so I understand their concern.

However, behavior may be a more important field for eugenic consideration. Herewith a few ruminations, offering more questions than answers. See what you think.

Most of the gravest problems facing humanity today have existed since at forever. War, crime, genocide and its approximations, the desire for conquest, lust for power, and a nonsensical pursuit of unusable wealth. We often blame these on proximate causes that seem to make sense at the moment. Currently for example, the Chinese are evil, Iran wants to blow us up, Russia plans to conquer Europe, and ISIS threatens our existence. These reasons, it is now evident, are pretexts for the expression of unwholesome instincts. The Romans honestly conquered for empire and booty, the Americans in the name of Manifest Destiny, the Israelis for lebensraum. We always invent a reason. When cats hunt mice for thousands of years, one may suspect that it is built in. We fight because fighting is what we do.

A crucial point: A great deal of behavior is unmistakably genetic. Babies nurse, toddlers of two raise hell, teenagers rebel and copulate, men of thirty get into bar fights and women don’t.

Genetic behavior goes beyond this into psychological orientation. Dogs are a biological species (or close enough for present purposes). Subspecies of dogs, the parallel of human races, differ genetically in personality and intelligence. Pit bulls and Border Collies are not the same. Within a subspecies, such as German Shepherds, strains can be bred easily for aggressiveness or its absence. Things like pack behavior and barking at strangers exist apart from training or culture. They are innate.

Among humans, individual differences in intelligence and character obviously exist, and any amount of evidence, such as twin studies, suggests strongly that the reasons are substantially genetic.

Philosophical tendencies seem also to be innate. For example, two major behavioral types–subsubspecies if you will–are liberals and conservatives. These display sharply opposed leanings which almost always occur together. 

Conservatives see life in terms of struggle, danger, tend to believe in authority, form tribal groups to fight other tribal groups, express strong loyalty to their own groups but have no empathy for others. These qualities, ideal for armies and primitive tribes, are found almost universally among military officers. Liberals across the board are opposite.

Both groups derive their outlooks from the same evidence–the world–and since there is not logical connection between the various traits, genetic causation seems probable.

“Assortative mating,” the tendency for people to marry those similar to themselves, is well known. The intelligent strongly tend to marry each other. There may be political parallels. For example, one does not readily imagine Ann Coulter wedding Michael Moore. Liberals may marry liberals, and conservatives, conservatives, thus aggravating both conditions.

Here we come to genetic manipulation, rapidly moving toward practicality. This is not the place to discuss evolving techniques, (though here), but they assuredly exist. Genetic manipulation hasn’t happened before because the underlying biochemistry was not understood, nor the necessary instrumentation existent. Design is becoming possible, not just by the obvious but politically sensitive use of sperm banks but also, soon, and much faster, by altering DNA. The Chinese are actively working on modifying human embryos for medical purposes.

What I am getting at is that soon, maybe in fifteen years but certainly in fifty, we are going to face the question:

Do we redesign ourselves, or don’t we?

For many people, I among them, the idea is distinctly spooky, encompassing what we think we are, the meaning if any of life, and whether we want to be a race of designer poodles. On the other hand, do we want to go on amid ever-advancing technology with our accustomed slaughter of millions, torture, crime, corruption, and exploitation?

Just now of course no one knows very well what genes control what behavior, or whether all behavior is genetically determined, but this won’t last. Then what? Almost certainly resistance to manipulation will fade as it becomes possible to edit out diseases of genetic origin. This having worked, it will be hard to resist amplifying intelligence. Then…if there are genes for psychopathy, well…I mean, do we really need Ted Bundys? And we are off and running.

Suppose hypothetically that a small number of genes were found to control combativeness. Would it be a good idea to edit the trait out? This presumably would end wars, military budgets, violent crime, and bar fights. If these or other genes caused anti-social behavior, such as burglary and embezzlement, we could end locked doors and police departments. Good idea? Yes? No ? Why?

Of course people designed to be pacific might be at the mercy of those not so designed. A trait highly desirable if universal might be less so if spotty. We might be sculpting ourselves as sheep in a world of wolves.

Complicating things is that what will at first be inefficiently done only in high-end labs will filter down and down until it can be done easily almost anywhere. Remember when computers were exotic? When only Dick Tracy had the two-way wrist radio? Today, at least within a country, various techniques and lines of research can be controlled or forbidden by governments. This won’t continue. True, we are unlikely to see mail-order Design-Your-Dog kits any time soon. How long is any time soon?

Further, while one country may follow ethical guidelines, or what it regards as ethical guidelines, others may not. Countries that build multi-megaton hydrogen bombs for the explicit purpose of incinerating cities are unlikely to balk at, say, making soldiers of unlimited ferocity and endurance. (Adolf was into that.)

Since controlling them after you built them would be difficult, and given that militaries are moving toward automation of killing, more likely is the breeding–not exactly the right word–of more intelligent engineers. As China develops, the US faces a nation with some five times as many potential engineers. Will countries be forced into the competitive production of smarter scientists as they now compete in the design of supercomputers? Tell me why not.

Interesting question: If manageable numbers of genes are found that increase intelligence, or specific components of intelligence, how much would they increase it? An augmentation of ten or fifteen points of IQ would result in people more or less like ourselves. Fifty or a hundred points would produce almost another species that might regard us as food or detritus to be eliminated.

Skynet or Bionet?

If you think all of this crazy, reflect that gene editing of animals is done now and except for ethical considerations not shared by everyone, the same could be done with humans. As noted, various groups work on modifying human embryos, killing them after a certain number of days.

(Nature: “Second Chinese team reports gene editing in human embryos.” Subhead: “Study used CRISPR technology to introduce HIV-resistance mutation into embryos.”)

Within a decade or so, this is going to be a big deal. Watch.

From Fred On Everything (September 1, 2016)

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