Through genetic selection and modification, we will be soon be able to transform human nature, for better . . . or worse.
Some find this exciting. I find it mostly alarming.
The good news: we still have time to figure out what the physical, psychological, and social impacts of these gene-altering technologies might be - by studying naturally-occurring human genetic diversity.
Genetic engineering, and associated technologies such as neural implants, is explored in two new books.
Microsoft programmer Ramez Naam, author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, never seems to have met an idea for fiddling around with our genes that he didn't like. I find his optimism likable even though I don't share it. Unfortunately, the numerous small errors of fact in his book saps confidence in his overall reliability.
In contrast, Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau – known to VDARE.COM readers as author of the provocative The Nine Nations Of North America - can't seem to make up his mind in his upcoming Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.
Garreau evenhandedly interviews futurist cheerleaders, like inventor Ray Kurzweil, who takes hundreds of nutritional supplements daily as part of his plan for living forever, and doomsayers, like Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, who fears that genetically manipulated germs could wipe out all of humanity.
(The inaptly named Joy strikes me as a Gloomy Gus. But, just in case some apocalyptic catastrophe does transpire, it would make sense to pay a couple of dozen military families to live for two year stretches at the bottom of a Kansas salt mine, from which, if the worst were to happen, they could eventually re-emerge like Noah's family to repopulate the planet.)
What Naam and Garreau can agree upon is that the post-human age will be here Real Soon Now.
I'm not so certain. Medicine progresses slowly these days. But I am sure that that it's time to start getting serious about whether we want it or not.
The situation oddly resembles the political impact of immigration. When I first started writing about immigration, it was widely assumed that the Hispanic share of the vote had become so huge that it was political suicide to try to cut back on immigration. Yet closer study showed this was far from true.
Similarly, when it comes to human bioengineering, the future hasn't yet gone through the formality of taking place.
We still have time to figure out what we want to do and what we don't.
Unfortunately, political taboos against the study of human biodiversity retard this crucial work.
Occasionally, I get emails telling me I'm foolish to worry about the long term effects of immigration because genetic engineering will soon give us all IQs of 1,000 … or we'll live forever … or robots will take over and enslave us … or nanotechnology will make us all richer than Croesus … or nanotechnology will run amok and suck all the life out of everything on Earth … or …
But technological trees don't always grow to the sky. Consider the rise and fall of the Transportation Revolution. From the development of the steamship to the moon landing took less than 170 years. Smart science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein assumed that this progress would continue.
Yet, in the last quarter of a century, the greatest breakthrough in transportation technology has been, what, the minivan? The Concorde is dead, the Space Shuttle is teetering …
Nor do technical revolutions always arrive on time. Medical gene engineering of humans has been much slower to become usable than many assumed a decade ago.
One problem: getting the effectiveness to risk level high enough. Operating on humans isn't like engineering corn or mice, where you can throw away your mistakes.
Another difficulty: although there was a vast amount of publicity back in 2000 about how the genome had been "mapped," we still don't know what most genes actually do.
Moreover, while a few diseases, such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington's, are the result of a single bad gene, the big bad illnesses seem to have other causes. Indeed, Darwinian logic, as first enunciated by Gregory Cochran, suggests we might have been focusing too hard on finding heritable genetic causes for diseases. In the words of top British genetic journalist Matt Ridley, "Your genes don't exist to kill you."
A new report called "Microbial Triggers of Common Human Illness" from the American Academy of Microbiology supports Cochran's insight that many diseases that are assumed genetic may more likely be triggered by germs.
That's because natural selection would tend to eliminate harmful genes in us, but pathogens evolve at least as fast as our defenses against them.
Your genes haven't evolved to make you sick, but to give you capabilities to survive and reproduce. So genetic technologies might be more suited to enhance skills than to cure illnesses.
Yet some capacities are likely to require many genes working together in complex ways, so the payoff from altering a single gene would be small. Superstar cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has said, "I think an Achilles heel of genetic enhancement will be the rarity of single genes with consistent beneficial psychological effects."
Considering the intricacy of the human brain, this is particularly likely to be true of intelligence, which would make engineering higher IQs difficult.
Conversely, single genes often have multiple uses, which means that genetic engineering could often have unfortunate side effects.
But subsequent studies showed the Doogie mice (named after the supersmart TV character Doogie Howser, M.D.) are also more sensitive to chronic inflammatory pain, which isn't a trait you'd want your children to possess.
Farmers have been modifying their barnyard animals' genetic frequencies for thousands of years through selective breeding. One of the many interesting aspects of the new book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by animal sciences professor Temple Grandin, who is America's best known autistic, is how she documents some of the weird things that go wrong when breeders emphasize a single genetic trait.
For example, don't expect Lassie to figure out anymore that the way to rescue little Timmy from the quicksand is by extending a long branch to him. Since WWII, collie breeders have been trying to give collies narrower and narrower snouts because they look so darn elegant that way. Unfortunately, they made their skulls so narrow there is no room left for brains. Collies are now dumb as a box of rocks.
Side effects can be more unpredictable and even nastier. In recent years, as chicken ranchers have bred for more meat on their birds, they've had to deal with an unprecedented rash of rooster sex murderers who kill hens.
In humans, Cochran has pointed out that torsion dystonia, a hereditary illness which puts about 10 percent of its sufferers in wheelchairs at an early age, may be a side effect of intense selection pressure for higher IQ. In one study, the average IQ of patients was 122.
So parents may not rush into genetic engineering their children quite as fast as the futurists expect.
Futurists—being smart, nerdy guys—generally assume that the most desirable human trait is IQ.
Higher IQ groups tend to exhibit positive social patterns such as low crime rates and high wealth creation rates. Unfortunately, what Amy Chua calls "market dominant minorities" haven't always been looked upon favorably by the masses. Top IQ researcher Linda Gottfredson points out in her important article "What If the Hereditarian Hypothesis Is True?" that "Virtually all the victim groups of genocide in the 20th century had relatively high average levels of achievement (e.g., German Jews, educated Cambodians, Russian Kulaks, Armenians in Turkey, Ibos in Nigeria)."
Among average people, it is not at all clear that intelligence is considered as desirable as desirability. I suspect that most parents would choose attractiveness over intelligence for their children, because being able to outcompete your peers for the best spouse is so important, especially in making grandchildren, that looks matter greatly.
Heinlein might have been the first thinker to explore some of the consequences.
In his prescient 1942 novel about a genetically engineered future, Beyond This Horizon, the world is populated by fairly intelligent but extremely sexy people straight out of a Hollywood casting call.
The men are manly and the ladies lovely. The men are so macho, in fact, that no gentleman would be seen without his gun, and dueling has made a major comeback. The strict code of etiquette that limits when these square-jawed bravos are allowed to blast away at each other inspired Heinlein's famous remark, "An armed society is a polite society."
As insightful as the best science fiction writers are, we can learn the pros and cons of a higher testosterone future society right now by examining the social behavior of current racial groups with higher levels of male hormones and stronger male hormone receptors, such as African-Americans.
But, that kind of research on naturally occurring genetic diversity is largely taboo. Instead, we will probably walk blindly into the era of genetic engineering.
Good luck to us all. We're going to need it.