Friday, March 31, 2017

A Quick And Unpleasant Speculation

     Developments from the relatively young field of genetic engineering have already rocked the world. Genetically modified crops are increasing yields beyond anything previously achieved. Progress is being made toward the swift improvement of various food animals by genesmithing, as opposed to the much slower path of selective breeding. It might not be much longer before the genome in a human zygote can be edited to undo conditions such as Trisomy-21 (Down’s Syndrome). All this makes the amount of money and brain power being poured into genetic engineering technology easy to understand: the prospects for further profits are considerable.

     There are other prospects as well, not all of them as savory as the correction of disabling conditions in a new human. We’ve heard the scuttlebutt about “designer babies,” but we’ve mostly comforted ourselves with self-reassurances that that possibility remains far off. Sex selection, okay. But babies designed from conception onward to be exactly what their parents want them to be? Not gonna happen real soon. We certainly don’t need to trouble ourselves over the moral implications just yet.

     I don’t think we can be confident about that any more.

     As if you needed to be reminded, I write fiction as well as these grotesquely fatiguing op-eds. The overwhelming majority of my stuff is speculative: fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional dab of quasi-horror. To write speculative fiction one must speculate: i.e., one must begin with a “what if” that departs from reality as we experience it today. The possibilities inherent in the genetic engineering of Mankind are a rich vein that spec-fic writers have tapped liberally.

     But as in all things human, motive matters. Some who practice genesmithing will do so with little or no thought for the well being of the creatures they produce. Some will be outright villains, intent upon turning out subhumans...or slaves.

     Think about this for a moment: There’s a lot of curiosity about human evolution. We have an incomplete fossil record of the progress of the hominid family. Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Sapiens... There’s something missing in there, some genetic long-jump that brought human intellect to its current elevation. How could we explore it most directly, discover the cause with the greatest degree of confidence? Why, by recreating all the links in the genetic progression, of course!

     Scared yet?

     The same techniques that could conceivably end all genetically-occasioned birth defects could also be used to produce monsters.

     Who would do such a thing, and why? Men of little skill or understanding, unaware of the consequences of their undertakings. Cruel men, who like to watch others suffer. Men with skill but without moral or ethical standards, who would produce distorted caricatures of humans for wealthy others ready, willing, and able to pay them. There may be other possibilities, but those are sufficient for now.

     The base stock for such horrors would be readily available: zygotes “left over” from in vitro fertilization efforts. Many would-be parents are unaware of what happens to such “leftovers.” Others are unconcerned about their fates; they’ve got their babies, so nothing else matters.

     Just about as soon as it can be done, it will be done – and no law or exercise of State power will prevent it.

     It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them, But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called `Man's power over Nature' must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

     [C. S. Lewis, The Abolition Of Man]

     Scientific and technological knowledge cannot be kept “under wraps.” Nature’s laws are written in the largest of fonts, readable by anyone with the wit and the will. It has never been possible to prevent some from learning and using what others have discovered. It never will be. The genetic engineering of human beings, or of creatures whose base stock is human, is coming.

     All the barriers to inhumanity and cruelty our prior incapacity placed around us will have fallen. All that will remain to inhibit the genetic engineers is whatever moral and ethical codes we manage to instill in the generations to come...and we may be sure that some will shrug those codes aside for the satisfaction of their curiosity, for sadistic gratification, or for profit.

     I’ve been writing about this: working title Innocents. Watch for it.


JWM said...

Will we see the creation of chimera as companion beings for the childless? Human babies are demanding. Maybe mix up a little human, kitty cat, and other snugly genes to create a semi-sentient fuzzy little buddy. You know- some teddy bear critter, smart as a whip, and just convenient enough to love on with out being too much trouble. There could big money in stuff like that...


Linda Fox said...

Worse, could a tinkering designed to make Wonder-Baby the best at everything lead to unintended consequences?
- shorter lifespan (Dolly and others have suffered from that)
- smart, but lacking essential interpersonal capabilities (the many smart kids who look at others as lesser beings)
- humans no longer capable of reproduction naturally
- fines on those Luddites who conceive the old-fashioned way - worse, disposal of those 'inferior' products

One feature that will likely be lost - a large gene pool, which allows for hybrid vigor.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this advance will be misused as all have. Its not the tool but the tool using the tool. If one thinks this may not happen just look at abortion. A useful tool when making hard moral/ethical choices of whom should live in the cases of difficult pregnancies. Now used to dispose of 'mistakes' or 'inconveniences' to the tune of 300k/yr in the US alone.

One need not have imagination to come up with horror stories - our history is rife with them.