[extropy-chat] Nicholas Kristof and `irreversible' genetic changes

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Wed Aug 25 13:50:54 UTC 2004

[A reply to http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/25/opinion/25kristof.html?th :]

Dear Mr Kristof

You evoke a popular anxiety: "Genetic tinkering gives me the willies. My 
concern is [...] with the possibility that we will irreversibly change what 
it is to be human."

But this is very odd, surely? In my forthcoming book *Ferocious Minds: 
Polymathy and the New Enlightenment*, I discuss that fear of irreversibly 
by reference to environmentalist Bill McKibben's recent alarmist book:


...in *Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age* (2003), [McKibben] has 
advanced a nightmare prospect of genetic engineering that will tear the 
human species from our ancient roots and turn us into something terrible, 
robotic, without meaning. Such medical options, he has urged, ought to be 
made illegal (in more general terms that cover any germline enhancements): 
`People shouldn't be allowed to choose things this deep for their children 
(and for every generation thereafter),' (192)

The slip of logic is customary in such Jeremiads, but no less bizarre for 
that. Watch McKibben's hands carefully: If we gain the power to make *any 
changes we wish* in the DNA of our offspring, this should be forbidden. Why 
so? Because these changes will thereafter be *permanently embedded* in the 
species. Note how the argument starts by assuming what it then denies: that 
science will provide us with the power to alter, enhance, add, or delete 
genes. The bogeyman of `permanent embeddedness' is precisely a relic of 
previous, more restricted technologies.

McKibben goes on to draw out dire recommendations from his 
misunderstanding. Making such germinal-choice changes illegal, he admits,

"will involve limiting freedom, just as forbidding people to drive their 
cars the wrong way down one-way street limits freedom. The liberty of one 
generation, ours, would be in some small way constrained... in order to 
protect the far more basic liberties of those yet to come. To demand this 
right is to make a mockery of liberty. It's to choose, forever, against 
choice." (192)

What we are headed toward, McKibben asserts (in his wooly confusion), is a 
regime of `programmed' lives, known totally in advance, which will be 
`ineradicable' (because by then, even if the prowess remains, our will 
shall have been sapped; we will be contented Stepford Hive drones). 
Absurdly, given where he is avowedly coming from, he writes as a 
simple-minded genetic determinist. Once those devilish genes are locked in 
place, we will be obliged to march forever to their drumming, without 
passion or challenge or the poignancy of death and its rewarding, decent 
return to the embrace of Nature.

In reality, the danger is not primarily from gene technology. Genes, and 
the proteins they code for, do significantly ordain our bent, and some of 
our limitations and abilities, but they do not *program* us. The true 
danger arises from the conceptual mischief liable to be spread by 
pseudo-arguments like McKibben's.


Now it might be that what you fear will be irreversibly changed is not some 
particular phenotype but the very immutability of inheritance itself 
(modulo nutrition, health care, education, culture in general). Is that of 
urgent concern? Perhaps so, but it seems to me to resemble other changes in 
the past: the change away from irreversible degradation of eyesight, once 
spectacles were invented, and so on. But I get the feeling that this moment 
of anxiety is more primal than any list of such technical changes wrought 
by new knowledge; that we are feeling essentialist qualms at the prospect 
of fast change to aspects of ourselves that seem better masked in mystery 
and evasion. Although it's a widespread sentiment that does need to be 
taken into account, that's not a very good basis for making policy, it 
seems to me.

Damien Broderick
Senior Fellow, Department of English
University of Melbourne
biblio: www.thespike.us  

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