Saturday, December 18, 2004

Genetics and Ethics

Last week on Big Ideas I caught Michael Banner giving a lecture on Genetics and Human Nature. His main thesis was that genetic manipulation posed the danger that we would damage human nature itself by tinkering in something that we had no business meddling with. His starting point was Frances Fukuyama, who argues that we have reached the end of history through liberal democracy and free market capital, and that the only danger posed to this is that genetic engineering will change the very human nature that makes this work.

Fukuyama's arguments would require more time than I have here. Suffice it to say that they are a repetition of the old Hegelian trick, the claim that we have reached the end and goal of history. This seems to me primarily a failure of vision. Liberal democracy and capitalism may be better than any of the existing alternatives, but they are far from being perfect, and may require adjustments which are hardly trivial just to ensure their survival. We have by no means reached a steady state, as the rise of fundamentalism should demonstrate. Liberal democracy itself requires a standard of education and, yes, enlightenment, that is subject to erosion. Freedom has its enemies even amongst those who invoke liberty as a rallying cry. True freedom, as Sartre pointed out, is scary. There are plenty of people who believe that we have altogether too much freedom and would like to see a return to a pre-democratic, even a pre-modern, society. As for capitalism, the balance between social responsibilty and individual interests has by no means been established and agreed upon, and if we get it wrong, the whole structure may collapse. And there are far too many people who do not remember why we adopted these styles of government and social organisation in the first place. Given the upper hand, they may force history to repeat itself.

Fukuyama includes concern with mind and mood altering drugs with his concern about genetics, arguing that both have the capacity to change human nature and throw us into uncharted territory (I will return to the issue of drugs later.) Banner accepts this, and goes on to argue that human nature is a given, imposed by none other than God, and that the ability to change this poses several moral problems. Among these are a threat to humility, through the creation of the truly self-made man, the erosion of charity to the less fortunate (in this case, the less genetically fortunate), and the elimination of traits whose purpose we do not see but which nevertheless have a purpose. It should come as no surprise that Banner is coming from a theological background. Regardless of the origins of the argument, however, I still see this as a type of Frankenstein hypothesis, and I don't see that genetic manipulation makes any of these outcomes any more or less likely.

Consider humility. Although genetic manipulation may theoretically allow us to make people who are smarter, stronger, etc, this is unlikely to be the way we use genetics. There are just too many genetic factors involved, spread across the entire genome, and environmental factors probably play a much larger role. It is far more likely that we will simply treat a few individual genes for massively debilitating conditions. There is, however, a social parallel which acts in the same way, and causes much the same moral problem: wealth. The self-made man in our current society is the wealthy maverick capitalist, who is not self-made at all but arrives at his position with the assistance of large numbers of his fellow citizens. Humility is a major problem here; if success goes to his head, the self-made man will forget his debts to society and indulge himself at the expense of others. Inherited wealth compounds the problem, creating class distinctions and positional advantages that the children of the wealthy take for granted and assume is their right. Fukuyama's neo-conservative position is conducive to this blind spot; it is one of the very flaws which threatens to destabilize the very societal structures that he sees as the end of history. In any case, you cannot genetically make yourself at all. Only your parents can do this, and in all likelihood, only the rich could afford it. The loss of humility that Banner fears is already happening, and has been for a very long time. Genetics really adds little to the mix.

The same applies to the erosion of charity. Banner argues that we take pity on the less genetically fortunate because they have no choice in the matter. This makes no sense; even with genetic engineering, you cannot modify your own genetics anyway. You have what you are born with, and if genetic manipulation is possible, others would take the blame, not you. In any case, the disparity of wealth creates the same problem. We still hold others accountable for their material success, even without knowing the factors involved. How is the judgement of merit based upon wealth any different from judgement based upon genetic endowment, particularly since the two are related?

What I find most troubling about arguments against playing God is that we play God anyway. All that such arguments achieve is to make us blind to what we are already doing. For if we play God by killing those who might otherwise live, we are also playing God by saving those who might otherwise die. The latter is called mercy. But is it, when what we are doing is prolonging suffering, through means that would not have been possible a few decades ago? To give an example, medicine discovered a way in the 60's to save babies born with spinal bifida, a condition which leaves them paralyzed, usually brain damaged, and may leave them in cronic pain. Without a thought, they did so, and hundreds of spinal bifida children now clutter wards, some little more than passive lumps of flesh in expensive chairs. No consideration was given under those circumstance to the idea that it might be better to let nature take its course. We played God just because we could.

And so we have always done, by wearing clothing that allows us to survive in conditions that would otherwise kill us, by extending our capabilities through tools, and by helping those who might die without our help. One of the chief indicators of civilization in fossil records is the appearance of crippled humans who have lived for an extended period of time with this condition, who would have otherwise died without continual care. If we are made in God's image, it is in this sense. We too are creators. We too remake the world and ourselves to our liking.

There are many cronic health problems which are sustainable and surviveable only because we live in a society with a large material surplus, which has the resources to extend the capabilites of the profoundly crippled to a nearly normal level. We are already genetically engineering ourselves, by maintaining people with genetic disabilities who would otherwise die out, allowing them to have children and pass these disabilities on. We have overuled survival of the fittest. This is a great accomplishment, but it could spell disaster in the event of an economic or ecological collapse. Without our extraordinary wealth, hundreds of millions who are kept from the brink through spectacularly ingenious and expensive medical interventions will live in misery, if they live at all.

As for intervention through drugs, especially mood and mind altering drugs, consider this: the first chemical reaction that man mastered was fermentation. Before we had soap or bread, we had booze. What we are looking for in our new drugs is something that will alleviate the core problem without the dramatic character deformations associated with self-medicated solutions. So, prozac, whisky, or suicide? Prozac has its problems, no question about that, but if you are talking about the destruction of human nature, you can't do much worse than alcoholism. It's several hundred thousand years too late to worry about whether we should be interfering with our own biochemistry.

It is human nature to play God. We have always done so. We are in it so far over our heads that we have long since forgotten that we are under water. If there ever was a divine plan, we quit it a long time ago. We can either deny that we do it, and do it poorly, or we can admit it and try to understand how to do it well. The promise of genetic engineering is not that we will remake a new species, but that we will fix what we have already broken. The alternative is to stick our head in the sand till nature steps in and fixes it for us, at horrific cost.