I like the idea of this oped series and I’m glad genetic modification is becoming a more mainstream topic. However, I’m very disappointed that the author took the easy (but usually inaccurate) path of projecting our current fears onto future tech rather than carefully trying to work out the novel new effects good and bad (tho the dystopian predictions never seem to get it right).
Indeed, we can already dismiss some of the core presumptions of the oped as implausible. Like computer tech biotech has economies of scale and continual cost reductions so let’s try not to repeat the mistakes we made worrying about the digital divide rather than what will happen when everyone’s online. Maybe only the rich will get customized babies but once we learn how to perform the procedure the marginal cost will drop very quickly (indeed I’d guess the IVF treatment will be the major cost hurdle but not out of reach of most Americans). An oped that looked into the potential effects of conformity as a result of mass produced genetic packages would have been much more interesting. As would discussion of the potential implications of parents having the option of changing their babies apparent race.
Second, by hypothesis being genetically engineered is a huge benefit to earnings but merely because of employer reaction rather than true talent. But you can’t BOTH claim that’s true, gene modification is the cause of growing caste divides and the public gene enhancement project didn’t raise salaries since either the elites must really have some extra ability or employers are just using gene enhancement as an excuse to hire the children of elites (so it’s not the gene editing that’s driving inequality). Moreover, if private gene editing offers these great economic benefits there should be plenty of financing opportunities along the lines of the education loans that take a fraction of future earnings.
Finally, either the IQ enhancement really works or it doesn’t. If it creates substantial IQ boosts we know based on what we see now that this makes huge differences in people’s ability to do various jobs and tasks. You’re not likely to see a research mathematician or physicist with an IQ below 120 and these careers have pretty objective measures of success. So people would simply be able to go check if all the major new theorems and breakthroughs in the sciences are all from genetically enhanced or not (whether it’s IQ or the result of better motivation).
If so that means society is much better off (richer, more capable more medical tech) even as a result of elites getting these modifications. Also it makes it more implausible prices haven’t dropped. In terms of changes to society the likely effects of turning one Einstein or Feynman (or even Sergey Brin and Larry Page) every 50 years into 10 a year would pretty seismic. On the other hand if you don’t see this actually making a difference in these objectively measurable fields it will eventually start to dawn on people it’s not really working at all.
This is only the most obvious and easiest to think of positive effect. Personally, I’m a big fan of the fact that it could finally bring about an end to traditional racism. The fact that parents can choose a race for their children turns race into a matter of fashion rather than a matter of ancestry. Of course, parents will often want their children to look like them but this mere possibility puts a limit on how bad the discrimination can be since if it’s bad enough you don’t put your kid through it. Moreover, once we start editing the genome I’d be shocked if we didn’t work out pretty quickly how to couple melanin production to some other uncommon nutrient or add a hook which allows it to be suppressed giving people a choice about how to present themselves. Once people can change their skin color for aesthetic effect or for a concert it will fundamentally end traditional racism.
While a homogenous army of tall men with blue eyes and firm handshakes might seem undesirable consider the benefits of a little more homogeneity in looks. Just tweaking people so the bottom 20% of the looks bracket no longer exists (i.e. now looks better) will make a huge difference in people’s welfare and it will encourage people to focus more on things besides looks once everyone has decent looks. There are so many interesting angles for fiction on this subject to cover so why must it all retread the same ground?
A Moral Imperative
Ultimately, I’d argue that we have a moral imperative to make enhancement available as soon as possible. Yes, the intelligence boosts too but the most important reason is all the unnecessary suffering that eliminating predisposition to depression or back trouble or whatever else. After antibiotics I expect that to be the next great human health advance and putting this off because we feel uncomfortable is like denying a child a vaccine because the idea of them getting artificial chemicals injected into them creeps you out.
We aren’t ready to start o humans yet but for us to get there we need to start a focused effort on learning how to manage safe and effective genetic enhancement of lower animals, primates and ultimately humans. Even if you disagree with me on the desirability of this technology you’ve got no choice. It’s inevitable and the question the world needs to answer is whether they prefer it done by third-world doctors in back rooms or safely researched by the world’s best scientists and offered in our best facilities. I don’t plan to have children but if I was and I knew I could give them an advantage by having some illegal gene editing done in some clinic I’d give it a serious thought and there are lots of people who would take it way farther even with the risks (think beauty pageant moms). So let’s get cracking.
DNA tweaks won’t fix our problems. By Ted Chiang Mr. Chiang is an award-winning science fiction writer and the author of “Exhalation.” Editors’ note: This is the first installment in a new series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years in the future.