Sunday, October 30, 2005

Someone's going to do it

We have changed the genomes of domestic plants and animals through selective breeding. We have modified the genomes of bacteria and plants and animals through genetic engineering. Sooner or later someone is going to modify the human genome. In addition there is the possibility of linking the human nervous system to electronic data storage and processing systems. These possibilities have been addressed in many science fiction stories. We need to prepare to address them in real life.

We have to ask the questions, "What can we do? What should we do?".

We do not yet know enough to successfully or safely modify the human genome. In addition we do not know the basis of consciousness so modifications to the brain and hence the mind will not be possible for some decades at least.

A lot of genetic engineering is pretty empirical. "Replace this gene with that one and we get this result. We don't know exactly how the gene acts." Not good enough when humans are the subjects except perhaps when we have diseases caused by single known genes. Genetic engineering on humans is too dangerous for now. But this will not be the case forever. We will eventually be able to predict the full effects of a given genetic modification.

We will be able to safely make modifications to the rest of the body before we can modify the brain. We are rapidly finding which locations in the brain are associated with which functions. This is not the same thing as knowing what is going on in those regions. We are still further from finding which genes are affecting which mental function and how. And of course we need to know what is going on in the brain before we can create anything but crude electronic interfaces for it. But eventually we will be able to create sophisticated electronic interfaces to the brain.

But being able to modify humans does not mean that we should. There is the danger that we could treat people as less than human. There is the danger that we might turn them into something less than human. And in the attempt to turn people into something more than human we might create something that is other than human. Should we do this?

One argument against modifying humans is that it is unnatural. This argument will be made by many, perhaps most religions. I would expect the same environmentalist groups who oppose genetically modified food to oppose genetic modification of humans. The claim is made that what occurs naturally is some sort of normative standard against which things should be judged. People talk of God's plan or of Nature's wisdom.

But can Nature provide normative standards? Species and environments are constantly changing. Why should the current state of a species or an environment be regarded as some sort of ideal standard? Why not what it was several million years ago? Why not what they will evolve into in several million years? Every species that exists does so because other species have become extinct. Yes we should be very careful about the changes that we make but should we try to freeze the world in its present form? We can't. The world changes. And should the changes that would occur without human intervention be preferred to those that are of human origin? After all evolution generally does not come up with optimum solutions. It is restricted by what is available at the time. It comes up with lots and lots of kludges.

The it's unnatural argument has been applied to human reproduction with disastrous results. This is what is behind the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control and in vitro fertilization. I won't mince words. These positions are irresponsible pieces of sophistry. The unnatural argument has also been used against human cloning. Human cloning given the present state of the art would be wrong. There would be a near certainty of harmful abnormalities occurring. But this won't always be the case. A clone is not a doppelganger of the original or some other threat to its identity. It is nothing but a younger identical twin. Big deal!

The other argument against modifying human beings is the danger of restricting their choices in doing so or of treating them as merely a means to an end of the ones doing the modification. This is a good reason for great caution. It is a reason for restricting modifications to those which are primarily for the benefit of the recipient of the modification. Even then one should be cautious. The recipient of a genetic modification could well have a different opinion of it to the one which the giver thinks that they would have. As always well intentioned fools are a great potential danger.

We will be able to make changes to the human body before we can do anything to the mind. Fortunately it will be easier to know what is acceptable and what is not where physical modifications are concerned but there will still be lots of hairy problems.

The first examples of genetic engineering on humans will almost certainly be prevention of genetic diseases. These will generally be the easiest modifications and morally the least problematic. In fact I thank some of these would be morally obligatory when they become safe and affordable. Is it right to allow someone to inherit Huntington's Chorea when you could stop this happening?

Even here there will be problems. What about groups that define themselves in terms of their disabilities and want their offspring to inherit their disabilities? The example that comes to mind is some deaf people wanting their children to be deaf like themselves because they want their sign language subculture to be carried on. There could well be other groups that would see attempts to prevent disabilities as a slight to the disabled. Differently abled and all that. I would regard such behavior as immoral. They would be treating their children as means of saying that they are okay themselves. They would be placing their self images above the interests of their children. I would call that child abuse if they ended up restricting their children's experiences and options in life. But even if genetic modification is the right thing to do would it be right to make it compulsory?

Then there are cosmetic modifications and fitness modifications. Should we try to improve the appearance and physical fitness of our descendants? What if they don't like what we've done? Do we want more physical uniformity among people? What are the consequences for sport and the like? What if genetic modification is used to create champion athletes at the expense of their health? After all East Germany ruined the health of many of its athletes with performance enhancing drugs. Might say China be tempted to use genetic modification for this end? More sinisterly would some totalitarian movements use such modifications for ideological ends?
Nevertheless I suspect that eventually cosmetic and fitness modifications will be made. There will be some gains from the reduction in the harm that disfigurement or just simple ugliness brings to its subjects. There probably will be some reduction in diversity among people. What happens to a society when there are very few ugly or even plain people? What will it do to their values?

If humanity can be modified to improve health and especially to prolong life then this will happen. While increases in longevity will have social costs I think the gains to society will be greater, not to mention the gain to individuals. Our lives are too short for the requirements of a society as complicated as ours. And then there is the possibility of making childbirth less painful and dangerous. Viable birth earlier in pregnancy perhaps? Some of the changes that would reduce health problems could involve significant changes in appearance. Would we go down this route?

Then there is the possibility of altering people to give them capabilities that they do not have now. Perhaps adaptation for life on other worlds and so on. We need to think very carefully about the consequences and the ethics of such actions before doing them.

But advances in medicine may make some of these questions moot. Many of the changes that we might think of making through genetic engineering could be possible through changes made to children or adults.

The problems raised by modifying the human body are small by comparison to those raised by modification of the brain. Our psyche is what makes us a person. I think that human life is more valuable than that of an animal because it supports a human mind. In fact when we talk about human life we are usually talking about the activity of the mind rather than life as such. Modifying the brain runs the risk of tampering with the very things that make a human being a creature of moral significance.

Electronic interfaces are less problematic than genetic modification since presumably they would be inserted in adults, it should be possible to deactivate them if necessary and they are likely to be simply additions to human capabilities rather than a change in anything basic.
Some of the possible changes though electronic implants would not be problematic. Things like access to vast amounts of data and processing power and the ability to control vehicles and other machinery should be benign. Changes which submerge individuality and diminish choice would not be benign.

Genetic modification to increase intelligence, memory capacity and creativity would be desirable. But since so many capabilities are tied together would there be a price for these beneficial changes? Probably not, but we have to check out the risks.

The real danger comes from modifications whose purpose is seen as the benefit of society. Here we run the risk of ideologues trying to make humanity fit their ideologies. Progressives hoped that they could change human nature through better upbringing. They failed and their ideologies failed. One shudders at the thought of an attempt to create the New Soviet Man through genetic engineering.

What if an attempt was made to reduce human aggressiveness. Isn't this likely to create a people that are helpless in the face of danger. Improving peoples ability to understand their own motives should be an improvement. But what if this led to indecisiveness and passivity?
Bringing the desires and needs of the sexes into better harmony sounds like a good idea. But what price would we pay for this. Any attempt to change just one sex to meet the other's needs while leaving the other sex unchanged would be disastrous to both sexes. And anyhow much but not all of the things that each sex complains about in the other are the prices of the qualities that they encourage in the other sex. (Briefly women tend to be brought up to have too little faith in their capabilities. Men tend to be brought up to have too little sense of their own worth, to have to much need for praise and too mach need to prove their manhood. These insecurities interlock and encourage each other.)

Should attempts be made to eliminate homosexuality by genetic engineering? But what is the problem, homosexuality or people's attitudes towards it?

There is the danger of supposedly well intentioned (arguably terminally self righteous) people doing terrible things in the attempt to create a better world. Knee-jerk ill-thought out opposition to any modifications will just make the dangers more likely since they could end up discrediting proper caution. We have to start giving serious thought to this problem now.