The world faces many challenges over the coming decades, not least environmental. Ethically, one of them will be genetic engineering.
It’s an old concept, but it is a new reality. Cloning has been much discussed but a far more immediate issue is raised by the probability of finding genetic variations that might that be manipulated therapeutically, or screened for ante-natally to enhance human characteristics. This of brushes up against the potentially poisonous topic of eugenics. The issues here are staggeringly complex. A debate of this nature around intelligence (IQ) has recently been sparked by a study identifying a genetic variant (together with low thyroid levels) associated with very low IQ, which, in turn, is associated with poor qualty of life, socio economic status and more. So should genetic screening to enhance IQ should be embraced?.
A few things to think about. One argument goes that genetic engineering (GE) is itself an evolutionary step, and therefore a natural consequence of the progress of mankind. Rather than wait for random genetic mutation to ‘select’ the best people for the job of surviving over generations, why not give it a helping hand? Have we evolved to the point of controlling our own evolution and, thereby, being the ‘fittest’ (at least in some parts of the world) may mean smartest? Perhaps. But we are talking about human beings here, individual lives. How do we objectively define intelligence and quality of life? Are smarter people (however that be defined) happier and vice versa? And do we not run the risk of narrowing our genetic future too much, by ridding ourselves of some genetic variability that might leave ourselves vulnerable to future challenges: new illness, infection, environmental changes? And from a social perspective, can we survive in a world full only of Einsteins?
The answer is almost certainly not. The quality of someones life is not necessarily defined by their intellectual life. For most this is very much not the case. And we need a diversity of skills, attributes, and accomplishment to thrive as a society. Aldous Huxley, was a genius in recognising and exploring these issues so astutely in Brave New World. His ‘solution’ was a straified form of eugenics. Not everyone could be in the highest strata of society. And like a insect colony he imagined a society that, to function properly, needed it’s soldiers, it’s drones, it’s kings and it’s queens. He also supposed one would need to drug everyone to make them happy with their lot (a true opium for the people). Chilling, but is it all that far away?
We can’t ignore these issues, we have to embrace them. But perhaps the guardianship of such issues and their solutions shouldn’t just be left to the ‘smart people’. They are often the ones that get us into trouble…