[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Libertes’ second reply

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]


by David Severa

So far we’ve been talking about a “ban” on genetic engineering as if it were some unitary thing. “Will the ban work?” “Is the ban feasible?” But for this prohibition to work it has to happen not just in one country, even one as powerful as America, but more or less everywhere, permanently. When one thinks about the scope of that challenge, and the near-impossibility of coming anywhere close to that level of cooperation, then even people with grave fears of eugenics should come to see that amelioration is a better, workable approach.

Let’s start with the current international situation. There are currently some 200 countries, many of which are large enough that they could feasibly fund their own research into genetic engineering without relying on outside assistance. And as CRISPR and other techniques become better understood in coming years, and as the number of sampled genomes keeps rising, entry will only become easier. Researchers in China are pushing faster than in the West; the first human embryos to be edited with CRISPR were in China. If some nations don’t view genetic engineering with abhorrence, why should they agree to a ban? If some nations see an advantage in pursuing genetic engineering (for the reasons I’ve discussed) while others abstain, why should they agree to a ban? Why should any nation agree to a ban that other countries aren’t adhering to, if it risks putting them at a great disadvantage? The only situation in which I could imagine a ban working was if there was a strong reason to believe that genetic engineering was not in fact very useful, but then the agreement would be secondary anyway. As it stands, one medium-sized nation would be enough to derail any agreement, as its neighbors would break away to stay competitive and so on. There may be treaties or UN declarations, but expect them to have as much weight as interwar arms control agreements did. You could hold things back some, but no more.

Hypothetically though, imagine the world actually came to an agreement and hashed out a workable ban. What then? It seems impossible to imagine that norms won’t ever shift in the following decades or centuries. Will no pocket of humanity anywhere pursue genetic engineering to fruition? Because as soon as anyone does, then containment or reversion to the status quo ante become ever harder. The engineered will be more successful (since that’s what it means for the engineering to work, more or less) and thus genetic engineering will be no easier to stop once it gets started than any other successful technology. (If even better ways to improve human nature non-heritably were developed, that would do it, actually.)

Opponents might argue that even a non-permanent agreement is better than nothing, so as to give us time to prepare if nothing else, but I’m not so sure. We’ve already had decades to prepare for genetic engineering, and it isn’t clear that more time would help. The battle lines have been sketched, if not yet drawn. It also seems reckless to me to just assume that the future will be a better place better able to come up with better solutions to these hard problems. There is, at most, a rough tendency towards progress in history, one that can often be reversed. And while our current global order is hugely flawed, the past shows many ways in which things could be worse. What if the future push towards genetic engineering comes at a terrible time for humanity? It’s not implausible, since they’d be overturning important, long-standing cultural norms. The world could get locked in by a single generation’s harmful ideas. We should not be at all certain that our descendants will make better choices than us. If genetic engineering is to become a reality, I’m inclined to say that the certain problems of today are a safer bet than the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Next, I think that Precautiones made an excellent point: to say that a market can function without intervention is not the same thing as saying that a market will avoid political interference. I don’t think that any market is totally immune to that. Democracy and a free press will ameliorate some of the more harmful tendencies. (Dictatorships won’t be as bound, but they were never likely to bow to an internationally-imposed ban anyway.) However, I confess that I’m now starting to realize that I haven’t thought nearly enough about balancing freedom of action with reasonable regulations. It’s a difficult problem even for much less fraught topics. In practice there may be no alternative but muddling through and trusting in the people to push back and fight for their own rights, but was there ever an alternative to that? A great deal of discussion is required.

Pivoting from the civilizational to the personal, I’d like to look more at whether genetic engineering will involve trade-offs between intelligene and other desirable traits. Here is psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:

Consistent with prior research, IQ was most strongly related to openness to experience. Out of 9 dimensions of openness to experience, 8 out of 9 were positively related to IQ: intellectual engagement, intellectual creativity, mental quickness, intellectual competence, introspection, ingenuity, intellectual depth, and imagination. Interestingly, IQ was much more strongly related to intellectual engagement and mental quickness than imagination, ingenuity, or intellectual depth, and IQ was not related to sensitivity to beauty.

Out of 45 dimensions of personality, 23 dimensions were not related to IQ. This included gregariousness, friendliness, assertiveness, poise, talkativeness, social understanding, warmth, pleasantness, empathy, cooperation, sympathy, conscientiousness, efficiency, dutifulness, purposefulness, cautiousness, rationality, perfectionism, calmness, impulse control, imperturbability, cool-headedness, and tranquility. These qualities were not directly relevant to IQ.

8 dimensions of personality outside the openness to experience domain were positively related to IQ, including organization, toughness, provocativeness, leadership, self-disclosure, emotional stability, moderation, and happiness– although the correlations were much smaller than with intellectual engagement and mental quickness. IQ was negatively related to orderliness, morality, nurturance, tenderness, and sociability, but again, the negative correlations were much smaller than the relationships among IQ, intellectual engagement, and mental quickness.

Now, not all of these relationships will hold up, but it gives a sense of things. (And don’t forget correlations between different personality traits. No getting around the complexity of the human mind.) While most desirable traits are uncorrelated or positively correlated with IQ, there are in fact a few unfortunate, but small, negative correlations. On the whole this seems encouraging, and remember that perhaps we will be able to counter any small problems created with fixes elsewhere. After all, there are plenty of smart and sociable people, so it’s obviously possible.

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