by David Severa
It’s a fair point that pushing for a total ban is unlikely to do much harm, and might even lead to better regulations. That doesn’t make a ban a good idea.
Does genetic engineering “pose existential threats to human survival or flourishing”? Not the sort that Precautiones has dreamed up. Her idea of some irreversible change is patently absurd. This will not be a sudden process. It will play out over decades and generations, as we slowly learn more about our genes and our minds. There will be research and public feedback and ceaseless debates. We will not stumble blindly into anything. We might make mistakes (and I guess one could imagine a far-fetched conspiracy by world leaders to enforce permanent obedience at a biological level), but this is a process we’re approaching with human values, and if our efforts fail our values, we will change our course. Not easily, but that’s life. That’s progress. It’s messy. There are existential risks involved in genetic engineering, but it’s not an all-or-nothing decision. We can – and by necessity will – start small.
I think that this is a good example of Precautiones’ flawed approach. She falls back on dark insinuations about human nature, without much evidence to back up her worldview. It’s not even that she’s necessarily wrong, it’s that public policy decisions of such vast importance can’t be made on the basis of so little real support. On whether parents can be trusted to do what is right for their children, the only evidence Precautiones brought to bear was abortion rates for fetuses with Down syndrome. On whether governments will allow a relatively free market, the only evidence is that some governments provide/mandate provision of embryo selection for a number of obviously deleterious genetic diseases. On whether there are unavoidable trade-offs between desirable traits, no evidence is provided. The arguments for negative externalities are similarly airy. There is little but a massive superstructure of apparently-plausible stories and dark hints.
Admittedly, hypotheticals and speculation are unavoidable when talking about a future that is at least decades away. And while I’ve tried to provide numbers or reference studies where possible, lots of gaps had to be spackled with guesses. Hopefully I’ve sketched a plausible, positive vision of a future with genetic engineering – at least shown that dystopia is far from guaranteed – but of course things could go wrong in ways anticipated or unanticipated. The evidence and arguments are more on my side, but unknowns will swamp our predictions.
The question then becomes what actions should we take when confronted with a new technology that looks to be on-net positive, but with significant – yes, even existential – risks? “Where does the burden of proof lie?” With those wishing to prohibit, as always. If it were an all-or-nothing decision, then a ban until we are more certain about the effects could make sense. But as I said, that’s not the problem we face. I can think of no reason why the default position is not one of free choice.
I won’t leave you with some grand statement, just a simple recapitulation of my case. There are good reasons to think that genetic engineering, if chosen by parents from a sensibly regulated free market, will prove to be an amazing boon to humanity. Children will lead better lives, and society will benefit even beyond that. Such a market is possible, but not guaranteed. We will have to push for it collectively. There are risks, but manageable ones. A ban on genetic engineering makes absolutely no sense.
Libertes reverts to discussing free choice as if it is unencumbered by the choices of others, like we live in a world without tragedies of the commons or prisoner’s dilemmas. He says that “There will be research and public feedback and ceaseless debates. We will not stumble blindly into anything.” But what if there are the metaphorical arms races we’ve discussed? The nuclear arms race involved research and public feedback and ceaseless debates, yet it was mostly through dumb luck that the world avoided catastrophe. And these dynamics could play out at the individual and/or national level. The pressure to have a child that competes already does strange things to parents. The pressure to compete militarily or economically can lead to the exact sort of irreversible changes that Libertes blithely dismisses. So it may well be an all-or-nothing decision, in which case even he agrees that “a ban until we are more certain about the effects could make sense.” My precautionary principle more than holds.
Libertes talks about evidence, but there are more types of evidence than he’s acknowledged. Historical truths, and how they inform our understanding of the present, are notably absent from his analysis. In the first paragraph of my first post I reminded our readers of the horrors of eugenics. And not isolated incidents. Broad, cross-national inhumanity. Real horrors, that prove how evil people can be even in the name of an apparent good cause like the betterment of humanity. That’s why I came up with all of those ways that things could go wrong. I wasn’t pontificating about nothing. Hypotheticals stemming from an understanding of humanity are the best tools for understanding we have. And history, better than anything else, gives us insight into human nature as it is – the human nature that will be eugenically remaking itself.
In many circumstances, most people are essentially decent, but if you push them out of their comfort zones, into the unfamiliar or frightening, they can do terrible things. The decisions the new eugenics imposes aren’t like the pressures of war, but they’re abnormal, sliding into a bloodless cruelty of utilitarianism unchecked by our better passions. To understand that requires not just evidence, but reflection and insight. What may seem “airy” is hopefully a product of that insight. You can’t predict the future with it, but you can suss out its rhythms and recurrences. Greed, selfishness, and lust for power at all levels will fatally compromise any attempt to improve human nature, at least until we pass some as yet unknown horizon.
But right now the path to eugenics must go through either the enormity of government control of reproduction, or into the downward-sucking whirlpool of individual competition and individual ignorance and cruelty. Or both. If we reach the other side alive and unscathed it will be due to no skill of our own, but some unearned fortune. A far better option is to turn away. There is so much else in the universe to understand and master before we turn to ourselves, so many topics presenting so much less danger. A complete prohibition on genetic engineering (or however close we can get) is absolutely called for. And with the first human embryos already edited we already have one foot over the point of no return. Action must be swift and it must be strong. I’m not optimistic. The siren call of “progress” will always be alluring. I’m aware of the immense difficulties entailed by my position, but if it’s a losing cause then I can hardly think of a nobler one.
That’s it for this dialogue, thanks for reading! Who won? What points did both sides totally fail to consider? What changes to the format would you have us make in the future? Let us know in the comments, over email, or on Tumblr. We’d love to hear from you.
Veracities will return very soon with a very in-depth look at the demographics of supporters of Donald Trump. Stay tuned!