What Measure is a (Super)Man?

Science fiction loves eugenics. It's been used in works as weighty as Brave New World and Gattaca, and as slight as Star Trek and Battletech. And of course, it's really just a continuation of the age-old concept of classes and castes, transposed into a more respectably intellectual milieu and given a quick gloss of scientific grounding. It shouldn't be any surprise that the idea of breeding humans who are better, stronger, faster than their fellows, or alternately who are simpler, slower and more malleable, should hold some appeal. In the west that great utopian thought-space, Plato's Republic, set the stage or it thousands of years ago, and people have been merrily examining its feasibility ever since.

With rather widely varying results...

At the moment, eugenics isn't a particularly serious concern. While we can test for all sorts of genetic conditions in utero, that's mostly all that can be done. There are no meaningful tools for enhancing a foetus' intellect, its aptitude with musical instruments, its eye and hair colour, height and weight and so on. We can evaluate, but not significantly alter, a person's genetic makeup. And that's good, because we're only just starting to grope towards, not an understanding of the kinds of issues such abilities would create in society, but that we even need to consider working towards such an understanding. But I suppose we have to start somewhere.

One suspects you would be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn't want their child to be smarter, or stronger, or more flexible, or more creative, or more whatever than everyone else. Every parent wants the best for their children, though not necessarily for everyone else's, and there are completely valid evolutionary and social reasons for that. The thing of it is, though, that what's perfectly understandable for an individual can be problematic for a society, often only once it's safely too late to do anything about it. Already, there are groups, such as those representing people born deaf or people with Down's Syndrome, warning that early genetic identification of those conditions is leading to the eradication of such groups from the wider population. Whether you believe those with such conditions would be better off not having existed in the first place is a personal matter, but in terms of genetic diversity the wholesale removal of certain expressions of genetic construction should raise some concern. One of the most common issues raised is the potential impact of discovering a 'gay gene', and whether it would lead to the near-extinction of the homosexual population. I don't actually worry about that, for various reasons (primarily, those most likely to view homosexuality as a negative condition are also those least likely to view abortion and genetic re-engineering as legitimate), but you could make the same point about nearly any group within the broader human species. To hypberolically borrow a turn of phrase, first they came for the autistic foetuses, and I did nothing, because my foetus wasn't autistic.

A solution to this could be the introduction of new laws, but despite my general faith in the institutions of government it's not one I favour. The law is an often blunt instrument, and frankly it's impossible to think of a way to craft a law to protect such groups that wouldn't run well afoul of the rights to bodily autonomy that underlie the protection of abortion rights in most developed states. You can't be pro-choice only when people are making the choices you agree with. Instead, I think it's going to have to come down to an evolving concept of the relative value of human beings, something the law isn't nearly delicate enough to construct. Historically, the human ideal has been someone with no physical or mental handicaps, for the very simple reason that there were no safety nets; it was every person for themselves, and if you couldn't contribute, either you were going down alone or you were going to drag your family down, with you. But there's more to the working world than just hard physical labour, and our technologies have made our societies rich enough that caring for those with serious physical or mental issues is feasible. We aren't one bad harvest away from starvation anymore; we don't have to leave babies out overnight to see if they're tough enough to be worth keeping.

It's an inexact method, anyway.  About time it was replaced.

Ideally, what society could really use are another dozen or so Stephen Hawking's, people whose bodies are utterly useless in a conventional sense but who have made enormous contributions through the sheer power of their intellect. The only way to undercut the threat of a large-scale genetic arms race is to lead people to an understanding that there is a way for every person to contribute meaningfully and live with dignity and comfort. Thankfully, despite the sharp dislocations produced by the 2008 'Great Recession', and the more widespread but less individually disruptive eruptions as new technologies supplant old industries, there is reason to believe that we are on the cusp of creating just such a society. There's every reason to believe it will be a profoundly difficult transition, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, there is a fundamentally different, and most likely superior, way of life on the horizon.

It can't be about prohibiting parents from seeking to offer their offspring every possible advantage. Prohibition is a tactic of last resort, for the simple reason that it's inefficient and even counter-productive. Instead, it has to be about showing people that their offspring don't need every possible advantage, because the competition isn't life-or-death and the opportunities are expanded beyond all prior imagining. The 'American Dream' and its cousins in nation-states around the world will no longer suffice, because they practically require the most extensive genetic enhancements possible. That is the true scale of the challenge confronting society. But on the other side of failure is at best a world like that in Gattaca, where genetics determine potential placement, and at worst the world of Aldous Huxley's foetal alcohol syndrome-suffering Gammas ruled by genetically perfect Alphas who lack either empathy or ambition.

It's worth a little more work, to get this right.

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