Letters

Genetic engineering is the best thing since sliced bread! Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Faster! Stronger! Less Human!"


Salon Staff
May 5, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

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If science will soon discover the means to reliably produce a Juilliard graduate or inveterate philanthropist, which fills Bill McKibben with horror, then by his own argument nature is already doing exactly that, quite without the free consent of the person involved. If those talents are as genetically determined as they would have to be for the technology McKibben foresees to work, then none of us here and now have any reason to feel that we find out "what we're really made of" in the 23rd mile of a marathon anyway -- what we're really made of was already decided decades ago when we didn't even exist yet.

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Perhaps one could argue that the thing that keeps us from looking at ourselves as miserable automatons with no right to pride in our accomplishments or shame in our deficiencies is that, before these genetic breakthroughs, it was impossible to know what in us made us what we are, but that the girl genetically engineered to be a violinist will be all too aware. If such traits really are genetically engineerable, anyone could use the fruits of human genome research to look up "what we're really made of" before the first super infant is ever engineered. Once we read our genome, like an infallible horoscope, should we feel depressed at the inevitability of our lives? Is McKibben really arguing that we must never truly know what makes us human if we are to remain human? That strikes me as absurd; how can you base a theory of human happiness and morality on the importance of ignorance and fear?

The real problem with genetic engineering is the problem with all technology -- petty human desire. Controlling parents are nothing new; I would feel just as sorry for a genetically engineered child whose parents care more about having a prodigy than a baby as for anyone over the past century groomed to do something she obviously hates. And I am happy for anyone who, with science's input or not, was endowed with the potential to achieve something truly inspiring but is brought up by parents who appreciate that there will always be things beyond their control, and that that is a good thing. What anyone becomes will always depend on her choices, opportunities, and desires, whose infinite variety could never be parsed from some base pairs along a chain of sugar.

-- John A. Hughes

I happen to know a number of the Extropians, Transhumanists & cryonicists Bill McKibben criticizes in "Enough," and I generally agree with the pro-human enhancement worldview. McKibben is saying, in effect, "Take the Blue Pill, little boy." Apparently McKibben can't expand his imagination sufficiently to understand not only our perspective, but also how people growing up in conditions of open-ended lifespans and regular physical upgrades would accept such conditions as normal and empowering, and not the psychologically destructive nightmare he portrays in his book.

It seems as if McKibben, Leon Kass and other defenders of traditional humanity fear that the new human-transforming technologies will reveal that their received "wisdom" about the meaning and purpose of human life is either wrong or at least incomplete. Instead of welcoming the new learning experiences implied by these technologies, McKibben would prefer for us to stay in the illusory world of mere humanity, engaging in the fantasy games we've constructed to show off our reproductive fitness as gene-puppets.

Becoming immortal superhumans might lead to disaster, but staying human practically guarantees it, not only for the senescent individual, but also for the species as the next catastrophe comes along that ordinary humans aren't smart enough or powerful enough to deal with. I, for one, am willing to take the Red Pill offered by Transhumanism, come what may. At least it won't be boring.

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-- Mark Plus

Bill McKibben may be correct about some of the social implications of genetic engineering. But the only original part of his argument -- that engineering deprives engineered children of "free will" -- is downright silly. McKibben suggests that the engineered will be plagued by doubts about whether their actions and achievements belong to them or to their genes. But this kind of doubt is hardly unique to the genetically engineered -- even us "naturals" have genes, and those genes help to determine what we do and what we make of ourselves. If altruism is (in part) a genetic trait, and a genetically modified altruist should worry about whether his altruism is his own or his genes', then so equally should a genetically un-modified altruist. McKibben's anxiety is really an undifferentiated fear of the fact of genetic determination, rather than a specific fear about genetic engineering. If he is correct in principle, then we should not just ignore genetic engineering, we should forsake what we already know about the genome. Good idea, genius.

-- Dave Gottlieb

Whether Bill McKibben realizes it or not, he's no longer a "progressive." It's clear that he has no understanding of either the current state of the genetic engineering art (much less than his fears) or what it may eventually become (a way to eliminate diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and AIDS which are among the greatest scourges of humanity.) As an employee of a biotech company and a graduate student in bioinformatics, I am confident that the work that I and many others like me are doing will bring enormous benefit to people around the world -- it may take longer for these advances to reach poor countries, of course, and that is very unfortunate, but sooner or later the treatments we develop will be available to everyone, just as immunizations and at least some antibiotic and antiviral treatments are, or soon will be.

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If human beings were really "good enough," there would be no medical or biotechnology industry. The fact that people suffer from a wide variety of diseases is a clear indication that we are not "good enough." And anyone who says, for any reason, that we've gone too far, that we must halt the progress of our knowledge of how to cure ourselves and our children, is an enemy of both human compassion and the human intellect.

-- Daniel Dvorkin

Is Bill McKibben under the impression that genetic engineering is something new? Has he ever heard of arranged marriage? Is he picky about who he sleeps with? Just who in the hell wants an ugly, dim-witted baby, anyway?

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-- Dan Reasor

Bill McKibben's opposition to genetic engineering, nanotech and advancements in human intelligence bears all too much resemblance to the knee-jerk reactions to new technologies that people have had over the centuries. Nuclear weapons were supposed to be the end of life on earth. The machines introduced by factory owners in the Industrial Revolution were going to push the entire lower classes out of work. Telephones were going to kill the fine art of letter-writing, bishops said the printing press would dissolve the Church's influence, and Socrates was opposed to literacy altogether. Despite the objections of their contemporaries, each of these inventions has enriched our race.

The story of the human race is one of striving for constant self-improvement. Evolution through technology is only different from improvement through natural selection in one way: It's done consciously, by focused minds. Arguing that pursuing genetic engineering, nanotech, and machine intelligence is "unnatural" is a philosophically weak suggestion; it's like an early man asking, "What's the deal with these new homo sapiens? We homo erectus have been around for the last million years, and that's good enough for me!"

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-- Andrew Levine

No doubt the human ancestor Australopithecus was (as Mr. McKibben refers to Homo sapiens) a "sweet, interesting, intriguing species, full of enormous potential." Should we lament that these creatures were altered -- by evolution, rather than genetic engineering -- until they became us?

To risk a cliche, things change -- species change, usually by the random chance of evolution. Is the real argument here that changing Homo sapiens is bad, or is it that random chance is somehow good? Granted, random chance is difficult to understand -- perhaps that's why so many people unconsciously believe it has some sort of mystic power or cosmic significance.

Is this, then, why Mr. McKibben believes that intentionally improving the health and intelligence of our children is wrong? How would anyone be better served by allowing countless future generations to muddle through randomly, mired in the crippling limitations of our current bodies and brains? Personally, I want my descendants to have every possible advantage as soon as they can.

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-- Brian Shock

In the article "Enough" and the accompanying interview of McKibben, he starts to sound as if he hasn't studied elementary genetics, or maybe read a published paper in the past few years. Genes are not a deterministic-enough factor in people's lives that you can make them into robots. If they were, his feared genetic slavery wouldn't be a product of chosen engineering, it would be a present condition. I'm a slave of my parents' coupling just as much as a future piccolo player would be a slave to her geneticist. But in actuality, I've worked hard for what I've accomplished, and so will the piccolo player; whatever credit is due upbringing and genetics holds true always -- the rest goes to us alone.

-- Tyson Burghardt

I read Katharine Mieszkowski's review of Bill McKibben's new book "Enough!" with some interest.

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The review does a good job of summarizing "Enough!" At the same time, it fails to point out some of the serious flaws of the book.

As Mieszkowski reports, one of McKibben's core concerns is that parents will use genetic engineering techniques to turn their children into robots. McKibben believes that genetic engineering will give parents "infinitely more power" to mold their children than they currently possess.

This is a complete fallacy. While studies of identical twins and adopted siblings have shown without a doubt that genes affect human behavior, they've also shown that the impact of environment is just as large, if not larger, than the impact of genetics.

Even on the most general tests of personality -- tests so removed from reality that they summarize a whole human in just 5 numbers -- genes account for only about half the variation in scores.

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Genes play a much smaller role in hundreds of real world personality traits like smoking, religious beliefs and practices, political party affiliation, sense of humor, and so on. These details of our identity are sculpted mostly by random chance and our environment -- including our parents.

McKibben's other major arguments are similarly flawed. Genetically enhanced children won't live meaningless lives lacking in challenges. They'll find new challenges and obstacles to overcome.

Nor will genetic engineering take choice away from parents any more than literacy and modern schooling do. Parents have the choice of raising their kids without sending them to school or teaching them to read, but only a parent who didn't care about their children would ever act in such a way. If the situation becomes the same with genetic engineering, it will be only because we've found some genetic tweaks to our children which virtually everyone agrees are a benefit.

In the end, McKibben's book is long on style but short on both scientific accuracy and thoroughly considered arguments.

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-- Ramez Naam

Human awareness has come to understand and is on the verge of total control of the molecular processes of biological life as the direct result of billions of years of our universe evolving. The argument that human awareness should not tamper with the human germ line is simply the worst kind of short term thinking when considering long term subjects like evolution.

One of the most incredible aspect of living in our time is increasingly detailed access to the past, and the primary lesson of history is that change is unstoppable. True, humanity will not survive as awareness takes control of genetics away from sexual breeding. But this will be a totally natural, completely normal, and itself just another step in the evolution of the universe.

Arguing against awareness superseding DNA makes me think of asexual hydras getting in a tizzy at the thought of sexual reproduction. Its just silly.

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-- Jeremy Roush


Salon Staff

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