Coming up next: The super-rich cyborg overclass

Is the next stage in human evolution a great leap forward for the wealthy? Maybe so, if we don't fix healthcare

Published October 27, 2009 2:36PM (EDT)

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, the blogosphere is buzzing this week over comments made by technology forecaster Paul Saffo in The Sunday Times suggesting that the "super-rich" are well-situated to evolve into a different species from good old homo sapiens.

(But first, a little blogosphere archeology. I was alerted to the story by a link from Mark Thoma to a Discover Magazine blog post titled "Will the Super-Rich Evolve Into a Different Species?" But Discovery attributed Saffo's comments to reporting by The Guardian while linking instead to a Telegraph story titled "Rich May 'Evolve Into a Different Species.'" The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that Saffo's comments were made to the Sunday Times, whose story had the less sensationalist title "What's Your Place in the Brave New World?" And after following this trail, the quote marks that the Telegraph placed around "evolve into a different species" seem a trifle suspect, because it's the Times writer, Dominic Rushe, who uses the word, not Saffo.)

So what did Saffo actually say?

From the Sunday Times;

As the biological revolution spreads, Saffo sees many moral dilemmas ahead. For example, by using genetic testing and tailor-made drugs it may be possible to mitigate many common ailments that affect the aging population -- but such improvements will probably be available only to the super-rich.

In the future, they may be able to grow their own replacement organs, take specially designed drugs made just for them and use genetic research tools to alert them of any possible health dangers for them or their children.

"That's social dynamite," said Saffo. "I sometimes wonder if the very rich will become a completely separate species. Imagine if the very rich can live, on average, 20 years longer than the poor. That's 20 more years of earning and saving. Think what that means about wealth and power and the advantages that you pass on to your children."

I am not sure that I see exactly where the mechanism for actual "evolution" in a rigorous scientific sense come into play here. Sure, the rich will have better access to top-of-the-line medical care and they will pass on such advantages to their children. For "evolution" into a different species to occur, however, they would need to be fundamentally redesigning the genetic structure of their children, and then those children would have to mate with similarly redesigned neo-homo sapiens to pass on their new attributes. Are the super-rich capable of such coordination? Isn't it just as likely that they'll all redesign themselves in different, innovative ways, and then discover that they are biologically incompatible and incapable of reproducing? Problem solved.

But even if the super-rich did succeed in species-separation, how exactly is this news? The rich have always had better access to health care, and have always been mating with each other. The emergence of "a divide between the classes" is hardly some kind of nightmare future scenario; it is a staple of human existence since societies started hierarchically organizing themselves at the dawn of civilization. To paraphrase the apocryphal but still useful Fitzgerald retort to Hemingway: Yeah, sure, the super-rich are super-different from you and me. They have more money. And always have.

And finally, there's an easy way to avoid this dystopian future in which the descendants of Bill Gates and Lloyd Blankfein are born with immaculate complexions, huge brains, and the ability to run 40 yards in under 4.0 seconds. Tax the hell out of the rich, and use it to pay for healthcare for the rest of us neo-Neanderthals. Problem solved, again.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Evolution How The World Works