Through genetic selection and
modification, we will be soon be able to transform human
nature, for better . . . or worse.
Some find this exciting. I find it
The good news: we still have time to
figure out what the physical, psychological, and social
impacts of these gene-altering technologies might be –
by studying naturally-occurring human genetic diversity.
Genetic engineering, and associated
technologies such as neural implants, is explored in two
Ramez Naam, author of
More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological
Enhancement, never seems to have met an
idea for fiddling around with our genes that he didn`t
like. I find his optimism likable even though I don`t
share it. Unfortunately, the numerous small errors of
fact in his book saps confidence in his overall
In contrast, Washington Post
Joel Garreau – known to VDARE.COM readers as author
of the provocative
The Nine Nations Of North America – can`t seem
to make up his mind in his upcoming
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing
Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.
Garreau evenhandedly interviews
futurist cheerleaders, like inventor
Ray Kurzweil, who takes hundreds of
nutritional supplements daily as part of his
plan for living forever, and doomsayers, like
Sun Microsystems co-founder
Bill Joy, who fears that genetically manipulated
germs could wipe out all of humanity.
(The inaptly named Joy strikes me
as a Gloomy Gus. But, just in case some apocalyptic
catastrophe does transpire, it would make sense
to pay a couple of dozen military families to live for
two year stretches at the bottom of a Kansas salt mine,
from which, if the worst were to happen, they could
eventually re-emerge like
Noah`s family to repopulate the planet.)
What Naam and Garreau can agree
upon is that the post-human age will be here
Real Soon Now.
I`m not so certain.
Medicine progresses slowly these days. But I am sure
that that it`s time to start getting serious about
whether we want it or not.
The situation oddly resembles the
political impact of immigration. When I first started
writing about immigration, it was widely assumed that
the Hispanic share of the vote had become so huge that
it was political suicide to try to cut back on
immigration. Yet closer study showed this was
far from true.
Similarly, when it comes to human
bioengineering, the future hasn`t yet gone through the
formality of taking place.
We still have time to figure out
what we want to do and what we don`t.
political taboos against the study of human
biodiversity retard this crucial work.
Occasionally, I get emails telling
me I`m foolish to worry about the long term effects of
immigration because genetic engineering will soon give
us all IQs of 1,000 … or we`ll live forever … or robots
will take over and enslave us … or
nanotechnology will make us all richer than Croesus
… or nanotechnology will run amok and suck all the life
out of everything on Earth … or …
But technological trees don`t
always grow to the sky. Consider the rise and fall of
the Transportation Revolution. From the development of
the steamship to the moon landing took less than 170
years. Smart science fiction writers like
Robert A. Heinlein assumed that this
progress would continue.
Yet, in the last quarter of a
century, the greatest breakthrough in transportation
technology has been, what, the minivan? The Concorde is
dead, the Space Shuttle is teetering …
Nor do technical revolutions always
arrive on time. Medical gene engineering of humans has
been much slower to become usable than many assumed a
One problem: getting the
effectiveness to risk level high enough. Operating on
humans isn`t like engineering corn or mice, where you
can throw away your mistakes.
Another difficulty: although there
was a vast amount of publicity back in 2000 about how
the genome had been "mapped," we still don`t know
what most genes actually do.
Moreover, while a few diseases,
such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington`s, are the
result of a single bad gene, the big bad illnesses seem
to have other causes. Indeed, Darwinian logic, as first
Gregory Cochran, suggests we might have been
focusing too hard on finding heritable genetic causes
for diseases. In the words of top British genetic
journalist Matt Ridley, "Your genes don`t exist to
A new report called "Microbial
Triggers of Common Human Illness" from the
American Academy of Microbiology supports Cochran`s
insight that many diseases that are assumed genetic may
more likely be triggered by germs.
That`s because natural selection
would tend to eliminate harmful genes in us, but
pathogens evolve at least as fast as our defenses
Your genes haven`t evolved to make
you sick, but to give you capabilities to survive and
reproduce. So genetic technologies might be more suited
to enhance skills than to cure illnesses.
Yet some capacities are likely to
require many genes working together in complex ways, so
the payoff from altering a single gene would be small.
Superstar cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has
said, "I think an Achilles heel of genetic
enhancement will be the rarity of single genes with
consistent beneficial psychological effects."
Considering the intricacy of the
human brain, this is particularly likely to be true of
intelligence, which would make engineering higher IQs
Conversely, single genes often have
multiple uses, which means that genetic engineering
could often have unfortunate side effects.
But subsequent studies showed the
Doogie mice (named after the supersmart TV character
Doogie Howser, M.D.) are also more sensitive to
chronic inflammatory pain, which isn`t a trait you`d
want your children to possess.
Farmers have been modifying their
barnyard animals` genetic frequencies for thousands of
years through selective breeding. One of the many
interesting aspects of the new book
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of
Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by animal
Temple Grandin, who is America`s best known
autistic, is how she documents some of the weird
things that go wrong when breeders emphasize a single
For example, don`t expect
Lassie to figure out anymore that the way to rescue
Timmy from the quicksand is by extending a long
branch to him. Since WWII, collie breeders have been
trying to give collies narrower and narrower snouts
because they look so darn elegant that way.
Unfortunately, they made their skulls so narrow there is
no room left for brains. Collies are now dumb as a box
Side effects can be more
unpredictable and even nastier. In recent years, as
chicken ranchers have bred for more meat on their birds,
they`ve had to
deal with an unprecedented rash of rooster sex
murderers who kill hens.
Cochran has pointed out that
torsion dystonia, a hereditary illness which puts
about 10 percent of its sufferers in wheelchairs at an
early age, may be a side effect of intense selection
pressure for higher IQ. In one study, the average IQ of
patients was 122.
So parents may not rush into
genetic engineering their children quite as fast as the
Futurists—being smart, nerdy
guys—generally assume that the most desirable human
trait is IQ.
Higher IQ groups tend to exhibit
positive social patterns such as low crime rates and
high wealth creation rates. Unfortunately, what Amy Chua
dominant minorities" haven`t always been looked
upon favorably by the masses. Top IQ researcher Linda
Gottfredson points out in her important article "What
If the Hereditarian Hypothesis Is True?" that
"Virtually all the victim groups of genocide in the 20th
century had relatively high average levels of
achievement (e.g., German Jews, educated Cambodians,
Russian Kulaks, Armenians in Turkey, Ibos in Nigeria)."
Among average people, it is not at
all clear that intelligence is considered as desirable
as desirability. I suspect that most parents would
choose attractiveness over intelligence for their
children, because being able to outcompete your peers
for the best spouse is so important, especially in
making grandchildren, that looks matter greatly.
Heinlein might have been the first
thinker to explore some of the consequences.
In his prescient 1942 novel about a
genetically engineered future,
Beyond This Horizon, the world is populated by
fairly intelligent but extremely sexy people straight
out of a Hollywood casting call.
The men are manly and the ladies
lovely. The men are so macho, in fact, that no gentleman
would be seen without his gun, and dueling has made a
major comeback. The strict code of etiquette that limits
when these square-jawed bravos are allowed to blast away
at each other inspired Heinlein`s famous remark,
"An armed society is a polite society."
As insightful as the best science
fiction writers are, we can learn the pros and cons of a
higher testosterone future society right now by
examining the social behavior of current racial groups
with higher levels of
male hormones and
stronger male hormone receptors, such as
But, that kind of research on
naturally occurring genetic diversity is
largely taboo. Instead, we will probably walk
blindly into the era of genetic engineering.
Good luck to us all. We`re going to
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and