The announcement last week that Chinese researchers had cloned monkeys represents slow progress – it is now nearly 22 years since British researchers produced Dolly the cloned sheep. However, that delay is largely due to obstructive Western regulation, and the time taken for emerging market China to catch up to the intellectual frontier of a West made stagnant by bureaucrats. Progress on human genetic engineering can now resume, from a largely Asian base. The implications are substantial, both positive and negative.
When I wrote on the future of genetic engineering “The business of playing God” in 2001, I assumed we would have at least simple human cloning by now, given the Dolly success. That we don’t is due to the deep disapproval of the topic by both political sides in the West. On the right, the objections are primarily religious. In the Judeo-Christian religions, Man is unique, and reproducing him by artificial means, let along modifying him genetically, is defiling God’s creation. One can respect this view, while disagreeing with it; in any case it is likely to be less salient in Asians brought up in the Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian religious traditions.
On the Western left, there appears to be an objection to any kind of improvement of the human race. More important, the left objects to eugenics of any kind, for the ostensible reason that it was once practiced by the Third Reich. This is much less defensible; it is like giving up physics because it can be used to make an atomic bomb. Eugenics theory was appallingly abused by the Nazis, and to a lesser extent by such leftist icons as Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger, but that does not make it invalid as a technique, if that technique is used by men of goodwill and integrity, as all dangerous scientific advances must be.
The Western deep political objections to human genetic engineering techniques are thus unlikely to apply in Asia; indeed, the Chinese government may well have Third Reich-like reasons for developing such techniques. Rather than fight our own culture by developing such techniques ourselves, we must simply hope that Asian countries committed to freedom, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, are among the leaders in this endeavor.
There appear to be few technical barriers to human cloning, given the Chinese success in cloning primates. The initial experiments in the technique cause substantial moral problems, in potentially producing humans with short lifespans or other ineradicable defects, but one can hope that such problems are temporary. Making the omelet requires breaking eggs, but one can mourn the broken eggs and make every effort to minimize their number.
We can thus expect cloned human beings to be with us within the next decade (we could probably have had them in about 2005, but for Western foot-dragging and obstructionism.) Horror-film depictions of an army of identical clones advancing against an outnumbered un-cloned remnant will be rubbish – robots would be a much cheaper, easier and quicker (not requiring two decades to grow to adulthood) mechanism for any Dr. Evil seeking to wreak his will on mankind.
There will however be a very substantial market for this “product.” The most obvious one is that of wealthy elderly intellectuals, who have failed to reproduce themselves adequately during their years of fertility, and who find genetic engineering of an accurate copy of themselves a highly attractive way to perpetuate their capabilities, both more reliable and cheaper than a Trophy Wife. (For women in this bracket, the Trophy Husband option for self-perpetuation does not exist, so cloning is even more attractive.)
Of course, the cloned human being is only an identical twin of the original, without any of the memories and experience gained during his or her life, but even so, producing a genetic copy of oneself that will probably survive into the 22nd Century is at least one way of conquering partially the appallingly wasteful shortness of human life. Participate actively in one’s old age in the upbringing of the clone, and the extension of one’s own life comes even closer.
The other possibility from genetic engineering, the enhancement by artificial means of human capabilities, appears to be further off. The 2001 sequencing of the human genome, having been a government project, appears to have been as barren of the naturally occurring further progress as the 1960s space program. Just as we still do not have men on Mars or a Moon base, so we still do not have an understanding of the complexities involved in genomics. Until we have that understanding, we will be unable to improve a human genetic code, other than possibly eliminating a few rare genetic diseases, itself useful, of course.
With genetic modification, the possibilities are limitless. Many parents will doubtless want to improve the health or intellectual capabilities of their children, but some will want to make them great musicians or athletes; this should all be possible. The cost of genetic adjustment, doubtless initially astronomical, will come down rapidly as has that of other advances in this field, so the initial ranting about the technique’s availability only to rich people will soon be proved wrong. (That won’t however stop the complaint being used by those attempting to ban the procedure.) Overall, over a generation or two, the average quality of the human species will be greatly improved, with corresponding benefit to the speed of technological progress and quality of human cultural output.
Objectors will complain that improving the quality of some members of the human species is an unworthy goal. However, the combined effects of Mother Nature and our modern civilization are pushing humanity’s quality in the opposite direction, as differential fertility rates between different countries and different social classes produces a eugenic dystopia.
Mike Judge’s brilliant film “Idiocracy”, produced in 2005 appeared extreme as a representation of the intellectual knuckle-dragging society 500 years forward. Can anyone deny, watching the film today, that we have come more than halfway to his intellectual dystopia in a mere 13 years. That is not purely a dysgenic effect, of course; adverse cultural factors and the collapse of education quality among the younger generation (which owes something – it’s not clear how much – to the attention-sapping qualities of Internet and cellphone games and Facebook) are much more to blame. Nevertheless, by whatever route we take, we are heading rapidly in the direction of President Camacho’s world, and widespread genetic manipulation appears by far the most effective means of changing direction.
There is a further reason to wish that humanity should raise its game: the rise of the robots. In a world of “Idiocracy” the robots quickly become self-perpetuating and self-repairing. With nothing to learn from a decaying humanity, they quickly discover tasks for themselves more fulfilling (whatever that means to a robot) than keeping the fields well irrigated with the crop-destroying Brawndo.(or maybe they irrigate deliberately with Brawndo, to general applause from decayed humanity, until the crops fail altogether and the robots are left to enjoy God’s creation in solitary splendor.)
Genetic enhancement of even a modest percentage of humanity changes this depressing picture. Robot-human interfaces would be developed, enhancing the capabilities of both and allowing intellectual advances to move smoothly between man and machine. With such possibilities, the enhanced humanity remains firmly in control and speeds the process of technological and intellectual advance. Humans, including the remaining unmodified ones, achieve immeasurably better living standards with the aid of robots at even modest socioeconomic levels. Humanity and robots together advance into a synergistic, mutually fulfilling and wealthy future, quickly spreading among the nearby habitable planets so we are no longer marooned in this planet’s vulnerable ecosystem.
As for Asians developing the new technology, it suggests that Westerners wishing to pursue these fields of endeavor should job-hunt in Asia. The Asian focus for these advances is not necessarily a problem for humanity as whole, but it will cause the West to fall behind in the world league table of living standards. The Pope’s persecution of Galileo and opposition to the Enlightenment caused Catholic Southern Europe to fall behind Protestant Northern Europe and its American colonies in the race to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, consequently suffering a decline in relative living standards and global power.
Similarly, the West’s Luddite approach to human genetic engineering will cause a gradual decline in its world influence and living standards compared to the emergent Asia. Not to worry: in only three centuries or so, the living standards gap that opens up between the West and Asia will begin to close again. Meanwhile, we had better get used to our new destiny as waiters, opera singers and flamenco dancers for the new genetically-enhanced Asian elite.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)