Tuesday, May 21, 2002
As someone who is genuinely concerned about the implications of the new world of genetic engineering and cloning and the like, may I register a vote for better thinkers than Francis Fukuyama or Leon Kass to make the case for caution?
What is Fukuyama worried about? He's worried that deaf lesbians will make more deaf lesbians. And he's worried that boring straight people will prevent their children from being gay. And as a result, children will be born without their consent and will be both too different and too normal. How does he hold all his contradictory worries in his head at the same time?
He's worried about sex selection run rampant, when this is (a) a low-tech problem (all you need is ultrasound and legal abortion) and (b) not a problem in the U.S. but in less-developed and more traditional cultures like India and China. He worries that if we are biologically differentiated then democracy will collapse. But we are biologically differentiated now - no one thinks legal equality is the same as equality of talents. And, in fact, we in many ways sort our population explicitly by talent. That is, for example, what the SAT is officially supposed to do; it's an aptitude test, measuring your ability, not your achievement. It's basically an intelligence test. And it has an enormous influence over your future earnings and, therefore, your status within society. No genetic engineering required, and we're still a democracy.
There's other stuff he's worried about - drugging kids to get rid of aggression, for example - that has nothing to do with the topic. One gets the sense that, with Fukuyama and with Kass, that what they are really concerned about is not technological change but social change. They are not really worried about what responsible people will do with better science (eliminate genetic diseases, for example), but that technology will tempt us to do things that violate a proper understanding of human relationships (make an exact replica of ourselves to satisfy our egos, for example). But is this really a problem caused by, or even exacerbated by technology? As noted, the sex-selection problem is worst in less-developed countries working with more primitive technology. Does this mean we should ban ultrasound? We've got an unseemly business right now in the U.S. trading in human eggs; does this mean we should ban IVF? We've got schools pushing Ritalin on kids because their parents can't be bothered to discipline them; should we ban all psychopharmacology?
Fukuyama makes the analogy to nuclear weapons. Okay, then. The United States spent enormous sums of money researching nuclear technology. We built nuclear power plants, nuclear-powered submarines, and a massive array of nuclear weapons. If "control" means slowing the pace of research, that's one aspect of control that was never exercised. What we tried to do was exercise control to make sure these technologies were safe and that they were kept in responsible hands (not that we've always done a perfect job of either). We should similarly be very cautious about cloning, much less genetic engineering, because these are, effectively, medical procedures, and until they are clearly safe they should never be contemplated. And we should be talking about values, about what makes a family, irrespective of new technologies. If the social structure is resilient, it will assimilate new technological possibilities and use them to make the society stronger. If it is weak, technology will just enable reckless drivers to drive faster. But while I am strongly in favor of a regulatory structure for this nascent industry, I can't believe that the core of the problem is too much freedom or too much research.
This leaves me with his last analogy, one I've made before but in a very different context. Fukuyama compares libertarians to antebellum slave-owners. The comparison, I suppose, is that the slavers believed that had an absolute property interest that the government had no right to interfere with, and they were absolutely wrong. I think the analogy is apt in that I really worry that one direction the biotech revolution can go is in making people into a species of property. I worry when people talk about creating children rather than bearing them. I worry that even potential humans - cloned zygotes, for example - will become personal property, because this property can become a rights-bearing human being and we don't know precisely when that line is crossed. I think we should be thinking about the legal side as well as the moral side of this stuff - now, before interests become entrenched and changing the legal status of, say, an embryo becomes something with significant economic consequences. Anyhow, I worry about this sort of stuff. But I wish I heard better arguments to articulate my worry than what the Fukuyamas of the world have made.