Written by 13:30 Hereze, Razgovori

Intervju: Jonathan Anomaly – Selekcijom gena moći ćemo birati čak i crte ličnosti

Dr. Jonathan Anomaly pomoćnik je voditelja studija na Sveučilištu Pennsylvania – Odjelu za Filozofiju, politiku i ekonomiju i gostujući profesor na Uehiro Centru za Praktičnu etiku na Sveučilištu Oxford. Djetinjstvo je proveo na Havajima i u Kaliforniji, a u slobodno vrijeme voli surfati.

Where would you draw the line between the terms “eugenics” and “genetic enhancement” – and in regards to genetic intervention in general – what do you think will never (and shouldn’t) be allowed?

I think we should focus less on words and more on arguments. “Eugenics” comes from Greek roots that translate to “good birth.” “Genetic enhancement” refers to any attempt to improve a capacity that has genetic roots, like height or intelligence or immunity. I use the terms almost interchangeably. I’ve argued that “genetic enhancement” is just a euphemism for “eugenics” that people often use in order to avoid some of the negative connotations of the word “eugenics” – especially associations with Nazi Germany.

In fact, the word “liberal eugenics” is quite common in bioethics. Liberal eugenics is the view that parents should use genetic information to inform their reproductive choices. The idea of liberal eugenics is that individual parents are usually better suited than governments to make choices about what kinds of children to have.

A more substantive moral line people have tried to draw is between the treatment of disease and enhancement of ordinary capacities. The idea is that while it might be good to select embryos or edit genes in order to prevent a disease, it’s wrong to enhance height or lifespan or intelligence.

I disagree. I think the distinction between treatment and enhancement is difficult to draw, and that even if we can draw it, it has no moral implications. A philosopher named David Resnik has argued that the goal of medicine should be to promote human welfare and patient autonomy, not simply to fix broken parts. I agree with Resnik.

The best argument against the view that treatment is okay but enhancement is wrong is from Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell in “Breaking Evolution’s Chains.” They argue that many opponents of genetic enhancement have the false view that nature is like a “master engineer” that designs humans perfectly. There’s nothing special about what nature has given us, and some of what is “natural” or “normal” is not especially good for human welfare.

Related to the title of this article called “Defending eugenics by Mr. Anomaly”: the question is: why would you ever use the term ‘eugenics’ if you want to avoid being called a eugenicist?

As you might guess from my response to the first question, I have no problem with being called a “eugenicist.” Bioethicists have been arguing for decades that eugenics is not intrinsically bad. What’s bad is certain forms of state-sponsored eugenics, like the kinds in Nazi Germany. But here’s a clear case of justified eugenics: laws that ban incest. Many countries around the world have laws that ban close relatives having children together because incest is likely to result in serious genetic disorders. I see no problem with these laws, and in fact I think countries like Saudi Arabia would be better off if there was less cousin marriage. A little less liberty would produce a lot more welfare.

The fuss about language is interesting. I think there’s something sinister going on with political extremists on the left. For quite a while now, they’ve gone around accusing people they disagree with of “racism” and “sexism.” When those terms became overused and less effective, they resorted to “Nazi” and “misogynist.” More recently they’ve started calling their opponents “white supremacist” and “eugenicist.”

They use the negative connotations of a word to slander their opponents rather than engaging in good faith arguments. This is particularly insidious with “eugenics” because there are obviously good and bad versions. It is bad if states use their power to murder innocent people, or pick their partners for them. It is good if states use their power to prohibit incest, or subsidize contraception and genetic counseling so that people can make informed reproductive choices.

So, I don’t care whether we use “eugenics” or “genetic enhancement.” They’re just words. In fact, I defined “eugenics” in my paper pretty clearly as “any attempt by parents to harness the power of reproduction to produce people with traits that enable them to thrive.”

Criticism of my paper – “Defending Eugenics” – did not come from other bioethicists. That’s because “liberal eugenics” is a common view in bioethics, shared by many professional philosophers. Instead, criticism came in the form of a petition written by a woman from the “Critical Whiteness Studies Association of Australia.”

To give you a sense of how crazy these people are, here is their website. They basically just hate white people, and create fake academic departments to promote their hatred. I’m not exaggerating. Last year, a trio of scholars hoaxed these people by publishing a series of papers in what they call “grievance studies” journals, which are largely devoted to discussing the alleged evils of straight, white men. If these charlatans are upset at me, I must be doing something right. I’ll take their criticism as a compliment.

Your new book is titled “Creating future people” – what do you think the future will look like if we overcome the current ethical and scientific barriers of gene editing / embryo selection? Do you expect a lot of people engaging in trait selection?

I think things will proceed slowly. Right now it would be a bad idea to try to edit embryos. The risks are too high, and the benefits are too low. But even if we don’t edit genes now, we do select mates in a way that indirectly affects our children’s traits. And when gay couples choose an egg or sperm to implant, they do not do it randomly. Instead, they are very careful to check the traits of the sperm or egg donor.

What’s really new is that we’re beginning to uncover the genetic roots of complex traits, so that in the coming years parents using in vitro fertilization will be able to scan embryos before they implant them for traits like intelligence or height, or maybe even personality traits like extraversion. Scientists still don’t know a lot about precisely how genes interact to shape traits. But they don’t need to know all the details. All they need to do is show associations between genes and traits. Then parents can use this knowledge to influence their reproductive choices.

At first, I suspect most parents will be skeptical of using technology that allows us to scan embryos and select for certain traits. But as more parents do it, others will opt in because the cost of opting out will be too high.

Oxytocin makes people more generous and serotonin makes them more fair, as you state in your book, but is this enough to affect individual morality? Aren’t moral decisions more complex than that?

Yes. Hormones and their associated receptors can only influence our moral judgments. And these things are influenced by genes. But to say genes influence moral choices is not to say that they strictly determine everything we do. Far from it. Our society matters a lot, and so do our family and friends. Violence rates in Europe have declined quite a bit in the last few hundred years. But that’s not because of large genetic changes.

The main change has been that wealthier societies with good public health measures tend to be places in which people can afford to treat one another with generosity rather than suspicion. Morally good behavior is partly a function of genes, but partly of being lucky enough to live in an environment where other people are not a constant threat.

More importantly, perhaps more to your point, moral choice will always occur. And part of that is about how we respond to difficult situations. Do we respond to our own failures by blaming people around us, or do we instead learn from our mistakes? The answer depends on choices we make. Some people become morally mature, and develop character virtues like wisdom, courage, and tenacity. Others play the victim and become weaklings who can’t control their emotions or choices.

Some of this is due to genetic propensities. And some of it is a matter of luck. But choice will always play a crucial role.

Do you think genetic enhancement will be widely available in future times or reserved for rich classes only  – and if latter – what socioeconomic effects do you predict will result from this?

I think it will become widely available in some countries, such as Singapore. And if other countries take a prohibitive approach, their citizens will simply fly to other countries to take advantage of genetic technology. Even if all countries tried to ban genetic technologies a black market would inevitably arise, as it does for illegal drugs, prostitution, and human kidneys.

Unfortunately, many people fail to understand how black markets work, which reward the rich more than the poor. If some countries try to ban the technology, it will only make genetic inequalities worse since only the rich can afford to travel to other places to get the procedures they want.

I think some countries will (eventually) subsidize genetic technology for the poor, for example by offering free genetic counseling and maybe cheap access to embryo selection technology. If they don’t, or if some people opt out of using it, people may eventually become so different from one another that the enhanced will have no use for the unenhanced, and political separation will be the most peaceful way of avoiding animosity by the enhanced toward the unenhanced.

If, in future, the chance to influence genes in order to create smart people becomes more available to general population, what do you think will be the effect of this increased availability on the current rarity of ingenuity?

I think intelligence is important, but overrated. It’s obvious that smarter people are more likely to come up with important insights that the rest of us can’t grasp. There’s even some evidence that smarter people are more cooperative, perhaps because patience is associated with intelligence. But without other personality traits like empathy, human life would be meaningless, and in fact creative insights would be less likely to occur.

The reason for this is that we are a cooperative species. Almost all innovations come from the division of labor where individuals bring together the insights of thousands, even millions of people. This happens with trade in a market economy. But it also happens with scientific ideas. The first economist, Adam Smith, recognized how market societies facilitate the cognitive division of labor. But he also recognized that without the propensity to trust others, and cooperate on mutually agreeable terms, none of this would be possible.

‘Intelligence is important, but overrated. Without the propensity to trust others, and cooperate on mutually agreeable terms, division of labour wouldn’t be possible.’

Dr. Jonathan Anomaly

So, I do think people will select for intelligence. But I hope they understand that intelligence can be a curse rather than a blessing, unless it’s also paired with personality traits that incline people to be generous, and to cooperate with other cooperative people. As I argue in the book, though, we’re still pretty far from understanding the genetics of personality traits. It’s more of an issue that our grandchildren might face.

You end your book with this quote:

„Evolution is path-dependent. Future populations will be shaped by the choices parents make now. These choices will be influenced by the social and political institutions they live under. It is up to us to think through what kinds of institutions we should create, and what kinds of future people should exist.“

So – what kind of future people would you want to see around (or think should exist) ?

It’s a good question. I tend to be libertarian about these things. Let a thousand flowers bloom. There is reasonable disagreement about what a good life looks like. But personally, I’d like it if people were less prone to irrationality and conformity.

Psychological biases often served a purpose for our ancestors in small groups. But they make politics in modern societies toxic, and often our cognitive biases get manipulated by elites who turn education into indoctrination. This can put all of us at risk. One way bias creates risk is by causing people to put too much trust in religious and political leaders who have the power to cause enormous suffering.

I’d also like to see people capable of creativity, kindness, and a sense of humor. What makes human life valuable is the insights we have, the art we create, and the virtues we develop. But there are many paths to a good life.

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Last modified: 14. 5. 2021.