Eugenics in the 21st century

Synopsis for a Café Scientifique delivered in Thessaloniki)

1950-Jan-Redbook-human-body-smEugenics was a liberal vision because, at the time of Sir Francis Galton, it was radical and against the Victorian class system. By going beyond the class structure, eugenics envisioned a future world of enhanced humans irrespective of class background. It was a truly egalitarian vision inspired by Darwinism and aiming for a balance between nature and nurture.

Following the destruction of the European class system after the carnage of WW1, egalitarian ideas were split between the Left focusing more on the “nurture” side of the argument and the Right corrupting the “nature” side and replacing it with “race”. Liberalism – expressed in the few remaining parliamentary democracies – found itself in the uneasy middle, a follower rather than a leader, a defender of its hijacked ideology.

The extreme Left in Soviet Union and the extreme Right in Nazi Germany were responsible for genocide; the former in “re-education gulags” the latter in “concentration camps”. It was thus that eugenics got a bad name, particularly from the Nazi atrocities which were linked to eugenics during the Nuremberg Trial. The line of the defence for the Nazi criminals was that they did little else compared to what the Americans were doing in their own country by means of forceful sterlization programs. The irony is, of course, that the Nazis while exterminating the Jews were aiming to destroy not an “inferior” race but an antagonistic one, a people who despite their small number had contributed immensely in the European civilisation. Race was a pretext; and this is why a big number of European Christians eagerly joined the Nazis in the slaughter.

Egalitarianism was redefined by the European Left after the war as in direct opposition to eugenics – conveniently forgetting the millions that were dying in Siberia.

But the idea has refused to disappear, because it bods with the fundamental value system of most human beings, i.e. the enhancement of our abilities. In the 21st century eugenics is not used as a term anymore (in order not to elicit negative reactions), but the idea is there, alive and well, manifesting both in technologies that intervene in the genetic make-up of the unborn (“designer babies”), as well as in technologies that may enhance already born humans. How many of us would refuse to becoming cleverer, stronger, healthier, younger and more sexually potent?

The dilemmas of enhancement

There are at least three major moral and political dilemmas that I would like to discuss. The first has to do with the control of the eugenics technologies. Should one support the liberal, free-market economics model, where private companies sell the technologies to the consumers? Or should one involve the State? And to what degree? The dilemma is obvious. If we follow a free-market approach we may arrive at a new class system, where the ultra rich will be able to use the expensive technology to enhance themselves and their offspring. We may end up with a superhuman class, the “GenRich” as it is often called. If we make eugenics a state-controlled commodity, then we uneasily reproduce a totalitarian scenario for the future. One must not forget that the Nazi party was a socialist one.

The second dilemma that I would like to discuss has to do with the technologies themselves. Both pre-natal genetic interventionism and post-natal enhancement (genetic or otherwise) have merits that need to be discussed. For example, in the case of post-natal enhancement how much down the road to becoming cyborgs we go? Finally, the third issue for discussion would be our motivation for human enhancement. One may argue that this is obvious: self-interest. One wants to be an enhanced person because it improves his or her competitiveness in the world. It is precisely the meaning of competitiveness that needs to be discussed. In a planet heading for an environmental tipping point competitiveness may not be the correct strategy, but collaboration. Altruism should be enhanced at the expense of selfishness. But, assuming a genetic disposition for those two social traits, how much does it matter which trait to select for? Is human behaviour governed by genetics? Or is it a result of framing the right game, as many game theorists would argue? And if so, what other reasons we may have for human enhancement? Colonizing another planet may be one of them. For example if humans are ever going to survive on Mars they will have to genetically change; the gravity of the planet is less and its atmosphere (even after terraforming) thinner. Is Eugenics the correct strategy for space colonization?

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Cyborgs and free will

cyborgAugmenting physical ability by making use of techno-prostheses is as instinctive to primates as the sticks that some chimpanzees use to extract termites from their nests. The whole edifice of technological civilization has been exactly that, to implement knowledge collected on natural processes in order to achieve supernatural ends. It should therefore not come as a surprise that a fusion of machine and body has become ever so prominent in the last few years. The difference is one of interface, or to be more succinct, of intimacy. It is one thing to sit in your car and drive at a hundred miles per hour and a completely different thing to be running at a hundred miles per hour using a pair cyber-legs – or is it? I would argue that although it may “feel” different it is basically one and the same. But I guess the real issue with cyborg technology is not adding a few degrees of extra functionality to our bodies. Simply by wearing a pair of glasses and correcting my shortsightedness I have already done so. The real issued emerges when the human brain is part of the interface, when the intimacy between body and machine reaches the level of our neurons. Deep brain stimulation works miracles with patients suffering with severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and yet the ethical repercussions of this “intrusion” send shivers up the backs of ordinary folk. Is this the dawn of a post-human era? Of creatures half-machine and half-human? Where the “self” is modulated by electrical currents and electrodes implanted in the brain? And what would that mean for Free Will? These are too many questions to ask at once, so let me try to unravel each one in turn, in the light of the New Narrative. A central thesis of the New Narrative is the deconstruction of Self. This is something that began in earnest with the introduction of psychoanalytic theory in the mainstream culture. The “discovery of the subconscious” blew the foundations of assumed rationality sky high. It is perhaps rather amazing that it took a century for economists to factor the human subconscious into their theories – but this is, I believe, a fine example of the permeability of the New Narrative, a subject that I shall return to. To return to my current analysis, the result of deconstructing the Self has been that cyber dreams are interpreted as horrors, in the same manner that a room of magic mirrors modulates our reflection to the extend that it becomes another “us” out-there. The rationalists would have no trouble realizing that cyborg technology does not alter a thing. But we are not rationalists, not any more. We are the heroes of a narrative that self-describes our existence using a new code of ethics based on deconstruction. According to this code, we are all post-human, in the sense that our biology has been enhanced by technology, chemically, electrically, mechanically, members of an interconnected hive called the Web, our “collective consciousness”. The questions we therefore ask are completely out of context. When we ask, for example, where is “Free Will” in the case of electrical brain modulation, we are directing the question to our past, not our present, and certainly not to our future. Thus, the question lingers on unanswered, for it is unanswerable. A better question might have been: can we modulate Free Will in order to achieve a more harmonious society?