The author Conn Iggulden (who incidentally has written about the creative benefits of role-playing, but that’s a detail) was talking recently about the effects being able to buy genetic upgrades for your children.
I'd be happy allowing parents to buy mutations: say, height, to pass on forever. All would benefit in the end. http://t.co/aAmoieeweV— Conn Iggulden (@Conn_Iggulden) April 24, 2015
"This generation, all I can afford is 'resistance to cancer' gene therapy, but will be passed to all descendants. Next generation: height."— Conn Iggulden (@Conn_Iggulden) April 24, 2015
"You have extraordinary balance!" "My great-grandfather paid for the mod, after being clumsy all his life. He thought it was worth it.— Conn Iggulden (@Conn_Iggulden) April 24, 2015
Let’s not oversimplify. (I’ll get this out of the way first.) Genes don’t code for attributes directly, they code for structure. And the genome is a big mess of software patches going back millions of years, so typically it’s not easy to point to one gene and say it does X and X only. Even so, my family has some genetic kinks I’d like ironed out. Migraines. Sinus trouble. Short sight. Wonky knees. If it doesn’t mean turning into the Brundlefly, I’d pay for some changes there.@MirabilisDave In time, sure, but if I could first choose 'cancer resistance' or 'increased telomere lifespan' for my kids, I would.— Conn Iggulden (@Conn_Iggulden) April 24, 2015
Some people have reacted by saying, “Oh great. So the rich will buy genes that give them a competitive advantage.” And my first thought was, sure, all genes that are worth keeping must give you a competitive advantage. Actually getting in there and tweaking them could get us out of a saddle point on Mount Improbable. So – other than the qubit-melting complexity of the entire interdependent H. sap genetic program – where’s the harm?
But on second thoughts, consider the Klingons. They’ll fight at the drop of a pin, and prehistoric Klingons must have been even worse. In the course of ordinary evolution, presumably a mutation arose that made early Klingons slightly less aggressive. Thus a family of brothers and sisters with that trait cooperated and thrived. And so the gene spread to other families within the village, then the tribe, then the entire Klingon race.
The point is that the cooperative trait I’m describing is an advantage in situations which allow a win-win solution – that is, where everybody does better by cooperating than by competing. Reverting to the real world and guessing now: maybe conditions in the Ice Age were so perilous that the human race had to become less selfish in order to survive. Thus we modern humans are able to understand a concept like pooling our resources via taxation in order to create a more comfortable society than we could enjoy if we were all living like backwoods survivalists.
But what if you were a Klingon buying a trait rather than having it sprung on your bloodline by mutation? Now there isn’t much point in buying the cooperation gene. (Yeah, yeah – see oversimplification disclaimer above). Little Worf is going to do much better in life if you make him more grasping and combative. Screw those jerks who’d share a fish they caught, right?
A common misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene concept is that it must imply a selfish organism. How can we have altruism? Simple. If the world doesn’t consist solely of zero-sum games, the problems the genes are trying to solve will sometimes throw up cooperative solutions and hence social animals. Sadly, in the case of humanity, we could add: just social enough for the circumstances of a hunter-gather community of a few hundred individuals. Yet we are a species so in thrall to amour-propre that most of us would opt for being higher status than our neighbour even if that meant dragging everybody’s living standards down including our own.
And that’s the best we’ve got from evolution, which can chug on trying to find a joined-up solution. Biohacking is a whole other environment, one that doesn’t have to see problems in aggregate. There, you start by wanting your son to be a couple of inches taller than the other fellow, and next thing you know it’s the towers of San Gimignano all over again.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’m an evangelist for the post-human future. We’re not going to inherit the cosmos with monkey brains, and once Man 2.0 is out there among the stars, the old primates can grow their hair long again – and spiny, and blue, and luminous, or whatever they like. But in the meantime, let’s try not to allow rivalrous gene wars to pull us off into a future of futile hardwired fashion accessories.
Image at top by Kate Andrews and shared under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.