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Friday, 29 May 2015

Designer genes

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.

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.

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.


  1. Ah, but it was a misguided attempt at genetic manipulation that flattened out the Klingons' foreheads, back when Scott Bakula was captain of the Enterprise. Even the first Klingons Kirk met had those. It took until Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and its unprecedented budget, in Star Trek terms) for the Klingons to regain the Cornish pasty foreheads we all know and love. When it comes to genetic meddling, let that be a lesson to all of us.

    What? You haven't seen season 4 of Star Trek: Enterprise? You really should watch more television.

    Excuse me, this is a trite response to a very profound post. I just can't resist a bit of Star Trek trivia...

    1. There's Strar Trek trivia, Paul, and then there's Enterprise season 4...