Because We Can

If you think of technology as the materialized knowhow of others, then what’s the equivalent for ethics?


Yes, those are crickets you hear. Which is astounding when you consider the stakes. Consider:

In the April 2017 issue of National Geographic, Linda MacDonald Glenn, a bioethicist at the California State University, Monterey Bay, gave an interesting take on the role of technology in human biological development. Speaking about in vitro fertilization (IVF) — and presumably though not explicitly newer technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 — she said:

For this sort of technology to be banned or not used is to suggest that evolution has been benign. That it somehow has been a positive. Oh Lord, it has not been! When you think of the pain and suffering that has come from so many mistakes, it boggles the mind.

Fairly or not, from this we can extrapolate:

  1. Simply because life (in general and/or any given form of it) arrived at the state it is in because of evolution, that does not give that process any inherent supremacy over any other possible process.
  2. We humans, a product of an evolutionary process, now have the power to intervene, intercept, guide, and improve upon evolution. Given point 1, we certainly have a right to.
  3. With a full view of points 1 and 2, it’s possible to interpret or imagine point 2 as a — or the — goal of point 1, namely that all along life has evolved the way it has in search of a better means of evolution. Now after millions of years of toil, it has found that better way. It’s us.

With this in mind, we cannot be surprised that a person could look at a tool like CRISPR — which allows us to “insert a new genetic trait directly into the egg or sperm” of a human — and feel not only empowered with the right, but bound with the duty, to use it… for what they consider a good purpose.

Therein lies one of the pitfalls awaiting us. Even excluding the tools of war, we’ve seen again and again the boneheaded and sad ways some of our species have deployed advanced technologies. No great mental feat is needed to imagine what some of them might come up with for CRISPR: attempts at an Aryan race, an end to facial hair, an end to homosexuality, total homosexuality — whatever their ideologies, neuroses, and deficiencies can cook up.

It’s right to be scared that this technology will be as readily available to the deranged as to the sane. But deranged or not, all users will be operating without the benefit of informed foresight. We’ll have the ability to manipulate DNA for some particular traits, but there’s little chance — especially as we are gaining a new appreciation of the role of environment in evolution — that we’ll see or understand all of the ways those changes will be expressed.

Evolution doesn’t either. And though its use of trial and error at times produces painful duds, it has the benefit of time to deal with the consequences. We, on the other hand, might grow a genius in a petri dish not knowing if she’ll also be lazy, long-lived, or a patricidal maniac. She could be all of the above. Fine. The difference is she’ll be upon us before we’re prepared to deal with her.

Additionally, our obsession with boosting human longevity (by preventing aging, for example) demands a reckoning with the fact that we already have too many people on Earth. Given the state of the environment, shouldn’t we instead be looking for ways to reverse longevity? Or if we collectively pursue longevity, then we should at the very least be changing DNA to discourage reproduction, or even better to breed in sterility.

This is very much at odds with what you know will drive this technology to the mainstream: parents-to-be tinkering with the looks, athleticism, IQ, and musical talents of their menu-ordered kids. They will demand traits that enhance achievement, reproduction, and longevity, not practicality, and so in spite of the obvious need no one will be able to CRISPR up kids that can ingest salt water and get their daily recommended mineral intake from dirt.

There’s no doubt some good to be had by this technology, and perhaps even something of a better fate wrapped up in it. But if at this point we can at best only hope we’ll be guided by wisdom and humility, and yet are guaranteed we’ll be plagued by our pride and greed, why is the evolution of our ethics mostly a tortoise-slow academic game of catch up?

There’s no money it.

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