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Steve Talbott on Taking the You out of Eugenics

Steve Talbott picks an excellent argument with Bill McKibben who argues in his new book, “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age”, that once we’re able to alter our children’s DNA, our offspring will have no sense of a self that is their own. Talbott’s point is that McKibben gives too much credit to the power of DNA to determine who we are:

By appearing to validate the scientist’s (and the public’s) conviction that we are our protein-producing DNA, McKibben is assisting the engineers’ program. For while his commendable aim is to convince us to pull back from the eugenic brink, the fact is that those who think they are their DNA are exactly the ones who will clamor for a new and improved self, or at least for new and improved children.

Will the genetic engineers make our lives meaningless? This is ever so close to the truth, yet light years away from it. No one can, in absolute terms, rob someone else of meaning. What makes life meaningless is our rejection of meaning — a rejection we have already given expression to when we conceive ourselves as the product of DNA “mechanisms”.

Talbott then goes on to the larger point:

That the worshippers of machinery, efficiency, and power are engaged today in a fateful assault upon the human being is beyond all doubt. McKibben performs a valuable service by documenting this assault for a large audience from the mouths of the commandos carrying it out. There is no shortage of testimony.

And then the truth:

If it’s true, as I have suggested, that we unavoidably affect each other’s destinies — for ill, but also for good — then everything hinges upon our understanding of this mutuality. And the first thing to grasp is that healthy human exchange is, and is essentially, a matter of mutuality. We are called to engage each other in a mutually respectful dance or conversation, which is very different from unilateral manipulation. Conversation or manipulation: *this* is the decisive distinction.

Finally, the Parthian shot at the transhumanist extropians, et al.:

You can’t read the futuristic scenarios and personal hopes of the re-engineers of humanity without being struck by the utter childishness of it all. Genetic modifications that will save us from the necessity of bodily excretion; nano-contrived plants that look exactly like orchids but can grow in frigid climes; robots that wait on us like slaves; a cyber-nano- genetically engineered “elite race of people who are smart, agile, and disease-resistant”; nanobot swarms able to wander the human bloodstream and keep us eternally healthy; technological horns of plenty that will convert every “desolate” village into “a Garden of Eden, with widescreen TVs and cappuccino machines for all”….and so on ad infinitum.

And many of these visions come from the same people who delight in ridiculing the “childish hopes” of the traditionally religious!

I’m a-liking Talbott…

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7 Responses to “Steve Talbott on Taking the You out of Eugenics”

  1. Yeah, heaven forbid if we should actually want to improve the human condition, increase our capabilities, cure aging and disease, expand our ability to explore and live in the cosmos, and evolve behind the limits of blind evolution.

    Talbot and other “conservatives” are just that, conservative and afraid. Sure, many extropians are childish, but it does not make the desire to transcend and cure the problems of the human condition any less important. At least with technology we are not relying on some supernatural and scientifically unverified force to save us. Technology at least offer a concrete possibility right now.

  2. A concrete possibility of what? Everyone favors making life better through science. The question is how we understand what that science is doing for us. Your phrase “cure the problems of the human condition” says a lot.

  3. Another more interesting question is how we are going to react to the transgenic children, regardless the reasons for their birth. How long did it take to welcome the Amerasians after Vietnam? And those kids didn’t have any (obvious) “super powers”.

    When it’s the spider-gene super-visioned spring-boned athlete (who, I should point out, is not yet invented but is already banned from competition) will you let your sister marry one?

    As to the issue of whether or not we are our DNA, I am already a cyborg: I have false teeth. A good friend of mine had a pace-maker. Are we less human? I don’t think so. What if my teeth were chimpanzee transplants? There are people with pig hearts and other animal components, and they are just as human as the moment before the operation. So we continue. We give them new eyes. Are they still the same? Yup. We give them a new liver, new feet, new knees, new skin, new hair … still the same? Yup, yup, yup.

    Science tells us we can make brain prosthetics now, so we replace this node and that and this and we grow some, borrow some and did the person change? No more than Christian Barnard’s heart-transplants, ie, not at all.

    So then we continue until all that is left of the original person is the fingernail of the pinky. So we pull it off and replace it.

    and suddenly…

    ohmagod … it’s a different person! Ooops.

    That’s the scenario I’m waiting for.

  4. A concrete possibility of what?

    Here are just a couple:

    1) Life Extension and a genuine cure for aging. There is increasing evidence that aging is not wear and tear, but a limited genetic expression. With genetic medicine we have the possibility of not only curing almost every known disease and cancer, but quite likely stopping and/or reversing the aging process itself. How is this a bad thing? If other people don’t want to live to see their 200th birthday, that is there choice, but I don’t think I should be prohibited from seeing mine.

    2) Intelligence Increase – already nootropics provide a noticeable increase in intelligence, albeit temporary. Assuming research in these areas is allowed to continue, I have no doubt that we will increase our knowledge of brain chemistry, and provide more dramatic and sustainable increases in general intelligence. Eventually nanotechnology may pick up the torch and provide even further enhancements to cognitive functioning. Again, if others wish to remain at their current level of intelligence, fine, as long as they don’t prevent me from inceasing mine. Of course, I believe in cognitive liberty, and think that any experimentation with my personal brain chemistry is a natural right.

  5. Daniel Dennett has some useful comments to make in an article “The Mythical Threat of Genetic Determinism” ( ). The subject isn’t strictly eugenics, but he does touch on it.

    Dennett notes:

    Once the caricatures are set aside, what remains, at best, are honest differences of opinion about just how much intervention it would take to counteract one genetic tendency or another and, more important, whether such intervention would be justified. … These are important moral and political issues, but they often become next to impossible to discuss in a calm and reasonable way.

    and he concludes the article with:

    By increasing the information we have about the various causes of the constraints that limit our current opportunities, [we have] increased our powers to avoid what we want to avoid, prevent what we want to prevent. Knowledge of the roles of our genes, and the genes of the other species around us, is not the enemy of human freedom, but one of its best friends.

    Dennett’s point is that we are not “just” the specification of our genes, nor are we “just” the product of our environment. The point is we need to, and should understand as best we can the many influences that make us what we are, but we still need to choose how we deal with the information we have – and we still need to make the moral choices about what we should change as well as what we can change.

    BTW, the book from which this article is taken (Freedom Evolves) is an excellent discussion on free will and determinism

  6. I think it is not true. Genes are somehow transferred to offsprings even if you don’t alter them by a procedure.

  7. In my opinion science has so far done great research on genes and have developed genetic medicines for curing almost every known disease.

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