Radical Intervention

While we are still at an extremely early stage in our understanding of human genetics, it is entirely foreseeable that future knowledge will permit us to go beyond simple genetic tinkering to replace this or that disease-engendering gene or enhance some desirable ability or personality trait. We will be able to go much further and alter the genetic constitution in the most radical fashion. As pointed out by the bioethicist and theologian Joseph Fletcher as early as 1973, the creation of persons whose genome is partly borrowed from other species is entirely possible.

Recent writing now discusses the “fungibility” of DNA, the consequent malleability of life, the fact that human nature is not fixed, the possibility that at some future point different groups of human beings may follow divergent paths of development through the use of genetic technology – perhaps as different from one another as men and women are now, the collapse of interspecies barriers, the possibility of not simply discovering genes but creating them. Should we really attempt to preserve human nature or should we attempt to change it?
John H. Campbell, a biologist at the University of California, is among those who advocate radical interventionism. He writes that Geneticists are laying open our heredity like the circuit board of a radio…. We shall be able to redesign our biological selves at will…. In point of fact, it is hard to imagine how a system of inheritance could be more ideal for engineering than ours is.

Reasoning that the majority of humankind will not voluntarily accept qualitative population-management policies, Campbell points out that any attempt to raise the IQ of the whole human race would be tediously slow. He further points out that the general thrust of early eugenics was not so much species improvement as the prevention of decline. Campbell’s eugenics, therefore, advocates the abandonment of Homo sapiens as a “relic” or “living fossil” and the application of genetic technologies to intrude upon the genome, probably writing novel genes from scratch using a DNA synthesizer. Such eugenics would be practiced by elite groups, whose achievements would so quickly and radically outdistance the usual tempo of evolution that within ten generation the new groups will have advanced beyond our current form to the same degree that we transcend apes.

Campbell anticipates the creation of new species according to the punctuated equilibrium scenario discussed earlier. Practitioners of the new eugenics would view themselves as intermediaries of evolution rather than as finished products. Freed from the “drag” of an outdated species that is already in decline, they could evolve in intelligence in a geometrical increase – forever. Our current intellect, Campbell projects, is probably unable even to comprehend the mental attributes that descendants will struggle to conceive. He then goes on to advocate an old idea – eugenic religions. Not accidentally, one of the sites circulating Campbell’s article is that of “Prometheism.” Lastly, he points out that some appropriate genetic technologies are already available: Private autoevolution is not a possibility for a distant future nor is it a science fiction. It is with us now, albeit at an early enough phase to have escaped most people’s attention…. The most significant legacy of our age will not be nuclear power, computers, political achievements or a static ethics for a “sustainable” society. It will be the closure of our rational intellect around our evolution. The statues of the 21st century will celebrate the fathers of Homo autocatalyticus who brought evolution under its own reason. The world waits to see whose faces will adorn them.

Campbell’s projection of rapid, small-group-directed evolution is at once heartening and depressing. Greater, even open-ended, intelligence is awesome to contemplate. On the other hand, how sad it is for those “living fossils” who constitute the mass of humanity – humanity, at least, as we know it today. The reader will recall that eugenics does not limit itself to the present population but defines society as the entire human community over time; the movement perceives itself as the fourth leg of the table upon which that community rests. (The three other legs are a supply of natural resources; a clean, biodiverse environment; and a human population no larger than the planet can comfortably sustain on an indefinite basis.) This means that we are dealing with what eugenicists consider to be non-negotiable issues. Such conditions are viewed as either essential to survival or intrinsically linked to the very meaning of existence. All other considerations – political parties, for example, or even the welfare of today’s population – are perceived as flowing from and subordinate to these fundamental necessities.

What this means is that if the eugenics platform is to have any chance of success it will have to adopt a posture of non-partisanship and link itself to neither the political right nor the left. At the same time, for strategic considerations, the movement cannot afford embroilment in inter-group conflict or even inter-group comparisons. While these areas may constitute legitimate concerns for the political scientist, the sociologist, or the human biologist, history has demonstrated that their pursuit within the eugenic agenda can be counterproductive and even disastrous. Scholars and scientists wishing to promote the eugenics agenda will have to search for commonalities with other thinkers rather than enter into conflict with them. Ideological separation will require a selfdiscipline that no one will readily embrace. To be honest, some of these topics can be of eugenic significance. At the very least, they can intersect with eugenic considerations.

Presently, such self-control is not even being attempted. A post-human or even a non-human evolutionary path to intelligence – as opposed to a general uplifting of the whole population – therefore appears more and more likely. Legal barriers are already being erected in a frantic attempt to prevent a resurgence of eugenics, but to believe that such measures can be completely effective is a hopeless fantasy. Campbell’s logic is inescapable. The rejection of traditional within-species eugenics – despite all the posturing of society – will inevitably lead to the scenario he describes. The invention of writing created a global human mind, in which knowledge is passed on and accumulated over generations. In the process, individual people specialize in specific fields, and no one today would be tempted to speak of “universal geniuses.” There is simply too much to know. While the human brain has been millions of years in the making, computers, which have been in development really for only about a century, are already beating the best human players at chess. “Hal” may not yet have been born but he is even now kicking in his binary womb.

Carbon-based technology has its limitations. The individual human brain is limited by its size, by the amount of time available for learning, and by the speed at which it can process information. A computer can be created of any size with limitless memory and limitless programming. As for speed, current technology is already processing information in picoseconds (trillionths of a second), whereas the human brain is capable of mere microseconds.

The human mind is itself a machine, and its quirks, self consciousness, and adaptability will all eventually be explained, even though we are only beginning to unlock its secrets. Currently a noisy debate is ongoing as to whether computer brain power can surpass human, but really it is a question of when rather than whether. The two societies projected by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine, one producing material goods and the other, childlike, consuming them, are probably going to arrive sooner than we think, and the childlike creatures will be us. This soon-to-be reality relegates to eugenics a far more modest role than would otherwise be imaginable. Any effort to improve the human brain is targeted at an instrument which is inherently limited in its capacity. The machine brain, on the other hand, will be something like God. Allotted only a thousand months or so of existence, we individuals are as ephemeral as chaff in the wind, but the fate of thought, of culture, of life itself has been thrust upon us, and we can either fritter away the patrimony of millions of generations in the gratification of individualistic and tribal instincts or we can stride forward to fulfill our fate, shouldering our responsibilities to a future world and linking hands in the great chain of generations.

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