David R. Henderson  

Daniel Klein on "Designer Babies"

Pop macroeconomics in an era o... The Hours and Behavior Problem...

My friend Dan Klein, also a friend and colleague of Bryan Caplan at George Mason University, has sent me a guest post on designer babies. He disagrees profoundly with Bryan's optimism about the prospects for genetic engineering even if government does not get involved.

I'll paste in what he wrote. Afterwards, I'll give a thought or two.

Here's Dan:

Apprehensions over Designer Babies
By Daniel B. Klein

The idea that technology will enable designer babies fills me with apprehension. My apprehension over designer babies would be great even on two unrealistic assumptions: (1) That the government never got involved in it (specifically, never made use of it or influenced the use of it), and (2) That the technological development did not lead to reductions in liberty, reductions prompted by results of the development.

Designer babies would attenuate coherence with the past: One hundred years hence, people would say, "When you watch him on the old videos, he may not look like much, but back in the old times, Mike Tyson was considered a pretty menacing fighter." People in the new times would not know our sense of standard. And they would have difficulty knowing it. Everything preceding the break, from Achilles to Rafael Nadal, would be foreign and unintelligible.

The great Willie Mays hit 660 home runs. His mark was recently surpassed by Alex Rodriguez, a known juicer. Is Rodriguez great? I don't know. Put the cheating aspect aside. Suppose steroids were allowed and accepted. Steroids simply upset our notion of standard.

In The Study of Man, Michael Polanyi (1959, 96) said: "we need reverence to perceive greatness, even as we need a telescope to observe spiral nebulae." What would designer babies do to our search for greatness? What would it do to our efforts to direct our reverence? With designer babies, the upset would be like steroids on steroids.

People would lose a sense of historical coherence, a very important dimension in human meaning. But even within their time, across arenas, people would lose a sense of standard. People would diversify in extremes, to the point of regarding those in other arenas of activity (the musicians, the athletes, the scholars, the thinkers) almost as separate species, literally a specialized breed, and be little able and little interested in trying to relate to them. "Am I supposed to applaud?" "Am I supposed to try to remember his name?"

Whatever sense of standard people did have, they would expect it to dissolve quickly. So the breakdown in historical coherence would be in relation to both the past and the future. Every generation would bring drastic changes in standards, changes that were unforeseen and yet unsurprising.

I've used examples from sports, but I think the troubles pretty well carry over to broader areas of life, including even wisdom and virtue. A main point of Polanyi's book The Study of Man is that reverence, that necessary instrument for perceiving greatness, is especially applicable in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Those, too, might have some genetic basis. But whereas we would still know which ball players hit the most home runs, here we might have even greater difficulty recognizing the standouts. And inasmuch as we did recognize the standouts, or thought we did, we might regard them as we regard the new home run champions: more as a specialized breed than as exemplars. Would I ever have bothered to dwell in Michael Polanyi's thought if I knew he were a designer baby?

Adam Smith held that all moral approval relates to a sympathy; the sympathy ratifies or underwrites the approval. Suppose, on Smith's authority, that the principle is sound. It would be just as sound in a world of designer babies. But in such a world, the sympathies themselves would be terribly attenuated, and hence also the moral approvals underwritten. I think our moral confusion would grow more confused; I suspect that the result would be moral and spiritual life that is shallower, not deeper.

For the scenario on the two assumptions, I could say more, but the foregoing points are my most important reasons for apprehension.

Now, here are some reasons why the two assumptions are not realistic (and why my apprehensions are greater still): If political disposition in an individual has some genetic basis, then, just as governments got involved in schooling, governments would likely get involved in designing babies. More generally, there is a central, teleological precept of "our" taking action to define, care for, and validate "our" existence, nature, and well-being, and, seeing as for so many people the precept is to be operationalized as governmentalization of social affairs, it is likely that the government would get involved in the designing of babies. The party in power would have a whole new way of reproducing itself - the preemptive final solution. As for other repercussions on liberty, consider these: (1) Designer babies would devastate social coherence, connectedness, and personal meaning as generated by voluntary, non-governmental affairs, and consequently, in demanding them, people will look ever more to governmentalization; (2) If designing your baby is expensive, "the rich get richer" and "level the playing field" will be louder than ever.

Liberalism brought rapid cultural change (see the first of the two trends I present in this 17-min video.) I detect, especially in libertarians, a denial regarding the downside of rapid change - and I mean a downside even apart from resultant greater governmentalization.

But don't get me wrong about libertarians; they are not unique in letting their ideological commitments distort their interpretations and judgments.

And don't get me wrong about ideological commitments; I don't mean to suggest that ideological commitments, per se, are to be avoided. We all must develop strategies to make ourselves cohere.

Now me. I won't present what I regard as a total rebuttal because I don't necessarily disagree with Dan's concerns. In fact, it's because he stated his concerns so well that I'm posting them here.

Instead, I'll make two points.

First, in any analysis of a new technology, you need to look at the benefits as well as the costs. Dan has done a good job of laying out some of the costs. There could be others. But he has mentioned none of the benefits. Think of the diseases that genetic engineering might be able to reduce or even eliminate. I have a friend with a severely autistic 10-year-old child. Taking care of that child is stressing his marriage every single day. What if genetic engineering had been able to prevent autism? I don't know if it can. But it might. Isn't this a benefit?

Second, let's say that we decided that the costs of genetic engineering drastically outweigh the benefits. I don't know how we would do so. A government powerful enough to limit or prevent genetic engineering by the "private sector" might well be powerful enough to use it anyway and then we would get some of the costs that Dan fears with fewer of the benefits.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Tom DeMeo writes:

Virtually all my concerns would have to do with war and violence.

One major value that has emerged in my lifetime is the assumption of equality among human beings. These technologies will inevitably result in rapid asymmetrical fragmentation of our species. It would be easy to see how certain strains might impose dominance.

Katie writes:

So the cons are that everyone would be so amazing that they wouldn't appreciate how less amazing people were in the past?

One thing I can think of is similar -- with the advent of vaccines, people don't even remember how bad diseases were, and therefore may sometimes not have their kids vaccinated. Do I wish that vaccines never happened because now people don't have an appreciation of historical disease outbreaks? NO! I'm happy most of them aren't dead.

mm writes:

Or certain strand might want a servile laboring class- cheap nannies & lawn care etc- cannon fodder - alpha unit sub morons

Matt H writes:

Two points.

1. Genetic engineering isn't likely to change the scale at all. Currently we are creating standouts through chance. It's not clear we can create greater standouts with GE, instead we are just creating more consistent performers. To change the scale requires new untested combinations, it's unclear that we can do this safely ever.
2. You might want to think about racehorses, they have been under intensive selective breeding for 400 years.

Scott Wentland writes:

If genetics can create humans with greater mental capacities, shouldn't economists be optimistic about a "designer" baby's greater capacity to more readily understand complex nuances of the market process and economics more generally? Wouldn't that make a better voter, and thus, better policy?

Spontaneous order, externalities, the invisible hand, comparative advantage, etc., are all relatively complex ideas that the average voter today does not necessarily understand very well. If the average voter is more intelligent in the future, there may actually be greater respect for economic liberty and greater skepticism of the totalitarian notions Dan is worried about. Libertarians worried that super intelligent individuals will tend to be anti-liberty, unintentionally cedes the intellectual high ground to that cause. I'm not so sure that is right.

NZ writes:

I really like what Klein wrote, but even more than that I like the way he's approaching this.

It reminds me of how I feel when I hear people in my field (user experience design) gushing about this or that new technology and how great it's gonna be when cars drive themselves or when your house is one big computer that responds to your voice commands or when you can wear a gadget on your wrist that instantly allows you to draw as if you've been studying it your whole life.

It's not that I'm against all new technology (though given the choice between freezing technology at about late 1990s levels or embracing every new thing that gets dreamed up, I'd probably choose the former). It's that I think we should be looking at technology with narrowed eyes.

As for how this narrowing of the eyes should be implemented, I think it has to come from the culture existent among engineers, inventors, developers, programmers, etc. I know from firsthand experience that this is a field that's very self-aware about its culture. You see memes like "craftsmanship" and stuff spreading all over the place. These are the kinds of people who latch onto ideas like that. Why shouldn't they also latch on to a new way of thinking--that is, more broadly and more cautiously--about their own innovations?

Tom West writes:

My nightmare scenario starts with what we've seen in sport where steroids run rampant (cycling a decade back). Your choice is to take them or not compete. (Or in team sport, take them or betray your team.)

If steroids where legalized, the choice becomes even more stark. Destroy your body through steroids, or give up top-end competition. Your choice.

My main concern is the likelihood that we will find that using genetic engineering to optimize for certain advances will have significant costs to life and the body. (So far, it certainly seems the way these things go. Evolution seems to have already eaten all our free lunches.)

As we move toward a world where we have the successful 15% and then a lot of disposable drones, it's easy to imagine that if you want to succeed, you will *require* those optimizations.

What happens when the choice of a parent is to optimize their child for particular skill (along with those attendant costs to health or life) or have their child face permanent marginalization?

It's a nightmare scenario, sure, and I look forward to genetic engineering curing a number of syndromes, but I have no trouble with government intervention to make my nightmare scenario less likely, even as it likely throws sand in the progress of good outcomes.

Stephen Dawson writes:

Frank Salter has a very interesting current essay examining the pros and cons based on four scenarios: negative selection (ie. eliminating cancers, etc) or positive selection (ie. optimising athletic, intellectual, etc capabilities) on the one hand, and widespread vs narrow availability on the other.

Eugenics, Ready or Not

I suspect that like other technologies, stopping it will prove impossible, so it's best to be thinking about where it might go.

Linda Seebach writes:

My son is autistic (adult-diagnosed) and tends to take it amiss when people who know nothing about him announce it would be better if people like him had never been born. Some of the ways autistic brains are wired differently are really useful, and some are crippling. Or both!

Michael Burns writes:

I can't speak for other libertarians, but as for myself, many of the so called-downsides of the "chaotic" and anti-tradition outcomes of liberty and free markets is actually an upside.

Greater genetic diversity is a good thing. Also, while we aren't there yet and will never be unless enough demand exists, but people who are engineered to be (for instance) sea dwelling artists, could be re-engineered to be dry, high radiation space-dwelling engineers. Fyi, I'm purposely using a radical example just for the sake of making my point that fears are overblown.

What such a society would lead to is people being able to alter themselves for a given job or environment and change themselves again when it is useful.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Linda Seebach,
My son is autistic (adult-diagnosed) and tends to take it amiss when people who know nothing about him announce it would be better if people like him had never been born. Some of the ways autistic brains are wired differently are really useful, and some are crippling. Or both!
But Linda, I didn’t announce it for your son. I was talking about my friend’s son. And I know way more about him than you do.
And the great thing about genetic engineering is that, if the government doesn’t get involved, you would still be free to make your choices and have an autistic son.

Chris writes:

We've already lost historic coherence - using his examples in sports highlights this quite well.

Could Willie Mays have been a 660 HR hitter against today's pitchers? I don't think that the answer is clear in the modern realm of athletes trained from an early age, sports medicine, health, etc. The same goes with musicians, artists, thinkers - we have so many leisure professional that competition has achieved a level that we simply can't accurately compare today with even the relatively recent past.

floccina writes:

Families today could opt for sperm from Harvard males but very few do. I think that people would opt for their own best genes and not super genes.

Nathan W writes:

I think a lot of the ethical problems go away when we're talking about getting rid of disease of organs, tissue, etc., the non-brain self. But when you start to stray into cognitive areas, it gets really scary.

Fortunately, the understanding of how genes a cognitive things work is not very well understood, in no small part probably because psychology is pseudo science. Perhaps it will be the drive for designer babies that finally puts the nail in the coffin for the areas of cognitive science which are still stuck in the 19th century or which tend to derive aspects of their "science" from Victorian and/or religious prescriptions and values.

David H. writes:

"[H]e may not look like much, but back in the old times, Mike Tyson was considered a pretty menacing fighter."

What is so bad about a future in which we say this kind of thing? How about:

"He may not look like much, but back in the old times, Ed Witten was considered a pretty insightful mathematical physicist."

I don't want to live in a future where we don't say this kind of thing about the top performers of today. Is there another way of being optimistic besides expecting a future in which there is progress?

NZ writes:

@Nathan W:

Why do the ethical problems go away? Aren't there ethical issues with eliminating disease? What about enhancing non-brain stuff (e.g. a kid who can run or swim really fast, or who grows very tall, etc.)? What about the couple who can't decide on a boy or a girl so they demand a hermaphrodite? Pretty scary, and we're still outside the brain.

I applaud your 2nd paragraph though.

Indigene writes:

Is there evidence that the tradeoffs that would lead to specialization in the short term exist? I'm not saying I'm confident not, but I don't see the support. I suppose sport vs cognition is most plausible...but it also seems plausible that cognition will just be deemed more important. The fact that cognitive abilities (and reaction time) correlate so highly with each other (leading to the existence of a large principal component, or g factor) suggests that in the cognitive realm, we're certainly not on a cognitive pareto frontier. It's hard to take seriously commentators who are not aware of this correlation structure.

Similarly, it's not obvious to me that genetic enhancement would increase variance that much. If most variation in IQ is due to mutations with small deleterious effect (as suggested by Stephen Hsu), it seems just as likely that variance will decrease. Their findings are that people of high IQ on average are genetically closer, because IQ is basically inversely correlated with mutational load. Now I would guess that if this comes to be believed, we will see dystopian horror stories about lack of variance....

The idea that governments would intervene on the political dispositions of individuals...that doesn't seem to be in keeping with recent history. It reminds me of Hayeck's Road to Serfdom, which was a miserable prediction of what would happen in northern Europe. But of course things could change. North Korea is a plausible candidate. Generally, I think higher levels of conformity and respect for authority than already exist in East Asia might be bad for innovation and economic growth. If competition is seen to be inter-state (I'm not sure I accept this premise), or absolute gains are more important than domenstic factional competition between an authoritarian party and some other, then authoritarian parties (the only plausible candidates for doing this) may perceive themselves as being unable to afford increasing respect for authority at the expense of economic growth.

Philo writes:

Klein writes that, with designer procreation, "People would lose a sense of historical coherence . . . ." I wonder to which "people" he is referring. In my experience, most people know and care very little about history.

He predicts that "[p]eople would diversify in extremes," but I think that would be unusual. Why not create people who are great thinkers *and* great athletes, etc.? Most kinds of excellence are mutually compatible. And one sort of desirable feature is *fitting in with one's society*; why would that not be favored by designers?

But he also suggests that "governments would likely get involved in designing babies." Now *that's scary*!

Two points.
1. Many objections to genetically engineered humans involve some "equality" issue (can superior people sympathize with their inferiors?). That's a problem now (do politicians care that State schools institutionally lobotomize the children of the least politically adept parents?). All life descended from a common ancestor. Sheep are distant cousins. Do you eat lamb?
2. All modern organisms express a delicate balance of competing requirements. Intensive selection for one trait throws organisms out of balance. For example: Mammals exhibit a positive regression of body mass on longevity. With domestic dogs, this does not hold. My Great Dane, Lucy, died recently of cancer. Breeding dogs for size produces cancer-prone animals, since cancer is a failure of growth regulation.

(Philo): "Most kinds of excellence are mutually compatible."
No. You cannot, in general, simultaneously maximize two variables. Time spent training for the marathon is not spent training for the bench press. In __Late Talking Children__, Thomas Sowell offers an economist's hypothesis for the phenomenon of the 3-M association (Math, music, memory) with the late-talking syndrome, that the brain has limited resources and must slight some talents to enhance others. One instance of the production possibility frontier.

Mark Bahner writes:

To all the folks who are concerned about the effects of designer babies, let me offer this "consolation": those effects will be vastly exceeded by the effects of designer robots.

Consider that human IQs seem to be increasing by a few points ever decade. But the IQ of a $10,000 computer will go from off-the-scale low to off-the-scale high in a few decades.

Or consider the human eye, which has been estimated to have a resolution of 500+ megapixels. A digital camera with 1 megapixel was a big deal 20 years ago, but today a 16 megapixel camera can be had for under $50. Likely in less than two decades, a 500+ megapixel camera will be available for a hundred bucks. (Not too mention that it will be able to see in total darkness.)

And no designer baby's bones will come close to adamantium, which should be available soon. ;-)

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