Bryan Caplan  

Genetic Engineering Is Reproductive Freedom

Low hanging fruit and the ineq... Reallocation and growth...
Will contraception lead to a dystopian society?  It depends.  If governments control individuals' contraception, then yes.  If individuals control their own contraception, then no.  The same goes for genetic engineering.  In the hands of the government, it would be a pillar of totalitarianism.  In the hands of parents, however, genetic engineering is a fantastic opportunity.

I discuss the dystopian danger of genetic engineering in my chapter on "The Totalitarian Threat" in Global Catastrophic Risks:
Instead of searching for skeptical thoughts, a totalitarian regime might use genetic testing to defend itself.  Political orientation is already known to have a significant genetic component. (Pinker 2002: 283-305)  A "moderate" totalitarian regime could exclude citizens with a genetic predisposition for critical thinking and individualism from the party.  A more ambitious solution - and totalitarian regimes are nothing if not ambitious - would be genetic engineering.  The most primitive version would be sterilization and murder of carriers of "anti-party" genes, but you could get the same effect from selective abortion.  A technologically advanced totalitarian regime could take over the whole process of reproduction, breeding loyal citizens of the future in test tubes and raising them in state-run "orphanages."  This would not have to go on for long before the odds of closet skeptics rising to the top of their system and taking over would be extremely small.
I pursue the utopian promise of genetic engineering in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:
Only one last obstacle stands between us and so-called "designer babies": figuring out which genes matter for each wish. Solid answers may be decades away, but human genetic engineering requires no more scientific breakthroughs--just persistence. The first customers will be wealthy eccentrics, but in a few decades, GE will be affordable and normal. Without strict government prohibition, I predict that our descendants will be amazingly smart, healthy, and accomplished.

Most people find my prediction frightening. Some paint GE as a pointless arms race; it's individually tempting, but society is better off without it. Others object that GE would increase inequality; the rich will buy alpha babies, and the rest of us will be stuck with betas. But there's something fishy about these complaints: If better nurture created a generation of wonder kids, we would rejoice. Suppose you naturally conceived an amazingly smart, healthy, and accomplished child. Would it bother you? If your neighbors had such a child, would you forbid your children to play with him? If your neighborhood were full of wonder kids, would you move away?

On my office wall, I have a picture of my dad at his high school graduation, towering a foot above his grandparents. Such height differences were common at the time because childhood nutrition improved so rapidly. I doubt that the grandparents who attended that graduation saw height as an "arms race" or griped that rich kids were even taller. They were happy to look up to their descendants -- and we'd feel the same way. Deep down, even technophobes want their descendants to surpass them. They just think that picking embryos is a vile way to make it happen.

Moderate defenders of genetic engineering often distinguish between good GE that prevents disease and disability and bad GE that increases intelligence, beauty, athletic ability, or determination. The theory is that good GE helps kids lead better lives, but bad GE merely panders to parents' vanity. The logic is hard to see. We praise parents who nurture their kids' health, intelligence, beauty, athletic ability, or determination because we know they're all good traits for kids to have.
As usual, the wise way to avoid dystopia is to limit government, not technology:

Allowing parents to genetically engineer their children would lead to healthier, smarter, and better-looking kids.  But the demand for other traits would be about as diverse as those of the parents themselves.  On the other hand, genetic engineering in the hands of government is much more likely to be used to root out individuality and dissent.  "Reproductive freedom" is a valuable slogan, capturing both parents' right to use new technology if they want to, and government's duty not to interfere with parents' decisions.

Critics of genetic engineering often argue that both private and government use lie on a slippery slope.  In one sense, they are correct.  Once we allow parents to screen for genetic defects, some will want to go further and screen for high IQ, and before you know it, parents are ordering "designer babies."  Similarly, once we allow government to genetically screen out violent temperaments, it will be tempting to go further and screen for conformity.  The difference between these slippery slopes, however, is where the slope ends.  If parents had complete control over their babies' genetic makeup, the end result would be a healthier, smarter, better-looking version of the diverse world of today.  If governments had complete control over babies' genetic makeup, the end result could easily be a population docile and conformist enough to make totalitarianism stable.

The same goes, of course, for cloning.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Richard writes:

I think we can be happy that the majority of people will want healthy, intelligent, and beautiful children.

A minority, however, might want a dedicated jihadi son or the baddest thug on the block. But they'll be such a minority that the super smart and competent majority will be able to deal easily with whatever problems such people cause.

andrew writes:

Two big worries are
(1) unanticipated side effects, as there's rarely a completely free lunch in things. For instance the gene that causes sickle cell anemia when you have two gives a resistance to malaria when you have one. There's rarely a one-to-one correspondence between traits and genes so what the gene gives in one place it may take away in another, or when you have two, or in a later stage in life. Similarly a gene that boosts one kind of intelligence may reduce another, or make one prone to depression, psychopathy, etc. simultaneously.

(2) reduction in genetic diversity. Humans are already quite narrow in our genetic diversity compared to other animals (there is a hypothesis that the species had gone through some catastrophe that reduced us to a few thousand individuals not that long ago).

BC writes:

This is a very insightful argument for genetic engineering, especially the distinction between voluntary GE chosen by parents and coerced GE chosen by government.

@Andrew's first concern is a good one. I'm not sure about the second. One could see a case where GE actually could increase genetic diversity when needed more effectively than is possible with random mutation. Regardless, the line of argument is correct: there is a possibility that GE does not work as well as hoped. In contrast, the strange thing about the usual, inequality-based, anti-GE arguments is that the worry is that GE will work too well.

Miguel Madeira writes:

My suspiction is that much objection against GE is because it reduces our illusions about free will.

Nathan W writes:

Or we could go back to chapter 1 or 2 and assume that people are seeking utils and ask just what is a util. Or is the point that you only need SOME parents to go that route for it to become an issue.

We can't mandate genetic equality, but I think that even after there is information, we should leave it to essentially natural processes.

Let the women be the Nazis, they do it with love.

August writes:

I do not think this is accurate, precisely because I think that people would try to do good things, like edit out propensities to diabetes. The problem is, some of the things we consider diseases, like diabetes, are genetic adaptations that actually allow us to live a little bit longer under adverse conditions. So, for some of these conditions, the best choice is to leave them there and improve the environment.
Then, for things like intelligence, and other phenomenon that seem to require multiple genes in order to arise, genetic matching for good mate choice is more likely to work than any engineering.
Engineering might work for particular single gene issues.
The problem is the providers of such services are likely to have perverse incentives under the current economic regime- much like ridiculous number of C-sections that go on in America. C-sections pay well for those that perform them, and it means the doctors can time the birth around their golf schedule, but it is not good for the mother and child, except under a very specific set of circumstances.

NZ writes:

Reality check: the fastest population growth is coming from the wombs of women who don't discriminate much about who's fathering their children, much less about what genetic traits their children will inherit.

Genetic engineering, even if eventually inexpensive, will be a thing almost entirely used by cautious yuppies who wait carefully until just the right moment to have one or maybe two kids upon whom they lavish tons of attention anyway (making it harder to distinguish, later on, the "nature" gains from the "nurture" ones).

Daniel Klein writes:

In "Choosing Our Children's Genes," which is reprinted in Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Thomas Schelling addresses the as-yet fictional world in which we can choose our children's genes in highly customized fashion, sort of like choosing from the vast selection at iTunes, except you could combine for new possibilities. The sentiment he develops is apprehension: Such a development would be a sad thing. I very much share that sentiment.

Stan Greer writes:

Common sense and empirical research both tell us it is a great benefit to be brought up by your two biological parents, especially if they love each other.

It isn't always possible for this to happen, and when it isn't possible, it is still better to be born than not to be born.

However, it is a cruel thing to do to your child to deliberately NOT make him/her your and your spouse's biological offspring because you want a smarter or cuter child.

This point should be obvious. But as intelligent as Bryan Caplan is, a number of obvious things about human nature and ethics are apparently quite unfathomable for him.

Brian writes:

I agree that GE carries the potential for substantial gains in society. There are problems not considered by Bryan, however.

First, Bryan's distinction between private GE as being good and government-sponsored GE as dystopic is not so clear cut. Consider, for example, the inevitable pressure from corporate interests (e.g., insurance companies) to eliminate expensive characteristics, or pressure from society to eliminate unfashionable tendencies. These pressures can be totalitarian in there own way. Certainly, they can create a society every bit as conformist as any government influence. Worse, such influences will tend to genetically "lock in" fashions that exist when the technology first becomes widely available, fashions that are not well suited to the needs of society later on.

Second, unintended consequences and unwanted linkages in phenotypes are inevitable, as pointed out by Andrew. We are already wary of incest for that reason. Widespread GE would be like incest carried out on a grand scale. Is more intelligence a good thing? Probably. But what if it means having a much higher incidence of anti-social or nerdy/ADHD/OCD/Asperger-type personalities? How could that go wrong? ;)

Third, Bryan does not acknowledge the potentially serious loss of diversity. Sexual reproduction is already fine-tuned through evolution to provide a good balance of optimizing fitness while maintaining diversity. If it makes sense to move toward certain genetic ideals, if such things exist, why didn't reproduction simply stick with an asexual/cloning approach? The increased diversity of sexual mixing obviously has its advantages. Moreover, GE is the equivalent of substantially speeding up the mutation and selection cycle of evolution. If that's desirable, why doesn't natural selection do that already? In all likelihood, such an approach doesn't improve genetic fitness over the current regime.

Fourth, studies show that children have much better outcomes when they are raised by their biological parents. This is likely because there's a good match between the parents' and the children's genetic tendencies. If parents begin choosing "desirable" genes that they themselves do not have (which is the point of designer GE), the mismatch between child and parent will increase. This will lead to more of the problems observed in children from divorced/adoptive/surrogate-type parents.

Now, whether all these objections are enough to make GE a net negative is hard to say, but they are reason enough to question whether GE will be the boon that Bryan thinks it will be.

Bostonian writes:

"Fourth, studies show that children have much better outcomes when they are raised by their biological parents."

I'd be interested to know what studies you have in mind.

Ricardo Cruz writes:

All commenters' comments could be summarized in one: "eww gross!" One commenter adds: "and Thomas Schelling thought it was gross too."

Come one, you cannot possibly derive moral philosophy from emotion. In Victorian age people thought "eww two people of same sex kissing. unnatural!"

What about actual arguments?

For instance, "we know that murder is wrong because we do not wish to leave in fear in a society where murder is rampant". You know, actual arguments.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Very good post. Some of the comments worried that genetic engineering might not work as well as we hope are well taken, but like any other technology, we will get better as we use it. And it seems to me the likelihood that the human race will improve with GE seems very high to me.

I don't really understand those that seem to have a vague unease with the process, or think that there has to be a close biological connection for parenting to work. Maybe that is because I have two adopted kids with no genetic tie to me, and I think I am at least as close to them as the average biological parents I see out there. Biological ties are vastly over-rated.

A writes:

I agree that the anxiety about engineering is largely overblown. Good parenting may be considered as altruistic behavior, but choosing to have a child incorporates self-centered thinking. Picking attributes like a Dim Sum menu makes such self-centeredness explicit. But the tedium, heart-ache, frustration, and irritations of being a good parent will still exist.

Ted writes:

Evolution, in its ordinary long-term manifestation, obtains environmental adaptation in a sweeping fashion that accomodates a wide variety of environmental variables. Genetic engineering is responsive only to those variables that are perceived within the narrow framework of contemporary human knowledge and those attributes considered desirable during abbreviated historical periods. Even "desirable" adaptations such as increased average size have negative consequences for the species as a whole. Physiologically, the larger the organism, the greater the required intake of sustenance. On a planet with finite resources, enhanced size and longevity can be counterproductive.

As an individualist, I favor choice. In the case of genetic engineering, however, that choice comes with a risk-associated liability that I would not care to trivialize.

Alex writes:

The most efficient societies will legalize slavery, to allow folks to reap full rewards from investing in genetic technology.

Just kidding. But really, instead of this speculation, I invite Mr. Caplan to discuss how we should use existing enhancement technologies. We can already use IVF to create smarter, more focused, more athletic kids. Right now 1.5% of US births come from IVF, so the number of enhanced births is lower than that. But it could be much more. Should it be?

Pajser writes:

Criticizing the government is slippery slope here. Sure, government can abuse GE. Just like it can abuse police. Yet, we see that in most countries of the world, police is more frequently used for good than for bad purposes.

And what about individual GE? I am afraid that most or many of the parents will want children who are not just taller, smarter etc, but able to dominate others. It might easily lead toward more aggressive humanity.

ColoComment writes:

Here's a thought: what do you do with the "mistakes"?
Coming from a dog-breeder background, I know that many traits, both desirable and not, are polygenetic, and enhancing or changing them is very very complex. Many times, you may get one pup out of a litter that seems to display your goal trait(s), but the others fail to do so. Or you can solve for the desired trait (white German Shepherds) and find that you've got yourself a secondary, undesirable effect (deafness.)
Of course, less-than-noteworthy pups can be sold as "pet quality" with an agreement written into the contract to not reproduce from them by any means.
But, what if GE in humans also results in minor-to-severe abnormalities in some or many of the births? What do you do with them? They would be "human," after all....

vikingvista writes:

Unfortunately, many people's thinking of science resembles a 1950's sci-fi horror B movie.

Massimo writes:

I recall this Caplan post where Caplan talks about the terror of draconian eugenics:

Caplan is for opt-in eugenics: consumer driven genetic enhancements. This would be amazing. Caplan doesn't call this eugenics, but I don't see why this wouldn't fall under that label.

Caplan refers to draconian eugenics policies as ones that forbid the poor or the unfit from have kids. The government already tries to limit poor child bearing with the education system and birth control initiatives. There are limits to what levers the government currently has practical control over.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top