Friday, May 13, 2011

The Death of Stupid?

Are you in favor of eugenics? Of course not, right? The idea that the human population should be cultivated to encourage certain traits and skills to flourish, by weeding out the undesirable strains of mankind, has been thoroughly discredited by its past history of association with forced sterilizations and Nazi horrors. But there is something about the notion that we'd all be better off if we could just get rid of the 'wrong sort' that the idea keeps popping up in different guises.

So I suppose I should give Julien Savulescu credit for honesty, then: he doesn't deny that what he's talking about is eugenics. Instead, he tries to rip the term away from its evil, 20th century practitioners. See, for example, this quote from an interview he did recently with the Guardian:
"It depends what you mean by eugenics," he says. "In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down's syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities. The reason we don't define that sort of thing as 'eugenics', as the Nazis did, is because it's based on choice. It's about enhancing people's freedom rather than reducing it."
Let me back up. Julien Savulescu is a prominent bioethicist at Oxford, and he is arguing that eugenics is alright as long as it is a personal choice (of the parents, of course, not of the fetus) and not forced by the state. He is pro-cloning, pro-gene enhancement, and definitely in favor of selecting embryos to be implanted for intelligence. He's been quoted as saying that embryos that do not have the right genes for high intelligence should be destroyed to ensure, "the economic and social benefits of higher cognition."

Despite my disgust at the notion of throwing away human life--even embryonic life--as if it was an insignificant bit of garbage, I'd like to focus more on the end result of Savulescu's proposal: should we be in favor of a world where people are designed to be smarter?

In an earlier post, I wrote that our society might be evolving into one where a few people have exceptionally meaningful, creative work, but the majority have little to do at all. But perhaps that problem would be solved if everyone was what we would today call a genius, if they had the mental gifts to do meaningful work in the increasingly complex scientific and intellectual areas that define modern life.

So lets say we could eliminate unintelligent people not by killing them before they're born, but by altering their genes to increase their intellectual capacity. Should we have any objection to this? I can see several: that we're messing with the essence of who we are as people, that it will favor those who can afford it over those who can't, that we will make one generation "obsolete" with the enhancements given to the next. But I can't say I find any of those arguments convincing: humanity is either endowed by God with intelligence (as I believe) and therefore we should use that intelligence to improve our lot in life, or else we are here as a product of blind evolution, in which case we should do all we can to advance the species and our own quality of life. Either way, the issue is not whether we should enhance our intelligence or not, but whether we take unethical shortcuts in our effort to do so.

There is, I have to admit, a nagging voice in the back of my head that says this is the path to creating a class of amoral Ubermenschen. And when I first conceived of this post, my intention was to bash the idea of artificially enhancing intelligence. But isn't this hypothetical concern about the perils of evil, rogue geniuses a bit of a red herring? It seems a much more practical worry that we are going to leave behind millions of good, hardworking people who simply don't have the gifts to contribute all they would want to an ever-more knowledge-based society. The person with a below-average IQ doing manual labor is not less valuable than a smarter person, and it is dangerous that we might see them as such if most people had enhanced intelligence. But wouldn't most, if not all, of those people appreciate the chance to add to their intellectual capacity?

Clearly, I'm still struggling with this issue. (Thus all the question marks.) So I'll leave it here: Julien Savulescu's casual disregard of human life is appalling, but high intelligence is a great gift that would be worth spreading more widely through the human family if we could do so safely and ethically. Someday, we'll be able to do so, and the burden of proof will be on the naysayers to argue why we shouldn't.

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