- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

Will biochemists one day be able to redesign the human race? And if they could do it, would it be a good idea?

There’s a list on the Internet of people who focus on IQ, genetics and genetic manipulation. If they were just interested citizens, their views might be of less interest. But these commentators have acquired educated opinions on the subject. They are university professors, researchers and venture capitalists.

They assume without question that a time is coming, perhaps coming soon, when we will be able to design people with very high intelligence. They may be wrong: Smart people have assumed all sorts of things that didn”t happen. But they may be right, and they are the sorts of people who would be influential in determining the uses of genetic technology.

They all take for granted that intelligence is a good thing and that more of it would be a better thing. The idea seems hard to argue against. But … what are we playing with here? If we are talking about producing children with somewhat higher SATs, that”s one thing.

But suppose we found a way to design people with massively higher IQs. Would the results be benign? These hypergeniuses would presumably regard us as the intellectual equivalent of rabbits. They might not want a world overrun by rabbits. We might be inventing our replacements.

The slippery-slope principle holds here. In the technical publications much of the focus is on eliminating genetic diseases. Good ideas. Who wants cystic fibrosis? Somewhat more speculative is the idea of improving the race as physical specimens.

Well, all right. It would be nice if we all had the bodies of boxing great Muhammad Ali, the eyes of baseball legend Ted Williams, the endurance of marathoners. But when you start modifying intelligence and behavior, you are changing what we are. A bit different, I think.

The people on the list I mentioned believe that all human behavior has a biochemical basis. Sometimes they are clearly right. Testosterone does foster aggressiveness, for example. They also see genetic causes for such things as alcoholism, homosexuality, spirituality (really), altruism, musicality, introspection and a tendency to have few or many children.

At this point, technology runs into philosophy and ethics. For example, most of us regard kindness as a virtue, as something self-evidently good. The biochemists on my list see kindness as an evolutionary adaptation that furthers the survival of the species. That is, it is just the effect of chemistry and not inherently better than savagery.

Some argue — as for example Charles Murray in “The Bell Curve” —that a kind of unintended redesign is going on today through “cognitive stratification.” That is, the very bright today tend to be concentrated in places like laboratories and universities, where they marry each other and produce bright children. This is sometimes said to result in the incremental division of the country into two classes, the bright and the dull, with unfortunate social consequences.

How much worse would the problem become if we started creating a separate class of Isaac Newtons who would inevitably marry among themselves and disdain the rest of us? What else would they do? Who would decide how much aggressiveness was the right amount? A federal committee? Would we design different classes of people for different purposes — some optimized as poets, others as soldiers? The questions may not be entirely silly. Molecular biology races along, and a lot of perfectly sane biochemists believe that before too long we will have to answer them.

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