Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Purity of essence

I hope our posthuman future includes genetically modified cliche-production modules.

Case in point: Nicholas Kristof confesses that genetic technology weirds him out: [NYT permalink]

Genetic tinkering gives me the willies. My concern is not so much the details of blocking myostatin, although Belgian Blue calves are so muscled that their mothers are at high risk of dying while giving birth,as with the possibility that we will irreversibly change what it is to be human. Geneticists have tried to improve apples over the last 50 years, producing larger, prettier species that just aren't as tasty or as interesting as they used to be; it would be a tragedy if we did to humans what we've done to apples.

Kristof is obviously a big thinker. He's not one to get bogged down in the technical details of safety, efficacy, equity, and affordability. Technology is boring. Ontology is sexy. It's fun to pronounce about what it is, or what it might someday be to be human. Most pundits are incapable of discussing genetic technology without lapsing into essentialist platitudes. These writers seldom think it necessary explain how or why genetic engineering might "irreversibly change what it is to be human."

An essentialist might argue that genetic engineering emperils human essence because it removes the common denominator of arbitrariness. Before, being human meant being reconciled to the genes you were born with. We were all in this together. Soon, technology may allow us to pick and choose certain attributes. I don't see how any of this impinges on what it is to be human. The beneficiaries of genetic engineering will have made their choices according to human values to further human goals. Speculations about GM changing the essence of humanity overlook the fact that most of the things that would be desirable and ethical to change are those that we already manipulate by more pedestrian means.

I think Kristof is more concerned with the details than he lets on. Consider his apple farming analogy. What he is really worried about is whether we will alter our genes wisely. This is a question about the costs and benefits of applying technology, not a question about essence. Your view of modern apple husbandry depends on what you like in an apple. Do you prize year-round availability, affordability, and worth dearth? Or do you prefer the delicate aroma and texture of varietal fruits? These are legitimate aesthetic and economic questions. Neither farmers, nor grocers, nor pundits worry about whether these alterations have undermined what it means to be an apple.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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