I would say that Ben Stein exaggerated, but not by a lot. There is a hidden gnosis unveiled by the mechanism of evolution that constitutes a temptation to the human species. Once we have a mechanism for the improvement of a species—once we know how nature does it (by a process of selection)—do we start directing the selection, or not?
It’s really not Darwin’s fault that we are confronted with this temptation. It is the twisting DNA tree in the garden of our body’s Eden. It’s God’s fault. God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there. Geneticists, as we speak, are boring into that tree, and the processes are being rapidly deciphered whereby God (if God exists) makes organisms better, prettier, faster, smarter, and stronger.
Obviously, you don’t need intellectuals to spell out the implications. Any school child can look at the theory of evolution and say, “Nature does not operate by the laws of love and nonviolence. Nature selects out the fittest by a process of elimination. Why aren’t we?”
Why aren’t we?
What, but religious taboo, is powerful enough to arrest the temptation? Why not eliminate the pains “that flesh is heir to”? And when religion goes away, what philosophical or ethical argument will have enough “oomph” to inhibit people from rushing full steam ahead into eugenic selection?
I disagree with Ben Stein to this extent: Stein treats evolution by natural selection as a philosophical position that one can take or leave. And so he blames intellectuals for the catastrophe. By contrast, I treat evolution by natural selection as a scientific fact that cannot be swept under the rug. The tools of selection (sexual and natural) that Darwin discovered will actually work if applied to human beings artificially. Geneticists will, over the next 100 years, be able to use eugenic techniques to make Nietzschean “super-humans” (or, if they prefer, degenerate clones as frontline fodder in war). They’ll be able to blend the genes of humans and animals. In embryos, they’ll be able to add or delete a menu of human traits (a small menu, at the start, but much larger, say, 300 years from now). These seemingly black magic arts will not be Darwin’s fault, or the fault of philosophical Darwinists, or the fault of decadent intellectuals. The ability to engage in these arts will be made possible by the facts read out painstakingly by scientists from the Book of Nature. They will come from God. Natural selection acting on the genome is how biological improvements really occur, and humans are rapidly figuring out how to read out of the genome the secrets for making improvements.
Philosophical Darwinists might well give the eugenic temptation intellectual support, and cheer it on, but it is the gnosis that scientists have unveiled that constitutes the temptation. You have hippies who, by analogy, cheer on free love, but you don’t need the cheerleaders of free love to recognize and feel the temptation. It is the genetic apples hanging on the trees of our bodies that will give us the power to be as gods—to direct our own evolution—if we decide to take upon ourselves this knowledge of good and evil. Nazi doctors were the crude, ham-handed Darwinian alchemists of the 20th century, but the 21st and 22nd centuries will have real alchemy: geneticists able to cleanly and efficiently turn our crude human mud into transhuman gold.
Will we eat those golden apples? Should we?
Blaming this dilemma on Charles Darwin, or on philosophically enthusiastic Darwinists, or on godless intellectuals, is to shoot the messengers. The tree and its fruit comes from the King himself. God (if God exists) is the creator of the human genetic code, and he is also the chief taboo for not tinkering with that code to improve the human species.
So long live the King?
Obviously, the old King’s ongoing reign is in his children’s hands. But the day is coming (and that very soon) when we will be able to direct our own evolution. And should we choose to do so, that will also be the day that marks the death of God. It will be a completely different world, run entirely by the children. And our great-grandchildren will not be human. They will be transhuman.
Very true. Even if all species were created ex nihilo, we’d still be unraveling the genome and noticing that some other animals have beneficial genes that humans don’t have. We’d still wonder ‘what if we could make the human genome better?’
I don’t really agree that God is the chief reason for avoiding genetic enhancement of human beings. I’ve certainly heard many religious arguments, but there are also many secular arguments too.
I put Planet of the Apes above because Taylor is an “atheist” who ignores Dr. Zeus’s religious prohibition about entering the “forbidden zone.”
Some religious arguments work on taboo, appeal to scripture, authority, and fear. Good or bad, these rhetorical moves seem to work in restraining a lot of humans (at least a bit).
Absent religious arguments, you say that there are secular arguments against genetic enhancement. But could you name one or two arguments that you think carry sufficient “oomph” (emotionally or intellectually) to restrain your average government policy maker or capitalist entrepreneur from going full steam ahead with genetic enhancement?
For example, if China (an atheist country) shows no ethical qualms about eugenics, won’t there soon be a competitive race to the bottom (by other govts. and corporations) from that point forward? How can countries like the United States or Germany (!) stand idly by while China corners the market on serious eugenic experimentation and policies? Left unchallenged, a hundred years from now China might well have children with average IQs of 200 while the rest of humanity is at 100. That’s not a fanciful possibility, but a real one.
What arguments (religious or otherwise) are going to deter China, then the rest of the world, from the temptation to make super-humans over the next century? Maybe some global treaty incorporating genetic enhancement as a universal human right? If one person can get a genetically enhanced 200 IQ baby, all can get one (if they so desire)? And what if some countries give people the option of saying no, while other countries (again, such as China) has a no opting out policy—everybody has to accept genetic enhancement of offspring for the good of the nation? Won’t national differences become stark over time?
I just think the world is heading into a thicket that we barely comprehend right now, and I don’t see any secular arguments, rational or otherwise, that might stop us from adopting a eugenic future. If the old religious taboos no longer have force, then genetic enhancement seems inevitable. And it didn’t go well the first time eugenic theory got mixed with social policy (in the early and mid-20th century), did it?
Sure. Secular arguments usually focus on the bad consequences of enhancement, rather than anything intrinsically wrong with enhancement itself.
There’s the safety argument, that we don’t know enough about genetics to enhance human beings without causing suffering to a large proportion of those who wished to be enhanced.
There’s also the Gattaca argument, that enhancement will cause genetic discrimination and further the class divide. I think the Brave New World argument, that enhancement will destroy democracy or equality, goes with this too.
I do think that in countries where church and state are separated, there will have to be secular reasons for prohibiting genetic enhancement, as the religious reasons aren’t viable reasons.
I don’t know, and it’s my position that they shouldn’t be deterred.
Yes, that’s a real concern if social policy again influences reproductive freedoms. I think it’s just as wrong to force people to enhance their children as it is to force people to not have children. Perhaps we should try eugenics without government interference for a change, and see if that’s better.
I appreciate the attempt to offer some secular arguments, but I felt that you offered them a bit half hearted. At the end of your post you said, concerning China’s eugenic efforts, “it’s my position that they shouldn’t be deterred.”
Oh, and you said that, in any event, you couldn’t think of anything to reasonably say to the Chinese to specifically deter them.
And looked at a bit more closely, your general arguments amount to little more than restatements of the problems. We know that it will be difficult technologically, and could cause suffering to the first experimental populations, but it’s not like China, with a billion people, will give a shit if a subset is sacrificed for the good of China as a whole. We also know that inequality and the division of the human race into the enhanced and the unenhanced (the riders and the horses) is coming with genetic enhancement. And if (as you suggest) a market solution (the final solution?) is applied to genetic enhancement (making it the inalienable right of rich people to purchase this technology for their offspring) then obviously the division of the world into the haves and the have nots will be complete.
Maybe we should all read Plato’s Republic and think about what a world with philosopher kings will be like because that’s what we’ll likely have in a eugenically enhanced global civilization. Democracy and human equality of rights may prove to be historical curiosities bounded by a time when the world was still human (and not transhuman).