Sunday, October 15, 2006

Diversity, Drugs, Designer Babies, and Dictators

Genetic diversity insures species continuity. Our species produces "morning people" and "evening people" in almost equal percentages, so our camps are guarded at all hours, and a percentage of people will be able to pursue opportunities whenever they are offered. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a more interesting example: superficially, it is a phenomenal wate of psychological resources, but, during periods of plague and bacterial infection, people with OCD are the ones who survive. Similarly, poets, mystics, and seers, while superfluous in a stable social order, provide the visionary bridge that assists transition from one legitimational system to another.

Our civilization has an innovative way to deal with genetic gifts that do not dispose people to "fit into" any of the current social niches. In some smaller tribal societies, those individuals with different genetic gifts were supported as a tribal insurance policy against different types of change. In other smaller tribal societies and in most larger civilizations, people who did not "fit in" were often hunted and killed. We have an uneasy compromise between the two approaches: we tolerate some types of diversity (i.e., homosexuality), but people with other types of diversity are encouraged to ingest chemicals that will blunt their special gifts and make them better able to adapt to the current economic system.

If we define "success" as "success in the current economic system", there is no compelling argument against enhancing one's likelihood of success by chemical means. The growing social consensus against steroid use among athletes is simultaneously medical (there are strange side effects of steroid use) and aesthetic/moral (a steroidally enhanced athlete is like photoshopped porn: the audience feels cheated). However, the social consensus against chemical use does not reach into psychoactive drugs, as various compassion-killing substances are marketed as anti-depressants, to allow compassionate people to function at a higher level in society without crippling concern for their fellow-humans.

Zookeepers judge their success by the willingness of animals to breed in captivity and depression and impotence are natural mechanisms to push evolution. If a society is so unhappy that it cannot breed, then things should either change in a way that makes people ready to breed, or it should die out and be replaced by something more vigorous. This was the thrust of Habermas' classic work, Legitimation Crisis, in which he diagnosed a massive societal depression, caused by the gap between our lofty ideals and their flawed instantiation. The social change that Habermas foresaw is unnecessary, thought, because our economy has created incentives to produce chemicals that block out people's unhappiness, which, in turn, allow the society to continue without circumspection. It is ironic that people, themselves doped up on Prozac, still have enough contact with their natural values that they would be disgusted see animals doped up on Prozac in a zoo.

But the issue of drug-use reduces to the question of the individual versus the species. It is unacceptably cruel to tell Brooke Shields not to take anti-depressants for her post-partem depression, particularly if, evolutionarily, post-partem depression is an extra hurdle that winnows out less resilient babies. The social consensus represents the unwillingness to "take your pill" as an anti-social infliction of one's personality on the society, but a person who refuses to capitulate to the social pressure for conformity is often serving the broader interests of the species, usually at some personal cost.

And thus we return to the most compelling argument for "designer" babies of the future. We are creating and loving children who would not have survived in earlier eras. And then dope them up, so they can survive in our economy. It seems much more efficient and more humane to deal with the problem at the source, and only summon beings into the world who are able to survive in our world. The risk is that a lack of genetic diversity will decrease our species ability for adaptation, but this risk could be easily mitigated, possibly with reservations for free-range humans, or maybe through a managed human ecosystem, applying growing understanding from natural ecosystems.

I started this as a response to the BoingBoing post about autism and sociopathy. While an evolutionary aware perspective increases sympathy for many of the "nice" variations, it decreases sympathy for the "bad" ones. It is a sucker's bet to sympathize with people who have a genetic predisposition take advantage of one's sympathy. And just as the Nazi sociopaths wanted to root out their compassionate fellows, if it really is a war, then it is symmetrical for the compassionate to contemplate rooting out the sociopaths. The compassionate way to abolish something is to prevent it from ever arising, and while I love genetic diversity, it's pleasant to imagine a future where evil has been eradicated, much like polio.

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