Are designer babies a danger to the middle class? Should we, as a society, specially breed children for submission to the Achievatron to defeat Chinese mothers and live up to the genetic “Sputnik Moment” in which we find ourselves? Will designer babies be atheists? Peter Lawler, ostensible smart person, seems to think so! If I am translating his compassionate conservative gibberish properly, Lawler is under the distinct impression that the goal behind designer babies is to make a more productive populace and that doing so will wreak havoc upon our families and lives.
Some background on Peter Lawler. He writes for Big Think, loves The New Atlantis (their writers at Futurisms are great sparring partners) and was on the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) . For those of you unfamiliar with Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I kid you not. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has decided to employ.
Thus, on to the question: will designer babies turn the USA into a culture of compulsory overachievement?
Let us examine Lawler’s argument proper, if such a thing can be said to exist. Most of his post is a cobbled together string of non-sequitor rhetorical questions posing as an argument. But he’s a professor, so I’ll show some respect and presume he makes sense. Lawler’s argument is that if we enhance our children, it’s so they will be competitive and productive, and to make sure enhancement doesn’t increase inequality, we’ll have to make sure they’re all enhanced to the max, regardless of the benefits for the actual child. Though he doesn’t cite the paper, Lawler’s argument seems to be based on Alan Buchanan’s “Enhancement and the Ethics of Development.” Buchanan’s argument is complex, but part of it revolves around the idea that previous forms of human enhancement (agriculture, printing press, microprocessor) had huge benefits for the economy. Thus, it is logical to conclude that the State has incentive to provide, um, incentives for families to enhance in the name of productivity and the economy.
However, Lawler isn’t addressing Buchanan, merely a disfigured straw-man version of Buchanan’s argument. Lawler’s rhetorical goal is to lead the argument to a point of absurdity, where you’ll react, aghast at how awful a world with enhancement will be. The crowning moment is when Lawler says that the society will neither welcome the “gift” of a child with Down syndrome, nor will it tolerate “all those stupid and disease-ridden Mormon and Catholic kids.” Not so, for the following reasons.
1. Buchanan’s argument, as well as those of most proponents of human enhancement, is predicated on the idea that not only will enhancement itself be an option, but the kinds of enhancements and the available traits one can select from will all be optional. Lawler ominously implies there will be a mandate of a “perfect” child, a specter long rejected and rallied against by actual bioethicists. No one will be forced to do anything.
2. Lawler implies that those who support enhancement devalue the lives of those with disabilities. Do those who seek to cure HIV devalue the lives of AIDS sufferers, or are the developers of prostheses disdainful of amputees? I hardly think so. Parents who choose to have a child should love that child as is–period.
3. Again, he doesn’t cite his source, but Lawler’s reference to “Mormons and Catholics” is a nod to Donna Haraway’s epic lines:
Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse.
Let’s ignore for the moment that an increase intelligence and education correlates with a drop in religious belief. I’ll be honest: I have a very, very hard time disagreeing with Haraway that teaching creationism is a form of abuse. Any religious fundamentalism (funny how Lawler neglects Islam, Judaism, and protestants) is a pestilence. Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.
4. Enhancement is still extremely speculative. Ethicists argue about it the same way we argue about philosophical zombies and aliens to understand personhood. Enhancement helps us understand how procreation and parenting creates an ethical obligation to the child. The ability to enhance intelligence, morality, charm, and other complex but universally desirable traits is a long, long ways off.
5. That said, an enhancement arms race might ever take off would result in the least destructive, most beneficial Cold War in human history. Oh no, the world is suddenly a-flush with inventive, moral, empathetic, charming, attractive and beneficent people! Whatever shall we do!
In short, enhancement is not going to be commandeered by the state to make generations of godless child robots hell-bent on productivity. Not by a long shot. For more coherent thoughts on designer babies, I suggest Anders Sandberg’s post “Making Babies.” Mr. Lawler promised more on the topic, I sincerely hope he delivers.