Ender's Game Proves That Every Child Deserves to Be Gifted And Talented

By Kyle Munkittrick | July 4, 2011 12:07 pm

A major argument against human enhancement is that most enhancements won’t be beneficial if everyone is enhanced. Being tall, for example, is only beneficial if you’re taller than most other people. In terms of competitive advantage, nearly any enhancement you look at fails the zero-sum test. Better, stronger muscles? Too bad, everyone else has those, so you won’t be an athletic super-star. Wiz-bang intelligence? Big deal, MIT just ups their entrance exam to compensate so only the most brilliant among a population of geniuses gets in. If all boats rise, you don’t benefit, right?

An excellent example of this mindset can be found in The Incredibles. My love of Pixar is not a mystery to anyone. However, one of the lines that bothers me most in any of their films is Syndrome’s motivating thesis in The Incredibles. Syndrome (Buddy Pine) is a once-in-a-generation genius who, born without superpowers like those of ElastiGirl and Mr. Incredible, builds technology that enables him to be superhuman. In short, Syndrome is what would happen if Tony Stark had been bullied as a kid and told by Captain America to let the big boys take care of everything.

When “monologuing” (the meta humor in the movie is fantastic), Syndrome betrays the kernel of his motivation to be a super villain. His goal is to neutralize those with superpowers (aka “supers”) so that when his robot attacks the city, he can be the sole savior. After being crowned a hero when the supers fail, he will sell his own gizmos and gadgets — rocket boots and zero-point energy among other things — to anyone who wants them. Thereby, he will give every person the opportunity to be super. And, by his logic, “When everyone is super, then no one will be.”

We can apply Syndrome’s concept to cognitive enhancement. That is, “When everyone is gifted and talented, no one will be.” Buddy, you are mistaken. Ender’s Game explains why.

There are enhancements that benefit you regardless of whether or not others have that same enhancement. The most obvious example is health. In order to enjoy being very healthy, I do not need everyone around me to be sick. Physical fitness, resilience to disease and injury, long lifespan, and sound mental health are all “general purpose goods.”

General purpose goods are aspects and capacities a person has that are almost always beneficial no matter the situation or context. Many enhancements that seem like zero-sum benefits within the context of competition are in fact general purpose goods in any other context. More over, some of these general purpose goods have an emergent benefit that results from many people being enhanced in a similar way.

Take intelligence, for example. In Ender’s Game, it initially seems as though the competitions and training missions are designed solely to see who is the best in battle. The best individual will then lead the attack. That, however, is not the purpose of the test. We know from the first lines of the book that Ender is the most intelligent of any human alive.

So what is the purpose of the games in the battle arena? The training process Ender goes through accomplishes two things. First, the school allows him to explore and hone his military skills so that he can be at his absolute best. Second, it allows him to determine who is the best and most intelligent among his peers. Ender never wins a single battle by himself. His victories come from having a brilliant team that can obey and intuit his orders as well as invent and improve ideas on the fly. Because his teammates are so intelligent, Ender can focus on the strategy of the entire war, not on micromanaging every little battle. The conclusion seems obvious, more intelligent people is better. Intelligence within a group is cumulative, not competitive.

The reason I use Ender’s Game as an example is that we human beings face a lot of existential threats. We have our current challenges such as climate change, over-population, the looming health care crisis, and the ever present threat of global nuclear war (forgot about that one for a while there, didn’t ya?); not to mention the improbable but possible future-threats of asteroid impact, AI uprising, or alien invasion. Having more rather than less great minds to work together to solve these problems could be the difference between human survival and extinction.

But, as it stands, the number of geniuses among humanity is a result of genetic statistical probability. Even in Ender’s Game, the generals fear that if Ender is hurt or killed there will be no one to replace him, dooming humanity. That’s where human cognitive enhancement comes in. Be it by genetic engineering, cognition-enhancing drugs, cybernetic-augmentation or some combination of the three, we will have the ability within this century to make most, if not all people, more intelligent. The emergent benefits for humanity that would result of an intelligence boom of this scale could be immense.

So Ender’s intelligence is not only not reduced by having intelligent peers, but it is amplified. As individuals, those who would receive cognitive enhancement benefit as well. No matter what context, I would benefit from being more intelligent. That is, I would benefit from being more creative, more analytical, and more articulate. No matter if I am skiing or playing the banjo or doing vector calculus or performing comedy, intelligence helps me do those things better and enjoy those things more.

Whether you look at it from an individual or a social perspective, cognitive enhancement benefits a person. When the technology exists and is safe, reliable, and affordable, there is no reason people should not be cognitively enhanced. In fact, we have an obligation to enhance our children, because they deserve to have the most opportunities and the best life possible. Therefore, every child deserves to be gifted and talented, both for their own individual quality of life and for the quality of life for future generations of humanity.

You never know when we might need a few good Enders to save our species.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Promotional image from Ender’s Game (comic) of Ender jumping into battle arena via Marvel.com

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Transhumanism

Comments (20)

  1. This is an interesting take. I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about this- to weed out the instinctive feelings of “this is wrong, it’s not natural, it can’t end well” and look at the issue with eyes unclouded by prejudice. I do know, however, that I was shocked to read one of your earlier posts about shortness being a disability that should be medicated with growth hormones after reading (and being impressed by) your post about Pixar and personhood. I sense some dissonance between the concepts of extending the limits of personhood to include all sorts of beings- even inanimate ones- and the belief that we should try to elevate those we view as inferior (literally or otherwise). A big part of personhood is being valued- specifically, having a VALUE that is EQUAL to that of others. That means that society views each person as fundamentally unique in every way, and that all of the things that make that person unique are just as valuable and useful in society as the things that make the next person unique. The problem I have with cognitive enhancement is that intelligence is a multi-faceted quality that comes in many shapes and colors, and all of them are valuable and necessary for human progress. Intelligence and talent are not easily quantified, and especially with modern (western) science, we cannot understand or take into account all types of intelligence- there are many things one might be gifted with that won’t show up on a state exam. Western science looks at the surface of things, what is completely and totally obvious and visible. And when dealing with a human being’s right to true personhood, I don’t think it’s a great idea to try to elevate people whose qualities we don’t fully understand and therefore don’t value. Before we go injecting some sort of mathematically devised smart juice into each other’s BRAINS, why don’t we take a more holistic approach to looking at one another’s MINDS (a good way to start would be to stop looking down at them). Anyway, thanks for the perspective and speculation and I hope I don’t sound to condescending or hippie-ish or hoity-toity- what do I know? You have a PHD in Bioethical Whatsit and I haven’t got my high school diploma yet. Hell, I haven’t even started my sophomore year- I don’t even fully qualify as a wise fool. So, yeah, just a fool’s opinion… which, I guess, is exactly what you’re trying to deal with… I’m rambling… I’ll shut up now. 🙂

  2. Alice: I think you raise some very good points. Science has/may lead to enhancements. However, the knowledge of the complexity of the human mind and the additional complexity of the GT Mind is not completely understood. We need to provide the support and means for all to rise to their potential. We need the team. We need to honor our differences and integrate the potential that creates.
    Kyle – the enhancements are necessary – but do not require artificial means as a means in the end. Applying tools and information in an integrative manner will enhance individual quality of life and for the quality of life for future generations of humanity.

    We have been teaching and developing to mediocrity. Cognitive enhancement is teaching to potential. Genius potential can be enhanced exponentially with recognition, support, and tools.
    ….we human beings face a lot of existential threats. We have our current challenges such as climate change, over-population, the looming health care crisis, and the ever present threat of global nuclear war (forgot about that one for a while there, didn’t ya?); not to mention the improbable but possible future-threats of asteroid impact, AI uprising, or alien invasion. Having more rather than less great minds to work together to solve these problems could be the difference between human survival and extinction. DEVELOPMENT of potential and utilization of tools will provide the means to meet the challenges.

  3. Why should we ‘create’ more intellectually gifted human beings? We don’t support the ones who exist already.

  4. Jim Johnson

    What about intrinsic value to the recipient?

    As you pointed out, the “if everyone is special, no one will be” argument proceeds from the evaluation of enhancements only in context of competition between humans. As you pointed out also, such things may also be evaluated in the context of human cooperation.

    However, might not enhancements provide an intrinsic value to the recipient taken completely apart from its effect on the recipient’s societal position, either cooperative or competitive?

    To take your first example enhancement, height, yes it would be a competitive advantage right now for someone to enhance their child to be taller (up to a point). And it is also true that if enhancements became common enough that everyone had them, the competitive advantage would decrease even as the cooperative advantage increased.

    But, in addition to either of these advantages, the child is herself taller. She can reach the stuff in the cabinet above the fridge. She can see over obstructions more often, she can probably run faster, probably hit harder. These things are intrinsic advantages coming with her greater height, and would aid her even if she became a hermit and lived her entire adult life in a wilderness.

    Someone will probably point out that being taller (or any proposed enhancement) also has disadvantages (otherwise evolution would have maxed us out in that category already, right?). True, but beside the point, which is not “taller is better”, but “taller may be better even though everyone is tall”.

    For a current example of enhancement that displays this perfectly, look at eyesight enhancement. In our society, individual enhancements bringing eyesight to nominal levels (including glasses, contacts, and surgery) have neared 100%. Still, it is to a boy’s competitive advantage to have his vision corrected if necessary. It is also to his society’s cooperative advantage. But even aside from such social advantages, corrected eyesight is intrinsically of value to the boy.

    If nothing else, when he is older, it will be nice to enjoy the sight of a pretty girl across the street, instead of a blurry girl-shaped figure.

  5. RMcMillan

    I’m with ljconrad, let’s start by nurturing the native intellect that is already on the planet before proceeding to enhancements. Fully fund and support gifted education and education generally. Let’s see how far that gets us before we start tinkering with bioenhancements.

  6. Brandon

    Very good sir.
    Although Ender is not the most intelligent human alive in the book.

  7. Brian Too

    We are not only challenged by other humans. We are challenged by the environment and other species too.

  8. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Alice: I encourage you to re-read my shortness as disability post. I spend most of my time qualifying and explaining how shortness is not a disability outside of many social constructs and that though a parent should have the option to increase their child’s height, “shortness” should not be labeled a disease or disability and there should be no mandatory or uniform “treatment” for it.

    @Alice, ljconrad, RMcMillan: Generally, we consider being around other intellectually curious and inventive minds to be stimulating. Most GT programs are, in part, a way to isolate those children with one another so that they are protected and encouraged. The current state of our education system is not an indictment of my argument, sad though it may be.

    @JimJ: What you just described are general purpose goods. They benefit the person even out of a social context. As noted, being enhanced improves my personal pursuits, like skiing and banjo playing.

  9. Nicole

    Do not forget, Ender suffered in the end from his “training.” Intelligence enhancers can have psychological effects as well.

  10. Tim

    You’re tragically forgetting about Bean: http://me.lt/8W9ZD

    He possessed an even greater intelligence than Andrew Wiggin and had ‘super powers’ thanks to the turning of Anton’s Key.

  11. @Kyle: OMG you wrote to me- while I do disagree with you on a few topics I still think you’re a really awesome cool smart guy and you actually care what I think!!!
    Ahem. Anyhow, I understand what you meant in your shortness post- and I’m sorry that I wasn’t very clear about that- I understood that what you were saying is that it is a disadvantage in our current society and that height enhancement should be an option- but I still think that rather than encourage people to increase their (or their children’s) height artificially, we should change the nature of modern society and culture to be more accommodating to people of all shapes and sizes- and you were saying the same thing in your post about form following function.
    I also agree with you about the value of being around intellectually curious minds- and if anybody knows about the defectiveness of our education system it’s me- I’m living it. Oh, the glory of adolescent idiocy (I sat next to a girl who made a daily habit of showing me her underwear for a whole semester. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what the reason for this may have been). I am constantly bored and working ahead in classes, and would love to be able to have some more competent classmates. In group projects, I insist on doing all the work because it’s EASIER that way. However, the way to fix this is to fix our education system. For one thing, I’m a firm believer in the Montessori method, and here’s a great explanation of why: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GcgN0lEh5IA
    I think that many more children would be gifted and talented if only they were allowed to be. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to salvage a love for learning, but we shouldn’t have to fight to hold onto that.

  12. AJKamper

    AFter reading Ender’s Shadow, I WISH I could forget about Bean. But that’s neither here nor there.

    I think this post is probably right on, unless there are inherent negatives to intelligence that I’m not considering. But it seems to me that any difficulties from being intelligent in this society are a result of difference, not of intelligence itself. Same goes triple for gifted/talented programs–the reason they aren’t treated well is because those people aren’t common enough to need help to get up to speed!

  13. You really have to ask if people should be, or want to be, intelligent? Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

    “Giftedness” is a gift that we must give, but doing it by artificial means is jumping the gun. Special nurturing and non-pressuring early teaching will give most children and babies skills that will render them “Incredibles” right here in our reality.

    Giftedness is every baby’s birthright, but not as much due to heredity as it is the “special effect” of a caring, careful teacher or parent.

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Of course someone who is associated with Mensa would push the idea that enhancement is somehow jumping the gun. How is it fair that some people win the genetic lottery and some don’t. Genes determine capacities. If I put 10,000 kids in the same wonderful nurturing environment, only those with the genetic foundation for genius will have the possibility of becoming exceptionally intelligent. Enhancement would give every child the ability to maximize that wonderful environment.

  14. Umm...

    @Kyle/14 – I think the point is that there is no “wonderful environment.” Many GT kids struggle through public schools that don’t have GT/AP programs. This is not an argument against enhancement (nice Mensa generalization, btw), but rather a caution that the enhancement itself isn’t enough.

    P.S. Your scifi->sci argument could be rebutted with any number of tales, including “Odd John”.

  15. daniel I.

    “A major argument against human enhancement is that most enhancements won’t be beneficial if everyone is enhanced.”

    Firstly, I disagree that it is a major argument against human enhancement. I have never heard that argument before (granted, I have never heard of a lot of things which you probably have) and I can’t see any reason why anyone would argue in such a way. Arguing against augmentation because it is ‘unnatural’, I can understand.

    Secondly, I disagree with the idea that most enhancements won’t be beneficial if everyone is enhanced, for 2 reasons.
    Any enhancement must be beneficial. The benefit is not compared to other beings, but to the state that existed prior to the enhancement. Increased strength (for example) is good in and of itself. Even if someone were to enhance their muscles to be stronger than others in competition, then everyone followed suit and they lost their competetive edge, they would still be stronger. A clear benefit.
    Like your example of the benefits of increased intelligence being amplified by everyone being smarter, such an effect can happen with most enhancements simply because they would become the new norm. The more in common we have with others, the easier it is to cooperate. Intelligence is not unique in this sense.
    You hint that the benefits of some enhancements are reduced when everyone has it, but this is not so. Everyone else being stronger would be a benefit to me, just as my increased strength would benefit others.

    The only enhancements that I can see potentially being reduced by becoming common are those to do with beauty.

  16. amphiox

    Interesting that some people have brought up the character of Bean, seeing as Bean’s intelligence actually was enhanced. At considerable price.

  17. Made of Stars

    I’m interested to know your thoughts on the role of education in this context. We see a lot of differences between and within societies associated with the level of the population’s education. Perhaps greater improvements in individual and societal fitness can be improved by ‘enhancing’ cognitive function through better educational systems, rather than tech or genetic enhancement.

  18. Geack


    While your argument basically holds for the outlier points of either an individual or an entire society, I have to worry about both the ethics and practicality of enhancement in all that middle ground, where some people have it and others don’t. The entire drive toward egalitarianism since the Enlightenment has been based on the growing realization/acceptance that “born poor” doesn’t mean “born stupid”. That IS the American Dream. The first large-scale implementation of enhancement, whenever it comes, will almost inevitably benefit the rich first, making an objective fact out of what was once unfounded snobbery. The ethical questions that matter in this discussion have little to do with whether enhancements for an individual are right or wrong in the abstract, and almost everything to do with how (or whether?) to gain their benefits without permanently screwing the offspring of everyone in the bottom 9/10 of the earnings charts.

  19. Cathy

    Another good example in sci-fi of cognitive enhancement benefitting everyone and lifting up all the “boats” are the Abh humans in Crest of the Stars. All Abh go through genetic tinkering and have a 6th sense (sort of a third eye) tagged onto their genome, allowing them to interface directly with their spaceships and navigate without thinking. The children of any normal human (Lander) who is promoted to an Abh also undergos that genetic tinkering. As a side effect of the screening, all diseases and much of the aging process is also adjusted, so that an Abh enhanced human lives for about 200 years (although they can still be killed in an accident.) Abh society is described as mostly peaceful, with political infighting and bickering but no famine, no disease, and no poverty.


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