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