Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Responsible Parenting

Bufo marinus. Image Source: NT News.

Someone should call the editors at the OED. There is a new definition of 'responsible parenting.' In another of those stories in which scientists gain ever greater abilities to do amazing things, but seem not to register any implications of said things, The Telegraph reports on an Oxford professor's comment that, "genetically engineering 'ethical' babies is a moral obligation. ... Genetically screening our offspring to make them better people is just 'responsible parenting.'"

Can our sense of right and wrong really be cooked up in a test tube? Sure it can! The report:
Professor Julian Savulescu said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a "moral obligation" as it makes them grow up into "ethically better children".

The expert in practical ethics said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to "harm themselves and others".

The academic, who is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, made his comments in an article in the latest edition of Reader's Digest.

He explained that we are now in the middle of a genetic revolution and that although screening, for all but a few conditions, remained illegal it should be welcomed.

He said that science is increasingly discovering that genes have a significant influence on personality – with certain genetic markers in embryo suggesting future characteristics.

By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out.

In the end, he said that "rational design" would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.

"Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?" wrote Prof Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor in practical ethics.

"So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. ... He said that unlike the eugenics movements, which fell out of favour when ... adopted by the Nazis, the system would be voluntary and allow parents to choose the characteristics of their children.
Parents' rights to choose the morality of their child? I can just see the political camps and ideologists lining up to claim this one, armed with whole new branches of -isms. Surely Oxford must have some moral philosophers to advise its geneticists on the elementary ethical irony of playing god. Hasn't anyone over at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics read Mary Shelley? Or read the history of the 20th century?

Debates on tinkering with the building blocks of living humanity aside, the assumption that genetically screening society so that it comprises ethical people will not necessarily constitute a social good. Doubly ironically, this notion brings these scientists up against the oldest unanswered theological questions: why does evil exist? What purpose does it serve? Could not destroying foetuses with genetic markers for psychopathy, violent tendences, depression and addiction produce new evils? We know little about why psychopaths exist; what purpose they serve within evolution.

While the world would be better off without psychopathies and other violent mental disorders, these traits have genetically evolved for some reason. Some very great figures in history have possessed the obsessive and violent traits the professor describes. The film Gattaca (1997) explored the enormous potential of those whom scientists perceive to be genetically 'weak'. Erasing a new psychological genetic underclass without understanding the reason for their current existence could simply prompt genes to mutate and generate new strains of madness. Superpsychopaths.

One analogy I recall is the introduction of the cane toad in Australia in 1935 (another period when social engineering was popular) to keep down the population of cane beetles. The population of invasive poisonous cane toads promptly exploded. The eradication of one self-evident evil through scientific engineering did not anticipate far bigger, out-of-control problems. Something tells me that the evils of unintended consequences will shape the history of the world over next hundred years.


  1. "Voluntary" ethical behavior is almost never genuinely voluntary. Policies like that become licenses for mob rule, i.e., if you exercise your options and choose a course that others don't you may not be punished by your nominal government but there are any number of ways in which you can be punished by your neighbors, relatives, peers and even society as a whole. This is why you can pray in school but you can't have school prayers. (At least, not in the U.S. At the moment.)

    As for a less violent society, perhaps he should talk to the Ivy Leaguers who engineered the Viet Nam war. I'm sure they spent more time studying philosophy and ethics that the civilians they covered in napalm or their own soldiers they marinated in Agent Orange.

    Killing the poor will not end poverty, it will just mean that those who were the next poorest will become the poorest. Even if we were foolish enough to be seduced by the easy answers of genetic determination it wouldn't solve real problems of ethics. It doesn't even address the question of corruption, let alone redemption.

    A recent episode of Radiolab had a segment with a story about one of the founders of the eugenics movement. He was at some county fair type event at which an exhibitor invited anyone passing by to guess the number of marbles/beans in a jar. The crowd was a truly random sample of society, with people from every economic and educational background. He stuck around to watch, expecting to have an amusing confirmation of his presumptions about intelligence and capability and was shocked when the exhibitor announced that he would compare the average of everyone's guesses to each individual guess. The average was always closest, beating out both the unwashed, illiterate players and the well-dressed professionals. According to the eugenicist's theories and beliefs, a sharp disciplined mind (which he attributed to biological design) would get the closest guess and averaging their results with those of "lesser beings" would get less accurate results. However, he had just witnessed first hand that the opposite was true; however honed our minds may become, we are intrinsically imperfect and the imperfections of those who are different from us are more likely to compensate for ours than exacerbate them, as he had rashly assumed.

    It isn't too hard to see the same phenomenon play out it questions of ethics or any aspect of life in which things are not neatly spelled out for us and we are forced to make estimates in order to arrive at any answers at all.

  2. Thanks for your comment, pblfsda, yes: this researcher is missing the complex interaction between nature and nurture that brings up questions of ethics and morality in the first place. As you say, we are all to some degree flawed (and gifted) in different ways. Selecting on these lines presumes that there is a genetic hierarchy toward which, or for which, one selects. With this kind of thinking, you would think that we had not lived through the 20th century at all.

    As to whether or not moral disposition can be predetermined genetically: on top of the basic fact that we don't understand mental illnesses or their evolutionary purposes (if any), you could have someone who is innately hard-wired (so to speak) to be and do good, who could commit evil acts under certain circumstances. In other words, we can't medically select for an ethical human being before birth. It's absurd. It's a short cut to thinking about the entire problem. It shows a distinct lack of imagination about human evolution and behaviour. It also shows a way of trying to solve the problems of social deviation, crime and mental illness without actually understanding any of them. Trying to solve these issues with a genetic short cut will just lead to more problems.

    In addition, this researcher is making a false analogy between mental illness and moral evil. One does not necessarily imply the other. You could have someone who is quite ill, yet precisely because of that might strive to do good.