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It’s easy to forget that eugenic ideas were once mainstream and exercised their pernicious influence far beyond Nazi Germany. In the future, however, it may be transgenics not eugenics that we have to worry about.

Genetic modification is a technique that can be applied to human DNA, not just plant and animal DNA. Currently we place moral and legal limits on doing so, but how long will this last?

It’s a question considered by Eugene Volokh in the Washington Post. He begins by referring to a Pew poll on the acceptability of genetically engineering a baby to enhance its intelligence:

83 percent of Americans said it’s not appropriate, and only 15 percent said it was appropriate.”

Volokh appears to count himself among the minority, but whether one approves or not is besides the point, he says – GM humans are going to happen anyway:

“Say the Chinese don’t see things the way we do. Out come some number of babies with horrible birth defects (truly a tragedy, and as a purely ethical matter, possibly a reason against such experimentation; I’m just saying the ethics won’t matter much). And then things get worked out, and now the new generation of Chinese, or Japanese, or Russians becomes on average much smarter than the new generation of Americans. How long will American public opinion remain opposed to a technology that seems vital to national success, and perhaps even national independence?”

In other words, the West can’t impose its morality on the rest of the world, but the rest of world would, given the chance, out-compete the West.

A further point is that is that even in countries where it is banned, the rich will still find a way of getting hold of any sufficiently advantageous technology:

“They’re rich, so they can go overseas to get it (even if they don’t want to risk the domestic black market). Hard to stop that without some pretty intrusive monitoring, even if there was the will to try.”

One of the strongest arguments against genetically enhanced intelligence is that it would create a genetic underclass. Volokh’s counter-argument is that if we don’t make the technology widely available we’ll have a genetic overclass instead.

But is the spread of GM humanity quite as inevitable as he suggests? One of the most important things we’ve learned about genetics – and epigenetics – is that it’s much more complicated than we once thought. It’s not like rewriting a few lines of code in a computer programme. We’re still a long way from fully understanding the genetic contribution to intelligence – and therefore the ability to manipulate it successfully (or, indeed, at all).

Furthermore, even if the technology were available to us, we do have some options for controlling its uptake. Thers’s a parallel here with the use performance-enhancing drugs in sport. As in Volokh’s scenario, this is a technology that is capable of conferring a competitive advantage, which can have nasty side-effects and where certain countries are rather less scrupulous than they ought to be. Nevertheless, international sporting bodies have had a great deal of success in containing their use. There’s still a lot of cheating, of course, but in most sports competitors who play by the rules still have a fighting chance.

This analogy is not a perfect one: genetically enhanced intelligence is something that could potentially apply to whole populations rather than a small number of professional sportsmen and women. On the other hand, it would be harder to conceal a permanent genetic modification than a drug which is only detectable in the body for a limited period.

One more thing. If computers keep getting smarter, then it may be human intelligence of any kind – modified or not – that becomes irrelevant. Machines will do all the difficult stuff, leaving humans either to do the donkey work or just twiddle our thumbs all day. In which case, the consumer demand may be for genetically enhanced stupidity.

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