Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Very Model of a Postmodern Major-General

Will human genetic engineering be euvoluntary?

Kaffeeklatch nattering on the nature of fiddling with genes tends, in my experience, towards the far-mode. Most of the conversations I've had on the topic center on aggregate social consequences. The few near-mode chats I've had tend to be fairly mundane: a genetically engineered child still needs periodic diaper changes, cuddles, and bandages on skinned knees. Designer babies still get the sniffles, have their hearts broken, and climb up on the counter to sneak a few jellybeans while daddy's upstairs writing a blog post about human genetic engineering.

In my remarks in my previous post, I omitted much discussion of the peace dividend. Forgoing or delaying child rearing is accompanied by a non-violent mien. Bronies are not generally aggressive. At least not individually. Try to imagine an Applejack cosplayer mugging you for drug money. Now try to stop snickering. Now try to imagine a multitude of families, each playing slightly (sometimes very) different status games, often overlapping, with different status markers, in different communities. Grass-eaters might beget grass-eaters, and outsource protection to genetically modified bodyguards. Is this a problem? Should we expect to see EE violations in a HGE world?

  1. Conventional ownership. Do you own your genes? Do your genes own you? Do you find it comical, tragic, or perfectly reasonable that gene sequences enjoy IP protection (at least for agricultural products)? If by "conventional" you mean "there's some case law on this" then yes, we have some idea, some precedent for residual rights over gene sequences. But if by "conventional" you mean an established tradition that resides in the minds of the citizenry, my impression (about 60% supported by the most recent release of the General Social Survey) is that the typical person is not of the opinion that tinkering with human genetics is a task for the mind of Man, but rather reserved to the authority of God. The relevant question is this: will opinions change and conventions arise once the practice becomes commonplace? The evidence from other popular technological advancements suggests that, yes, conventions will shift to accommodate valuable exchange opportunities.
  2. Conventional capacity to exchange. Let's review Shackel's Motte and Bailey Doctrine. There is a core argument (lynching blacks is an inarguable evil) that is res ipsa loquitor obvious, and a less-defensible, but related claim (racial quotas enforced by state mandate is a natural right) that may or may not be true, but can be defended from the ethical comfort of the core claim (if you oppose race-based university quotas, you may as well put on a white hood and robes, because you're basically a klansman already). In the case of genetic engineering, the Bailey (the core, easy-to-defend proposition) is that there's a whole range of genetic disorders that could be wiped from the earth in but a few scant generations. Huntington's, Crohn's , Cri du Chat, Fragile X—the list is pretty long—these can all be corrected by manipulating embryonic genes (someday). Most respondents would be loath to toss the eradication of these diseases on the dunny heap, so expect most of the rancor to erupt in the Motte: designer babies, with +3SD IQ or the strength of Hercules or what-have-you: these sorts of exchange are outre, and in the interest of honesty, these are the ones I'd like to defend by encouraging you to think about them carefully. So for the rest of this little essay, assume I'll be spending all my time in the middle of the muddy Motte.
  3. Absence of regret. Few parents express sincere regret for having had children. It's conceivable that parents might regret having designer babies, but the sorts of duplicitous sales practices that could lead to regret are already covered under the Uniform Commercial Code. Systematic individual regret therefore seems unlikely. But it's aggregate regret that I think worries most skeptics. In agriculture, genetic engineering often results in monoculture: superior strains of corn or wheat or whatever now dominate production, This monoculture leaves the entire species vulnerable to a well-targeted attack: some virus with a taste for a particular protein produced by a swapped-out gene could easily result in widespread crop devastation, leading to famine. In Talebian terms, such a system is fragile. If human genetic engineering produces a similar monoculture in the human population, a clever enough misanthrope might design a bio-weapon that could eat a very popular gene sequence, resulting in a near-extinction event. It might be worth it to invoke the precautionary principle in this case.
  4. No uncompensated externalities. This is one where my own beliefs seem at odds with the popular sentiment. I am of the opinion that the success of others does not diminish my own. I believe that specialized production and exchange makes both parties richer, and I believe that envy is an unseemly vice, whether or not it makes its way into statute law. I also think I'm in the minority here. I suspect that if you told regular folks that some idle rich Beverly Hills clan maven had poured a million bucks into designing a superbaby, you'd get sneers, scoffs, looks of disgust, and a tidy sum of invective. How often do you hear "the rich keep getting richer, while the rest of us get left behind?" Having studied economics to some brief extent, I think this sentiment is bunk rubbish. Having studied politics, I am perhaps more inclined to agree with it. If a genetic sequence could be isolated that allows individuals to obtain political favor more readily, then there seems to be a pretty substantial downside. However, there is something that will mitigate this risk. Let me get back to it in a moment.
  5. Neither party coerced by human agency. This one is actually the one I worry about the most. Human genetic engineering is so fraught with bioethical issues that it's very likely to be heavily regulated nearly everywhere. Heavily regulated (or banned) industries selling products or services with extremely high consumer surplus tend to encourage black or gray markets. And just like a market in heroin or sex, the logic of prohibition applies. It might be weird to consider bootleg gene re-sequencing, but during the heyday of the Apollo program, was it any sillier to imagine that the computing power of the reel-to-reel mainframes would be utterly dwarfed by tiny little handheld devices in the pockets of everyone from heads of state to boardroom executives to humble day laborers? Unaccountable genetic merchants operating out of the panopticon's view might very well dupe customers. Ne'er-do-well organizations might well kidnap or otherwise coerce hapless women into breeding them an army of genetically superior drug mules or super soldiers or suicide bombers or whatever. If this sounds far-fetched, then consider it a tail risk: unlikely but still possible. So, much like the unsolicited advice I regularly offer for sin taxes or prohibition, it is wise to consider what sort of underground markets would arise in response to attempts at prohibition. The cure might be worse than the disease.
  6. Neither party coerced by circumstance. Does "keeping up with the Joneses" count as BATNA disparity? I think this is the presumed mechanism that ends in the gray-goo one-of-us conformity end game many skeptics fear. That, or the parable of the peacock, wherein parents select for socially-impressive-but-practically-useless traits in their progeny, like, oh, long necks or something. 
Here's why I think monoculture fears are (mostly) misguided: there is no one single arena for competition, even with our boring, inherited genes. Some of us are musically apt, others are good at basketball, others yet have tactical finesse in wartime. There are numerous margins along which to compete, and as we've seen with the flowering of leisure activities since the hockey stick of human prosperity took off, there are many more margins yet to be discovered. If there's big money to be had in Starcraft tournaments, don't be too surprised to find at least some parents selecting for fast-twitch muscles and uber micro. Other parents would probably go for an NFL defensive line package: dense bone and heavy muscle. Others would seek a well-tuned ear, others excellent balance, others high cheekbones, others an aptitude for research. Hipster parents might select genes that produce whimsical facial hair. Genetic engineering is more likely to result in more genetic diversity rather than less.

With one important exception: longevity. Immortality is a nearly universal human aspiration. As soon as genetic engineers can switch off the aging process, expect it to become part of the standard package without delay. Everyone will want this. And if anything will increase resource allocation disparity, it will be a cohort of Tolkenian elves freed from the shackles of making hay while the sun shines. All else equal (including what other genetic advantages might attend), extremely long life instantly bottoms out discount rates. If you expect to live centuries, prudent investment is no longer something you take for granted. Similarly, all the good things we're slowing training each other to value, like conservation, environmental quality, honesty and transparency in politics, all the little things we foist on future generations become things long-lived GE people foist on themselves. A lot of my pals on Twitter fret about a Jeb v. Hil ticket in '16. I don't. Political dynasties at least have the virtue of wishing to preserve the integrity of the system. They're less likely to be rapacious in the short term. Jeb in '16, Chelsea in '24, Jenna in '32. Given present institutions, that's how you ensure stability. Genetically modified quasi-immortals would do the trick too. Good stewardship strikes me as too good to pass up.

Now about the downside risks: GM armies, foreign or domestic, running roughshod over the enemy, crushing all resistance. Here, I'm not exactly sure I see the marginal influence of genetic engineering. Modern war is chiefly a matter of capital battery. Yes, infantry still has an important role, but to cow resistance, we tend to use naval and air superiority. Marines storming fortified beachheads is as antiquated as the hauberk and the blunderbuss. Send in the drones. Same goes for defense. As for guerrilla war, suicide bombing, et al, I again direct your attention to the longevity issue. Being personally invested in peace should, I think, give the political elite an incentive to direct more resources towards resolving lingering conflicts. And even if that isn't successful, it seems difficult to believe that folks who would resort to detonating the faithful and gullible would be particularly inclined to engineer a better suicide bomber. If you've got that kind of walking-around money, then as with nation-state armies, it's probably better to just invest in capital. 

Are there any downside risks that I can't comfortably dismiss? Well yes. Political risk. If HGE becomes cheap and effective, and it ends up banned anyway, I think it's reasonable to expect prudence to be an early casualty. One of the more disruptive outcomes would be outright speciation, where the GM offspring bred by one organization is so genetically distinct from those bred by another that they would be unable to mate successfully. High fantasy settings with elves, dwarves. orcs, and men are nearly always only ever held in homeostasis with the generous addition of applied phlebotinum. There's only room on this planet for one sapient species, pardner, and you better bet that it's the one with the nukes. Yes, that's an extreme scenario, but the stringent downside risk hints very strongly in favor of (twice in one post, oh my) invoking the precautionary principle: be very careful about enforcing a drug-war style ban on human genetic modification. A gene war could be devastating.

I think I'll leave it at this for now. This post already exceeds my already generous self-imposed word limit. I think I'll reserve a few other thoughts for a future post. For now, I'll just say that HGE is too dangerous to ban. 

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?