Thursday, July 16, 2015

Comfort on Genetic Engineering

Well said by Nathaniel Comfort at the Nation and at Genotopia.

“Here’s why: Sci-fi genetic fantasies, whether hand-waving or hand-wringing, divert our attention from other, more important determinants of health. Studies by the World Health Organization, the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and academic researchers leave no doubt that the biggest factors in determining health and quality of life are overwhelmingly social. Genetics plays a role in disease, to be sure, but decent, affordable housing; access to real food, education, and transportation; and reducing exposure to crime and violence are far more important. In short, if we really wanted to engineer better, happier, healthier humans, we would focus much more on nurture than on nature.”

I am in general agreement about social structures being a better, more robust line of attack for helping almost all people, for changing societies.

I see the fear of genetic changes as overstated as well. I agree that the cultural zeitgeist of genetic determinism leads to some current social conservatism. But surely both flowers can bloom. The genetic knowledge and manipulability that we are acquiring does not preclude making important social changes. Quite frankly, better genetic understanding should eventually lead to the call for greater and more precise social changes (assuming my understanding is right). Furthermore, there are many reasons for our rather conservative present, with genetic claims being but a small fraction of that.

This leads to the next point: Pushes for massive (but well-intentioned) changes to social structures can be just as damaging as pushes for genetic changes. Genetic alteration should not be placed in some anathema category of unacceptable anymore than social alterations. Perhaps we fear one from past eugenics movements, while others we fear from “argument from USSR” or from cult-like entities. The overreaction to both leads to dead ends, to poor social results and thus to poorer lives lived. Of course, some people took the failures of socialism to give us lessons about human nature (thus genes), which were really bad arguments.

The idea that we cannot handle changing our genetic codes leads to the essentializing of our societies (and thus our genes) as being unable to handle the power of editing out diseases or make other changes. When we are arguing that we are capable of widespread and significant social changes that will better our selves, it seems bizarre that we would have erected a part of our identity, a part of knowledge and control, that we are then unable to handle, unable to introduce into society.

I know I am not making much of an argument strictly for genetic engineering. But I do have confidence present day Germany or the US would harbor genetic technologies without reproducing stupidities of the past. Making sure no individual is born blind today or in the future is not casting aspersions on blind people or putting roadblocks to their living good lives today. The inequality argument is powerful, but (read Comfort above) our most pointed inequalities are happening for social reasons, ones that hopefully we eventually change. I would hope such changes would ensure more equal access to genetic technologies.  

This all brings me to: I am enjoying Peter Watts' scifi, very sciency, Blindsight.

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