“You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built-in already. Your child doesn’t need any additional burdens. And keep in mind, this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”
It may present with the trappings of a futurist’s pipe dream, but the technological enhancement of human capability is already on the cusp of realisation.
Consider, for instance, preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is an embryonic selection procedure performed in conjunction with in vitro fertilisation. In PGD, clinicians first prepare several candidate oocytes or embryos from parental cells. Prior to uterine implantation of a particular embryo, the clinicians genetically screen it for any of thousands of traits; these range from alleles linked to diseases and disabilities to gene loci implicated in height or eye colour to sex chromosomes. Based upon the genetic profiles of each of the potential children, parents subsequently select one to carry to term.
If this sounds familiar, PGD—which runs up to US$30,000 and is not covered by most insurance policies—is the ordinary means by which parents in the science fiction film “Gattaca” selected the “best” possible children. In a typical PGD procedure, parents select from up to fifteen candidates; most often, the motivation of the screening is to preclude heritable illness. Certainly, this number is hardly comparable to the thousand natural conceptions that the geneticist in Gattaca promises, but that does not detract from the significance of PGD – for the first time in human history, parents have the means to scientifically select for the traits of their children prior to pregnancy.
Nonetheless, PGD ultimately falls short as a means of creating “designer babies”, since the number of candidate children cannot exceed the number of available oocytes. Each gene locus is present in half of postmeiotic gametes; consequently, half of oocytes will possess a particular allele for which the mother is heterozygotic. The rate of coincidence for two such alleles is 1:4 and for x such alleles 1:2^x. Thus, even if over one million oocytes–a very liberal estimate–were available for genetic diagnosis, the procedure would on average allow parents to select for twenty traits. A thousand natural conceptions suddenly sounds rather unimpressive. Even this analysis assumes independent assortment, discounting the complications of genetic linkage.
The limitations of one particular procedure are not sufficient to dispel the promises of genetic technology. Inchoate neurotechnology and nanotechnology, largely speculative at the time of writing, offer promises that are bolder still: cognitive augmentation, whole-brain emulation, panacea, multiple pathways to immortality. How might technology reshape society, mobility, equality of opportunity, and humanity itself? What implications might technological change have upon the meritocratic ideal?
Qualification, motivation, and scope
“ … parents will someday use PGD to screen embryos for desirable traits such as tougher immune systems, stronger bodies, and smarter brains. It is hard to see what is ethically wrong with parents taking advantage of such testing, since it is aimed at conferring general benefits that any child would want to have.” —Ronald Bailey, “Transhumanism and the Limits of Democracy”
As a prior warning, much of this discussion is inherently speculative in nature. It is not our intention to extol or condemn any hypothetical future society, but to explore the potential impact of human enhancement technologies upon social stratification and mobility in real society. The objective of this article is to present a reasoned argument that simultaneous support of both free markets and technological disinhibition is irreconcilable with the meritocratic ethos.
In order to curb the speculation inherent in any discussion of future scenarios, the scope of this article encompasses neither (a) what particular human enhancement technologies may one day be feasible nor (b) whether the subsidisation or prohibition of technological advancement in the domain of human enhancement is a moral or ethical imperative. Instead, our focus is discussion of a world, hypothetical or real, in which technology affords parents the ability to provide their children significant advantages over children whose parents do not have access to this technology.
It is understandably of concern that real society, particularly fluid and democratic society, evolves in tandem with technological progress. Consequently, one might present the counter-argument that there is no valid reason to believe that a society in the throes of a transhumanist revolution should resemble in any manner today’s prevailing market capitalist paradigm. Our premise is threefold: (a) that there is no more a valid reason to believe otherwise; (b) that there exists in the transhumanist camp a particular faction of “libertarian transhumanists” who espouse the conjunction of human enhancement and economic hierarchy, and that this faction implicitly spurns any notions of equal opportunity; and (c) that, even if no relicts of the prevailing paradigm are present in a society affected by such technologies, any social system embracing either economic stratification or parental power over the biology of offspring could present clandestine or overt opposition to the meritocratic ethos. The arguments presented herein can be trivially generalised to any such system. Similarly, though our focus is on genetic technology, most of our arguments can be extended to many other hypothetical human enhancement technologies.
Significance and context
“Nature hath made man so equal, in the faculties of the body and mind, as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend, as well as he.” —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
What is inherited? At present, inheritance encompasses not only the material assets transmitted at death in accordance with inheritance law but also the effects of a child’s social milieu upon that child’s ambitions, expectations, and societal status as an adult. For instance, an individual born into a patrician household will adopt the cultural conventions of that household and will readily perpetuate his ancestors’ connections with other powerful households. Familial wealth is a necessary condition for entry into a multitude of prestigious institutions (e.g., university-preparatory schools in the United States), and affiliation with these institutions facilitates achievement at later stages of life. It is certainly not unreasonable to classify such inter vivos conferments under the inheritance umbrella.
But one domain of inheritance over which even the wealthiest of individuals could not exert control has consistently been the domain of biological heredity or genetic inheritance. (This has not prevented endogamous selection of mates among the more entrenched members of the ruling class, nor did a desire for such necessarily contribute thereto.) Were it not for this free variable, Thomas Jefferson could never have made the resounding assertion that “all men are created equal”. In spite of the exclusion and condescension of old money, individuals who do not meet these criteria for “wellborn” can realise that there is no inherent “superiority” in the social elite; that there is no “genetic elite” class; that humanity and potential are imparted equally to prince and to pauper, to Vanderbilt and to John Q. Public, to business magnate and to proletarian. In some sense, then, biology functions as a great equaliser—if certainly not a conduit of agency. For all the stagnation and deceit that the myth of equal opportunity has sown, it has also oiled the motor of upward mobility by instilling in the underclass some modicum of hope, which in the United States manifests as the “American Dream”.
If genetic technology fulfils its promise, social inheritance will at last extend its tendrils into the biological realm. And if current trends in costs persist, the inevitable result is aggravated socioeconomic stratification. While parents of the common classes are playing a futile lottery in hopes of winning their children a competitive genome, parents who can afford the nascent technology rig the game ever more in their children’s favour. How is this different from current modalities of inheritance-dependent stratification? Though adherents of meritocracy might be more inclined to discern parallels, the conquest of biological inheritance will result in a situation that is in the minds of the majority so fundamentally different from the present that the mere anticipation thereof has spawned a rampant and generalised technophobic reaction against the possibility of human enhancement.
Critically, the teetering monolith that is the myth of equal opportunity will of necessity give way and collapse—an observation that has alarmed even members of the neoconservative establishment who sincerely believe that the Western powers in their present forms constitute a meritocracy. But where is the fault in that long-overdue collapse? Isn’t the demolition of this ageing colossus one of the immediate ambitions of meritocratic organisations? Do we not recognise that the population must be made aware of the veil pulled over their eyes before they can ignite with revolutionary fervour?
Yes, but not under these circumstances. When the elite win mastery over biological inheritance, meritocracy risks losing its rational fulcrum. That is to say, rationally speaking, why should there be equal opportunity or social mobility if it is evident from birth that certain individuals are, strictly speaking, better? (Not that there is any value in this assertion from a meritocratic perspective, as this document will later discuss; but that will not prevent its internalisation among members of the underclass.)
As all significant achievement is concentrated in the hands of the ruling classes, as the lower classes become fertile grounds for fatalism and complacency, the meritocratic centre is displaced toward plutocracy. What does it mean to be meritocratic in such a world? Is it too late for meritocracy in this scenario? And what is to be done now, in the present? Are we to challenge the rising technological tide? Or is the real enemy a force that already governs the world, one that we can confront rationally in this very moment, even one that we—as proponents of meritocracy—ought to challenge regardless of what the future might bring?
Suppose, however, that affordable genetic selection technology becomes widely available. In this alternate scenario, the quality of a child’s genome would be determined entirely according to the wishes of the parents, subject to any systemic regulations. Libertarian transhumanist Ronald Bailey suggests, for instance, that parents belonging to particular religious denominations might elect not to use the technology on religious grounds. But it is not the parents who will have to live the entire courses of their lives with the genomes they have selected. Is there some ethical imperative that takes precedence over parents’ sovereignty over their children? Can a meritocratic solution embody regulation and prohibition against gene selection by parents for their children?
This article is the first part of a three-part article series. Read part two of Post-Humanity: Transhumanism, Libertarianism, and the End of History.