Making Human Gods equitable
While Darwinian Evolution is the underlying foundation for the evolution of species on earth, it is clearly suboptimal in the sense that there are still species suffering. The recent advances in genetics and synthetic biology only magnifies the suboptimal nature of the evolution when compared to how humans can fix some of the issues faced by various species. The very fact that newer technologies like CRISPR can empower humans to fix some of the “mistakes” of evolution should force us to think about eventual human take over of species evolution from nature. When you add future advances in synthetic biology to the mix, it is not a question of if but when.
Let us not kid ourselves and be clear here. We are nowhere closer to humans playing the role of god (if you believe in supernaturals) or replacing the role of nature in evolution (for the rest of us). We are far away from that future and we may never be able to replace the role of nature in the process of evolution. If the current Coronavirus pandemic is any indication, it is nature’s way of telling the geneticists and synthetic biologists that it still controls the evolution and we are still at its mercy. With this clear understanding of where human progress stands, I am discussing a likely future in this post.
The newer technologies are going to bring into focus deep ethical and social questions that we need to address sooner than later. We can neither sweep these questions under the carpet nor punt to the future saying we are not there yet. This is a conversation we need to have now while we also consider the ethical questions related to other advances like Artificial Intelligence. Even though the utopia of humans playing god is decades or, even, a century away, the discussions and debates should start now.
The ethical questions I am talking about here are not about what we are going to do with the advances in these newer technologies. Even though we need to consider whether or not to allow designer babies, there is a much more important question that requires immediate attention. So far, the moral or ethical discussions I have seen in the opinion pieces and video interviews are focussed on limiting the technology to preserve the realm of human morality as it exists today as a holdover from the religious past. So far, there is very little discussion about how the benefits of these newer technologies are going to be distributed across the human species. It is a very important question but an often neglected one in the techno-ethical debates or discussions.
The issue of equitable access to healthcare may be an old issue but the impact of the newer technologies are much deeper. In the past, healthcare was made available in a lopsided way in many countries and its impact was more acutely felt in an advanced country like the US. Either bigotry or economic dogmas were used as a way to deny equitable health coverage across the population. Even though the devastation caused by such a class system was terrible, it is nothing compared to how a lack of access to newer technologies like CRISPR, nanotechnology assisted health solutions, etc. could impact the human species.
The current inequitable health care system can kill people due to lack of access to good health care, wreck families due to lack of proper care and may impact the lifespan of certain segments of the society. But, the impact is still short term. Families that couldn’t afford good health care may suffer for one or, at the maximum, two generations. The later generations may still carry some epigenetic impacts but it is not irreversible. If I die early due to a lack of good health care, my kid still has an opportunity to get good health care in her life and live a better life.
However, the inequitable distribution of newer technologies will have an impact that lasts several generations. Modern-day genetics and other health care technologies are not only going to prolong lifespan but it may even reverse aging. Modern genetic engineering technologies and neuroscience advances may even augment what human beings can do and help create superhumans. If we don’t ensure equitable access to these newer technologies, the impact on society is going to be very damaging.
No, I am not talking about the creation of a class system due to inequitable access to health care (which is the case in today’s world). The problem in the future will be about creating an inferior species of humans with a potentially irreversible impact spanning generations. This bifurcation of human species, one with a genetic code due to suboptimal Darwinian evolution and another with “flawless” genetic code delivered by the modern health care system. This bifurcation may eventually result in two species out of modern humans. We all saw what happened to Neanderthals and others in the hands of our ancestors. We should learn a lesson or two from that history.
As we work harder to create modern-day medicine with advances in genetics, neuroscience, synthetic biology, etc., we also need to think harder about how we are going to make access to these new technologies equitable. If we don’t do it, future history books might blame our generations for the extinction of a species with high levels of cognitive abilities. History will not be talking about the impact using the “survival of the fittest” in evolutionary terms but, rather, it will be disparaging our generation for our inability to create a political and economic system that provides equitable access to potentially species altering technologies. They will be talking about dogma driven humans who didn’t do anything to ensure equitable access to powerful technologies.
I am not going to ask you to vote for Bernie Sanders here. I don’t even believe that the US can embrace Bernie Sanders’vision when we are struggling to even protect Obamacare. Bernie’s talk may be good political rhetoric but it is not going to change anything on the ground. In fact, I seriously don’t even care about politics. I just want human society to have an honest conversation about the kind of future we are going to unleash for the species down the lane. Are we going to play an equitable “god” taking over from suboptimal evolution or are we going to create an entirely new species driven by dogmas leading to economic inequality? It is a question we have to honestly answer for our future generations.
The bifurcation is not going to be based on race, religion or caste (if you are in India). It is going to happen across all these traditional battle lines between people with capital and people competing with AI to grab a small piece of pie left in the labor market. It is an economic dogma driven bifurcation. Knowing how we are behaving on generation altering issues like climate change, I don’t have high hopes for this conversation to happen. I am just going to be naive and try to have this conversation NOW.