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WondergenesReview - Wondergenes
Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Society
by Maxwell J. Mehlman
Indiana University Press, 2003
Review by Robert Loftis, Ph.D.
Jul 25th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 30)

Mehlman's book begins with a thrilling anecdote and ends with a chilling proposal. He begins by having us imagine a mountain rescue team of genetically enhanced superheroes who have specially designed fingers that let them cling to cliff faces while aiding stranded climbers and who pop pills made from genetically enhanced bacteria that heighten their senses and speed up their reasoning skills. He ends by proposing that a databank be set up containing the complete DNA sequence of every American citizen and that we all be subjected to routine genetic analysis to be sure that we have not altered our genes in any way not authorized by the government. He suggests that people with unauthorized enhancements should be "handicapped" in some way that will prevent them from competing unfairly with normal citizens.

The proposal is so outlandish it is hard to believe Mehlman understands the implications of his ideas. He wants the government to regulate our bodies at the molecular level and create a lifetime surveillance regime to enforce that regulation. The contents of your womb may be between you and your doctor, but the contents of your cell nucleus and mitochondria would be matters for the federal government. He freely admits that the surveillance scheme he advocates resembles the society of the dystopian science fiction movie Gattaca and the handicapping scheme resembles Vonnegut's dark satire "Harrison Bergeron." He tries to mitigate the former comparison by pointing out that his surveillance program is designed to catch the enhanced, while the program in Gattaca was meant to catch the unenhanced. He tries to mitigate the latter comparison by admitting that there may be some circumstances in which handicapping is inappropriate. Neither remark makes a lifetime of bodily control seem more palatable.

How on earth did Mehlman get to the point where this idea seems plausible? His book divides neatly into three sections. The first explains the genetic technologies he is concerned about. The second places these technologies in the context of some basic values, and the third contains his proposal. In the first two sections of the book Mehlman betrays a lack of understanding of both genetic science and human values. His genetically enhanced people are comic book superheroes, and his picture of human life assimilates everything to a competitive sporting event. Life is like the Olympics, and we need a governing body constantly on the lookout for cheaters.

The book opens with a sequence of short chapters, often beginning with a lively anecdote, that explain genetics at the most basic level. He lets the readers know that they have 23 chromosomes, and the last is the sex chromosome. He makes a few useful points here. He defines enhancement as any technology that changes the way people's bodies work but is not designed to fight disease. He defines genetic technology broadly to include not just alterations made directly to someone's DNA, but also drugs created by genetically altered microorganisms. By this standard genetic enhancement is rampant in athletics. These definitions are reasonable, but he quickly moves to describing the potential of genetic technology with wide-eyed, gee-whiz naiveté. He casually talks about genes for vague, culturally defined traits like "charisma" (67). He asserts without evidence that genetic technology will improve people's ability in all aspects of their lives (61) and will be approved for sale over the counter (81). By the end of the book he claims that genetic technology will enable people to fly or to live and breathe underwater or in space (123).

A reality check is useful here. When I started working on this review, I took the book out to my back porch along with a cup of coffee. When I did this, I sat down with two of the most effective enhancement technologies humans have ever devised. Writing is a social technology that can transmit the collective knowledge of our species to an individual, and a book is the most durable, convenient, and beautiful way to store writing. Coffee is a chemical technology, so its effects are immediate, as are its side effects. Nevertheless, coffee offers a clear enhancement: it has been shown to improve both short-term recall and general IQ. The really nice thing about these technologies is how well they work together. You prepare your brain to learn, and then present it with high-quality information. Future enhancement technologies, even those derived from genetics knowledge, are likely to resemble a good book and a cup of coffee. As a teacher, I already spend a great deal of time giving PowerPoint presentations to teenagers on Ritalin, although whether this improves on books and coffee remains to be seen. In the near future, you might be able to take a drug that dramatically increases your working memory—Mehlman rightly suggests that such drugs will come out of Alzheimer's research—and play around with software that graphically represents multivariate statistical problems. Mehlman mentions the comparison between future enhancement technologies and education but dismisses it offhandedly. Genetic technologies, he says, are infinitely more powerful because they are only limited by cost, production problems, and unimagined side effects. He seems to think that this is a trivial list, and that these impediments are somehow different than the factors that hold back any technology that improves people's lives.

The real problem with Mehlman's treatment, though, is that he focuses entirely on competitive situations where enhancements simply lead to an arms race that no one really benefits from. He talks a lot about people competing to have taller children who can play better basketball. His chapter on the value of authenticity is entirely about performance-enhancing drugs in sports. This narrow focus on competition leads him to say that all enhancements are self-defeating. "What good is a performance enhancing product that adds five miles an hour to a sprinter's speed…or adds twenty IQ points to a person's intelligence, if it does so for everybody and everybody uses them?" (89). The only time he considers activities that are not zero-sum games is a (perfectly reasonable) dismissal of trickle-down economics. But most of life is not a zero-sum game, or even an economic positive-sum game. Most people benefit directly from being around other people who are intelligent and creative. I benefit directly from having a spouse who is a caring parent to our children and wise partner in decision making. I benefit directly from colleagues who are brilliant conversation partners on philosophical issues. I benefit directly from having curious students who are a joy to teach. Asking "What good are twenty points of IQ if everyone has them?" is like asking "What good is literacy if everyone is literate?" We all benefit from living in a literate society. He doesn't even seem to understand that intelligence might be valuable to the intelligent person, even if she doesn't lord it over her competitors. The simple pleasure of knowing one's world does not figure into his calculations.

If life is a race and genetic technology can give you superpowers, Mehlman would be right to predict a dire future that can only be headed off by a massive curtailment of civil liberties. "Succeeding generations [of enhanced individuals] will capture all that is worth having" he warns, unless we act now to stop this menace. The measures he proposes are severe. Forced sterilization should be visited on those who acquire germ-line enhancements, which are passed on to children. Justice Holmes famously tried to justify the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck by saying "three generations of imbeciles is enough." Mehlman would rob someone of their right to children with the even more preposterous "three generations of geniuses is enough." Mehlman initially proposes a ban on all genetic enhancement, which leads him to describe a "war on genes" explicitly modeled on the war on drugs. He modifies this to allow for some individuals, like rescue personnel, to have licensed enhancements, but the idea of a "war on genes" seems to carry over. At the very least, he suggests that we will have to go literally to war against countries that do not cooperate in the enhancement licensing scheme (152). Mehlman acts as if opposition to his proposal will come only from economic libertarians, who want to see a perfectly free market on genetic enhancement, but most of his ideas involve curtailing civil liberties--including really basic ones like the right to one's body. Adding another perpetual war against an undefined enemy--on top of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism--should not be welcomed by anyone who values civil society.

One may be legitimately worried that genetic enhancement will exacerbate inequality, but there are obvious solutions to this problem that Mehlman only deals with cursorily. Rather than banning or restricting access to enhancement technology, we could subsidize its distribution to those who can't afford it. Mehlman briefly considers this option, but dismisses it as too expensive. This is illogical, because his program of universal surveillance and war won't be cheap, either in terms of money or basic liberties. The argument becomes incoherent when one considers his accounting. Although the enhancement technologies he considers vary from simple drugs to the direct manipulation of embryos, he uses the cost of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to estimate the cost of subsidized enhancement: $10,000 per individual, or $2.5 trillion for the nation. But subsidized enhancement does not need to take the form of universal surgery. We may simply be talking about a drug, developed originally for Alzheimer's patients, which could be distributed to kids who are performing poorly in school. In fact, this is a more likely population to benefit from such a drug than, say, lawyers who are already operating at peak performance. The program wouldn't even have to be called enhancement. More likely, it will be called a federal program for children with learning disorders. Although if the learning disorders fall within what is currently considered the normal range of human variation, it will be a genetic enhancement in Mehlman's terms. Alternately, drugs that promote cognitive development could be given at birth. Again, although this would be an enhancement in Mehlman's terms, it would probably be greeted as a treatment by the public, another part of the odd regimen of procedures that now accompany hospital births.

One reason Mehlman can't seriously consider subsidizing genetic technology for people who need it is that he never considers problems in the way health care is delivered in the United States, even though the book is aimed only at Americans. Health care costs are rising out of control, particularly for drugs. A national, single-payer system of insurance would not only save administrative costs and allow the government to negotiate lower pharmaceutical prices, it would allow us to identify and subsidize simple procedures to help people who are functioning at the low end of the normal spectrum. The basic effect of a national health care system is to focus energy on simple measures that are broadly effective: prevention rather than treatment, general practitioners over highly paid specialists. A national health care system would also draw the medical community's attention away from exotic enhancements that would benefit a few and turn it toward pedestrian boosts that benefit many and could easily be relabeled as treatments simply by raising standards for normality. These procedures on the borderline between treatment and enhancement are also far more likely to be developed than any cheaper, more convenient genetic alternative to SCUBA gear.

Mehlman can be very slipshod in the way he handles sources and technical language. At one point he suggests that it should be illegal to transport germ-line enhancement across state lines for purposes of sale or distribution. What could this mean? Germ-line enhancement is a technique, not an object. If he means to say that individuals with the knowledge of how to enhance the germ line should not be allowed to cross state lines in the course of providing this service, he should say so. His use of sources is lazy and credulous. To back up the claim that enhancement via preimplantation genetic diagnosis will not cause significant changes in the species, he cites the personal communication of a colleague who was himself referring to the personal communication of another colleague. Mehlman also repeats a story about Ted Turner going off drugs for manic depression right before selling his company to Time Warner, and then gives as his source the personal communication of a colleague. The story may well be true, but shouldn't an academic publication have better citations than office gossip about celebrities? Most telling for his credulity: Mehlman chooses to illustrate the ease of acquiring technologies on international markets by citing Pentagon reports on Saddam Hussein's supposed success in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

I can recommend this book only to people with a professional interest in looking at how not to discuss genetic technology and society. The problem isn't simply that Mehlman's proposals are dangerous: a good reviewer should be able to recommend a book she disagrees with. The problem is that he arrives at his proposals by fundamentally mischaracterizing the technologies and the values at stake. The last thing in the world we need is another trumped up war against a distorted, mischaracterized, and exaggerated enemy.



© 2006 Robert Loftis


Rob Loftis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, St. Lawrence University


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