To understand the deep claims on our humanity that are central to bioethics, it can be helpful to turn to fiction. Two of the classic texts are Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. The first deals with the Promethean ambition of the scientist to reshape humanity. The second showcases the death of culture when sex is separated from reproduction.
Another of my favourites, too often neglected, is The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Its power comes not from the whiz-bang gadgetry of time travel, but its pessimistic vision of evolution. Homo sapiens has evolved into two separate breeds, the Eloi and the Morlochs. The feeble-minded Eloi live in sybaritic leisure on the surface of the earth; the brutish Morloch skulk in subterranean caverns and feed on the Eloi.
The nightmare of genetic degeneracy has been a recurring theme ever since Darwinian evolution took hold of the popular imagination. Eugenics, discredited nowadays, was public policy less than a hundred years ago. The disabled, the retarded, or the racially impure should not be allowed to breed. In 1927 one of the most influential justices ever to sit on the US Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote the majority opinion in an 8-1 decision legitimating compulsory sterilization. However shocking they seem now, his words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” expressed the conventional wisdom.
After the atrocities of the Nazi era, though, eugenics fell upon hard times. In the tussle between nature and nurture, nurture got the upper hand. Governments pinned their hopes on welfare and education rather than on tinkering with the gene pool.
But the Nazi era ended more than 60 years ago and once again fear of genetic decline is on the rise.
Just few weeks ago, in the journal Trends in Genetics Professor Gerald Crabtree, a developmental biologist at Stanford University, warned that civilization is slowly making us dumber.
“We, as a species, are surprisingly intellectually fragile and perhaps reached a peak 2000–6000 years ago,” he claims. “A hunter–gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his/her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past.”
Notwithstanding the good humour, this is a profoundly subversive idea. The politics of Enlightenment societies is based upon the fiction of the social contract: we surrender our liberties to escape the “nasty, brutish and short” lives of hunter-gatherers. What Crabtree suggests is that we made a bad bargain. We traded safety for stupidity.
Crabtree bases his pessimistic analysis on a study of the accumulation of mutations in the genome which are no longer eliminated by competitive pressure for survival. Life in society allowed a degenerating gene pool to thrive. We no longer needed to be brainy because we lived in high-density, supportive societies “that made up for lapses of judgment or failures of comprehension”.
Not even Crabtree himself wants to give up flush toilets and video games for the genetically vigorous life of a spear-brandishing mammoth-killer. But our cushy lives, he thinks, are inexorably turning us into Eloi. The process will take thousands of years, but a day will come when the world’s population will be “docilely watching reruns on televisions they can no longer build”.
Crabtree’s analysis has been ridiculed by science journalists. But its appearance in a leading journal suggests that something is afoot. Along with Julian Savulescu, the Oxford bioethicist who has called for extensive genetic engineering to keep humanity from destroying itself in a nuclear holocaust, he feels that the secret to solving humanity’s problems lies in modification of the gene pool.
What will the new eugenics look like? In the last century, the fashion was to eliminate “degenerates” through sterilization or murder. In the 21st century, eugenicists may call for physical and intellectual genetic enhancement. Those who cannot afford it will drop behind, doomed to become mere drones. For a peek into the year 2144, take a look at the genetically-engineered fabricants in the new film, “Cloud Atlas”. It’s terrifying.