THE BIO-NOSY BUSYBODIES
A Review of Bryan Appleyard's
Brave New Worlds
While moving into an apartment years ago, my landlady warned me that my downstairs neighbor was a “nosy busybody.” “Wow!” I thought, “How unflattering. Who wants to be known as a ‘nosy busybody?’”
My landlady was right about my neighbor. But my neighbor was neither evil nor unusual. Just as phototaxic gnats are driven to streetlights, many people are driven by what Bryan Appleyard, the author of Braver New World: Staying Human in a Genetic Future (1998) calls “logotaxis,” the relentless quest for knowledge. While some of these quests are edifying, many, like my former neighbor’s, are harmlessly wasteful and others are downright destructive.
Those that seek to manage the human gene pool are afflicted with the worst form of logotaxis. If scientists, in their unrelenting quest for knowledge regardless of its consequences, can accurately map, interpret and, even worse, engineer the human genome, they may tremendously damage society and the individuals who live within it. And weren’t the last eugenicists the same guys who Bob Crane repeatedly outsmarted in “Hogan’s Heroes?” Yeah, you know, the guys in the boots.
Everything comes at a cost. Genetic research evokes consideration of Tocqueville’s observation of the tension between freedom and equality. Measures taken to advance equality curtail freedom. Conversely, a society that advances freedom and individual interests necessarily undermines equality and social unity. The examples are legion, from our economy, to housing, to professional sports and its salary structures’ effects on small market teams. Anyone who says freedom, equality and community can simultaneously be advanced in equal measure is running for public office.
If you asked Americans to choose between these ideals, freedom and individual interests would win hands down over equality and community. After all, what is this, Cuba? Whether they are pro-abortion or pro-gun, our contemporary freedom fighters would agree that if we can learn something in a lab, we should do so. And when, in their efforts to receive more public and private investment and more celebrity, researchers say they may use these technologies to help some individuals afflicted with some diseases, they’ve done their market research and have a guaranteed bestseller.
But freedom can be over-rated, especially when applied to the realm of scientific research. For example, it’s presently unacceptable to declare that males and females or people of different ethnicities are biologically different, except in the most superficial ways. This convention has big benefits. At the most observable level, it lessens the amount of car bombings and exploitation that occur. In a less measurable, but equally important, way, belief in equality gives people a reason to treat others with respect, fairness and humor. If, through genetic research, we find objectifiable differences between the UPC codes of individuals, sexes or ethnic groups, we’ll attenuate the notion of equality. After all, “different but equal” sounds about as convincing as “separate but equal.” And, as subsequent scientific research often corrects earlier misconceptions, what about the people unfairly stigmatized until these initial interpretations of 3 billion DNA base pairs are disproven?
Aside from the negative social consequences of genetic knowledge and engineering, if researchers “succeed” in mapping the genome and, subsequently, genetic manipulation is possible, what happens to self-perception? Whether religious or not, most people like to believe that they are unique and that their love for others is something more than biochemical or genetic. Even many atheists lay claim to a spirit. But if scientists can persuade the public that human inclinations can be genetically explained and altered, researchers may succeed in breaking this spirit. In so doing, they’ll make B.F. Skinner seem like a nice guy.
And what will genetic knowledge do to human motivation? If skills are said to be genetically-based, self-fulfilling genetic prophecies may become the order of the day. Will you get a chance to disprove your purportedly observable genetic limitations? Instead of taking the SAT and writing a creative essay, will college applicants be asked to provide a hair sample? Will job interviews include an analysis of cells scraped from one’s cheek?
Scientists contend that they should be trusted to be decent enough to use genetic knowledge to end disease but not to discriminate or demoralize. Such purported altruism seems disingenuous or, at best, misplaced. The number of individuals afflicted with genetically-based diseases pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions who already lack such basics as food, water and housing. Why is it so important to extend selected human lives when, if given these basics, most humans live a pretty long time already-- and like to have babies? Although all individuals must leave this world eventually, the human race will survive just fine as long as we don’t destroy the planet with over consumption or violence.
Technology has often subverted, rather than advanced, the fulfillment of human needs. The scientific predecessors of those currently positing a genetically engineered paradise on earth have produced machine guns, atomic bombs, tremendous pollution, habitat destruction, and drugs and life support systems to sustain people who lack vitality. We don’t need more genetic knowledge to sustain humankind. To the contrary, even if the conclusions derived from such research are accurate, our unwise search for genetic knowledge threatens to fail miserably because, in providing such information to benefit some individuals, it may devalue everyone’s existence. Then, instead of being drawn like gnats to a streetlight, the light to which genetic researchers are drawn will seem like a bug zapper for humanity.