In Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (2002), Gregory Stock contends that human design based on genetic technologies ("Germinal Choice Technology" or "GCT") will imminently shape our future. While he occasionally and summarily notes that some of the effects of such technologies may be negative, he spends most of the book cheerleading, with familiar relativistic arguments, for GCT.

For example, the author allows that some opponents of GCT point out that we already inhabit a pretty crowded world and that if we could genetically enable people to live to 150 or beyond, we might engender overpopulation and strain such institutions as Social Security. Then he, as he does throughout, quickly moves on, declining to reckon with these seemingly substantial concerns. Or, he notes, use of GCT may cause us to see ourselves in profoundly different ways and cast us culturally, socially, historically, spiritually and psychologically adrift. His reaction is barely more specific than saying "humans adapt." So do neglected and abused kids and dogs.

He observes that reproduction has been de-linked from sexuality and that much of the GCT future has already arrived, particularly through practices like IVF. IVF already enables selection of embryos based on their characteristics or sex. (He notes, truly enough, that it "would take a major (moral) contortion" for society to reject embryo selection or abortion based on gender when it authorizes abortion on demand for any other reason). IVF also provides much of the technological basis for cloning and genetic engineering; if you have multiple embryos in a petri dish and some micropipettes, you can tamper with them. Soon, he predicts, IVF practitioners will allow clients to enhance their offspring by, for example, adding artificial chromosomes.  Toeing the PC line, Stock maintains, for example, that access to GCT could be widely and evenly distributed. Yet, in our economically stratified world, this seems downright naive. If billions of poor people try to do without decent water, food or housing (not to mention basic medical insurance) why would we expect equitable distribution of genetic tools that would allow people to live to 150? What tainted groundwater, overfished seas and overworked soils would we tap to sustain our growing numbers? Stock suggests that more GE crops and nanotechnology might fill the gap. But technological hype must be tempered by thermodynamic principles and, inter alia, the NASDAQ nosedive. And what if West Bank settlers live for six generations?

 Stock contends that life-extending GCT is strongly desired. People spend considerable amounts of money and energy trying to stay young by using a wide array of nutritional supplements, exercise regimens and cosmetic treatments. While these strategies do reveal a desire to extend life, they are only marginally successful. By allowing us to grow old and die, maybe nature does a pretty good job of keeping our numbers manageable and giving our lives the urgency they need to curb boredom. Reading an account of an anti-poverty worker returning from South America, I was taken by her observation that our society seemed old and bored when compared to the young and vital one in which she had recently lived.

Another Stock theme is that Americans should not oppose GCT because, to paraphrase David Bromberg out of context (who was, I think, covering someone else's song), "If we don't do it, somebody else will." This argument, advanced by many GCT advocates, rings hollow. Applying this same logic, should we allow secret bank accounts in the U.S. so dictators can hide their money here instead of overseas? Or should we have bought Kruggerands from apartheid-practicing South Africa because, if we had not, others would? And so on. The argument for deterrence through sending undesirable activities offshore is even stronger in the GCT context. The U.S. provides prodigious research for GCT and medical insurance subsidies for IVF. If this money dried up, it seems doubtful that private funds or other governments would make up the difference.

Stock also warns against GCT curbs because these inappropriately "legislate morality." But most, if not all, legislation seeks to advance some moral principle. As two of many examples, why have anti age discrimination laws or progressive tax schemes? Both of these sets of laws reflect moral judgments. In the first, society expresses its view that the labor market cannot be trusted to give older people a fair shake. In the second, we effectively say we can't trust individuals to contribute their fair share to society so we must compel them to submit a specific amount and to do so in a way which, at least to some degree, equalizes wealth. While the precise form that laws take is affected by political maneuvering (and special interest dollars), the underlying notion remains: we continually codify our social contract to reflect a shared, functional morality.

Although Stock accuses GCT opponents of demagoguery, he says things like "only elitists oppose GCT" and "Government abuse is what we must fear, not GCT." Would he agree that "Government shouldn't tell us how fast we can drive our cars or how much effluent industry can put in the air and water?" Do we, should we generally let individuals and markets set social policy? Is GCT justified because some individuals might benefit from it? If society cannot bear to allow anyone to die, why, for example, do we send young people into combat in places like Berlin and Afghanistan? If GCT will intensify collective stratification and alienation, why not oppose and ban it?  Rachel Carson is in the Pantheon of "progressive" Americans' heroes. In 1964, while dying of cancer at the age of 57, she wrote, "It seems to me right that a thing should die." Spoken today in almost any setting-- and particularly in the progressive realm of academia-- these selfless words would be heresy. But what teleological trend is revealed when the most valuable, socially conscious messages of the '60s are disregarded while the most individualistic, destructive ones endure?

Only now, the tools of selfishness are more advanced.


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