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January 11, 2008

The "Better" Life

Over at Grim's Hall, Joseph asks a fascinating and disturbing question:

Our coevals are learning, rapidly, more and ever more about how our minds and bodies are put together - and the technology to improve them will come, if not in our lifetimes, perhaps not long after. We've been able to change the form and abilities of our domestic animals through breeding - something much faster, with greater potential, is on the way.

Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.

Will this be a good thing? The question presupposes that we have a viable alternative. But what is the alternative to our taking charge of our biological destiny? Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature? I once believed this. But we know that Nature has no concern for individuals or for species.

Exactly. Suppose that a team of genetic engineers funded and equipped by a large corporation proceeded to create 10,000 superhuman specimens, supremely intelligent, healthy, naturally hardworking and honest - what would be your response? I would be rejoicing at the thought of all these newcomers might create or discover. Some others, who believe in a Creator, might be troubled at the implications of improving upon His handiwork (though the date suggesting that religiosity itself is heritable should be likewise troubling - if we are judged, in the end, by our beliefs. But theology is flexible, the more thoughtful believers accept a God who can tolerate things they scarce imagined before). (A few small-minded creatures wouldn't get past the naked fear - "They'll outdo me - they'll take my job!") If there's no overarching Order to sustain us "World Without End," there's no overarching Rule to stop us building better lives, better kinds of lives, than have ever existed before.

I come from a civilization far better than my ancestors a few centuries back could imagine - and I think I will die happy, even without descendants, if I expect it will be in better hands, and more vastly improved a century hence than I can hope to imagine.

It's an interesting question: can the human race genetically engineer its way to a better, happier tomorrow? Is it, in fact, possible to breed our way to virtue?

...10,000 superhuman specimens, supremely intelligent, healthy, naturally hardworking and honest...

I, for one, find the prospect disturbing. My primary objection is that I can't imagine we would leap into such 'improvements' without first making mistakes. Science proceeds, not in one effortless leap, but by trial and error. But in this case the 'errors' would take the form of experimentation on future generations of unborn humans who cannot consent to the risks of having their genetic material altered. It is all very well for those now living to say they believe the future benefits of genetic engineering outweigh the risks, but their right to replace the known risks of a "less than optimal" genetic makeup with the unknown risks of a genetically enhanced genetic profile assumes that future generations share their values and their risk assessment. By what right do they make such judgments on the behalf of the unborn?

And what do we do with the almost inevitable "mistakes" that happen along the way? Chalk them up to experience?

In another thread, Don Brouhaha made what I thought was a very perceptive comment:

Last month, my wife's uncle passed away after a long, painful fight with cancer. This seemed so sad and tragic, in that he was such a kind and good-hearted man. Why did he have to suffer so much?

This was the topic of the Catholic priest's homily at the funeral.
How can a merciful and loving God exist, and permit so much suffering amongst his people, especially among his believers?

The priest's answer was standard Catholic theology, but he expressed it very eloquently, so I wanted to repeat it here, if I can recall it properly.

God made us in his image. Not all-powerful, or all-knowing, or even immortal in this world, but in one important way. We can feel and express love, like God can. This is a great gift, but it is also a painful burden.

In this, we are different from the other creatures of creation (although many will argue that their dogs love them!), in that we can feel and express love for each other.

When we see suffering, the 'better angels' of our natures' are moved to help and mitigate it. When we feel suffering ourselves, the pain of the suffering is meant to open our hearts to recognize the pain of others. The path of feeling pain and suffering doesn't always lead to love. It can be tortured and perverted. But in that we know suffering ourselves, love should move to fill the part of us that has been hurt.

When we lose someone we love, as Amy has lost Mike Gable, what has happened? How can God hurt Amy like that? I hope that Amy can somehow cope with this loss, but the empty space in her heart that is there because of Mike's death, was first created with her love for Mike, and now can be filled with love for others, and maybe in the larger sense, the rest of humanity.

Being alive means you will be hurt, but it is our choice to go forward either in misery, or in hope of redeeming the love that has been shown to us.

Mike and Nathan, and so many other men who have paid with their lives for us, did it probably more out of love for something tangible, like their families, or as Mike Gable, for Amy. Not that they expected to die or looked for death, but they decided it was worth wagering their lives in serving to preserve the life and freedom of the ones that they loved most.

It speaks well for us as a people, that some would step forward to demonstrate this. Some would mock the Army and Marines as heartless "kill-bots", thugs, morons, etc. There is no arguing with them. They obviously know no one personally in the military.

Perhaps the noblest thing that one man can say about another, is that "he died trying". To spend the most valuable thing you possess, your life, in an effort to achieve that which you value most highly. Mike Gabel, Jeffrey Smith, Jason Denham, Nick Washalanta, Nathan Krissoff, Rick Rescorla, and so many others; all different men. Some wiser, some older, some just too damn young, but dedicated to do what was right, and willing to risk their lives, and spend them if necessary, to achieve what was right and valuable to them.

They died trying.

The pain of these losses shouldn't deaden your insides; it should open your heart to the needs of others, to show them the love that is so lacking in the world. As those lost to us started, the rest of us must continue.

It's been over thirty years since my own father died, yet I don't think a day has passed in those years when I didn't think of him at least once or twice a day, sometimes more often. I still feel that pain. I have felt a little like the Matt Damon character at the end of "Saving Private Ryan", when he returned to Capt. Miller's grave, in that I try to tell him, I've tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that's enough.

I think when Cassandra writes one of these pieces, I remember the Pinocchio philosophy of life; "Now I know I'm a real boy, because I can feel my heart breaking." The loss of these men, some very young men, is indeed heartbreaking.

The urge to eliminate human suffering, to perfect the human condition, is a fairly universal one. I'm not sure it is a wise one. What I thought was interesting about Don's comment was that, in many ways, we think of human suffering as a dark thing. But it also acts in some ways as a prism that both illuminates and stratifies everything it touches.

Watching my nephew suffer for over two years and finally lose his battle with leukemia, I often thought that no one in his right mind could wish this fate on another human being. There were times when I just did not know how I could stand another moment. Even now, when he has been gone almost two years, I cannot think about his illness or him without tearing up. It is hard for me to understand why such a fine young man was put through the torment he endured, especially since he had such a strong faith in God. It is hard for me to watch his mother, my sister in law whom I love dearly, struggle with the heartbreak of missing him.

And yet I can see that even his suffering and death changed people. To this day my sister in law has told me stories of people who knew Tommy who were inspired by his courage. It sounds incredibly trite to say something as simplistic as 'maybe that is why he was put on this earth'. I know there was more to his life than that. But I am a different person because of his illness and his death. A kinder person. A more thoughtful person than I was before.

The same is true of 9/11. I have often looked at all the tears I've cried since that day and thought how very much I have changed. But that day woke something in me that I'm not sure I would give back.

And so I wonder exactly what constitutes the 'better life'? Is it all about being smarter, faster, healthier, faster? Is it eliminating all stress, poverty, worry from our lives? Is this really what we as humans want for future generations? Or do we require, at some deeper level, some pain, something to strive against, a few flies in the ointment, pebbles in our shoes, obstacles to truly bring out the greatness that lies within the human spirit?

I invite your comments.

Posted by Cassandra at January 11, 2008 08:40 AM

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Comments

Is a better life measure in physical terms, or meta-physical terms?

It stinks to be cold, hungry, dirty, or sick with a terrible disease. But in a way, this is a false comparison. It shouldn't be a choice of materially happy or materially bereft.

But I wonder how many people wandering around today are sick inside with their own tortured hearts and souls; things that are hidden to the eyes of others.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 11, 2008 12:07 PM

I think we all carry burdens...we all carry grief and sorrow. It is the shadow that tempers the
sweetness. It is how we respond and deal with it
that makes us better.

A tiny point: While I had stopped to gas up The Precious, my youngest jumped out to wash the windows. He is a tall for his age seven year old.
My now oldest leaped out right behind him and
told him 'you're not doing that right!' and proceeded to do it for him.

I stopped him and told him to give the squeedgee
back to his brother and let him make the mistakes.
One of those little teaching moments presented
itself in discussing perfection and how we grow
from adversity and learning, etc.

I don't think God in His wisdom wants His children
to be free of trials and sorrow. There has to be opposition in all things. We are meant to grow; to become better...perfection being a process. I also think He wants us to do that in the bounds that He has set, and genetic tinkering isn't necessarily within God's boundaries, but it isn't knowledge that He has denied us access to. Science proves the existence of God more than it supports Darwin.

I have a hard time with this question because of recent events. I recently lost my mother to old
age and cancer; she was 85. She was blessed to
not have to be in a hospital or a nursing home.
My sister and bil took excellent care of her and
got to midwife her, as it were, out of this life
and prepare her and us for her passing.

Death is a sorrowful tragic thing, but it has its
sacred side. I like what Jean-Luc Picard said in
'Generations' about Time: That it was a friend
to accompany us on the journey we make through
life.

So, to go back to the original question, would I want to be free of trials and struggles? No. I
think they can bring out the best in us all, if
we let it.

Would I want freedom from disease and pain? yes...and it was had before the flood.

Or so I have read.

Posted by: Cricket at January 11, 2008 01:00 PM

I think there is that question, and also the question of individual welfare and societal welfare.

Do we have the right to experiment on individuals for the betterment of society? Or conversely, would the introduction of 10,000 superhumans (assuming we can achieve that) *be* a benefit to society at large? How would they fit in? What changes would they make in our present social structure? There's a huge implied power imbalance there, with all the moral implications. How do we handle that?

What if they want to interbreed with 'inferior' people? Do they have the 'right' to subject their children to genetic impurities? :p

Wow.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 11, 2008 01:03 PM

I think it goes back to what we think of as perfect. Utopia is not physical; it is metaphysical. Genetic tinkering isn't going to
change the basic premise: Our hearts.

Why breed superhumans anyway? We had that issue
in the last century with the Aryan supremacy
garbage and Hitler's human breeding programs.
It didn't eradicate any evil. It caused MORE
problems.

Posted by: Cricket at January 11, 2008 01:41 PM

... and leaving the morals and ethics of this potential future behind at the corner Asis and BiggerStrongerFasterSmarter, I would like to know who exactly gets to pick these superhuman attributes?
What is the quantified end state and the acceptable level of tolerance on the end state of this perfection?
And to whom will these options be made available? Would this improvement to humanity be exclusively available only to the well-heeled, or would anyone have a shot at genetic nirvana, exchange rate not withstanding.

These are just a few of the more altruistic questions my little Dilbert-ish mind would mull over as I contemplate the betterment of the human race.

Posted by: bthun at January 11, 2008 01:51 PM

I will make one more comment then bow out, because this strikes very close to home for
me. I have a mentally handicapped teenage boy.
He is younger than the oldest, but he lacks
a certain comprehension about right and wrong.

He 'understands' but only on the level of a five
year old. Getting older physically but not mentally is a challenge in helping him mature at
his level. He will always need supervision, and
we have planned for his needs, but that will
not change those with whom he interacts. He
will be in contact with those who have to take
care of him without taking advantage of him.

Would a genetic mandate help him? Not unless
people are bred to be shepherds. How are compassion, mercy, kindness, etc. going to be
bred into people if it isn't there to begin with?

In seeing society deteriorate, one of the first
things sacrificed was a regard for human life,
then quality of life. Was I selfish for having
this child? Or was he put here to test people?

We have faced some pretty ugly things from people.
He was told that one scout troop couldn't meet his
needs, but when I asked them to put it in writing
exactly WHAT those needs were, they couldn't say.
We found another troop. He is doing fine. On his
level and the scoutmaster couldn't be more pleased
at having him because of what he is teaching the
other boys because of those challenges.

You tell me.

Posted by: Cricket at January 11, 2008 02:11 PM

I don't think God in His wisdom wants His children to be free of trials and sorrow. There has to be opposition in all things. We are meant to grow;

Common iron is turned into the superior steel by sticking it into the fire and beating the hell out of it.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 11, 2008 02:22 PM

If science allows the possiblity, can one truely bring about the perfect man? Can you design a man or woman that can absolutely feel no pain? Such a creature would have to be immune from a wide assortment of physical defects, be immune to cancer, disease, bumps, bruises, accidents, clumsiness etc. They would have to be immune to social pain too -- adolescence, social akwardness, rejection, anger, fear, doubt, failure. So, you'd have to pretty much make them with skin harder than steel and the brain of a carrot to accept all of that with a smile.

Having said all that, I don't think that getting rid of cancer and such is a bad thing. Creating a genetic superhuman has other problems, but I don't think it will end the world of suffering. I don't think that anything can.

Now... if they can genetically make someone be able to fly or teleport to work? Good golly, I say I'm all for it!

Posted by: Kevin L at January 11, 2008 05:37 PM

Well actually there may be a component of happiness that is genetic. Studies have shown that twins with a positive outlook on life share the trait even when they grow up apart.

I suspect we are making a but much of this. If genetic medicine can reduce suffering or make us live longer great.

Let me ask a question. What traits are being passed on now? Who is doing the breeding? The educated with liberal western values?

What traits and societal values are being selected for now(not that values are genetic but the breeders do choose the nurtured values)?

Are you familiar with the term "genetic drift?

Posted by: Pile On at January 11, 2008 06:44 PM

Again, though, we have two separate ethical questions Pile and I don't really think it is making a bit much to ask them:

1. Can it be ethical to perform genetic experiments on unborn humans for the purpose of 'improving' the species?

2. If you decide you are OK with that (and boy is that a leap for me) how do you account for the results of 'accidents', unforeseen consequences (the kudzu scenario) or even worse, negligence or malfeasance that results in individuals or even society at large having to deal with a disaster? It's one thing to be cursed by natural forces. Being cursed by your fellow man is quite another.

RE: genetic drift, I'm not sure where you are going with this. I thought genetic drift was more of an issue with small populations? The human gene pool is enormous at this point due to overpopulation - I'm having trouble envisioning a situation where it gets winnowed down to the point where any one mutation would become a significant factor in the gene pool, but maybe I am missing your point? Genetics is not an area I know very much about.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 11, 2008 07:26 PM

Mr. On,


As a first pass to your comments, if I may, I might respond with the following, (no more Six Million Dollar Man spoofs I promise), in order;

"Well actually there may be a component of happiness that is genetic. Studies have shown that twins with a positive outlook on life share the trait even when they grow up apart."
o That is, as I seem to recall reading at one time, true.


"I suspect we are making a but much of this. If genetic medicine can reduce suffering or make us live longer great."
o Maybe, maybe not. Genetic medicine is one thing, genetic manipulation post conception, prior to birth, seems to me, to be completely different.


"Let me ask a question. What traits are being passed on now? Who is doing the breeding? The educated with liberal western values?
"

o Random genetic combinations based on the parents. Everyone is doing the breeding. Some more than others. The Western educated much less so if population/census number are to be believed.


"
What traits and societal values are being selected for now(not that values are genetic but the breeders do choose the nurtured values)?"


o WAG, but, I suspect that those traits and values that meet with the mater's and matee's notion of attractiveness.


"Are you familiar with the term "genetic drift?"

o Vaguely, but query and your favorite search engine will provide.
The real sticking point with me, an admitted luddite, is not the genetic drift that occurs in nature given natural selection, but a potential for a genetic broadjump along with all the unintended consequences that would accompany.

Posted by: bthun at January 11, 2008 07:37 PM

Yikes! Milady, you're fast. And my formatting stinks. Must be genetics. =8-}

And in summary, make that what Cass said.

Posted by: bthun at January 11, 2008 07:39 PM

Don't get me wrong, I do not beleive in science without ethics, and the people doing the science are often too close the work to be objective about the ethics.

To me manipulating traits for superficial reasons like appearance cross the line of acceptability. A healthy population requires genetic diversity. Even selecting or manipulating for intelligence could be dangerous.

My comment about genetic drift was meant this way. Yes it is often observed in small populations but it occurs independant of natural selection, and does influence large populations as well. With our current level of affluence there is no longer any natural selection for the traits that made us affluent. There are also no predators and not nearly as many diseases to cull the weaker or less fit in our population.

Your jaw may drop as I write that, and it may not be a bad thing but we can't deny it will have some effect on future generations.

Posted by: Pile On at January 11, 2008 08:00 PM

Okay, I am no authority.

But a little knowledge and seeing what genes are being passed on while teaching in the public schools leads one's mind to wander in this direction.

Posted by: Pile On at January 11, 2008 08:44 PM

"With our current level of affluence there is no longer any natural selection for the traits that made us affluent. There are also no predators and not nearly as many diseases to cull the weaker or less fit in our population."

Agreed. And this would make for a very interesting discussion on its own.

Posted by: bthun at January 11, 2008 08:49 PM

Just to pick a nit, God designed us to be perfect. The bad came after Adam said yes to temptation.

Posted by: Russ at January 11, 2008 10:19 PM

Pile,

Are the kids in Houston trading their jeans?
Wait, you said "genes", not "jeans".
Oh, never mind.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 11, 2008 10:21 PM

"10,000 superhuman specimens, supremely intelligent, healthy, naturally hardworking and honest..."

Sounds boring.

On the subject of genetic drift, I prefer hybrid vigor. It has served this mongrel quite well.

Posted by: camojack at January 12, 2008 01:26 AM

"Just to pick a nit, God designed us to be perfect. The bad came after Adam said yes to temptation."

Taking Genesis at face value, God designed men (a) to die, and (b) not to know the difference between good and evil. Adam's sin is a sin in part because it makes him more like God (and unknown others -- probably other gods of other, non-Jewish nations). Genesis 3:22-3 holds:

"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken."

So, insofar as Adam was created "perfect," it was in the same sense that dogs are perfect; that is, they are what they were meant to be.

Posted by: Grim at January 12, 2008 02:22 AM

To pick another nit, taking Genesis at face value, the Tree of Life was not off limits until Adam and Eve decided to get into bed with evil. Remember what the word "know" implies in the Bible. And, no, I'm not saying the apple represented sex. God's first commandment was to go forth and multiply, which pretty much involves sex. As for the original question, I have just one word "KHAAAAANNN!!!" Seriously, there are enough people who think they are my superiors trying to tell me how to think and how to live without genetically engineering more. Cricket, bthun and Yu-Ain-Gonnano, great comments.

Posted by: Terentia at January 12, 2008 02:47 PM

""And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.""

And my daughter thinks I punish her harshly. I wonder how she'd feel about being punished for a couple of millenia the first time she disobeyed.

Posted by: Sly2017 at January 13, 2008 02:34 PM

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