Throughout history the upper classes have always claimed to be entitled to their wealth on the basis of their claim that they are smarter, stronger and better than the lower classes. These claims were, and remain, largely delusions. The advantages of the upper classes are socio-political not “biological”. But with new scientific developments, the pretensions of the privileged threaten to soon become a reality.
Yuval Harari points out that for billions of years every being on the planet evolved by natural selection. Not a single being was designed by an intelligent creator. Today, however, scientists are intelligently engineering living beings, busting open the laws of natural selection.
Already biotechnology has resulted in computers being built into animals so that their actions can be controlled by human beings. Monkeys have been wired to computers which can read the monkey’s brain waves, enabling the monkey to move an artificial arm which is not attached to its body. Computer chips have already been made out of living organisms. Geneticists have already been able to extend the life of worms sixfold and have produced mice that display much improved memory and learning skills. They have also been able to turn normally promiscuous rodents named “voles” into monogamists. This means that not only individual tendencies but social structures, or entire cultures, might be susceptible to engineering.
It seems only a matter of time until scientists will be able to engineer human beings with superior memories and other abilities. But who will have access to these human enhancement technologies? There seems little reason to assume that current inequalities in the distribution of wealth and access to healthcare will not be replicated access to human enhancement technology.
Currently political and ethical objections have somewhat restrained these scientific endeavours or the marketing of the results. This means that many of the most significant enhancements have been largely limited to non-human animals, or to providing people with disabilities technologies to help overcome the disability.
But Harari argues that no matter how convincing the ethical arguments are, it is hard to see how they will hold back the next steps for long. This will especially be the case if the engineering significantly extends human life, conquers incurable disease and upgrades our cognitive and emotional abilities. For example, if we develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, a side benefit of which is improvement of the memories of healthy people, who will prevent healthy people from improving their memories? And what will prevent the better off from gaining first, or even exclusive, access to such enhancements at the expense of the rest?
Undoubtedly there are more immediate equality challenges that need to be met by political parties that support egalitarian goals. There are also more immediate existential challenges posed by climate change and other environmental degradation.
So, for the time being, the implications of discrimination in accessing human enhancement technology barely make it onto the political radar.
Marx’s “forces of production” include scientific and technical knowledge. The forces of production would undoubtedly include human enhancement technologies. At least some streams of Marxism view the forces of production as the driving force of history. A new mode of production evolves when there is a conflict between the emerging production forces and the existing social relations. How would human enhancement of privileged segments of the human population affect the social relations of production? It is difficult to see how any new system would not privilege enhanced Homo Sapiens over the non-enhanced, tearing asunder those already modest and fragile aspects of our current social relations that mitigate against inequality.
China has already developed a state-endorsed genetic-engineering project. At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence.
What should those who support egalitarian values do? Should we oppose the development of human enhancement technology- a seemingly hopeless quest? Or do we just argue for equality in its deployment and access? Should access only be available through the universal health system? Or should access be available through private health cover? Do we support regulation to “cherry pick” the acceptable human enhancement technologies from the unacceptable ones? What should be the criteria? Should it be elaborated in detailed regulation or left to expert panels to decide?
How do we view technologies that might re-engineer entire social structures or cultures in more egalitarian ways? Could this possibly be a good thing? To what extent is our history in relation to equality,peace, justice and respect for human rights good enough to justify resistance to scientific interventions that might alter the biological building blocks of our social structures and cultures in positive ways? Of course our histroy in this regard is itself contested ground.
Carradine says that our past is less divided and violent than historians typically make out. Pinker says that the rate of violence in human societies is declining on a per capita basis. Critics say Pinker is wrong. But whatever the case, one thing seems to stand out in our history, especially our modern history. This is that our scientific and technological capacities often tend to develop ahead of our ethical capacities.
What will be the effect of human enhancement technogy on the respective roles of nature and nuture? The development of human enhancement technology turns the whole notion of what is “natural” on its head. As we begin to directly intervene in the process of evolution, subverting the processes of natural selection to meet what we suppose to be human interests, the possibility emerges that what we will eventually create will not be a Homo Sapien at all. The ability to access human enhancement technology, on the other hand, forms part of the social environment in which we live- to this extent it is better classified as “nuture”.
How to respond to developments in human enhancement technology will cross traditional political categories. The Right will divide between free marketeers and religious conservatives. Some will argue market mechanisms are the best way to develop and distribute human enhancement technology. Others will worry about how engineering nature might impact individual liberty and liberty’s close relation- free will. Religious social conservatives will will object that Homo Sapiens should not “play at being God”. Craig Venter is one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome. His somewhat chilling reply to this accusation is “We are not playing”.
The Left will worry about the effect on both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. But there will also be those amongst the more well to do Left who will not hesitate to line themselves, or their children, up to be among the first to access the new technology. Just as today, some on the Left do not hesitate to send their children to the best private schools. Indeed who, Right or Left, amongst those who have the resources, is going to demonstrate consciencious objection by depriving themselves or their children of advantages associated with accessing human enhancement technologies when others with whom they must compete are accessing it?
Both Left and Right should be concerned about the effect on democracy. Will only those with enhanced memories or other intellectual abilities be given the vote? Even if everybody is still enfrancised will those with enhancements be preferred for leadship positions. From a number of perspectives then, the development of human enhancement technology makes the equality project all the more urgent.
Harari states that at least the first generation of enhanced Homo Sapiens will be shaped by the ideas of their human designers. He poses the question whether these enhanced Sapiens will be shaped in the image of capitalist, socialist, Islamic or feminist ideals? Should we be concerned about these issues? Most political parties, even the egalitarian ones, currently prefer not to be. First because they are, at least in part, unaware of the issues or their full implications. Second because there are more immediate priorities. Third because the answers are just too hard to fathom. But the issues are unlikely to go away. And if current inequalities in access to healthcare and technology persist, then human enhancement technology threatens to finally extinguish the egalitarian light on the hill in qualitative ways that current inequalities do not. This is the horrible challenge: Selective access to human enhancement technology may mean that only a very big, dark hill will remain for that part of humanity that misses out on the enhancements.