Delight Springs

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Matter more

Our Bioethics question of the day: "What's the harm in genetic engineering?"

In A&P: Just how organic is our universe?

In both instances, the easy answer: it depends. But alarmists have possibly overstated the harm, and we may all have underappreciated life's potential extent and ubiquity. Apparently, "complex organic molecules are everywhere." So perhaps life in multiply engineered varieties is an experiment worth risking. The exobiological perspective suggests the experiments are already well underway, and we're among the first humans ever to enjoy an opportunity to begin seeing results.

A non-reductive materialist - that is, one who admits that at some level it's got to be true that "physics fixes all the facts," but insists that non-physical levels of experience and discourse are also real - has to love the last rhetorical question in Carl Sagan's lecture today: "if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there's nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?"

Makes matter more, of course! Again we see a happy convergence of the varieties of experience, across the science/religion and material/ideal divides. Sagan and James express a similarly non-reductive sensibility.
"To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities." Pragmatism III
Russell Blackford begins by acknowledging the unlikelihood that we'll soon (or maybe ever) "be able to engineer an embryo to become a child who wants to follow some predetermined career or way of life." Such a scenario discounts genetic complexity and environmental influences.

He then addresses the harm question by considering cases in which it might be conceivable that someone would object to having had their genetics tinkered with by well-meaning designers (presumably parents), even if the tinkering boosted intelligence or specific aptitudes.

Tinkering in the spirit of a Rawlsian social engineer would be justified only if it "improves the child's prospects no matter what life plan she decides to pursue," leaving it to her to decide. But are we rightly confident that genetic engineering might ever be so precise as to allow room for decision?

Suppose Howard Gardner is right, and there are multiple intelligences whose distribution among individuals is various. Supppose, further, that specific forms of intelligence and the aptitudes based upon them are vulnerable to disturbance by ham-handed efforts to "improve" a person's life-prospects?

What, in other words, if the modular model is right? What if "any attempt to boost one intelligence module, such as that for musical ability, might reduce the individual's capacity in some other area, such as skill in social interaction?"

That'd be problematic, alright. More problematic, perhaps, than the uneven distribution of talents and skills already provided by nature, the present genetic lottery system, and the vicissitudes of nurture and its absence. It's one thing to be "born this way," another to have been prenatally patterned. Isn't it?

One way or another, the parade of permuted human types will continue to evolve. The pace of change is about to quicken in a big way. Sagan suggests an arresting image to capture the accelerating/exhilarating possibilities.  "The parade of ancestors moving at the ordinary pace of walking," beginning with your father and moving back through each successive generation, "would take only a week before you got to a quadraped."

Will it still matter, as the parade proceeds (maybe "progresses," but that may be question-begging) that "at the molecular level we are all virtually identical?"

More pointedly, as we begin to contemplate the possibilities of genetic engineering: Do we "have any idea of the possible range of life?" Elsewhere or here?

No. Something wonderful is waiting to be discovered. Or created.

Or something else.

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