genetic perfection

Imagine a society where complete genetic engineering is possible. Imagine that you and another person can go to a fertilization clinic and pay them to find the combination of your genes that will minimize the chances of major diseases and disorders. Pay them a little more, and they can remove high-risk factor genes entirely in your offspring and replace them with genes that minimize or eliminate the chances of any “prejudicial” conditions that you might have a tendency for: shortness, baldness, nearsightedness.  Pay them even more, and you can request the substitution of custom tailored genes, so that regardless of the genetics of either parent you can request a certain hair color, a certain adult height (assuming you feed the child properly), a certain level of intelligence (again, assuming good parenting and upbringing), or even the enhancement of specific personality traits.

What would that society, viewed writ large, look like?

One detailed and fascinating picture of the resulting society can be found in the movie Gattaca.  Gattaca is a fantastic and haunting movie in which society begins to stratify as a result of this technology: the genetically superior are given better job opportunities, are preferred in dating, and are generally considered an elite caste in society. People of lower genetic stock, either by bad luck or because they were too poor to be able to afford enhancements and screenings, become a massive “underclass.” One of the famous tag-lines for the movie says: “They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.”

Part of the power of the film is the stunning visual portrayal of this society, and particularly of the cultural elite. Everyone is attractive, everyone is in perfect physical health. The image becomes actually quite eerie when you see a crowd of employees passing through the entrance to a building, all looking so very identical. It is an obvious callback to the dreams and fears of the eugenics programs of the Nazi’s: the idea that if everyone was “perfect” then everyone would be the same.

This is a very common view of eugenics, and of what a “world with genetic engineering” would look like.  It is creepy, and people naturally don’t like it. This view is something that is usually used as part of the emotional argument against genetic engineering.

But I would like to introduce you to an alternate vision of a post-genetic-engineering world. That is the world envisaged by Robert Reed in the novel Black Milk.

The novel is set at a time when the first generation of children who have had the opportunity to be the subjects of true genetic engineering are just entering elementary school. Because the science is very new, of course there has been no time for society to become stratified or for the “elite” to become homogenous; however, already in the children you can see that this is not the direction things are going.

You see, parents are still individuals. And although everyone wants what is “best” for his or her children, everyone’s idea of what is “best” is a little different. So although you can find the competitive rich parents who tailor their son within an inch of… well, his life (“This is how tall you will be when you are eight, and this is how tall you will be when you are nine…”), this was the exception, not the norm. Instead, you have: the girl who is “filled with old actress genes” because the parents are big fans; the boy who was tailored to have a perfect memory (although this had the side-effect of making it difficult for him to concentrate); the girl who is too beautiful and symmetrical that she looks like a doll; and the daughter of a lesbian couple, who is stronger and better at sports than all of the boys.

In this world of genetic engineering, from parents with different priorities come children with different gifts.  The result is more diversity in their children, not less. And interestingly enough, nobody gets teased for being “different” on the playground any more. After all, everybody is different. Everybody has something different that has been tailored into them. The children meet on the first day of school and say, “So… what’s your Special Thing?”

So the next time you hear someone make the argument that they are against genetic engineering because it will remove differences and make everyone “the same,” remember this: it could go a different way.

There could end up being as many different types of “perfect children” in the world as there are different types of parents to guide them.