One worry about the possibility of radical germ line enhancement of the human species is that it may, at some point, produce a being so genetically superior to the regular human that the race would split in two. Given that enhancement will be expensive, the concern is that only the rich would have access to it, and if they were to do this they would compound their competitive advantages, widening existing social inequalities and creating new ones. A distant but serious extrapolation of this scenario is that this posthuman race could exploit the human race and deliberately seek to oppress it. If this sort of split did occur it would surely be undesirable. However, I believe it is unrealistic and we should consider a more likely scenario which is often ignored. Two assumptions are frequently made about what would happen if the richest in society were able to access enhancement technology. These are:
1) That so much extra power would be conferred on the beneficiaries of the technology, that this minority would necessarily exploit the unenhanced status of the majority.
2) That if such oppression or exploitation did occur, it would be so powerful that it would be impossible to repeal, reverse or overcome.
I do not believe that either of these assumptions are correct. It is understandable to take seriously the possible risks of technologies which could change society significantly, but it’s also easy to overstate them (in the case of the first assumption) or misconceive them (in the case of the second).
The first assumption overstates the risks of enhancement technologies because, whilst it is likely that some people would choose to take advantage of them, the small-scale appropriation would not necessarily increase net inequality. If access to the enhancement industry turns out to be so expensive that it is out of the reach of everyone except the super-rich, then only a very small proportion of society will be able to make use of it. Given that the super-rich are already by definition not burdened with socio-economic difficulties, it is not obvious how their access to a new range of luxuries is going to deprive the rest of society of a serious competitive advantage.
If a section of the super rich were to indulge their genetic fantasies, we might find it vain or grotesque and we might be happy that we have no part in it. Paris Hilton is very economically fortunate, and maybe it’s understandable to be envious of her advantages, but viewed from the outside there is also something ugly about that kind of life. In a life where it is possible to have total material luxury, and where these luxuries are the primary determinant of value, the relentless pressure to conform to an image of economically-driven perfection does emotional damage. The genetic enhancement of personal appearance or physical attributes could become a competitive necessity for a small, rarified section of society, much as cosmetic surgery has become one amongst actors in Hollywood. Whilst going under the knife repeatedly might keep these people in work, this kind of Faustian deal is obviously not one which the majority of people wish to make.
Nonetheless, we can still be envious of the economic advantages that these people do have, for the simple fact that we wouldn’t need to worry about money. Perhaps we might wish that wages and economic security were more evenly distributed throughout society, but this is a different question and has little to do with genetic enhancement technology as such. What is in question here is what the effects would be of a genetic division occurring within the human race, significant enough that an enhanced minority could constitute a threat to the unenhanced. I believe that this risk is overstated, for the reasons already given. Let’s imagine for a minute, however, that this dystopian picture were to occur. Is it necessarily true that this would be the end of the story, and the ‘original’ human race would be in serious danger? I am not sure that it would. Let’s change tack slightly to consider the question.
Technological and economical power can be held by a small minority, but those who wield it do not necessarily always triumph when they try to use it as a means of oppression. We can look at how these kinds of attempts have played out in the past. Though the technologies may have been different, there are good reasons for being confident that a perceived monopoly on enhancement technology by a few will not create the kinds of frightening scenarios that are feared by some.
History is littered with revolutions, and we can’t look at them all. Two revolutions which might help, though, are these: the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The defining characteristic of both of these revolutions was a rejection of the values and the hegemony of a ruling minority with economic and technological superiority.
In the case of the French Revolution the absolute rule of the monarchy was ended when the politically, economically, religiously and socially disenfranchised majority abolished it, replacing it with the country’s first democratic republic. From a technological point of view, the French Revolution is particularly notable because of the role played by the guillotine. The guillotine was developed under the orders of King Louis XVI because it was thought that conventional methods of capital punishment of the time were not sufficiently humane. Given that the aim of capital punishment is to end life, rather than to cause pain as such, the King sought a quicker, more efficient and less painful way of putting dissidents to death (a similarly perverse debate surrounds the most ‘humane’, least distressing way to administer the lethal injection in the USA today. Unfortunately for the King, his technological superiority was turned against him when the revolution brought an end to his life with a guillotine. Whether or not he was any happier, in the moment before his death, about being executed by the guillotine whose invention he had ordered, rather than by any other method, is a moot point.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 also represented a triumph of public political will, and ended the preceding decades of entrenched disillusionment and oppression. It is true that there was a degree of luck involved in the events which finally created the conditions under which citizens of East Germany could freely cross the wall, and there was also mounting pressure from Washington to reunite the two countries. Civil unrest in East Germany had been growing in the weeks prior to the crossing of the wall, and the revolution could have been violent. Crucially, however, the eventual exodus was not resisted or crushed by the authorities – no member of the government or police was prepared to take responsibility for killing citizens attempting to cross. As events unfolded the East German authorities began to realize that it was on the wrong side of history, and the reunification of Germany was achieved suddenly and peacefully. It was one of the greatest political achievements of the post-war period.
It’s important to remember that the reasons given publicly for the erecting of the wall was that it would act as a bulwark against a still covertly active Nazism in West Germany, and protect the citizens of East Germany such that they would be able to create the conditions necessary for building a successful socialist state. This was not true, as the wall was built in order to stem an understandable exodus from the impoverished East to the free and prosperous West. Driven by a misconceived ideology of how their society ought to operate, the separation denied the citizens of East Germany the economic and political benefits that had been enjoyed by Western Europe since the 1960s. Arguably, the fall of the Berlin Wall also brought to a resounding end any residual belief still remaining in the West that utopian systems of government can ever succeed in a way that is fair to the people being governed. This realization may have revealed an important truth about the values that our species holds about itself. Notwithstanding some difficult knock-on effects that the fall of the wall may have brought about, this realization may have constituted a rare example of real moral progress.
The primary relevance of these examples to the kinds of questions we are asking about future technological power is that a malign scientific or economic superiority held by a few is not always, in the end, impossible to resist or overturn. Given sufficient numbers of people, the power that it can exert is not insuperable and revolution is always a possibility. Even if there were a real risk of something like genetic enhancement technology leading us into a new dystopia of oppression by the bio-enhanced (and I don’t believe there is), in spite of the changes that new technologies might offer, it is not obvious that it wouldn’t or couldn’t be resisted.
The word ‘dystopia’ is used too frequently to describe future scenarios related to scientific advance, and this is because the future is likely to be too mundane to be adequately described as one. It’s interesting that there is even still talk of ‘dystopias’ as possibilities, when the notion that its opposite – the utopia – is ever likely to occur has been discredited. Both of these words describe impossible worlds. It is no more likely that there will be a world where everything is wrong than it is there will be a world where everybody lives the perfectly happy life.
In our examples the difference between what the eventually deposed aimed at, and what they got, supports the view that to characterize possible future societies as anything as extreme as either utopian or dystopian is misguided. Both of these regimes believed, to begin with, that it was at the vanguard of moral thought, and that the political system they envisaged could be forced successfully upon the societies they governed. These regimes believed, for radical philosophical or religious reasons, that they were in possession of true knowledge of how power should be distributed. In their different ways, both espoused an idealist doctrine which sought to bend society to its will. Neither understood that societies (in the West, at least) work when there is sufficient individual liberty that those individuals will enter into a contract to be governed, refraining from certain types of behavior in return for protection of their own freedoms by the state. Neither regime realized that their subjects were right to seek a democratic system of government, and unprepared to be ruled in any other way. Viewed from the side of the dispossessed, what the rulers sought to impose was dystopian in nature, and in spite of the vast power differential, neither of these visions succeeded. It is unlikely that human societies will allow the full realization of a dystopian vision, precisely because it is so terrifying. As long as any potential trans/posthuman beings are able to act as moral agents as well, it is highly unlikely that they would allow it either.
Finally, there were resoundingly positive benefits from each of these revolutions. These took time, and the process was not painless, but over time beneficial changes occurred. The French Revolution turned France into a democracy and generated the preconditions necessary for the eventual emancipation of women, even though one of the drivers of the revolution was the feeling of disenfranchisement of the privileged bourgeoisie. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have had a significance of the magnitude already described. Each case advanced, incrementally, the spread of what we might broadly describe as Enlightenment values throughout society – values that we all benefit from. The ‘specter’ of a future where humans are exploited by a relative few enhanced genetic super-beings is just that, a specter – an apparition, and something that has reality in stories, rather than our societies.