Re: Ch. 3 - Better Brains Through Genes
Some topics for chapter 3:
1. A passage on page 40 makes me wonder if perhaps Gazzaniga doesn't have the issues a little mixed up: "But what is hyperagency, really, but the human, evolutionary drive to engineer our survival?" In so far as PGD screening is just a matter of extending life spans across the board, that observation holds roughly true. But when you start talking about using PGD to engineer preferential characteristics -- everything from athleticism to eye color -- you're no longer talking about the survival of the species but about the social advantages extended to whomever can afford to assert their preference. Gazzaniga gives very little consideration in this chapter to the socio-economic implications of PGD screening, that gene selection could (and probably would) become a means of social and economic stratification. Those who could afford PGD screening would be at liberty to give their children genetic
advantages over those who could not. To some extent, this happens as a simple matter of courtship, but there have historically been social factors that have evened the playing field out to some extent. If PGD seems likely to make the playing field incontrovertibly uneven, then I think it's worth considering the ethics of that situation. The problem could be taken so far, it seems to me, that the have nots could eventually be at such a disadvantage that they face potential extinction. In "selfish gene" terms, that means essentially the extiction of a particular set of genes -- determined in part by social approbation -- but in humanist terms it means the subjection of individuals, families, and entire social classes to poverty and potential suffering.
2. More social utopianism on Gazzaniga's part: "... we see that those closest to new technologies immediately respond with good sense. The greater social good prevails." (p. 51) Gazzaniga arrives at this conclusion on the strength of a single example -- that of Microsort -- and without a very thorough analysis of what influenced their policies. On page 54 he advises that we "let an innate morals-ethics system assert itself and stop us from going too far. We have never annihilated ourselves." Self-annihilation isn't exactly a live and learn situation. That we haven't done so far doesn't serve as a rational basis for the belief that we'll never do so. Gazzaniga's optimism concerning social-scientific change ought to make for an interesting bridge to an earlier reading selection, Jared Diamond's "Collapse". It should be kept in mind that the Easter Islanders only annihilated themselves once, and if anyone is at liberty to learn from their mistakes, it's those of us who have been fortunate so far to avoid the same fate. The lesson, it seems to me, is that self-preservation is not an infallible instinct in humans as a species.
3. Quoting M. J. Sandel, Gazzaniga raises an argument for PGD selection on the grounds that "stupidity" may be considered a "disease" -- that is, we may treat it categorically the same way that we would treat a genetically heritable disease like myotonic dystrophy or psychopathological disorders like Schizophrenia. This goes to the question of how we determine the normative states of being human, and I don't think it at all obvious that we should treat variations in intellectual grasp as we would treat a limitation on lifespan imposed by traditional medical disease.
4. From page 51: "Overall, Watson believes that genetic decisions should be a matter of free choice." Putting aside for the moment the suspicion that Gazzaniga may be implying an argument from authority -- the authority of James Watson, co-discoverer of the gene -- the major ethical question here is, "whose free choice?" PGD screening does not give a wider freedom of choice to the person who will actually exhibit the selected traits, so I'm not sure that we're justified in believing that there's a greater freedom of choice in these circumstances. More importantly, PGD screening creates a situation in which we may observe the autonomy of the child being incrementally subordinated to the will of the parent. Random selection has the virtue, at least, of taking the initiative out of the parent's hands. Trait selection is, in this regard, not so worrisome with clearly harmful traits -- disease, for example -- but on preferential matters it becomes a form of arbitrary control. Consider the case of a trait that is debatably negative -- a tendency to certain sexual dispositions. Gazzaniga raised the question of homosexuality, but let's view the case in reverse -- presume that homosexual is attempting to have offspring through IVF and wants to ensure that their child will have at least this one commonality with them: that it will grow to prefer same-sex partners. Given the social climate towards homosexuality, such a decision may be likely subject the offspring to a great deal of hostility, and the offspring may grow to wish that it had been born heterosexual instead, if merely for reasons of safety. Moreover, the child may perceive that their PGD selected trait is somehow not uniquely their own, but is as much the decision of the parent as the piano lessons they were forced to take when they were four years old.
Look at it another way. A particular familial environment may incline a child to racism. Being removed from that family environment may give the child the opporunity to broaden their perspective, to escape from a disposition towards bigotry, and we would, I think, for the most part agree that this is a good thing. But once the family preference is written into the genetic code, offspring are less capable of escaping the prejudices of their parents. Gazzaniga attempts to deflate the control exerted by the parent by pointing out that adult traits are the product of the interaction between genetic predisposition and uncontrollable environmental factors, but that makes the argument one of degree. The PGD screened offspring is still genetically inclined towards the parents' preference, and if they are still allowed some measure of autonomy we should at least consider the fact that it's a smaller measure. Even a disposition towards physical beauty may seem oppressive if it as viewed as an aspect of parental dominance. So I think we're justified, perhaps even obligated, to ask which is the more cruel taskmaster, chance or design?