Wednesday, June 05, 2002

a different argument against genetic engineering Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

a different argument against genetic engineering Over on TechCentralStation, Arnold Kling levies a different argument (under the rubric of "economics") against using genetic engineering to enhance human abilities:
For example, I am short in stature, and so are our daughters. In today's world, that is fine. However, in a world of competitive genetic engineering, there probably would be few people under five feet tall. If that world had prevailed when we were having children, we probably would have felt pressure to have them altered -- otherwise they might be freaks.
He uses the same reasoning to oppose test-prep classes:
[Parents] would prefer that such courses not exist for anyone. Nonetheless, we do not want our own children to be at a disadvantage, so we enroll our children in these courses.
In short, he's casting both genetic engineering and test-preparation as Prisoner's Dilemma situations: Regardless of what you do, I'm better off genetically engineering (test-prepping) my kids. But the resulting situation, wherein everyone genetically engineers (test-preps) his kids is worse than if no one had done so:
My concern is that once competition breaks out to design "better" human beings, the result could be that everyone is made worse off and less happy than if such a competition could be prevented.
But his belief that improving human abilities (via genetic engineering or test-prepping) will make everyone worse off (which he bases, like so many arguments, on discomfort) seems unlikely to be true. In fact, a world full of smarter, stronger people -- even one in which I hold the same relative position -- is likely a preferable world to live in, full of positive externalities resulting from enhanced human abilities. Similarly, a group of college students who've all prepared for the SAT are quite clearly more educated than if they'd not done so. Kling dismisses this by claiming that "[f]ew parents would argue that these courses represent education with intrinsic value," but it's certainly valuable to improve your vocabulary, analytical thinking, and quantitative skills. What Kling's argument really seems to boil down to is that the prospect of genetic engineering represents a potential hassle that he doesn't want to deal with. And while I respect that (I'm a big-time hassle-avoider myself), it's a lousy justification for public policy.

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