Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years in the future. The challenges they predict are imaginary — for now — but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The opinion piece below is a work of fiction.
Last week, The Times published an article about the long-term results of the Gene Equality Project, the philanthropic effort to bring genetic cognitive enhancements to low-income communities. The results were largely disappointing: While most of the children born of the project have now graduated from a four-year college, few attended elite universities and even fewer have found jobs with good salaries or opportunities for advancement. With the results in hand, it is time for us to re-examine the efficacy and desirability of genetic engineering.
The intentions behind the Gene Equality Project were good. Therapeutic genetic interventions, such as correcting the genes that cause cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, have been covered by Medicare ever since their approval by the Food and Drug Administration, making them available to the children of low-income parents. However, augmentations like cognitive enhancements have never been covered — not even by private insurance — and were available only to affluent parents. Amid fears that we were witnessing the creation of a caste system based on genetic differences, the Gene Equality Project was begun 25 years ago, enabling 500 pairs of low-income parents to increase the intelligence of their children.
The project offered a common cognitive-enhancement protocol involving modifications to 80 genes associated with intelligence. Each individual modification had only a small effect on intelligence, but in combination they typically gave a child an I.Q. of 130, putting the child in the top 5 percent of the population. This protocol has become one of the most popular enhancements purchased by affluent parents, and it is often referenced in media profiles of the “New Elite,” the genetically engineered young people who are increasingly prevalent in management positions of corporate America today. Yet the 500 subjects of the Gene Equality Project are not enjoying career success that is remotely comparable to the success of the New Elite, despite having received the same protocol.
A range of explanations has been offered for the project’s results. White supremacist groups have claimed that its failure shows that certain races are incapable of being improved, given that many — although by no means all — of the beneficiaries of the project were people of color. Conspiracy theorists have accused the participating geneticists of malfeasance, claiming that they pursued a secret agenda to withhold genetic enhancements from the lower classes. But these explanations are unnecessary when one realizes the fundamental mistake underlying the Gene Equality Project: Cognitive enhancements are useful only when you live in a society that rewards ability, and the United States isn’t one.
It has long been known that a person’s ZIP code is an excellent predictor of lifetime income, educational success and health. Yet we continue to ignore this because it runs counter to one of the founding myths of this nation: that anyone who is smart and hardworking can get ahead. Our lack of hereditary titles has made it easy for people to dismiss the importance of family wealth and claim that everyone who is successful has earned it. The fact that affluent parents believe that genetic enhancements will improve their children’s prospects is a sign of this: They believe that ability will lead to success because they assume that their own success was a result of their ability.
For those who assume that the New Elite are ascending the corporate ladder purely on the basis of merit, consider that many of them are in leadership positions, but I.Q. has historically had only a weak correlation with effectiveness as a leader. Also consider that genetic height enhancement is frequently purchased by affluent parents, and the tendency to view taller individuals as more capable leaders is well documented. In a society increasingly obsessed with credentials, being genetically engineered is like having an Ivy-League M.B.A.: It is a marker of status that makes a candidate a safe bet for hiring, rather than an indicator of actual competence.
This is not to say that the genes associated with intelligence play no role in creating successful individuals — they absolutely do. They are an essential part of a positive feedback loop: When children demonstrate an aptitude at any activity, we reward them with more resources — equipment, private tutors, encouragement — to develop that aptitude; their genes enable them to translate those resources into improved performance, which we reward with even better resources, and the cycle continues until as adults they achieve exceptional career success. But low-income families living in neighborhoods with underfunded public schools often cannot sustain this feedback loop; the Gene Equality Project didn’t offer any resources besides better genes, and without these additional resources, the full potential of those genes was never realized.
We are indeed witnessing the creation of a caste system, not one based on biological differences in ability, but one that uses biology as a justification to solidify existing class distinctions. It is imperative that we put an end to this, but doing so will take more than free genetic enhancements supplied by a philanthropic foundation. It will require us to address structural inequalities in every aspect of our society, from housing to education to jobs. We won’t solve this by trying to improve people; we’ll only solve it by trying to improve the way we treat people.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Gene Equality Project is something that never needs to be repeated. Instead of thinking of it as a cure to an illness, we could think of it as a diagnostic test — something we would conduct at regular intervals to gauge how close we are to reaching our goal. When the beneficiaries of free genetic cognitive enhancements become as successful as the ones whose parents bought the enhancements for them, only then will we have reason to believe that we live in an equitable society.
Finally, let’s recall one of the arguments made during the original debate about legalizing genetic cognitive enhancements. Some proponents claimed that we had an ethical obligation to pursue cognitive enhancements because of the benefits to humanity that would accrue as a result. But there have surely been many geniuses whose world-changing contributions were lost because their potential was crushed by their impoverished surroundings.
Our goal should be to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, no matter the circumstances of birth. That course of action would be just as beneficial to humanity as pursuing genetic cognitive enhancements, and it would do a much better job of fulfilling our ethical obligations.
Ted Chiang is a Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning writer and the author of “Exhalation.” A work in his first short story collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others,” was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film “Arrival.”
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