How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Thought expriments are great tools, but do they always do what we want them to?
- Thought experiments are quite popular, though some get more time in the sun than others.
- While they are supposed to help guide our intuition to help solve difficult problems, some are a bit removed from reality.
- Can we trust the intuitions we have about problems set in sci-fi worlds or that postulate impossible monsters?
The Swampman Cometh<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5tvT90uPz-U" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>A thought experiment we've discussed <a href="https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/seven-thought-experiments-thatll-make-you-question-everything" target="_self">before</a> that dives into questions of identity and meaningful language is the Swampman. <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/davidson/" target="_blank">Donald Davidson</a> wrote it in 1987:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Suppose a man is out for a walk one day when a bolt of lightning disintegrates him. Simultaneously, a bolt of lightning strikes a marsh and causes a bunch of molecules to spontaneously rearrange into the same pattern that constituted that man a few moments ago. This 'Swampman' has an exact copy of the brain, memories, patterns of behavior as he did. It goes about its day, works, interacts with the man's friends and is otherwise indistinguishable from him."<em></em></p><p>Is the Swampman the same person as Davidson? When he refers to things he "remembers" seeing before, even though the Swampman never actually saw them, do his words mean anything? This experiment, combined with "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus" target="_blank">The Ship of Theseus</a>" causes people to wonder if teleportation through creating a copy of a person and then destroying the original actually "kills" the person being <a href="https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/09/is-beaming-down-in-star-trek-a-death-sentence/" target="_blank">teleported</a>. </p><p>Of course, we don't have teleportation yet, nor are there actual Swamp-people running around (Or are there!?!?!). While the questions raised by the Swampman are important ones, Dennett's warning is that we shouldn't be too quick to trust our intuition when the problem is so separated from anything we've ever encountered. <em></em></p>
The Utility Monster<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/G2HiIF8zBBY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>This thought experiment from <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nozick-political/" target="_blank">Robert Nozick's</a> defense of libertarianism "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" asks what we'd have to do if Utilitarianism is correct and we met something capable of much greater happiness than anybody else.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility."</p><p>If there was a utility monster that got a million times more joy out of everything than anybody else does, would we be obligated to give it everything it demanded to maximize the total happiness? Even if those demands cause suffering, but never enough to tip the ethical scales, elsewhere? If so, what does this mean for Utilitarianism as a moral theory? </p><p>At first, this experiment doesn't seem too bizarre. We all grasp the idea of somebody who gets more out of something than we do; this is just taking that idea to the extreme. The fundamental problem with this experiment was pointed out by philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Parfit" target="_blank">Derek Parfit</a> who argued that, while we are capable of imagining somebody who is happier than we are or who would get more out of something than we do, the idea of a creature that gets a million times more happiness out of things is impossible to imagine in a <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=6twLBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA240&lpg=PA240&dq=parfit+utility+monster&source=bl&ots=C-TcqwYRnO&sig=3wwLzjl3Z9KjAOBh3FFcb41aHG4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjYkIq7jqveAhU0IDQIHYtgAp04ChDoATAGegQIAhAB#v=onepage&q=parfit%20utility%20monster&f=false" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">meaningful way.</a></p><p>How can we get useful insights into the problem if we can't hope to grasp how this monster interacts with the world? Because of this difficulty, Parfit rejected the problem.</p><p>Utilitarian philosopher and Big Think contributor <a href="https://bigthink.com/u/petersinger" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peter Singer</a> accepts that if there were utility monsters there might be a problem for Utilitarianism, but, as he explained to <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/back-talk-peter-singer/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Nation,</a> he finds the idea far-fetched. When posed the problem in the context of a billionaire owning a superyacht rather than donating money to fund medical treatments, he replied:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We would have to assume that Larry Ellison actually has capacities for happiness that are vastly greater than anyone else's. Ellison's yacht cost $200 million, and if we assume that $400 can repair an obstetric fistula, that means that the suffering relieved by 500,000 obstetric fistula repairs is not greater than the happiness that Ellison gets from his yacht. That, I think, is not physically possible."<em></em></p>
Roko’s Basilisk<p>Continuing on the theme of bizarre thought experiments involving monsters, we have a strange reworking of <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/" target="_blank">Pascal's Wager</a> involving a super-intelligent AI. It was created by a contributor to the website <em>LessWrong </em>named "Roko."</p><p>Given the length of the original post, I will summarize it here:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Imagine for a moment that humanity will someday create a hyper-powered artificial intelligence that is capable of solving all of the world's problems. It follows a form of utilitarian ethics and is trying to reduce human suffering as much as it can, which is a considerable amount. Given all the good it can do, it coming into existence, and doing so quickly, would substantially benefit humanity. Fully capable of simulating anything it wants, it then decides to take steps to punish those who knew about the good it could do but didn't help create it by torturing simulations of them. </p><p>Is it rational then to start donating a lot of money to those creating this super intelligence to avoid having it simulate and torture a copy of you in the future? This experiment gained a fair amount of notoriety <a href="https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evkgvz/what-is-rokos-basilisk-elon-musk-grimes" target="_blank">online</a>, and a name based on the creature that kills with its <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilisk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gaze</a>, because by reading about it, you think about the monster and become a potential victim in the future, since now you know about it and might choose not to help create it. </p><p>Maybe I should have mentioned that part first. Oh well, so it goes. </p><p>As you might have realized, this experiment requires you to assume that we can reliably predict the behavior and motivations of a particular, ultra-intelligent AI that doesn't exist yet and may never exist. In terms of raw intelligence, this might be akin to asking a brainless starfish to predict how a human will behave one hundred years from now. While the experiment is said to have given some people <a href="https://slate.com/technology/2014/07/rokos-basilisk-the-most-terrifying-thought-experiment-of-all-time.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nightmares</a>, it isn't taken seriously by most people outside a small circle on the internet. </p><p>Plus, the <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Roko's_basilisk#So_you.27re_worrying_about_the_Basilisk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">long list of assumptions</a> in the experiment includes that a simulation of you is actually "you" in a meaningful way. We have to solve the Swampman problem before we can agree on that point at all. </p>
People Seeds<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4ezS5vQ1j_E" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>A surreal experiment by <a href="https://philosophy.mit.edu/thomson" target="_blank">Judith Thomson</a> that appeared in her famous essay "<a href="https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil215/Thomson.pdf" target="_blank">A Defense of Abortion<em>.</em></a>"<em> </em>The essay is a series of arguments for the morality of abortion in certain circumstances through thought experiments. While some parts of it are quite famous, this section seems to avoid widespread discussion:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root."<em></em></p><p>The question being, would it be acceptable to uproot the person-plant-fetus that gets in? Is it too much to ask that people live without cloth in their homes if they don't want people seeds to get in? How about never opening their doors or windows?</p><p>While this is supposed to be analogous to accidental pregnancy resulting from birth control failures, the downright bizarre nature of the thought experiment has been commented on by more than a few <a href="http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/2020/09/thought-experiments-and-ethics-of.html" target="_blank">critics</a>. Philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Wilkes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kathleen Wilkes</a> argued that it was too far removed from our reality to provide <a href="https://www.philosophyexperiments.com/whosebody/Default12.aspx" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">meaningful intuitions</a> on abortion in her book "Real People<em>."</em></p><p>After all, society would probably have very different ideas on what the right to life means if we came into the world because a bit of pollen landed on the carpet.</p>
Twin Earth<p>A problem created to dive into questions of language by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilary_Putnam" target="_blank">Hilary Putnam</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twin_Earth_thought_experiment" target="_blank">Twin Earth</a> experiment dives into questions of language and meaning using a story straight out of a one-shot comic book:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "We begin by supposing that elsewhere in the universe there is a planet exactly like Earth in virtually all aspects, which we refer to as "Twin Earth." (We should also suppose that the relevant surroundings are exactly the same as for Earth; it revolves around a star that appears to be exactly like our sun, and so on). On Twin Earth, there is a Twin equivalent of every person and thing here on Earth. The one difference between the two planets is that there is no water on Twin Earth. In its place there is a liquid that is superficially identical, but is chemically different, being composed not of H2O, but rather of some more complicated formula which we abbreviate as 'XYZ.' The Twin Earthlings who refer to their language as 'English' call XYZ 'water.' Finally, we set the date of our thought experiment to be several centuries ago, when the residents of Earth and Twin Earth would have no means of knowing that the liquids they called 'water' were H<sub>2</sub>O and XYZ respectively. The experience of people on Earth with water and that of those on Twin Earth with XYZ would be identical."<em></em></p><p><br> Do the Earthling (who Putnam named Oscar) and his twin (also named Oscar) mean the same thing when they say "water?" Their mental states are the same when they refer to it, but the object in question is physically different in each case. If the twins' statements don't mean the same thing, then we must admit that external factors play a role in defining terms external to the speaker, a stance dubbed "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_externalism" target="_blank">scientific externalism</a>." <br><br>While this experiment is quite famous and has advanced a fair amount of <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/content-externalism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">debate</a>, you can probably already see the difficulties some people have with it. </p><p>Philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyler_Burge" target="_blank">Tyler Burge</a> has argued that the whole experiment is flawed, as Earth Oscar refers to the concept of "H2O," while Twin Earth Oscar is referring to the concept of "XYZ." Dr. Burge argued that this means their mental states are different from the get-go. He also points out that the stuff flowing on Twin Earth <a href="https://coursys.sfu.ca/2015fa-phil-880-g1/pages/burge/view" target="_blank">isn't actually water</a>, which might derail the whole thing. </p><p>For his part, Putnam criticized others for using thought experiments that require you to ignore specific ideas to arrive at the intended ones. In this experiment, with humans presumably still being 60 percent water, you'd have to imagine that changing what water is at the molecular level would not alter the beings thinking about the water in any meaningful way. He has also admitted that Dr. Burge's first critique is actually a very good one. </p><p>Surprisingly, Daniel Dennett has spent a fair amount of time discussing the <a href="https://www.philosophy-science-humanities-controversies.com/listview-details.php?id=288841&a=$a&first_name=Daniel&author=Dennett&concept=Twin%20Earth" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">content</a> of the problem rather than on how strange the whole experiment is in the first place. It might go to show that philosophers love a good thought experiment, even if the results aren't directly applicable to the real world. </p>
If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.
- Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
- Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
- One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.
Exploring how a small change in your DNA sequence can make you a natural blonde.
A few weeks after preparing them, Dr Catherine Guenther checked her mouse embryos and knew that she had identified the source of a blond-haired mutation in human DNA.
Should pharmaceutical companies pay people for their plasma? Here's why paid plasma is a hot ethical issue.
- Human blood is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma. Plasma is the liquid part of blood. It is used to treat rare blood conditions and has an increasing number of medical applications.
- It is a $26 billion industry, and the US is a major exporter of plasma to other nations. Most nations do not collect enough plasma to sustain therapies for their own citizens. The US has such a large supply of plasma because it pays people to donate plasma—a controversial practice.
- Is it ethical for people to be paid for their plasma? Here, Peter Jaworski, an ethics scholar, explains five key arguments people make against paying people for plasma—safety, security, altruism, commodification, and exploitation—and explains his views on them. What do you think?