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Is there perhaps a connection between the dangers of central planning and the dangers of genetic engineering?

One of the great things about blogging is that you can make a very small and modest point about a very large and immodest matter. Maybe X has something to do with Y, possibly. Maybe a large truth could be found by combining P and Q. I don’t know what that something is, nor what that large truth might be. I’m just saying: maybe something, maybe some truth.

In that spirit, and provoked by this article about the rights and wrongs of genetic cloning, may I offer the thought here that the elaborate and highly developed tradition of thinking associated with the notion that the central planning of a national or even a global economy is not such a good idea as it once seemed to intelligent people, because of … all the usual reasons that readers and writers here are familiar with, might have something to say about the wisdom, and in particular the unwisdom, of genetic engineering.

Michael J. Sandel senses that there is something dodgy about going beyond the elimination of specific genetically inherited badnesses, that is to say illnesses, and into the territory of genetically programmed goodnesses, in the form of such things as greatly enhanced musical ability or much stronger muscles. I think he may well be right. Genetic goodness may turn out to be a lot more tricky – a lot more problematic, as modern parlance has it, to induce than many perhaps now assume.

I have always thought that genetic engineering will enable us to learn a lot. I now suspect however, that much of what we learn will of the sort that goes: “Well, that we should not have done!”

This distinction between genetically induced badness and angenetically induced goodness reminds me strongly of the distinction, familiar to most of us here, between the idea that government is okay when it sticks to removing or restraining obvious badnesses from society, such as crimes or foreign aggressions, but a lot less okay when it moves into the territory of encouraging goodnesses, in the form of such things as economic success, and (the big one now) health (by which I mean “public” health, a general disposition to be healthy in the whole population). Encouraging goodness in individual human bodies and minds by genetic means seems to me likely to be a process which will turn out to be illuminated by rather similar intellectual categories.

In short, our books about political philosophy may turn out to be great not just on the subject of political philosophy, but also to have a great and rather unexpected future in the area of “genetic philosophy”.

Please do not misunderstand this as the claim that individuals do not have the right to genetically engineer their own genes. It is not that sort of statement. What I am getting at is that certain sorts of genetic alteration may prove to be extremely unwise, in the same kind of way that ‘positive’ planning of the economy has proved unwise. Economies are too complicated to be planned. Individual human bodies (and minds), I surmise, might, for genetic engineering purposes, prove similarly complex and intractable.

(As far as individual rights are concerned, one of the reasons I favour the right to genetically engineer is precisely to enable the world to discover the dangers of genetic engineering on a small scale, rather than on the kind of scale that might result from centralised government control of the process. Positive government planning, of societal goodness, plus genetic engineering done in a similarly optimistic spirit, strikes me as a uniquely toxic combination of policies, and “toxic” might not even be a metaphor there. The usual argument nowadays is that genetic engineering is too dangerous to be left to individuals. I say it may be too dangerous not to be.)

In my head, this is not even a half-baked idea. Insofar as it has merit, I am sure that others have had the same sort of idea. Insofar as it does not, I say in my defence: it was just a thought.

19 comments to Is there perhaps a connection between the dangers of central planning and the dangers of genetic engineering?

  • Brian,

    The usual experience of attempts by the state to engineer positive outcomes is the production of contrary results. It is difficult to see now how genetic manipulation to increase muscle mass, for example, will produce muscle wastage in the end. That may prove to be the case, by some hamfisted twist of fate. But there seems to be more than a little faith – and I hope no wishful thinking – in your expectation here.

    In any case we start with the knowledge that the desired result is indeed possible by other means, eugenics having proven itself without disgenic consequences. The desired outcomes are real in prospect. There is no eugenic counterpart in the normal libertarian stamping grounds of economics, personal choice, welfare. etc. For the most part the desired outcomes, be they equal pay, sexual equality, social justice, racial harmony … whatever, are unreal goals in the first place.

    But we will certainly be given the opportunity to find out if you are right.

  • Rudolph

    You should have more faith – it struck me as an interesting and pefectly reasonable analogy (although the notion of the body politic is not particularly new).

  • It seems to me that you find the whole notion of genetic engineering of humans somewhat distasteful, but you can’t articulate your objections properly.

    I find myself in the opposite boat- I find the idea somewhat exhilirating, but can’t exactly say why. I just really like the idea of editing my body to get rid of the yukky bits.

    I want to be less ugly and have a much better brain. I can understand the objections to cloning and the like, but I can’t really understand the objections to self-enhancement.

    I can’t see it happening though. This sort of thing will fall to the same sort of panic-mongering that we see over nuclear reactors, global warming, the Kyoto Protocol, the War, the Simpsons, and David Beckham’s penis…

  • Dale Amon

    It may well turn out it is as difficult to figure out how to add to muscle mass as it is to figure out how a circuit designed by Genetic Algorithms actually work. In others words, outward effects may not be modular or partitionable and thus difficult in the extreme to modulate.

    On the other hand, where I and my friends wish to go it will be an absolulte necessity either to figure out how to increase tolerance to cosmic ray damage or else to find a way to make in-vivo DNA repairbots.

    One must realize that the rest of human history will be driven by the environment of space and other planets, and that will force us to try many, many new things… and allow us the room for many, many spectacular failures as well.

  • I think you may be onto something with this idea, and you really should just state it confidently. There is a connection for sure.

    Centralizing the study would greatly limit the range of study, with scientists being forced to conform to a single set of guidelines. If a centralized study were to succeed, its further progress would be released to the public while scientists are still using their newfound liberty to experiment.

    However, if the scientists are left to conduct their own studies, we would benefit from the individual insight of every single scientist interested in genetic engineering.

    While I believe it requires limits, such a study should not be restricted by government regulations. The only government controls I would favor would be loose ethics guidelines limiting the extent of genetic engineering to ensure that we do not end up with a society of perfectly similar people as a result of gene selection. That could be an entirely different problem altogether, beginning with the fact that services for people with genetic problems have a stake in the economy, and we could lose an entire market.

  • It is difficult to see now how genetic manipulation to increase muscle mass, for example, will produce muscle wastage in the end.

    I suspect you miss the analogy. Sure, it probably will not produce muscle wastage, just as government rent controls do indeed produce lower rents on the properties targeted… at the unexpected cost of reducing the supply of housing. I think Brian’s point was that increasing muscle mass probably will increase muscle mass but perhaps at an unanticipated cost elsewhere in the system.

  • Andrew Duffin

    I have just realised that Dale Armon doesn’t really exist; he is just a thought-form projected by Michael Wharton, and his real name is Paul Ohm.

  • Andrew

    You are right about the fact that Dale Armon doesn’t exist, or not in these parts. But Dale Amon exists. I’ve met him. I put my hand through his torso just to check if he was a 3D projection, and encountered … Dale Amon. He is real.

    Dale and Perry:

    Agreed on both counts. It will be done, but there will be disasters of the kind Perry describes, of the “elsewhere in the body that we were not expecting” sort.

    But we learn from mistakes. When you consider how much the study of the brain, a similarly invisible task until very recently, has benefitted from the study of brain damage, I think we can say that genetic engineering is going to result in a lot, and I mean a lot, being learned.

    So Scott: I’m for it, just as I’m for space travel. All I’m saying is: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t face the music, or that we shouldn’t dance, merely that the music and the dance steps may prove to be very complicated in ways we can’t now understand and that there may be troubles ahead.

  • I guess so. Cars are a boon too, but brought us problems that weren’t forseen in the 19th Century. A new age will bring new problems. I can live with that.

  • I tend to think that our experience with planned economies, and with other attempts to impose external control on extremely complex systems, for example the environment, shows that the affect of the law of unintended consequences grows so large that “you can’t get there from here”. Any attempt at control may be inherently doomed to failure in the long term.

    Is that true for bioengineering of humans? Bioengineering in general? We don’t know, we haven’t been at it long enough. Is it a possibility and a danger that bears discussion? I think so.

  • JSF

    Likely genetic engineering will bring enormous consequences, both personal, when it goes wrong
    (hmm, anybody thought what the liability lawsuit and related insurance issues imply for viabilty?)
    and social consequences when it goes right.

    At the level of ‘simple’ genetic repair, deleting or replacing defective genes known to cause problems, which is likely to be here soon, there doesn’t look likely to be a potential downside.
    (Famous last words!)

    More ‘radical’ measures, the sort Dale Amon is looking forward too, are another matter.
    I suspect that in order to do any half-way effective modificatory genetic engineering at all, given the complexity of genome/protein generation/developmental interactions, means you’ll be at a stage of knowlege when gross medical mistakes are going to be foreseeable and avoidable.

    Basic rule: it’s going to be imperative to preserve liberty to modify one’s genome, but perhaps even more, to prevent the state from modifying it.

    A quick glance at the Atlantic article leads me to suspect some philosophically debateable premises.
    I suppose I’d better go and read it.

  • Perhaps you are conflating two seperate notions here:

    1) The law of unintended consequences


    2) Central Planning is wrong.

    It may well be the case that genetic engineering will have unforeseen negative consequences. That’s life. It is certainly the case that government central planning produced unintended and undesirable consequences, but that’s not the precise objection to it.

    There is nothing necessarily wrong with central planning per se. What is wrong is monopolistic central planning by government. Instead of the market controlling the price and supply of bread, a bureaucrat tries to estimate it, result: shortages. This is where the analogy with central planning breaks down, unless you imagine that genetic engineering is to be carried out only by a government backed monopoly.

  • First, wouldn’t central planning by a single entity be by definition monopolistic?

    Second, the law of uninteded consequences is directly related to the idea of central planning being bad via the Butterfly Effect. It is not possible for any one entity to have a sufficient amount of data to the infinite degree of accuracy necessary to precisely predict the outcome of any proposed change. In this way, an economy with its billions of interactions daily is analogous to a body with its billions of metabolic reactions. The central planner(s) is(are) then analogous to the doctor.

  • James

    In fairness, it should be pointed out that the New Atlantic is a very conservative journal, and not conservative in a good way. They are predominantly religious conservatives, working from the premise of “repugnance” as profound wisdom. Most of their arguments against IVF, Stem Cell and genetic research are derived from this idea. They wish to encode their own particular brand of “bioethics” into law, and unfortunately many of them have the President’s ear on these matters. There’s nothing libertarian about them at all.

    One of the contributors, Leon Kass, has in fact written a tract about banning the eating of ice cream in public. He dislikes the idea of people using their tongue, apparently.

    The New Atlantic is NOT your friend.

  • james

    All Apologies, I’ve confused one journal with the other. That should have been “The New Atlantis” journal I referred to. (http://www.thenewatlantis.com)

    Sandel is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. It’s clear from his writing he’s cut from the same cloth as most of its other members.

    I stand by my comments, otherwise.

  • Gamer:

    Most organisations are “centrally planned”. Government central planning is by definition monopolistic but a centrally planned company competing with another in the market is not. The key problem with government central planning is that there is no alternative against which to test it.

    The Law of unintended consequences explains some, not all, failures of government planning, and they are not usually to do with chaotic systems. Government interventions often alter incentives in forseeable ways. They can be predictably counterproductive.

  • Frank,

    My objection to central planning is that the closer one is to trying to centrally plan “everything”, the more likely one is doomed to failure. I don’t propose a digital efficient/inefficient comparison but instead an analog spectrum of efficiency.

    Granted a centrally organized company, while massive on a human scale, is still small enough to have both outside competition and differing perspective. I believe that the degree of inaccuracy of observation increases with the scale at which one tries to observe. Much like a compass set to a smaller increment will come closer to the proper length of a curve than one set larger.

    It is possible to refine one’s model, one’s understanding of what one observes, through experience. I consider the process to be identical to gaining wisdom. While never perfect, it is possible to reach a state of close enough on small scales, while it approaches impossible at larger scales. Hence why you hear of “inertia” and “inability to respond” in reference to larger companies as opposed to smaller. Planning on the scale of national government is orders of magnitude greater in difficulty.

  • There is a connection between genetic engineering and central planning, although research programmes that allow such enhancements are currently decades away.

    This is the interface between genetic engineering and neural structure, essentially artificially enforcing particular viewpoints.

    The concern is neural enhancement, not the method of enhancement, and how much control an authority (up to and including the state) will have over this process. Since enhancements will probably appear through the mind/machine interface, genetic engineering is a fascinating topic that may well be postponed by or integrated into these developments.

  • Aral Simbon

    The usual experience of attempts by the state to engineer positive outcomes is the production of contrary results.

    Except, of course, in Iraq.