March 13, 2006

Trickle-down Genomics

The wealthy will benefit first from enhancement biotechnologies, but eventually we'll all be better off

By George Dvorsky, February 10, 2004

I've never been very good at math, but I always wished that I could be.

When I was in grade 10, I had the pleasure of sitting beside a math whiz. The ease with which this guy juggled numbers was both awe-inspiring and humiliating. The teacher struggled to give him challenging math problems. Eventually, he was bumped to a class that matched his abilities.

Talk about feelings of inadequacy. It didn't help that I was struggling just to pass the course. Even more frustrating was seeing just how hard I had to work at math, while to the math whiz crunching numbers seemed exquisitely effortless.

It just didn't seem fair. Why couldn't I have been born with such an aptitude?

As I look around today, I see many other examples of this genetic lottery at work; different people can do certain things better than other people simply because they're wired that way. It's an absolute truism about the human condition. And because we can't really do anything about it, we have accepted it as a fact of life, and even celebrated it as "diversity."

But these so-called facts of life are set to change as we become better at manipulating our biological constitutions. Germinal choice technologies will offer people control over their physical and psychological characteristics, as well as control of their offspring's genetic makeup. Consequently, there will come a day when people can augment biological "resources," no longer having to endure the misfortune of losing in the genetic lottery.

As we well know, and as bioconservatives are apt to point out, initial access to these technologies will not be universal. Undoubtedly, as with all new technologies, they will initially be expensive and available only to the wealthy. This will likely give rise to the genetic haves and have-nots, further stratifying people based on their physical and cognitive capabilities.

But in the long term, accessible germinal choice and other biotechnologies will be better for everyone. Once public access is affordable and ubiquitous—and as previous technologies have shown, this will happen—the minimum acceptable standard of health for all people will increase.

Mind the gap

A common misconception among leftists is that in order for equality to exist, everyone must be held down at a low level of subsistence. This conclusion is in part derived from the Luddite tendency to ignore progress and the benefits of new technologies. It's also derived from the rationalization that if everyone can't be rich, then no one should be rich.

But as bioethicist Peter Singer has noted, "What matters is people's welfare, not the size of the gap between rich and poor." Society has always had rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, weak and strong. Today, we are rightly concerned that such discrepancies still exist. But we shouldn't forget that the middle class in developed nations live like the kings of yesteryear, and that even the poor have unimaginable wealth compared to those living just a few hundred years ago.

And by wealth I don't necessarily mean a healthy bank account. Modern amenities such as phones, refrigerators and increased access to medicine and clean water are all signs of improved living.

This increase in "wealth" is reflected in how we have begun measuring people's well-being. Whereas traditional standard of living indexes, including the Quality of Life index, primarily measure the quality and quantity of goods and services available to people, newer indexes have expanded to account for health and wellness. The Physical Quality of Life index, the Basic Well-Being index and the World Quality of Life index are some examples of these. No longer are we satisfied merely with material success. While the gap between the rich and poor remains, on the whole society is wealthy enough to be concerned about wellness.

There's no reason why this trend would stop. Given enough time, minimum health standards will transcend what we currently consider normal human functioning. Thanks to enhancement biotechnologies, citizens and health professionals will eventually consider such things as low intelligence, poor memory, predispositions to physical and psychological ailments and possibly, ahem, poor math skills to be under the minimum threshold of what's considered to be a healthy human. The indexes will be adjusted accordingly, and humanity's wellness as a whole will have advanced.

The new normal

Of course, some might say that during this "renormalization" many people will suffer. They might also argue that new biotechnologies will allow the wealthy to become even wealthier, widening the gap between rich and poor to an unprecedented degree. Many of us have seen this future dystopia portrayed in such films as Gattaca and assimilated the vision as gospel, a static fixture of what lies ahead.

There is no evidence, however, to suggest that this would happen, or that if it happened it would be permanent. Certainly, as biotechnologies become available to make us healthier and stronger, the wealthy will have greater access to them, just as they have with previous technologies. But just as with other technologies, the benefits will trickle down, and probably faster than most people think.

One of the most remarkable things about new technology is that it eventually becomes widely accessible. While expensive at first, the cost of developing and manufacturing technology drops as more people buy it. Market forces such as competition and supply and demand further drive prices down and make technology widely available.

This process appears to be accelerating. Your personal computer is more powerful than million-dollar machines available just a few years ago, for example, and DVD players can be purchased at extremely low prices compared to early VCRs.

What's flabbergasting is that many people, particularly reactionary and anti-technology leftists, fail to see these trends.

Yet when considering a potential "biological divide," we need not look far for an analogy. The information technology industry and the Internet exploded out of the starting blocks in the mid 1990s. At the time, a number of activists spoke out against the growing "digital divide" that threatened to stratify nations along the technological spectrum. Today, barely a decade later, a number of developing nations, including India and China, have not only caught on to new information technologies, but thanks to them are threatening the economic and technological dominance of the developed world.

Access to health-related technologies will get an added kick from economic globalization, the free market and the activities of health-oriented organizations such as UNICEF, WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières. Thanks to such organizations, the price of pharmaceuticals is dropping and accessibility is steadily improving, particularly in developing nations. Consequently, 30 million people have been saved from river blindness since 1987, while the polio vaccine has nearly eliminated the polio virus altogether. Similar initiatives are underway to tackle the AIDS pandemic, and there's no reason to believe that there won't be efforts to increase access for future biotechnologies.

What might change in the future, however, is where most of the world's bio-poor are located. As countries such as China move vigorously to develop their biotech sectors, I'm forced to wonder who, exactly, the future have-nots are going to be. Thanks to strict regulations and undue public apprehension in the West, I may just be one of them. So it may be some time yet before I can enhance my math abilities.

I'm counting the days.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, February 10, 2004.

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