Bonnie Rochman is author of “The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids — and the Kids We Have.”
This week, physicist Stephen Hawking’s posthumously published “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” foretold an otherworldly universe in which “superhumans” engineer their evolution by editing their DNA. That, in Hawking’s view, those people most equipped “to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease and length of life” would be the most well-heeled should come as little surprise.
Far be it from me to discount Hawking’s pronouncements about what future awaits humanity; I’m not here to argue that this singular intellect is wrong. But I will make the case that this race of superhumans is already upon us.
The genetic caste system that Hawking predicts is just a function of next-gen economic disparities — an evolved, scientific iteration of what already happens when people with money have the means to improve themselves and their namesakes. Self-improvement is an entire industry right now, after all, with shelves of books urging people to amp up their people skills (hire a life coach) or their abs (call the personal trainer). For those who can afford it, why not amp up their offspring?
Hawking frets about sophisticated technology being used to build better humans, but we don’t need to be able to rewrite our DNA to do that. Rather than worry about a future in which scary-smart humans roam the earth, why not consider what it means that the fortunate are already enhancing desirable characteristics in their children — and have been for a long time?
My son started Suzuki violin lessons at age 4 and today plays first-chair viola in his high school orchestra. He and three friends — two violinists and a cellist, also recipients of lessons — are so accomplished that their quartet was recently invited to play at a banquet at our city’s swankiest hotel. Another child interested in learning to play an instrument but whose parents couldn’t afford lessons would have had to wait until orchestra was offered at school. At my kids’ schools, that’s sixth grade — seven years after my son began lessons. By that point, this child is far behind in the race for first chair. My son doesn’t need to be superhuman for an unfair advantage; he’s just old-fashioned privileged.
Consider, too, how we have children in this country. Since the first U.S. baby conceived via in vitro fertilization was born in 1981, she’s been joined by at least 1 million others. At fertility clinics, where IVF is the (very expensive) gold standard, would-be parents who can’t use their own genetic material routinely choose a donor based on race, height and education — information donors share with sperm and egg banks. If you use a donor, you can select Ivy League sperm or an Oxford-educated egg; conceive traditionally and you’re stuck with gametes from the one you love, even if his or her baccalaureate isn’t quite so illustrious.
Hawking wrote that we’re embarking upon “a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA.” We’re already seeing the start of that. DNA editors such as CRISPR are being harnessed to correct defective genes. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine gave their blessing to edit the genes of human eggs, sperm or embryos when doing so is the only way to avert devastating disease. In August, scientists in China announced they had successfully used CRISPR to repair a mutation that causes Marfan syndrome.
The technology can theoretically be used for enhancements, although it’s a good bit more challenging. Multiple genes determine traits such as intelligence or musical ability; they’re complex, making it trickier to figure out which genes to tweak and by how much to ensure that your child breezes through AP Chemistry.
Trickier, but not impossible.
“Once such superhumans appear,” Hawking wrote, “there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant.”
For now, we don’t seem too keen to engineer superhumanity. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in July, only 19 percent of Americans think it’s acceptable to edit for intelligence. But it doesn’t take a Stephen Hawking to see that we already live in a world of “significant political problems” and underprivileged humans who increasingly “won’t be able to compete.”
We can spend time worrying about tomorrow’s turbocharged human race. Technological advances are shuttling us in that direction, and our bent toward self-improvement means today’s 19 percent is likely to tick up. But perhaps the best way to head off the dystopia that Hawking lays out is not to fret over a far-off future, but rather concern ourselves with the economic inequity that has long been encoded in our society’s DNA.