Thursday, May 30, 2013

The race to avoid "Idiocracy"

By Martin Hutchinson

Mike Judge's 2006 movie masterpiece "Idiocracy" painted a future in which differential fertility between the middle classes and the underclass in 500 years produced a U.S. population of knuckle-dragging intelligence, allied to a popular culture whose debasement had reached its ultimate destination. Meanwhile, with the first successful cloning of a human embryo by the Oregon Health and Science University we may have entered the period of philosophical discussion and legal results thereof which determines whether "Idiocracy" is just a playful fantasy or an accurate portrayal of our future.

The effect of differential fertility is arithmetical and has nothing to do with the virtue of the people concerned. If the top half of the population, with an average IQ (or whatever other measure you choose to measure ability) of 115 has half the number of children of the other half, with an average IQ of 85, and reversion to the mean is 50%, then the next generation will have an average IQ of 97.5 rather than 100. That's the "Idiocracy" effect and in modern western societies it's quite strong, as it is between the West and poor countries with high birth rates and, these days, access to modern medicine.

Countering this is the Flynn Effect, whereby IQ test scores in Western countries have been increasing since testing began around 1930, by about 3 points per decade at the upper end of estimates. This makes perfect sense; while the aristocracy had a stimulating environment in the 19th century, poor people had poor nutrition, little stimulation and a high exposure to infectious diseases. In the past half century, on the other hand, adequate nutrition has become universal, many diseases have been conquered and films, radio, TV and the Internet, whatever their vices, have given poor youngsters a wealth of stimulatory experiences unimaginable to their ancestors.  You'd expect the majority's IQs to improve.

However if the Flynn Effect continued today as strong as it was, and extended to the middle classes as well as the poor, at 3 points per decade I should have been unable to cope with my son's college calculus course examples (he is 42 years younger than me) whereas in fact I found them perfectly straightforward. There is indeed considerable evidence that the Flynn effect is now dying out, with IQ scores beginning to decline in Britain since 1980 – suggesting that the temporary Flynn effect is being overwhelmed by the longer-term Idiocracy Effect.

You'd expect this. The propaganda about the Millennial Generation, skulking unemployed in their mothers' basements, being able to console themselves that they are the best educated generation in history, is unfortunately rubbish – they are merely the generation with the most paper qualifications. Both my parents, educated in state schools, studied Milton's "Paradise Lost" in high school; there was none of that in my private school 30 years later, while my son, within the last decade, never progressed in literature beyond the wooly maunderings of randomly-chosen South American communists. The education system has been dumbed down, and the unfortunate Millennials are now finding themselves unemployable in consequence.

There are a number of possible reasons why the human race may not see the year 3,000, but perhaps the most depressing possibility is that they may see it but not be able to count that far.  2.5 or even 1.5 IQ points lost per generation takes you pretty close to zero in a thousand years, and while our descendants, swinging from the few remaining trees, may at last lose the Idiocracy differential, re-establishing civilization will be very difficult for them with natural resources depleted and non-functional electronic clutter all over the place.

Genetic engineering, if entered into carefully, is potentially a solution to this problem. Not that more than a tiny percentage of people will ever be cloned, but those cloned will tend to be the very intelligent, the intelligent and successful, or those with special abilities in other directions. Needless to say, this will improve the human gene pool, especially at the top end where the major scientific, cultural and economic advances can be expected to arise. Adding the potential to tweak the genes before cloning them would merely increase the leavening effect.

There are of course many difficulties both scientific and philosophical in getting from here to there. In particular, two philosophical objections arise when cloning is discussed in the West: that it is itself immoral and that it cannot be undertaken without experimentation, which would inevitably produce imperfectly cloned individuals in the early stages.

Taking the second objection first, this is indeed a serious problem for an individual researcher or laboratory. While many defects of the process may be ironed out at the embryo stage, some will unavoidably slip through and there will thus be produced maybe a few dozen cloned individuals with defects, whether unexpected diseases or mental abnormalities or wretchedly shortened lifespans. For an individual or a private laboratory, this may seem an insuperable obstacle to the necessary work.

It is not however an insuperable obstacle to a government. Governments send people to their deaths all the time in the cause of the "greater good," whether military personnel being sent into battle or firemen, policemen or other "first responders" being sent to deal with perilous situations of all kinds. Governments have also in the past conducted dangerous experiments with inadequate safeguards – the entire Manhattan Project, for example exposed its workers to levels of radiation that would now be considered intolerable. Once the necessary scientific knowledge is available (and we are probably a few years off that stage yet) a government could therefore in good conscience mandate a private laboratory to carry out the work that would bring reproductive cloning into reality.

Given the current state of public opinion and the political forces involved, it's unlikely that a U.S. or European government would sponsor cloning research; indeed they are more likely to attempt to make it illegal. However the overall objection to cloning derives largely from the Judaeo-Christian attitude to human life (which may be shared by Islam.) It does not extend to Asian religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. Just as Japanese companies have made greater use of fuzzy logic systems than Westerners, because of Western homage to "crisp" philosophers such as Aristotle and Descartes, so the philosophical barriers to cloning, which produce fierce opposition in the West, should produce much less opposition in countries with different philosophical traditions.

China, Japan, South Korea and India all have sufficient technological capability to attempt cloning within a few years of it becoming feasible in the West, and the governments of those countries are well able to lead a program through the initial troublesome research. It thus seems inevitable that by 2050 and quite possibly by 2030 the genie will be out of the bottle; cloning technology will exist and the initial difficulties and unpleasantnesses surrounding it will have been overcome.

Opponents of cloning will produce a litany of phobias from old science fiction movies, stretching from Frankenstein to The Boys from Brazil, in which Dr. Mengele produced 94 clones of Hitler. As with most technologies, there is always the possibility of a James Bond villain misusing them. But in the real world, creating (say) an army of clones would be impossibly expensive, precisely as expensive, time-consuming and pointless as creating a hidden army from ordinary babies.   We can easily imagine in theory evil governments misusing cloning; in practice there seems little advantage to them doing so. Most such nightmares can be avoided altogether by opening the technology fully to the private sector.

Once the initial technical problems of cloning have been solved, the private market will take over if legally permitted to do so. Self-cloning will be extremely attractive for those successful men and women who discover late in life that they have omitted to have children. It won't just be the ultra-rich that undertake it. Just as genetic sequencing can now be purchased for less than $1,000, so genetic reproduction will be available at a cost far below that of a 4-year college degree. For the successful person, it will be a better deal; instead of paying to put a child through college whose intelligence may have regressed to the mean, he or she will be able to create a reproduction that will have their own intelligence, and their own ability to make it into the Ivy League on a full scholarship. If legal restrictions make the technique unavailable in the United States, the world is a small place even for the middle class, and the business opportunity will be too attractive for Asian entrepreneurs to pass up.

The next technique, of tweaking the gene before cloning it to produce even more attractive cloned beings, will cause yet further ethical hand-wringing, but is probably for the next generation to worry about. There are undoubtedly questions here, notably "What is humanity?" that will need to be answered (they don't need to be answered for ordinary cloning which is merely the generation of an identical twin.)

We can now see more clearly than could our ancestors that industrialization, as well as its immense benefits, has had costs, the most important of which has been the explosion in population since 1800, and the consequent proletarianization of global culture. We now have the ability to mitigate some of these costs, through a further scientific advance. We almost certainly cannot avoid this advance altogether, so it's important that we recognize its own costs and benefits, and prevent crass politics from placing too many obstacles to its thoughtful development.


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