Fearful New World

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Aug. 11 2001 12:00 AM

Fearful New World

A few years ago, I attended a seminar at which the featured speaker was Leon Kass, whom President Bush last night appointed to chair the new President's Council on Bioethics. Kass went on and on about the awful, creepy world that biomedical research was leading us toward. Cloning, designer babies—what a grimly prescient vision Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was turning out to be!

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During the Q and A, one of the less tactful participants provided the definitive 10-second distillation of Kass' presentation. He said to Kass: So, basically, you are opposed to genetic tinkering of various kinds "for reasons you can't quite articulate."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

In this morning's New York Times sidebar on Kass, the lead paragraph says Kass considers himself a man "not certain of many answers"; the second paragraph quotes him as adding, "I think I do know the questions." Actually, Kass is damn sure of the basic answer: We should seriously constrain potentially lifesaving research. What he doesn't know is the reason for his answer, except that when he personally peers into the future, he personally finds it really creepy. (I didn't manage to read Kass' recent New Republic essay on cloning, but the Washington Post's Richard Cohen did, and my experience with Kass gives me every reason to trust Cohen's judgment that, though Kass and his co-author call cloning unethical, they "never say why.") 

In a way, it's odd that in many highbrow circles philosophers are more highly esteemed than theologians. The religious opponents to embryonic stem-cell research are at least making a coherent argument: God had a conversation with them that he didn't have with me. I can understand that (though, frankly, I'm a little resentful). But "philosophers" like Kass often turn out to be resting their arguments on something just as private as, and in a way vaguer than, divine revelation: their unerring internal sense of what grosses them out.

The Brave New World analogy is itself a nice gauge of how much analytical detachment Kass has or hasn't mustered in pondering the future. Obviously, Huxley deserves credit for getting the designer test-tube babies part right. But during the seminar's Q and A, I asked Kass if Huxley hadn't gotten at least one thing deeply wrong. In the 1932 novel, a centralized, government-run program churns out designer babies (and brainwashes them for good measure) to meet the needs of the economy's caste system; some kids are bright, ambitious "alphas," others are dull, compliant "epsilons," and so on. This was a natural extrapolation from the world in 1932, when eugenics could happen only by central mandate (and was happening, via forced sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and so on).

But the biotech revolution inverts this logic. With parents now able to selectively implant embryos in the womb after screening them, we are approaching an age of "homemade eugenics." Given enough time, the free market—not the totalitarian state Huxley imagined—will produce genetic stratification, as some parents choose to tinker genetically and can afford to do so, and some parents either don't or can't. Eugenics, which once could happen only if centrally administered, will now happen unless centrally banned. (Or, it could be centrally moderated—if the government gave all families the financial resources to do it.)

This contrast between Huxley's world and ours strikes me as not very obscure and fairly important. Yet it seemed clear that Kass—after God-knows-how-many-years of getting God-knows-how-much conservative foundation money to think about such things—had never before considered it. Of course, considering it wouldn't have changed his dark view of the future. Still, shouldn't the man appointed to oversee the nation's bioethics soul-searching be attentive to all large and glaringly relevant factors? (This may be a particularly uncomfortable factor for him to emphasize. As a conservative, Kass is skeptical of government intervention, so stopping homemade eugenics is a much less pleasant prospect than stopping Huxley's kind of eugenics.)

Kass is said to have been a key adviser in Bush's agonized deliberations on stem-cell research. If so, we got off lucky. We at least will wind up with dozens of stem-cell lines on which to do research. Judging by the general tenor of Kass' remarks in recent years—the future is so creepy that we should radically slow its approach until people like him have spent another few decades in deep thought—one might have expected worse. (By the way, I later had a private conversation with Kass and found him to be very gracious and likable. That I'm now being so mean to him is either a testament to the importance of this issue, a testament to my mean-spiritedness, or both.)

I'm not saying there's never cause to take things slow. I could see a provisional ban on human cloning, given its currently high likelihood of producing genetic defects (a prospect that pretty much everyone, not just Kass, finds creepy). I'm just saying that the council Bush just appointed to dispassionately explore our biomedical options is about as dispassionate as his commission on whether to privatize Social Security and the commission on whether to militarize outer space. Biomedical researchers, and people afflicted with the various diseases they're trying to cure, had better get their lobbying machinery in good working order. This is going to be a long, grueling war between hope and fear.