In his book The Code Breaker Walter Isaacson takes us through a mind bending thought experiment that compels us to think through the limits of free choice and state control.
“Imagine a world where genetic engineering is determined mainly by individual free choice, with few government regulations and no pesky bioethics panels telling us what’s permissible. You go into a fertility clinic and are given, as if at a genetic supermarket, a list of traits you can buy for your children. Would you eliminate serious genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s or sickle cell? Of course you would… Now let’s say there were, hypothetically, genes that predisposed a child to more likely be straight rather than gay. You’re not prejudiced, so you’d likely resist choosing that option, at least initially. But then, assuming no one was judging you, might you rationalize that you wanted your child to avoid discrimination or be a little bit more likely to produce grandchildren for you?
“Whoa!!! Something just went wrong. It really did turn out to be a slippery slope! Without any gates or flags, we might all go barreling down at uncontrollable speed, taking society’s diversity and the human genome along with us.
“Although this sounds like a scene from Gattaca, a real-world version of this baby-designing service—using preimplantation diagnosis—was launched in 2019 by a New Jersey startup, Genomic Prediction. In vitro fertilization clinics can send the company genetic samples of prospective babies. The DNA in cells from days-old embryos is sequenced to come up with a statistical estimate of the chances of developing a long list of conditions. Prospective parents can choose which embryo to implant based on the characteristics they want in their child. The embryos can be screened for single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell. The tests can also statistically predict multigene conditions, such as diabetes, heart attack risk, hypertension, and, according to the company’s promotional material, ‘intellectual disability’ and ‘height.’ Within ten years, the founders say, they are likely to be able to make predictions of IQ so that parents can choose to have very smart children…
“That might be pleasing to a parent, but we would end up in a society with a lot less creativity, inspiration, and edge. Diversity is good not only for society but for our species. Like any species, our evolution and resilience are strengthened by a bit of randomness in the gene pool.
“The problem is that the value of diversity, as our thought experiments showed, can conflict with the value of individual choice. As a society, we may feel that it is profoundly beneficial to the community to have people who are short and tall, gay and straight, placid and tormented, blind and sighted. But what moral right do we have to require another family to forgo a desired genetic intervention simply for the sake of adding to the diversity of society? Would we want the state to require that of us?”
How do you think through this? Let us know.
Fukuyama on Putin
If the Western world does not come together to stop Russia now as it mounts the assault on Ukraine, it is inevitable that all of Eastern Europe will eventually fall to Putin’s ambition, argues Francis Fukuyama in the American Purpose. This, he says, is because in Putin’s reckoning, people want democratic rule in this part of the world and he must do all he can to snuff such ambitions out.
So, Fukuyama argues, the West must ally and “apply maximal sanctions now. There can be no talk of a ‘limited’ incursion that would merit a proportionate response. These sanctions must be applied massively to the whole Soviet elite, who in the future will have to buy fancy residences in Beijing rather than London. Germany has announced that it is halting certification of the Nord Stream II pipeline, which is a good thing and more than I expected them to do. We’ve seen Moscow slicing the salami for fifteen years now, and it is the height of naivete to think that it will stop at whatever point materializes in the coming days…
“If Ukraine can democratize, then there is no reason Russia could not democratize as well, which would mean the end of Putin and Putinism. Russia does not need a ‘sphere of influence’ or a security buffer; it needs to demonstrate that democracy will fail anywhere and everywhere in its neighbourhood. To concede a Russian sphere of influence over the territories of the former Soviet Union is to consign forty million Ukrainians to dictatorship and repression.”
Resume virtues versus eulogy virtues
When Madhuri Jain Grover, wife of BharatPe founder Ashneer Grover, posted a thread on Twitter that we thought was in bad taste, we were reminded of a powerful essay by David Brooks first published in The New York Times back in 2015.
“(T)here were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
“We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
“But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity… Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”
And what may it take to be like them? “I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born—that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.”
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