I never expected to write the above words as I don’t particularly hold Tory sympathies, but The Guardian did such a stupid disappointing mud-slinging job with this article that I feel I have no choice but to speak up.
First of all, Cummings was thinking out loud. More people should do that as it’s very useful and it’s impossible to have good ideas if you don’t allow yourself to have bad ideas as well. He’d been to an event, in 2014, and he rambled on about what he had heard and what he thought. There is nothing wrong with that per se.
People object to (talking about) “designer babies” but nobody defines it.
I define a designer baby as any baby that is chosen over any other baby or embryo or zygote that would have been viable and would have been able to live into adulthood.
We’ve been making designer babies for decades!
In some countries, people with Down syndrome no longer occur because they’ve been eradicated from the population while they become city councillors and get degrees in other countries.
We used to lock people up and deprive them of normal life experiences because they were different (and we still do, in fact, also in the UK). That kind of treatment would hold anyone back.
“Treat people as if they were what they should be, and you help them become what they are capable of becoming,” Goethe is supposed to have said or, more likely, written a long time ago. Hold someone back and you condemn the person to a life of limitations.
We’ve also seen this happen for women. One of the two founders of the British-born philosophy of utilitarianism considered women “disabled” by society.
Not that long ago, women were not allowed to go to university and not allowed to do many other things, such as have a bank account, own property or run a business.
In March 2017, expert Wendy Savage (a gynaecologist and professor at Cambridge University) allegedly stated in an interview with the Daily Mail that a pregnant woman should always be told the sex of the fetus and should be allowed to abort the fetus if she does not like the baby’s sex.
That too is about designer babies, about picking the pink handbag, not the blue one.
The British celeb who flew to Cyprus because she could pick her baby’s sex (gender) there and was not allowed to do that in the UK, she wanted a designer baby on the basis of her mistaken belief that sex is an either/or switch.
There are several countries in the world in which male children are currently preferably allowed to come into the world at the expense of female children and it’s already changing these countries’ populations too. (That is how we know it is happening.)
Back to Cummings.
At one point in that blog post, he wrote very clearly that he did not have the required knowledge to be able to assess some of what he was writing about:
“There is a great deal of Hsu’s paper – and the subject of IQ and heritability generally – that I do not have the mathematical skills to understand.”
He wrote the word “egg” when he clearly meant “zygote” or “embryo”, and he did not mention that IQ is a relative measure.
But he did mention “junk DNA” which was once mistakenly believed to be just that. Useless junk.
And he also wrote:
“If the poor cannot do the same, then the rich could quickly embed advantages and society could become not only more unequal but also based on biological classes. One response is that if this sort of thing does become possible, then a national health system should fund everybody to do this. (I.e. It would not mandate such a process but it would give everybody a choice of whether to make use of it.)”
He did write:
“The latter will rightly make people deeply worried, given our history, and clearly require extremely serious public debate. One of the reasons I wrote my essay was to try to stimulate such debate on the biggest – and potentially most dangerous – scientific issues. By largely ignoring such issues, Westminster, Whitehall, and the political media are wasting the time we have to discuss them so technological breakthroughs will be unnecessarily shocking when they come.”
I am sure that there is a lot about Cummings’ thinking that I don’t agree with, but neither am I pleased with this childish article in The Guardian.
All over the world, bioethicists are talking about these kinds of topics and you can’t do that effectively if you don’t consider all the angles.
The old eugenics is still continuing. The new eugenics has been with us for a while but is really accelerating now with CRISPR.
I participated in an EDX course by Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen who also heads the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, in which we all (about 200 of us) thought hard about these difficult matters.
I have a course on Udemy in which I also challenge people to come up with positive effects of doing something as well as negative effects, in terms of the new eugenics.
If you want an example of this kind of thinking exercise, then consider that eradicating all women from society would eradicate menstrual pain and the majority of breast cancers whereas others might say that women are defective humans anyway, hence that society doesn’t need women and if you couple the latter with continued technological progress, which would make even the biological requirement for having women drop away, you can see a world without women in the future.
If you find this upsetting, then maybe you should remind yourself that we have had no problem applying the same kind of logic with regard to for example people with Down syndrome.
We need to talk about this because we are all biased by definition and unless we are all willing to ponder and discuss these very difficult topics and from all possible angles and reach a consensus, a handful of highly biased people will make up our minds for us.
That could be people like Julian Savulescu at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, whose ideas may even be more extreme than those of Cummings (which sadly sometimes obscures the fact that Savulescu also occasionally has brilliant ideas that are much more in line with Michael Sandel’s take on these issues).
It’s why I wrote a book about this stuff. Not because I have all the answers but because I don’t.
Instead of criticizing Cummings over this post, people should follow the example of Cummings and start thinking about this stuff and weighing in.
NOTE: When I say that we need to reach a global consensus regarding the new eugenics, I don’t mean “this month” or even “this year, or decade” but am thinking longer term.