The idea that people are born into a certain role in life is an ancient one. In fact, the idea that any member of society should be able to be anything that they want to be is a very modern invention, only really taking hold over the last couple of centuries.
Throughout most of human history a person’s role in life was largely a matter of their birth. In recent years most countries around the world have been moving away from this model, trying to create equality, ‘social mobility’ and the freedom for anyone to do and be anything that they desire. Most countries have also largely failed in this ambition, with social mobility in decline across the western world; but that does not change the fact that the prevailing ideal across much of the world is that a person’s life course should not be determined by their birth, but rather should be determined by their own actions.
Thanks to the rapid and continuing development of Genetic Science, this could all be about to change. The importance of a person’s genetics in determining their place in the world may not be an ancient idea at all – it may turn out to be the foundation stone of a new social order based on science. This radical new social order may be closer to becoming reality than you realise, and it may turn out to be more powerful, more pervasive, more radical – and perhaps more oppressive – than any previous conception of class or caste which the world has seen.
Which Way Is Progress? – A Critique of ‘Progessive Politics’
The ideals of social mobility and equality are perhaps most fully embodied in philosophy of ‘progressive politics’. Unfortunately this is confused by the fact that the term ‘progressive’ in the West is exclusively used by the left wing of politics. Of course this was the case historically and there is still some truth to this, because conservative politics has always included the desire to conserve the status quo, however, its use today obscures the original meaning of ‘progressive’. In true progressive politics, the progress referred to in the name is towards a more equal society. Today both sides of the political spectrum generally agree about the ideals of social mobility and equality of opportunity. These ideals have already become the ‘status quo’. The two sides merely disagree about how one should go about achieving them.
But is there an alternative? I would like to play devil’s advocate for you.
The first point which I would like to make is that equality has become confused with homogeneity. Equal rights and equal opportunities in today’s world is generally seen to mean identical rights and opportunities. You can see this most clearly in the movement to create equal rights for women. In general this has been based around providing equal rights for women to do the things that men have always done. And it doesn’t take into account the fact that men and women are biologically different, and that as much as we would like men and women to have the same roles in life, men still can’t get pregnant. We are all different, and perhaps our future will see the creation of a social system which accommodates, and perhaps even celebrates those differences.
The Future of Genetic Screening
Genetic science has made rapid progress over the past few decades, and that progress looks set to continue into the future. We can already test ourselves to find out whether we have genes which predispose us to certain illnesses, such as breast cancer or heart disease. This is just the beginning. Scientists are increasingly finding genes which are associated with particular abilities. Some people, for example, have been found to have what has been dubbed ‘the Hercules gene’, which gives them a remarkable ability to grow muscle and develop their strength beyond what would be possible for most of us. There is also a gene, associated with the growth of a particular type of muscle fiber, which has been found amongst a large proportion of top sprinters and other athletes. It is this ability to test for our strengths rather than our weaknesses which I believe could have the biggest impact on the way we organise our lives.
If you had a child with the perfect genetics to be amongst the top sports performers in the world, for example, would you not encourage them to make use of their potential? Now imagine what could happen as the number of different traits and potential abilities whose genetic origins are understood continues to increase. Imagine knowing that your child had a very low potential for creative abilities but a very high potential to excel at logical pursuits such as mathematics. Would you not encourage them to study maths rather than learning to play a musical instrument?
As the science continues to develop it seems inevitable to me that tests of genetic potential such as these will play an increasing role in the way that we raise and educate our children. A ‘one size fits all’ education will be replaced with a personalised education system tailored to each individual. This has the potential to increase top level performance across a wide range of vocations. As things stand, there are many people who were born with a strong genetic potential to be a top athlete, never really explored that potential – or even knew that it existed. Perhaps they came from a family which didn’t play or watch sport, went to a school which didn’t place much emphasis on sporting performance, and were always encouraged to follow more intellectual pursuits. In the future genetic profiling could allow a greater proportion of these people to explore and harness their potential.
It wouldn’t stop at athletic performance either. We do not yet know precisely which traits or potentials are strongly linked to genetics, and which may be much more strongly based on environmental factors. But is seems highly likely that, in time, a wide range of potential abilities (not actual abilities, which must be developed, but the potential to succeed in that development process) will be linked to the presence of certain genes or combinations of genes.
As I have said, this could have a profound impact on the way we raise an educate our children. Unless strong legislation was brought in to criminalise genetic profiling it is difficult to see how this trend could be halted. This is because of a simple fact – no matter what your philosophical ideas about whether or not this would be good for society as a whole, everybody wants to give their children the best possible chance to succeed in life – and this parental drive almost always carries so much importance that it overrides everything else.
But with this article I want to look as ‘far out’ as I can – to really see where genetic science could take us. And I believe that this exciting science has implications which reach out far beyond our education system.
Is A ‘New Eugenics’ Inevitable?
Genetics is, of course, closely linked to procreation. Eugenics, the science of controlling the course of human evolution through selective breeding – in much the same way that we breed animals – has fallen out of favour in today’s world. But new developments could lead to it rearing its head once again.
In the past, attempts to create Eugenic programs have been largely associated with ‘top down’ control from the state or a large organisation. The idea would be for a small group to determine who gets to breed and with whom, in order to manage the course of evolution. This approach was most dramatically, and most horrifically, used by the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler, whose attempts to create a ‘master race’ are well known.
As genetic knowledge becomes available to the general public, a ‘New Eugenics’ may emerge. This ‘new eugenics’ would not be based on a ‘top down’ control model managed by a small leadership group. It would emerge from the ‘bottom up’ as individuals themselves made use of the information available to them.
Imagine a dating agency or marriage bureau, for example, which not only allowed you to find people with compatible interests, but also compatible genetics. This may sound really futuristic – but it may not be as far off as you think. At least one dating site is already working to incorporate genetic profiling into its matching process to create a Eugenic Dating service. Of course not everybody would want to make use of such a service – but not everybody would need to for the effects to be truly profound. What I am talking about here is the possible divergence, or atomisation, of human evolution – along with its acceleration.
Generations of breeding amongst people with genetic traits offering enhanced physical performance could create a new generation of ‘super sports people’, with a physical potential that could not be matched by those who do not share their enhanced genetics. Of course the same could apply to a wide range of different talents.
A Modern Caste System – Re-Imagining Social Class
Regardless of whether large numbers of people choose to make use of genetic information when finding a partner to start a family with, the effects of the increasing availability of genetic knowledge will be the same. A person’s role in life will increasingly be determine (or significantly influenced) by their birth – by the genes which they inherit from their parents. What effect will this have on society?
A social system where people are born into a certain role in life is not, by any means, a new idea. It is one of the most ancient ideas in human history. It reaches its most detailed and extensive manifestation in the Hindu Caste system. It is also seen in the idea of social class, which has been a major part of most societies throughout history, and remains a powerful force despite sustained attempts to do away with it across the western world.
The past century and more has seen us moving away from this ancient way of organising society, in order to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to become anything. We have tried to eliminate the inheritances of a peron’s birth as determining factors for the path of their life. Perhaps in the future we will be forced to rethink this – and a new, modern caste system will emerge based on the science of genetics. Social class would not be determined by your parents wealth, but rather the genes which they passed on to you. And there would not be merely three or four ‘castes’ or ‘classes’ – it time there may be dozens, or even more.
Happiness, Desire, And Class Culture
Many people will surely be horrified by the thought of these things becoming a reality. But I like to try my best to look at things positively, and find the benefits.
Of course these ideas are kind of scary, and of course there is potential for negative consequences. But there is also an immense potential to improve society, and the individual lives of human beings. It is easy to see the benefit for people who are found to have an exceptional genetic potential for a certain lucrative and fulfilling career. But what of those who have a less fortunate genetic inheritance?
In Buddhism it is taught that desire is at the root of all suffering. If one does not wish to give up all worldly desires one may be tempted to refine this a little and suggest that unfulfilled desire is the cause of human suffering. I do not think that would be a controversial statement. To want, and to be unable to assuage that want, causes suffering.
In our world today we are taught that we can be anything. But we cannot. Only a small number of people can reach the top. Is it a good thing to encourage someone to believe that they can do something which they do not have the potential to do? I do not think so. I think that it only serves to create a desire which cannot be fulfilled. Advances in our ability to access and utilise genetic information will not change what an individual has the potential to achieve (although it could change the potential of people in general over the generations through eugenics). It only changes out ability to help people to harness the potential that they have.
And for those who do not have the potential to reach the top of a glamorous profession – will knowing this fact make their lives worse. I would suggest not. I would suggest that it allows them to make the most of the life which they are going to have, rather than wishing for a life that they cannot have. In the old days when social class was an accepted part of life, each class had their own culture. A person born into the working class may have had a low chance of reaching the top of an upper class profession – but that did not make them unhappy. It did not make them unhappy because they had never learned to want that. Instead a working class culture developed, which emphasised the importance of other things. People were proud to be working class, and happy embody the ideals of that class. Today we have a large underclass, and working class jobs can be hard for employers to fill. Everyone is raised to want more – to expect more – even if they have no potential to be more.
A new, modern, caste system based on science may be a scary thing. But maybe, just maybe, it might be more positive than we realise.