14. Access to the Resource Genetic Optimization
Human societies entail hierarchies that are taken as a matter of course for the organization of human societies and living together. To what extent prehistoric human groups, who lived as hunter-gatherers, were forming hierarchies, is hard to tell due to the lack of written testimony. However, with sedentism hierarchies were forming. Equality became a central societal value in the last 200 years and in the last 50 years of the 20th century societies indeed had tendencies to becoming more equal (at least superficial). However, we should not assume this development to always continue in the same direction. Instead, the signs of extreme concentration of wealth and power become higly visible (106). Even in economically strong states it becomes more and more difficult to hide the injustice in the distribution of wealth with the “trickle down” narrative.
The position of an individual in a society may depend on several factors, but descendance and wealth play important roles. Power is being passed on within feudalsystems and in families, not only in the past, but also today. The social position within an at least partly meritocratic society can be promoted on the individual level through acquisition of education, qualifications and training. Advancement through education is one of the most important promises of a society that idealises equal opportunities.
A genetic superiority of certain groups was was proclaimed again and again, for example by the Spanish colonists, who conquered South America or the National Socialists, who proclaimed the superiority of the “Germanic-Arian” race. However these were ideological pretensions and not ascertainments of real genetically based differences. For around 40,000 years, since the extinction of the Neanderthals, all human individuals belong to one species, Homo sapiens.
For most of the around 300,000 years of Homo sapiens’ existence, we can only speculate about social structures. In contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, specialisations (professions) are hardly pronounced and the societies appear much more egalitarian and less hierarchical than sedentary cultures (40). Probably, most of the existence of Homo sapiens, social structures were more egalitarian than social structures in societies that had undergone the Neolithic Revolution with sedentism and agriculture.
The time after the Neolithic Revolution (in Europe for around 3000 years, in some places of the world around 12-14,000 years) is the domain of archaeologists and eventually, for cultures with written testimony, historians. In contrats to palaeontologists, who are dealing with millions of years of human development, archaeologists and historians are very picky and are only interested in the very short part at the right end of the timeline.
For historians who believe in the importance of enlightenment the following picture emerges: Hierarchies and social injustice that characterized human societies for millenia since sedentism, were questioned in the last few hundred years by the new social values of equality and justice. Before, in most human cultures, hierarchies and injustice were accepted as natural and given by divine powers and usually the position in the social fabric was predefined by birth.
Certainly, the world in the 21st century is far away from being a fair world, but at least the idea of equal opportunities and justice forms the political discourse. Regarding biological value, all humans are seen as of equal value, racism is being rejected. Unequal values of human beings are thus exclusively due to social and economic factors.
In human history, racist arguments were again and again used for legitimizing robbery of land and resources and genocide. For the settlers in America, the Native Americans were considered an inferior race, whom one could drive off their lands or murder, if it served the establishment of settlement areas. With Homo sapiens being the last surviving human species, racist hierarchies of value do not hold from a scientific point of view. With the disappearance of Denisovians and Neanderthals, all human beings on earth belong to the same race. All Homo sapiens and can be regarded as of equal value (not as being equal – then they would be clones of each other). With the foreseeable possibilities to modify the human genome and implement “improvements”, the genetic equality of value may soon become obsolete. Unless such interventions can be internationally banned and prevented. If Homo sapiens starts actively modyfing the human genome, genetic inequalities will emerge that may lead to questioning the genetic equality of value and soon there will indeed be superior and in comparison, inferior human species. The factors that determine the access to genetic optimization of humans, will be crucial for the coming developments. Depending to which group-defining factors the access to genetic optimization is linked, genetic inequalities between countries or between classes will emerge (80).
Linkage to Wealth
With the currently globally dominating neoliberal economic system, it seems most likely that the access to genetic optimization (self-optimization or optimization of offspring) will depend on wealth. Maybe among those, who can afford it, the immoderate and unscrupulous may “advance genetically” fast. The greed for money and status will be supplemented by the greed for genetic superiority. Genetic optimization that is linked to wealth will thus have a double heritable component: Firstly, optimizing germline modifications will lead to “better genes” being passed on, and secondly, the material and monetary wealth will be passed on, opening up more opportunities to make use of modern medical and genetic procedures.
Genetic optimization of humans in a state may appear as exaggerating ethno-racial nationalism and thus be widely rejected in the current zeitgeist. Nevertheless, the state as stratifiying category for genetic optimization efforts seems self-evident. Other nations do not have such a historical burden as Germany, which would make the genetic improvement of their citizens more socially acceptable and not as far fetched as our zeitgeist would suggest.
Worldwide, social systems of modern macroeconomies are linked to the organizational level “state” (nation). In individualized modern western societies, the solitary human can not count on natural solidary systems such as family, larger family or even clan or tribal structures. Instead, the state has become the most important organizational level for solidary and social systems. In Germany, for example, the retirement pension system is organized via the „Deutsche Rentenversicherung“ on the level of the state. Lower levels are certainly involved for implementing the system and some systems such as the pension funds for doctors are organised on Federal Land level, however there are coordinating bodies on the nation level that assure fair distribution of funds.
With the state or the nation being the most important organisational level for solidary-systems and the distribution of resourcens (economic, but maybe one day genetic resources), the question, who belongs to the state becomes organisationally relevant. Who belongs to which social-system and will receive support in case of need? Should support and payments be purely according to needs or also take the magnitide of contribution into account that the individual brought to the solidary-system over the years? The recent admission of hundred thousands of immigrants in Germany has made the addressing of such questions an important political challenge for our society. In the 20th century the state or the nation was the most important level of political organization. The history of the 20th century also demonstrates the problems that go along with glorification of the nation. In the German empire the most important solidary systems such as health and pension insurance schemes emerged in the 20th century and became a role model for solidary systems in many other countries. The scientific and technological progress in Germany in the 20th century was impressive, either. However, the ethnically (“völkisch”) defined German nation also became the discrimination level for wars and murderous selective eugenics, that were based on elaborate racial selection theories. Following the crimes of the Third Reich, the German people experienced international ostracism, which translated into a guilt complex that was passed on to the following generations. Therefore, it is difficult for us to talk about ethnic differences in the world, and also talking about the nation or the national state, that organizes political and solidary systems, is something we Germans do not really like.
Long before solidary systems were organized on the national level, the military belonged to state apparatuses. State-level organized armies made wars develop their full destructive power manifesting as “total wars”, which also fully affected civilians, for example during the Thirtiy years war in the 17th century. Also, nowadays the competition between states dominates the world-political agenda. If the citizens of a country want a conflict with another country, does not play a role. The democratic elements in representative democracies are restricted to legitimation rituals, such as elections, but do not allow for participation in essential political decisions such as the ones over war and peace (107, 108).
A genetic arms race, trying to optimize the gene pool on the level of the national state, could only be a matter of time (or could have already started). I leave it to the reader to speculate, which states participate and how a genetic arms race could play out. It seems obvious that reluctance in fostering and using genetic optimization methods, may quickly lead to a genetic backlog compared to other nations. Consequently, even if there is a broad rejection of genetic optimization in the population, the leaders of a state may feel forced to “participate”.
The eugenically motivated crimes in Nazi Germany took their pseudoscientific legitimization from a deeply racist ideology. Therefore, here in Germany it is hard for us to imagine that racist criteria could yet again define a new eugenic movement, this time driven by targeted genome manipulation. Although, legislation all over the world has banned racist discrimination, racism still plays a role in human interaction (or in making it difficult). Multiethnic societies are very common, for example on the African continent, where borders had been drawn by colonial powers without taking existing tribal areas into account. In such multiethnic states, the inner circles of power are often composed of members of the ethnic group of powerful persons, such as the president. Accordingly, clientele policy in favour of a certain ethnic group is very common (109). The ethnic group of a person is more important, for the distribution of power (also for elections) than political programmes. Civil wars, such as the civil war following the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990’s, are still fought along ethnic-nationalistic separation lines. Most obvious were the ethnic- separation lines between Hutus and Tutsis in the Rwandan civil war. The propaganda narratives were racist without inhibition and culminated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which cost around 1 million human lives (110).
This makes it sometimes difficult for German peace-researchers: The rejection of racism is something we certainly have to welcome, when it comes to guiding a society in ethical and moral terms. However, for describing wars and civil wars one needs to recognize ethnic separation lines. The word race is then usually replaced by ethnic group.
All human beings living today belong to the species Homo sapiens and have strong (>99%) genetic agreement. Certainly, we are not all entirely identic (this would be the case, if we would reproduce by clonal propagation with passing on of complete unchanged genomes over the generations). There are genetic differences between individuals (except for monozygotic twins, whose genomes are indeed identical). Within an ethnic group, the genetic differences are weaker than in comparison to the rest of mankind.
Unfortunately, differences between ethnic groups make genetically targeted weapons of mass destruction thinkable, if their point of attack is found in a certain genetic group, but not in others. Apart from obvious legal, ethical and moral obstacles, the use of weapons of mass destruction is also hindered by rational-strategic reasoning. In particular, the group that uses weapons of mass destruction has to consider the infliction of possible self-harm (by being exposed to the own weapon or the counter strike of the other side). The vile aspect of a genetically targeted weapon of mass destruction would be the fact, that in contrast to all other weapons of mass destruction, the danger of self-harming would be eliminated, thus eliminating one of the most important preventive factors.
Less destructively-extreme than ethnically discriminating bioweapons are optimizing interventions into the genome of a certain genetic group. With states and societies becoming less and less ethnically homogenous, optimization campaigns that concentrate on a certain ethnic group, would lead to separation lines within a society, to the point of an emergent system of ethnic castes. Personally, I think that the discriminating lines for such genetic optimization will rather run along wealth differences than along ethnic differences.
A thinkable optimization that could be envisaged, is the prolongation of life time. Such optimizing life prolonging interventions are most likely accessible to rich people.
Ray Kurzweil, the head oft he development department at Google and millionaire, wants to become immortal. Not in the sense of remaining in collective memory forever, but in the literal sense: Immortal. He wants to live forever and counts on exponential progess in the fields of medicine, gene-technology and nano-technology in the coming years. However, it could become quite a tough race against time for him. Born in 1948, he had surpassed his 70th year of life in 2018. The terminal regions of our chromosomes, the so-called telomeres, with each cell-division become shorter and shorter the longer we live and lose more and more of their chromosome-stabilizing and protecting functions. If our genome ages, a method to rejuvenate the genome needs to be found for Ray Kurzweil, unless he is ok with living on with the genome of an old or even very old man, once a method has been found to abolish his death.
For Ray Kurzweil the question remains, if he manages to live long enough to harvest the methotodological breakthroughs, he is hoping for to make him live forever. He, himself, counts on three bridges to immortality (111):
Bridge 1 (now)
The objective of the first bridge ist avoiding the most common causes of death, which according to Kurzweil are
- Imbalancaes of the acid-base metabolism
- Blood sugar regulation imbalances due to overly carbonhydrate-rich diet
Accordingly, bridge 1 consists of a healthy life style with healthy, carbon-hydrate poor diet with avoidance of sugar-, acid- and alcohol- containing drinks and a balanced exercise regime.
In order to cross the bridges to immortality in best shape, Kurzweil invests substantial efforts to live healthy and invests thousand of dollars per day for allegedly healthy food, food supplements and all kind of pills, while counting on the technologies for bringing him immortality to emerge in time.
Bridge 2 (2025-2030)
With the second bridge, biotechnology comes into play, which due to breathtaking progress would soon contribute to live-prolonging measures and ultimately immortality. From the pharmacological side, Kurzweil soon expects a drug to be available that will optimize the energy metabolism of the body, so that excess uptake of calories will not lead to artherosclerosis, diabetes and other diseases of affluence anymore. As a predecessor of a “sin-free gluttony pill“, he sees a drug that prevents excess food uptake by simulating the body the uptake of a meal, make it burn fat, optimize the sugar metabolism and contain inflammatory processes. According to Kurzweil, a drug named “Fexaramin” showed promising results in mice.
To me this drug sounds like an attractive substance for a person with an anorectic eating disorder, but for which the health benefit still needs to be demonstrated. Heroine addicts also do lose weight…
For those who consider pharmacological measures to be old-fashioned, Kurzweil offers other approaches: Genetically modified cells that are sensitive for elevated blood-fat levels and confer a saturation sensation to the body. Mice that had been overfed to become obese, and who, after implementation of these cells, were offered the same food regiment, were eating significantly less and lossed their obesity (112).
Brücke 3 (um 2045)
The third bridge to immortality for Kurzweil is the integration of technological and biotechnological elements into human beings. Cell-sized nanorobots would support body functions, fight infections, repair damages and deterioration and plug in genetic adaptations according to needs. The fusion of technologies with body functions, will also provide targeted improvements and enable the implementation of new capabilities, such as breathing under water. Human-network interfaces combine the stored computer knowledge with cognitive prozesses of the human brain, so that our brain can retrieve knowledge that is stored extracerebral (e.g. in the Internet).
Kurzweil offers a questionnaire that shall lead to specific recommendations for individual needs. As I enjoy good food and whine and value the quality of life, I derive from them, I abstained from looking into the details of the questionnaire. The diet supplementary packages displayed on the internet page next to the questionnaire, did not appeal to me in a way a conventional dinner in a comfortable athmosphere does.
Prognoses are difficult, especially if they refer to the future. If we today look at future scenarios of the past from the beginning of the 20th century, with flying cars, we may find them amusing, but realise that maybe some elements of these scenarios have become true. Overall, we have to realise that such scenarios could hardly be more distant from the reality as it has manifested. However, it seems very likely that modifications and optimizations of the human being are only a matter of time, even though they may play out very different from what Kurzweil and other prophets of the future thought they would be. An inevitable consequence of optimizations of the human being seems to be the question, who should be entitled to benefit from them, under which circumstances and at whose costs? If all people lived longer, or even became immortal, but kept on reproducing, the world would soon become a very crowded place. The rich and the privileged, who will most likely have the first and easiest access to live prolongation or immortality, would have an interest to deny this access to the larger part of mankind. Or, phrased differently: The life years won by privileged people would be balanced through life years taken aways from other people.
Nowadays, birth control is less perceived in its racist-selecting interpretation, but rather as a demographic concept for quantitative reproduction limitation. With 7.6 billion human beings, our planet may already carry more Homo sapiens than is good for mankind. Birth control in the sense of quantitative moderation of reproduction in world regions with high population growths such as Africa, the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent seems reasonable especially in the interest of the people living there. Africa will more than double its population between 2015 and 2050 from 1.2 to 2.5 billion people. On the Indian subcontinent population growth has already ceased, however population density on this subcontinent is already very high. In 2019, India had a population density of 419 inhabitants per km2, Bangladesch of 1105 Einwohner per km2. In both countries, population growth has declined to 1%, which would (if it continued at this level) still mean a doubling of population within 70 years. In the future, land on the Indian subcontinent may get lost in the fertile and densely populated river deltas, be it because of rising sea levels, be it because of sinking lands due do depletion of groundwater stocks and weight of buildings. Flooding by the sea may destroy agricultural areas by saltification.
We may have to recognize that birth control and family planning requirements are different in different geographical regions and in different populations. In regions striken with deficit and poverty already, limiting further population growth seems urgently recommendable also to be resilient with regards to catastrophies. At the same time, population growth in Europe, Russia and Japan lies far under the level of 2.1 women per children required to maintain the current population size (without migration) (113). Here, a higher birth rate would even be welcome.
The word birth control sounds a bit authoritarian, as if it had to be a forced measure directed from above. In European countries, however, numbers of births decline with the integration of the female population into the workforce. The feminist ideology saw this as a successful act of liberation. For capitalist economies of western countries, an enormous increase in the available workforce became manifest. Family life was more and more disregarded and the profession became the centre of fullfillment in life. For the economies the supply of staff increased and wages ceased, wich triggered economic growth (that again balance the wages towards increase). The original act of liberation through integration into the work force has turned from a possibility to an economic necessity.
In Western European countries the fertility parameters have fallen under the level of 2.1 women per children required to maintain the current population size. In Germany in 2019, around 1.5 children per woman were born. This is already a clear increase compared to the 1,3 for German women without migration background. If the integration of the immigrants into the German society and the participation in the labour market works out, it is expected that the fertility of immigrants also declines.
The demographic developments in Iran are quite remarkable. In 1988 after the murderous Irak-Iran war, a census revealed a population growth of 3.9%, which was regarded as alarmingly high back then. It was feared that such a population growth could lead to poverty, hunger and environmental destruction. Iranian demographers managed to convince the religious leaders of the country that a high fertility was not in the country’s interest anymore. The government started a “quality of life campaign” with family planning courses, free contraception, which was easily accessible and an educational initiative that raised the educational level of young women, especially in rural regions. The currently slow population increase is entirely due to immigration, especially from Afghanistan, so that recently Iranians shall be encouraged to get more children again (114).
„Science made us deadly“ is written in the inner book-cover of Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens”. Having a positive attitude towards science, I did not really like this phrase. As already with the admirable insights of the 20th century physicists, that brough mankind new views of the world, but also the atom bomb, we also have to fear that progress in biotechnologies may be decoupled from ethics and morals. With regards to ten thousands of death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the thinkable potential extinction of mankind through weapons of mass destruction, I concede to 16th and 17th century clerics of the catholic church, that banning scientific insights and standing in the way of progress may not always be morally wrong. Science is not free of external interests.
People in positions of power tend to make use of science and technology for military applications for subjugation or destruction of competing groups or peoples. Nazi-Germany had a dubious pioneering role in scientific efforts to physiologically optimize soldiers. After 1945, these impulses were more or less gratefully taken up and carried forward by the US army. Back then, gene-technological interventions were not possible, yet. However, the Nazis tried hard to pharmacologically improve the fighting power of soldiers and bestowed mankind with amphetamins that are still popular as stimulant drugs. The amphetamin pervitin was used by the Wehrmacht to make soldiers fearless and overcome tiredness and exhaustion. However, it soon became obvious that a mission under the influence of pervetin was followed by extreme exhaustion and soldiers needed several days to recover (115).
The CIA-programme MKULTRA, that ran from 1953 to 1970 built on previous works of the Nazis. Objectives of MKULTRA were to develop methods for mind control and for knocking out an individual’s ability to conceal or spin facts or lie (for example develop a truth serum). Human experiments without the participants knowing, that they were the object of an experiment and certainly without their informed consent were an integral component of the MKULTRA programme. All kind of substances, such as LSD or mescalin were tested on patients, soldiers and prison inmates and severe adverse events with lasting health damage and deaths occurred. The proceedings were investigated in the Mid-1970s by the Church Committee of the US-Congress. The Church Committee was established for investigating activities of American secret services and the final report can be found on the internet, however due to ist lengths may only be of interest for specialized historians (116). The interested lay person may simply read the wikipedia article about the Church Committee or the MKULTRA project. Certainly, a Wikipedia article about dubious doings of powerful organisations will always be a target for the spin doctors of corresponding interest groups. Nevertheless, these articles (although they are surely sugarcoated) suffice to lose all illusions that modern states act for the good of their citizens and that the menachnisms for controlling abuse of power and protecting individual liberty and self determination work reliably.
We tend to dispose such proceedings as historical events from a (less moral) past and assume that political systems have improved through experience and through workups of wrong-doings, such as the Church Committee report. This is probably an illusion owed to the Status Quo bias, which is embedded in all human beings. We tend to perceive the condiction of our society, the society in which we live, as just, moral and legitimized (117). Therefore, we see this condition as desirable for other people, too. War propaganda can make good use of this Status Quo bias, especially nowadays, when racist supremacy can’t be used anymore. In modern war propaganda, the motive of the evil dictator, who suppresses the people is being combined with the idea of bringing the desirable conditions of our own society to the (target) country (108). We therefore have to assume that illegal, reckless, brutal and immoral actions of powerful organisations from politics and secret services are normal and are taking place. Uncovering such criminal activities is being pursued by the state apparatus (take the handling of the contemporary civil-rights activists Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning). Not the people, who commit the actual crimes are being pursued, but the people who shed light onto the crimes and report about crimes in public. Edward Snowden nailed these conditions with a very insightful quote: “When exposing a crime is treated as committing a crime, you are ruled by criminals”.
In the beginning 21st century, the biggest military with the most powerful military-industrial complex exists in the United States of America. Correspondingly the military is (directly or indirectly) one of the biggest third-party grant suppliers for science in the USA. The US-military also has great interest in modern gene-technological methods that enable the targeted modification of organisms and also of the human genome. Biological improvements of a soldier’s service capabilities, for example stronger muscle power, power of endurance, reduced sleep requirements or improved senses (e.g. infrared night vision) are only some items on the wishlist for developing the “Universal Sodier”. Along with these physical optimization measures for elevating fighting capacities, psychological modifications may be of strategic interest, when wanting to genetically optimize a soldier. Such psychological features could be psychological resilience and the ability to overcome psychological traumata, but also a good controllability with disinhibition and unscrupulousness, when this seems advantageous. One can assume that such research and development activities remain in the hiding, and are top secret. The non-secret projects are probably only the tip of the iceberg, which is already considerable. The project “Living Foundries 1000 Molecules” searches for biomolecules and biochemical materials for the construction of a Syn-Bio based (defence-) industry and has a financial volume of 110 million US-dollars from the “Department of Defence“(118).
The overall expenses for “defence” of the USA in 2018 were 649 billion US-dollars, followed by China with 250 billion US-dollars and Saudi Arabia with 67,6 billion US-dollars (119). Russia follows on the 6th rank with 61,5 billion US-dollars and Germany on the 8th rank with 49,5 billion US-dollars. The current german rulers aim to increase the expenses for weapons to 80 billion US-dollars in 2025, which corresponds to a doubling of expenses compared to 2014.