Monday, April 20, 2009

Out of the Bottle

Any good libertarian is familiar with the term “statist”, referring to people who have an exaggerated belief in the value of large government. A term that sounds similar, but is very different, is the term “stasist.” A stasist is someone who believes that things are pretty much fine the way they are (or at least some things are), and shouldn’t be allowed to change. An example of a “stasist” would be someone who advocates arbitrary restrictions on hiring and firing, in an attempt to keep things the way they are, and prevent change. There are many other examples.

While stasists abound in the political arena, stasists completely dominate in the area of human genetics. Everyone thinks things are pretty much fine, and if you suggest otherwise, people look at you funny. Trust me on that one!

Before going forward, there’s an annoying tendency during these discussions for people to say something like “But your environment has a lot to do with it!” They say it as though it’s relevant to the conversation, which it rarely is. The characteristics that people manifest are almost invariably a combination of genetics and environment. For this discussion, I am only referring to the genetic component of what gets manifested, and not making any claim that genetics determines everything.

It doesn’t. But it matters a lot more than many people are willing to admit.

There are three areas of human genetics where we need to break out of the stasist attitude. We will eventually do so in any case, but the sooner the better. They are:


This is one of the few things that has improved substantially in the transition from Bush 43 to Obama. It’s not that cloning is really that important, as an end in itself. Many people would enjoy cloning their favorite pet, and I might not mind raising a clone of myself at some point in the future, but that’s peripheral. Cloning’s real value is as a tool. It’s one way to obtain an individual’s stem cells, which can then be used for numerous medical objectives. But much more importantly, if we’re going to be working to make genetic improvements, as I strongly suggest we should, it will be invaluable to have multiple copies of identical base material.


We are programmed to die, and it doesn’t have to be that way. At the ends of our strands of DNA, there’s something called a “telomere”, sort of an “end cap” to the DNA strand, that holds the strand together. Every time the DNA strand divides, a little bit of the telomere is stripped off. When it degrades too far, the cell dies. What we see as aging is the outward manifestation of that DNA degeneration, and cell death.

There’s an upside to this, of course. If cells can divide and divide for ever and ever, that can be bad too. We call it “cancer”.

Early in our evolution, this balance was not a problem. The vast majority of people died from other causes long before aging kicked in as the limiting factor. So, cancer was prevented (most of the time) in a way that, practically speaking, had no real consequences.

Things are different now, and a very substantial fraction of our population now dies from DNA degeneration…from aging. We can fix that, but in order to do it, we need a concerted effort to understand how this mechanism works, at the molecular biology level. To find solutions, we need to tinker…try this, try that…and see what works. And see what doesn’t. A stasist attitude toward the human genome will not allow that, and the overwhelming stasist tendency in this regard must be overcome.


This is the issue that tends to cause otherwise rational people to start babbling incoherently, and foaming at the mouth (intellectually speaking). So, it may be helpful to clear a couple of things up.

First, I am not some megalomaniacal villain, looking to populate the world with my clones. I have at least my share of genetic defects. Most of them have been handled with modern technology, but if I could correct them, I would.

Second, I am a libertarian at heart, after all, and I am not proposing any coercive measures. None. We can make a difference by simply getting out of the way, and letting Darwin do his work, instead of structuring society in a way that seems almost designed to promote the survival of the unfittest.

Fixing the DNA of genetic defects like me is not currently possible, but is absolutely plausible. A virus invades cells, takes over the genetic replication process, and produces copies of itself, rather than copies of the genetic code of the original organism. So, suppose we could figure out the change in my genes that would be necessary to correct my miserable eyesight. Conceptually, a virus could be engineered that would take over my existing cells, and replace my existing genes with the code for corrected eyesight. I’d have a cold for a few days, and then I could see well. More importantly, we could make it possible that no one need be born with poor eyesight ever again.

This is just one of the almost endless improvement opportunities available. But to do it, we need to give up on the stasist notion that the human genome is just fine the way it is.

We also need to give up on the illusion that we can stop this from happening. Anything that humanity can do, someone will do. We can keep America behind the times for a bit, with misguided rules and restrictions, but we can’t stop it. The djinni is writhing out of the bottle as I type, and it will never go back in. We may be able to guide it to some extent, but not stop it.

Just as well, really. We can make ourselves better. And we should.


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