Tuesday, January 22, 2002


Lest I be thought too hard on The American Prospect, I must endorse the linked article as a well written, researched, and reasoned essay on why Leon Kass is so dangerous. Perhaps scariest: "The Madisonian idea ... of a marketplace in which good ideas will eventually chase off bad ones is lost on him." I won't further rehash the article, but I think Dr. Kass' insistence on Huxley's Brave New World as the paradigm of what we are in store for if we embrace genetic science is instructive. Huxley, of course, was an irresolute pessimist. His work has been enfolded into the literary canon such that most that graduated high school, at least in the US, have read the book. Along with1984 (penned by perhaps a greater pessimist than Huxley, Orwell), Brave New World is about the only near-future cultural speculation many of us are exposed to in our youth. For this we must blame the literature departments, whose criteria for the canon, at least as far as twentieth century works go, seem to include pessimism. Perhaps Dr. Kass has been exposed to only these works in the genre -- certainly he has expressed a contempt for science fiction in the past. This is too bad, because there are examples aplenty of optimistic speculative fiction written in the last 50-75 years, and many are a darn sight more enjoyable, and just as "literary" as Huxley or Orwell.

A shining example is the work of Robert A. Heinlein, a Naval Acedemy graduate who loved the military but thought the draft was always immoral, rugged individualist, civil libertarian in the extreme, hard-core pro-American and anti-communist, and tireless advocate for questioning everything, from religion to sexual mores (hard to pigeon hole, eh?). Best known for Hugo-winning novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, Heinlein also wrote Beyond Thiis Horizon, a rousing adventure and exercise in cultural commentary set in a world where genetic design of children for the improvement of humanity was, and had been for many generations, practiced. This was accomplished by government encouraging, but never coercing, specific genetically well-endowed couples whose genotypes would, it was thought, make for good offspring, to pair off and have kids together. Couples were offered the opportunity to select the best chromosomes out of their genetic material for their children. The difference between Heinlein's world and Huxley's or Orwell's is that in the former, a libertarian society, people were free to choose for themselves whether to participate. Some chose to have kids the old fashioned way, with no genetic manipulation.

While I'm not running a comparative literature seminar, I think this exercise is important becaue it so well illustrates what should be obvious, but appears lost in the ESCCR discussion: The danger lies not in genetic research, nor in the development of genetic technologies, but that those technologies will be used coercively and immorally by an oppressive government. That's why comparisons to Mengele and the Nazis, while good for scaring the children, don't advance this debate.

Why should we rely on science fiction to guide us as we decide these critical issues? Maybe we shouldn't, but Dr. Kass et al certainly have, and their exclusively citing the pessimistic viewpoint when there are other views of the furture to be drawn from undermines their credibility and any semblance of objectivity. Further, we shouldn't underestimate the ability of science fiction authors to predict the future. Everything from atomic power and weapons and space flight to waterbeds appeared in science fiction stories and novels, often in remarkable detail, long before these items became a reality. One author writing about atom bombs in the early 40s guessed so close that he got a visit from the FBI, who thought he'd penetrated the Manhattan Project.