Empire State of Mind (and Body)

Genetics is one of the most immediate ways that we are attempting to push the human lifespan into multiple centuries. Research right now is trying to catalogue what details our genetic codes can tell us about how we are likely to turn out, and more importantly, what is most likely going to make us sick. Maybe even when.

We are trying to find out what bit of us changes each time you pluck at or swap a particular part of the code. Which part of us twitches when your doctor knocks a certain segment with a knee-jerk hammer. And we are trying to know what specific spare parts we would need to grow (not necessarily on the back of a mouse) to keep you twitching for another 100 years.

Like all the big changes, there is not some sparking switch someone is going to pull on a stormy evening and then we all wake up in a bio-tech episode of Star Trek. These developments are already bleeding into the way our lives are run and maybe have been for a while. We already have augmented bodies and environments. Life cycles are already controlled. Vaccinated, glasses-wearing populations try to postpone each and every individual’s demise through nutritional traffic lights telling them that salt or smoking is bad for them. Sterile, clinical treatments are identified for each specific complaint until they are out of options and get placed in an equally sterile room to die with as few onlookers as possible. Compare it to the internet. It was available for years, but took time to develop into world dominating ubiquity, but even now access and knowledge is massively unequal across the globe.

The world is already a very corporate one. The money and power to make further health developments is in the hands of institutions that may simply have to work with money and power as a large motivation to survive. Rich organisations would carry on making the big discoveries and create the techniques to spot, adapt and transfer human genetic material in a way that prevents or eradicates disease or decay. If these organisations are to ever move on from testing techniques on sheep, mice or peas they will find it easier and more productive to carry out trials on people in poorer nations. These economically poorer nations do not have the same strict ethical regulations controlling practice. Some have leaders that are unfortunately more able to exploit their populations, so could use them literally as an organic resource for money. Also, there is the argument that free speech and open political discussion is at least slightly more common in nations that have been economically developed for longer. This means general debates or support for movements that would oppose the clinical manipulation of bodies, those who are religious or naturalist, would have more clout and make the outsourcing of testing and production a much better business move.

This is just the influences on institutions that might be worried about equality and ethics. If a big player is not so inclined then they can get through testing and development much more ruthlessly by just forcing the less powerful members of their society to be used. To back up why this is relevant, I have to bring up the elephant in the room when it comes to manipulating genes to improve a generation. The biggest, most influential declarations of ethical principles that affect almost all research that includes humans anywhere across the likes of North America, Europe or Australia are largely a direct response to Nazi experiments and mid-century Eugenics. Fear over any relationship to these cases has led to them being the basis of decision making in committees that decide whether a researcher can involve one single human participant at all, even if the research was just to ask them what songs they like or what car they are likely to buy.

The sensitivity over this issue is still clear in the ‘designer baby’ discussions that followed Chinese researchers attempting to genetically modify embryos. But it also shows the effective regulatory powers needed by the international organisations that try to create genuine consensus over the ethical decisions we make about genetic modification. Otherwise you will have a split between organisations that avoid the industry completely and those that work entirely outside of accepted practice.

But further than this, the power of multi-national corporations is overshadowing nation-states. If a corporation decides not to abide by voluntary ethical regulation then it can be one of the organisations that ruthlessly develops the elixirs of genetic life freely, and for intense, competitive profit. Imagine if GSK, or McDonald’s, had the patent over biological material grown in a lab, perhaps for replacing diseased organs. These massive companies would also be among the only groups able to fund, fuel and air-condition the isolated, protected and super-sterile, medically supported communities that longer-life would depend on. Rather than tax and insurance, you would be in debt from birth to the corporation you are a member of for sustaining your enhanced life. Once these start competing and developing further then you would have no choice but live under the thumb of one of these competing organisations. Or else give up any societal interaction at all and live in a cave.

Even if it didn’t go to this extreme, imagine the cost of health and/or life insurance when every company can tell almost instantly if you have any higher chance of getting any disease than a ‘typical’ person. Then imagine the groups of people that could still afford it, so would be less affected economically by a working member of their family dying. Soon it distances massive numbers from genuine healthcare then bankrupts and demonises anyone that is in anyway ‘un-conventional’. A more cynical worry is that anything not seen as ‘normal’ can be associated with a particular group and used politically to intentionally demonise them and create moral panic. The ability for us to act out against ‘others’ is already easy enough without men in white lab coats labelling people as genetically deformed and dangerous.

The problems with just damning neo-liberal, globalised capitalism are the same problems imagined in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Strict regulation would take choice and emotion away from any individual and put control into fallible, distant decision makers. This also highlights a world of purposely designed, bespoke people cultivated for specific functions. Current genetic modification and selective breeding heavily accentuates one characteristic, like bigger fruit or shinier dogs, in sacrifice of lifespan or bone structure. Once there is a symbolic distance labelled onto the cloned ‘cyborg’ classes then whole populations could be cloned super strong for slavery, superfast for sport or super organ-ey as battery cage organ stocks. At the complete sacrifice of health or intelligence. Most likely, both controlling nation-states and empirical corporate citizenship will exist together, with lots of diverse blends of both existing in between, just like today’s world.

I started by saying these changes are a process, and with Western sensitivity over IVF now starting to relax, it is unavoidable that we are now already in a world of manipulation over the genetic life-cycle. These are incredible steps in human development, but only if power and exploitation can be regulated on a global scale.

Guest post by Arnie King - Completing Sociology Msc at University of Bristol

Last updated: 10-10-2018