In the Los Angeles Review of Books, science writer Jim Kozubek explores the intersections between two troubling recent developments, one economic and one scientific: the increasing immiseration of those at the bottom of the class ladder, and the explosion in gene-editing technology, which may allow those with the means to pay for it to give birth to "designer babies." Kozubek suggests that only strict state regulation of biotechnology will prevent it from radically exacerbating existing inequalities. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
In the famous 1971 “Chomsky-Foucault Debate,” Foucault argued that those who take up social justice causes are in fact doing so only because they want to take power. Chomsky demurred:
I think it’s too hasty to characterize our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression […] they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real.
Of course, institutions can be applied to advance justice and fairness, or be exploited for special interests. If authority is broadly distributed and innate to the wellsprings of the mind, then institutions are an extension of principles that reside within us and should seek to ensure access and fairness. But if scientists are working toward selling biotech solutions at the highest price the market will allow, then scientific institutions may be exploited for power and profit — and that’s just capitalism.
The irony is that we may need the state to ensure fair access to medicines we fund, and to prohibit genetic enhancement or reproductive advantages if all of us can’t afford or access them. This is no small problem. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea,” suggesting that the commercialization of biotech would create increasing unfairness. In his book Our Posthuman Future, he qualifies his original “end of history” thesis, arguing that human genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization might perpetuate social divisions, putting liberal democracy at risk. If there is one imperial power left on the world stage, Fukuyama argues, it is biotech. “What should we do in response to biotechnology that in the future will mix great potential benefits with threats that are either physical and overt or spiritual and subtle?” he asks. “The answer is obvious: We should use the power of the state to regulate it.”
Image: The televised Chomsky–Foucault debate of 1971. Via openculture.com.