Yet New Forms of Inequality
While the world has largely focused on economic inequality in the past, the will to play God and use technologies to edit human beings opens up a potentially dark frontier.
January 29, 2023
Inequality has grown dramatically within societies over the last 40 years. Some scholars (such as Thomas Piketty) consider very diverging levels of inheritance to be an essential factor. Others point to the educational opportunities that come along with being born into a wealthier family.
Such traditional explanations aside, new causes of inequality are taking shape, which give reason for concern. They may lead to much deeper levels of divisions, even physical forms of separation, in societies.
Enter gene therapy
One such trendline is the effort to extend longevity for those who can afford it. Next, gene therapy may make differences in intellectual and physical capacity even more pronounced – at least until the cost of such therapies is lowered.
While the realization of these two trends is not imminent, it is going to have definite effects on the world of tomorrow. It would thus be advisable to start legislating at the national and international level to avoid this new growth in inequality. After all, left unchecked, it could ultimately lead to different forms of human beings.
Beyond the longevity gap
The growing divergence with regard to longevity is already playing out in neighborhoods in most of the major cities of the world today.
Due to very different diets, the impact of drugs, educational levels and other factors, more than half of the world’s population is impacted by this.
But we may be facing steps that have never been taken before in humanity. Let us imagine that you can afford gene editing or medicines that will extend your life. They could well extend people’s life span to 120 years (it is generally calculated that human life has a maximum of 115 years, give or take 10 years).
Meanwhile, other people with fewer means but living in the same city in which you live would have to settle for reaching, and not necessarily well, 60 or 70 years. Is such a society sustainable?
Not science fiction
This is not mere speculation. According to Peter Ward, author of “The Price of Immortality” (2022) there are a total of 3,475 companies dedicated to advancing longevity.
That does not include firms dedicated to various forms of seeking some kind of immortality, including digital, which is a growing desire in Silicon Valley.
Firms focused on longevity have attracted a total of 93 billion dollars of investment in the United States in recent years. This compares to 113 companies that received 17 billion dollars in China, the country with the second largest investment in this field.
According to the Financial Times, it is a booming business, filling up with startups and technology giants, including Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, Israeli entrepreneur Yuri Milner and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They are engaged without looking for short-term profits.
Wishful thinking or reality?
Is this just a pipe dream? Not according to Wired magazine, which argues that by the end of 2023 some of the ideas being considered for these purposes will have proven their efficacy in humans.
Among the avenues pursued are senolytics, a class of treatments that target the aging (or senescent) cells that accumulate in our bodies as we age.
These cells appear to drive the aging process from cancer to neurodegeneration. The goal is to eliminate them, or at least to slow or reverse their effect.
In addition, advances in genetics can lead not only to improvements in individuals and, in some cases, in their offspring, but also to early detection and prediction of the future of serious diseases in a person.
This is a process that is advancing rapidly as prices for sequencing everyone’s genome are quickly coming down.
This could have an impact, for example, on the availability of private health insurance coverage, if insurance firms refuse to cover future diseases announced in the study of each insured’s genome.
The changing moral landscape
There also is preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which aims to prevent fetuses from being affected by congenital diseases or defects — an advance that is now generally considered morally acceptable. The capacity for this editing is advancing rapidly with techniques such as CRISPR and others that are appearing, whether inheritable or not (somatic editing).
In fact, the case of the Chinese biologist He Jiankui (recently released from three years in prison for what he did) who, ignoring the prevailing moral rules, edited the genes of two girls to make them immune to the AIDS virus, of which their parents are carriers, has opened a door that will be difficult to close again.
As biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee wonders in his book “The Gene: A Personal History” (2016) “What if we learned how to purposely change our genetic code? If we had the necessary technologies, who would control them and who would ensure their safety? Who would be the masters and who would be the victims of this technology?’
Or consider an example from Walter Isaacson’s “The Code of Life: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Species“ (2022) “One gene (SLC24A5) has a huge influence in determining skin color. What would happen if black parents considered their skin color to be a social disadvantage and, consequently, wanted to edit that gene so that their children would be light-skinned?”
The moral and ethical implications of many of these new trends or mere possibilities are obviously staggering and require much careful analysis.
While some are narrowly focused on the digital world and Artificial Intelligence, we need to understand that the great revolution we are entering – and which will transform what we understand as being human – will also be the biological one.
No wonder that the explosion of books of reflection and popularization on the subject is colossal. The lesson to be drawn now is obvious: We must prevent these new capacities of human beings to play God from generating yet higher levels of inequality. They must be managed and controlled before it is too late.
Editor’s note: This feature was adapted from a Spanish-language version which originally appeared in Agenda Publica.
The will to play God and use technologies to edit human beings opens up a potentially dark frontier.
The effort to extend longevity and gene therapy to alter intellectual and physical capacity is going to have effects on the world of tomorrow.
There are thousands of companies dedicated to advancing longevity. That does not include firms seeking various forms of immortality -- including digital.
Firms focused on longevity have attracted 93 billion dollars of investment in the US in recent years. This compares to 17 billion dollars companies received in China.
We need to understand that the great revolution we are entering – and which will transform what we understand as being human – will also be the biological one.
We must prevent new capacities of human beings to play God from generating yet higher levels of inequality. They must be managed and controlled before it is too late.
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