As we come to the End of the Beginning

Are human beings organic machines operated by organic computers that are programmed at the point of conception? How does this limit our “free will”? Do we have any free will now? These are genuine “existential” questions, those that go directly to the concept of who we are – our existence.

I have written in the past on the topics of genetics, genomics, genetic engineering, gene therapy, and so forth, but I always have trouble getting across the basic issue – who we are. Recently, a friend wrote about genetics and behavior and I tried to answer her questions in an email. Below is my first response, lightly edited. I will publish my second follow-up response tomorrow. Then in a third post, I will sum up my feelings on this topic beyond just the material covered here.

Folks, we are entering a transition in human history unlike any before. This is just a step along the way, but new steps are taken every day. We are nearing the end of the beginning of that transition, if we are not already there.

The really interesting developments are in our understanding of human behavior, not human memory. If you follow genetics at all closely, you can see it unfolding right now.

A large majority of liberals, a good majority of moderates, and a smaller, but growing, number of conservatives accept that being gay is “natural”, i.e. gays are genetically pre-disposed to homosexual activity. Therefore, they cannot be blamed for it nor did they choose it, but should be accepted as who they are by nature. I take that position myself. We use words like “by nature” instead of “genetic predisposition” because we are more comfortable with them.

Will those who accept gays as natural be prepared to accept that racism is a genetic predisposition too? In other words, racists are born, not made? But like homosexuality, genetic racism would not be obvious until later in the life of the individual, not at birth.

If we defend gays on a natural/genetic basis, are we ready to defend racists on the same grounds?

Are we ready to have our own DNA sequenced, interpreted, and be found to have some unpleasant genetic code included among the 20–25,000 genes and 3 billion base pairs of our code (and that’s just DNA, there is more than that to the human genome)?

Are we willing to accept that we are programmed with behavioral predispositions, not just hair and eye color, from conception? Are we willing to accept that our “free will” is in great part an illusion? Some scientists already argue that free will is entirely an illusion, but I don’t find their arguments, despite some fascinating research, as being at all sufficient. However, I do accept that we have severe limitations to our free will and that is reflected in how very slowly and incompletely human behavior changes over time.

This is only the very tip of a rapidly growing research iceberg. It is mainstream, not fringe. But it is very upsetting to people. These are not simply existential questions, this is existential reality. Every year, it gets more interesting, but the gap between research and public awareness grows wider.

As only one example, “loneliness” is a subject of study that is “part of a growing effort to map out the genetics of social behavior and its underpinnings in the brain” and reported in Quanta magazine. Today, loneliness, tomorrow, take your behavioral pick.

One of these days, I have argued elsewhere, awareness will suddenly increase. We are waiting for something that forces us to confront ourselves and what we are doing. It may be an event, but the event is not the cause, anymore than the stock market crash in ’29 caused the Depression. It is a process and it is unfolding. It will only seem sudden to the unaware. Research into genetics and the human genome cannot be stopped. Humans will not stop looking for answers to their questions.

We are alive during the most important transition in human history. We will engineer ourselves and our progeny in the not-so-distant future. The debate will likely occur during your and my lifetimes.

We will create the next stage in human evolution. Very exciting, but the getting from here to there is going to be met with fear and often with loathing. We will know how we will respond only when we get there. Political ideology will not tell us now how we will react to what is coming. But there is probably a set of genes in our DNA that could provide us with an answer.

Good, bad, or indifferent, these are exciting times indeed! Come what may, I am happy to see it happen while I am alive, even if I end up appalled with the results. If the latter, maybe I can get that re-engineered!

A tough topic and a huge topic that I had put aside as too time-consuming to deal with “right now”. Well, that’s a good excuse never to get around to it, so my friend’s questions gave me an incentive to begin to put things together. This is that beginning.

——-

This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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