Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

The Unlikely Consequences of Genetic Engineering

I was listening to a TED talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/gregory_stock_to_upgrade_is_human.html on the car ride home today. Let me summarize before I comment on it.

Biotechnolgy will drive our lives soon. Because of advances in genomics/biotechnology we can unlock our biology and have designer babies, live a long time and do lots of crazy stuff. There will be things we agree with and things we wont. But that does not matter because if people have the power to do something crazy with our genes, it will happen somewhere. (Of course, I'm crudely summarizing a really eloquent, interesting talk. Also, I'm only taking the portions which are relevant to what I'm going to comment on).

People will have tremendous power in the future to alter DNA or manipulate DNA to their own purposes. That's god-like power.

How will we handle it?

The way I see it, humans will have to learn to be tame with power before all of this starts happening. We'll have to depend on people to do the right thing at all times, especially while they hold onto this power. Legislation and enforcement can't solve everything. People have to act on their own in a way that does not negatively affect the community.

The way I see it, genomics isn't the only area in which this matters. We have increasing amounts of control over the courses of our own lives. On the internet you can do whatever you want and say whatever you want. We have the ability to influence others with our dollars, technology and ideas in a way never before possible in human history. Beyond that, in America at least, it seems as if political institutions and policymakers are trying to enable individuals with more and more responsibility. And, political institutions are having more and more difficulty containing the behavior of their respective citizenries. In short, weak individuals are becoming more powerful. Individuals are able to disrupt the community in a really, really powerful way sometimes.

It's clear that we have to tame power in our society--espeically as weaker people become stronger--if we don't many disruptive forces will start to...well, disrupt. Which is great if mroe people are empowered, and there's great benefit to societal disruption (civil rights movement, anti-apartheid, etc.).

But, if individuals are becoming more powerful and able to disrupt, those individuals have to act in a way that preserves the welfare of others, if we don't, we'll slowly (or quickly) destroy ourselves. The way I see it, if we (individually or collectively) have too much hubris, we're doomed. We have so much power, to help ourselves or hurt ourselves. If we don't use that power wisely or are too arrogant to think we're vulnerable to abusing power we're doomed.

But how?

I think it's possible to tame great power, because I see pockets of people who tame their own power...who do the right thing and do not act out of fear but out of virtue. So, I know it's possible. The problem with widespread adoption of humility and virtue is a problem of scale, I think. How do you get large numbers of people to voluntarily do the right thing. How do you get large numbers or people to trust one another and tame their own power?

I had a professor once that would call this ability--the ability to tame ones power and do the right thing--leadership. I would agree, I believe leadership is simple...do the right thing and get others to, too. The army calls it "Be, Know, Do". But I digress, my firm belief in virtue/character-based leadership is a topic for another day.

I dream of the day that leadership will no longer reference an individual, but a group of individuals or larger groups than that, like countries. As in, one might say, not that the United States has leaders or is a leader, but that the the United States is leadership. The sky is blue, the people are leadership...you know, like an adjective.

I know we can do this--tame power. And with what power we will discover in the future...during my lifetime even, we'll have to.

Forgive the poor use of language/grammar...this was a hustle post, I was afraid to lose my thought if I didn't speed on through.