TECHSPLOITATION: Breeding the Future

Two of my roommates are trying to breed. They want to make a human baby the old-fashioned way -- no technological intervention, no IVF or fertility drugs. It's kind of weird, when you think about it. I mean, who knew our bodies were capable of doing incredibly difficult things like recombining DNA and creating a viable blastocyst all full of pluripotent stem cells? Isn't that something we need about 16 computer clusters to do? Shouldn't my roommates be in a lab right now?

Given all the hoopla surrounding cloning and genetically engineered babies, you'd think my roommates were crazed Luddites. Pundits like Bill McKibben and Dorothy Nelkin make it seem like human reproduction these days is entirely the purview of giant biotech corporations and the medico-industrial complex. We constantly hear warnings that we're about to lose our humanity by creating genetically modified superbabies with wings and magic powers.

The thing I don't understand is why people think breeding "naturally" isn't somehow politically suspicious. Let's consider this for a second, kids. In most of the world today, and throughout the entire world for most of human history, the vast majority of humans have been pawns in a massive genetic engineering project known as patriarchy. In this particular breeding program, women are the property of their fathers until they are given in marriage to their husbands. They may have some control over who this husband will be, or they may have absolutely none. In the patriarchal genetic engineering project, men have control over who has babies. They pick which women will breed, who the fathers will be. Of course, there have always been resistors: men who refuse to toe the line; women who fuck around and mess up their masters' plans for the gene pool.

But from where I'm sitting, this scenario doesn't seem so very different from what genetic engineering fearmongers are warning us will happen "in the future" when doctors choose which kind of babies will be born. Maybe we'll have the whole thing down to a more precise science, but in the end, we're still talking about a bunch of elites making decisions about the genetic future of the human species. And resistance will not be futile, any more than the efforts of millions of people who worked to overturn patriarchy were.

So, I'm left wondering why people worry about losing our humanity through genetic engineering, since we obviously lost it a long time ago in the patriarchy machine. Or maybe we didn't.

The other thing that puzzles me is the extent to which baby-making is always at the center of every debate about the future of our species. Are we really so naive that we believe that giving birth to babies, with or without the genes "nature" gave them, is the only thing that will ensure our survival? Right now, we'd do well to think about not having babies. Overpopulation is a serious and horrifying issue. Want to get rid of factory farms? Sure, you can protest Monsanto, and I think that's a great start, but what about not having another baby with a mouth that needs filling? What about encouraging your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens not to have babies?

There are many ways to affect the future of the human race without breeding. I'm not arguing that people stop birthing altogether, since obviously we need a next generation. But non-biological reproducers like myself are doing more to help humanity survive than people who take drugs to coax their bodies into fertility. We're busy figuring out all the groovy non-baby making ways humans will change the future by writing, forming political organizations, teaching, organizing, starting organic farms, etc. And we're setting an example for people who feel pressured to have babies but would rather spend their time nurturing libraries or acting as guardians of organizations.

If we could figure out ways to honor adults who contribute to the world without reproducing biologically, I would feel a lot more hopeful about the next century.

There's no denying that population control measures in the past have often been as crappy as patriarchy: Women of color have been sterilized against their will; so have people deemed "mentally unfit." But frankly, I'm a lot more worried about out-of-control "natural" breeding than I am about genetically engineered superbeings who can't relate to my puny human ways of doing things. I'm convinced that, as I get older, it's pretty much inevitable that the new generation of kids is going to seem like a batch of aliens even if they haven't been bred to glow in the dark. Although I have to admit, it would be kind of cool if they stuck that glowing green jellyfish gene into my roommates' embryo. C'mon, guys, don't you sorta want a glowing baby?

Annalee Newitz (nonbreeder@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who thanks the amazing Dale Carrico for inspiring her to ponder all this. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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