GMO Babies Could Create a New Caste System in the Not-So-Distant Future

The following is excerpted from  Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future  by Michael Bess (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


The mid-twenty-first-century society I’ve envisioned here offers its citizens a variety of bioenhancement technologies. Let’s call this the “basic package.” It does not entail wildly outlandish modifications, such as wings, or the downloading of one’s consciousness into a powerful AI. Instead, it consists of the sorts of augmentations that we know many people in the future are likely to desire, because they are extensions of traits and capabilities that humans already value highly today: a higher baseline of health, vigor, and physical coordination; good looks (however defined); heightened mental acuity and cognitive performance; the ability to fi ne-tune emotional states at will; the ability to control machines and communicate with other people through a direct interface. Some of these enhancements, we may surmise, would come from pharmaceuticals; others from bioelectronic devices; still others from somatic, epigenetic, or germline genetic modifications. Moreover, they would most likely operate in concert with each other—for example, drugs and epigenetic alterations working together to extend health span.

A New Caste System?

Many of the most potent bioenhancements are likely to be expensive, for the same reasons that complex medical procedures are expensive today: they require a great deal of scientific research, animal experiments, and long clinical trials before becoming available on the market. Will rich people therefore be the ones to reap all the main benefits? Would this not further widen the gap between the affluent and the poor?

The advent of enhancement technologies in a free-market society like ours can be expected to generate an entirely new kind of inequality, even more intractable than the socioeconomic disparities of today. In contemporary society, when an individual is born into a poor family, her chances of success are certainly very limited, but she still retains the realistic hope of working her way out of poverty through a combination of raw talent, hard work, and luck. This is the central premise of the American Dream: that even the lowest born can, with ingenuity and perseverance, lift themselves by their bootstraps and rise into positions of great power and privilege. Even though this is largely a myth—for the statistics show that very few individuals actually succeed in this kind of dramatic self-improvement—it remains a powerful myth nonetheless.

In a world of biological enhancements, however, this optimistic myth is no longer sustainable. No amount of luck, hard work, and perseverance can render me competitive with a stratum of persons who have been engineered for vigorous health, longer life, better looks, augmented cognition, powerful memory, and superior bioelectronic connectedness with machines and other people. Under these conditions, I find myself hopelessly outclassed, even before the race has begun. Unlike the reassuring scenario depicted in the film Gattaca, this is not something that hard work can rectify. It is a radical form of structural inequality, a relative handicap from which no recovery is possible. The human organism itself, from which all capabilities flow, has been rendered profoundly unequal at a fundamental level, and this inequality applies to entire categories of people. Members of the lower classes will be incapable of improving their relative position, not because of arbitrary barriers placed in their way by privilege, discrimination, or nepotism, but because of the objectively inferior performance profile of their bodies and minds.

What we see emerging here, therefore, is a kind of caste system, but not one based on external social status, like the stratified system that long prevailed in India, from Brahmin to untouchable. Instead, these twenty-first-century castes would be based on tangible and wide-ranging disparities of capability. Even if the members of such a society resisted the temptation to openly classify people into corresponding castes, the result would still be a steep de facto hierarchy, ranging from power and privilege at the top, to relative vulnerability and stunted opportunities at the bottom.

With each passing generation, moreover, this gap between haves and have-nots would further widen. If you are one of the lucky few who have access to potent enhancement technologies, then you may choose to augment the capabilities of both yourself and your children; your enhanced offspring will thus possess the heightened capacities that allow them in turn to gain even greater resources and power, affording them the means to further boost the traits of their own children, and so on, in a self-reinforcing cycle through the generations. On the other hand, if you don’t have access to the enhancement technologies, tough luck: you and your descendants remain stuck at the bottom indefinitely, with increasingly little hope of breaking out.

I seriously doubt that the citizens of the industrialized democracies would tolerate the emergence of such a biologically based caste system. It runs counter to the egalitarian premise on which democratic societies are founded: that all citizens are equal not just in their basic dignity, but equal also in the right to develop and express the full potential of their personhood. Thomas Jefferson, in the last letter he wrote during his life (quoted in the epigraph to this chapter), vividly expressed his scorn for the structurally unequal societies of the past: saddles on the backs of the many, boots and spurs for a select few. If privileged access to enhancement technologies unavoidably begets the kind of absolute inequality described by Jefferson, then the only solution is either to ban the technologies outright or to find a way to render them available to everyone. Since an across-the-board ban would be unlikely to succeed (for reasons I’ll discuss later), this leaves universal access as the only plausible way forward.

Every nation will no doubt go about the institutionalization of universal access in its own way, according to its own cultural and political traditions. Some will rely on a single-payer model financed through taxation, in a manner akin to the health-care and university systems in northwestern Europe today. Others will emphasize the private, free-market model of insurance typified by the American system. Still others may experiment with hybrids of both, offering combinations of subsidies, tax breaks, and low-interest loans. But the basic premise is clear: any society whose citizens reject the caste system described above will need to offer its members equal access to a variety of the most potent and effective enhancement technologies. (I’ll discuss the practical challenges of implementing universal access a bit later.)

It is possible that in some nations the ruling groups will resist offering such universal access. I suspect that this would sooner or later result in widespread rioting, upheaval, and even revolutionary violence: it is hard to see how any underclass would long tolerate the kind of biologically based caste system I have been describing. It is one thing to be poor; it is quite another to see yourself, as well as your children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, relegated to the irreversible status of a physically and mentally disadvantaged underperformer. People will fight for equal access, and there will likely be blood in the streets if they are denied it.

Those Who Just Say No 

In all likelihood, some citizens will refuse to adopt major bioenhancements of any kind at all. For certain religious groups, any intervention that partially redesigns human biology will constitute a morally unacceptable form of “playing God.” In the eyes of others, it will seem grossly unnatural, a violation of the delicate equilibrium of human ecology established over millennia by evolution. Still others will reject it because it smacks of technological hubris and arrogant perfectionism. Whatever the reason, these people will reject enhancement technologies, both for themselves and, in many cases, for their families as well, opting to remain steadfast with Humanity Version 1.0. I will refer to them collectively as non-mods (i.e., those who reject major forms of modification).

It remains unclear how well non-mods and enhanced humans will be able to coexist side-by-side. At first, during the early decades of enhancement technologies, the difference between the two groups may not pose serious problems. But over time, as the technologies grow in potency, the gap between them seems likely to become more and more significant. For the sake of concreteness, let us imagine a specific case. The year is 2058. I am a twenty-four-year-old non-mod named Cathy, applying for a job as a lab technician at a large pharmaceutical company. I worked hard in college and got good grades. This will be my first real job after graduation, if I can land it. My competitor is a nice young woman named Gillian, whose enhancement package is a fairly run-of-the-mill version widely used by large numbers of middle-class families. Gillian looks about the same age as me, but in fact she is thirty-eight. She has already held technical positions at two other companies before this one and comes with strong recommendations from her former employers. She is able to concentrate intensively on her work for eight hours straight, with only a short break for lunch. I, on the other hand, notice that I become weary after many consecutive hours of hard work and need to shift to less demanding projects toward the end of each day. Gillian’s mental acuity is such that she can handle seven experiments concurrently, shuttling down the hall from lab to lab throughout the day, keeping each project’s statistics and parameters separate in her mind. I am only able to run two experiments at a time. When I try to do more, the details overwhelm me and I make costly mistakes. She runs the robotic machines in the lab directly through her brain-machine interface, which allows her to control all the most complex devices in the various experiments. I still have to use my handheld computer, which means that some machines remain beyond my abilities, and I have to call in a specialized technician to operate them for me. On the day of our job interviews, I have unfortunately come down with a cold and have a splitting headache. Gillian (who hasn’t been sick in years) is feeling fine and projects a sparkling, pleasant personality. Whom will our prospective employer hire?

The multidimensional disparity between these two persons, writ large at the societal level, cannot help but result in a two-tiered socioeconomic system. Unless society enacts laws that set up a mandatory quota program, compelling employers to hire a certain percentage of non-mods, it is hard to see how the most demanding and desirable jobs would not routinely go to those possessing higher performance profiles. All the most menial roles would tend to be left to advanced robots or the unenhanced.

But there is an even more basic level at which the enhanced and the nonmods may find it hard to coexist: their immune systems may gradually become incompatible. As health-enhancement technologies grow more potent over coming decades, it is likely that drug-resistant strains of viruses and bacteria will develop. The bugs will adapt, becoming stronger and more resourceful in their methods for overcoming our ever more sophisticated defenses. For the non-mods, this ongoing phenomenon could eventually come to pose a life-threatening danger. If the evolving ecology of microbes among the population of enhanced humans keeps generating ever more potent strains of superbugs, it is possible that some of these über-microbes could easily overwhelm the relatively weaker defensive barriers of non-mod immune systems. Under such conditions, non-mods would face a choice: either to compromise their moral rejection of enhancements, accepting a certain level of advanced immunological augmentation, or to seal themselves off definitively from the population of the enhanced. If the more hard-core segments of the non-mod population were to opt for the latter, they would have to start wearing the kinds of protective suits that researchers use in biohazard laboratories or else segregate themselves in biologically isolated communities, perhaps enclosed under plastic domes.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a majority of non-mods will yield to necessity and adopt the bare minimum of immunological modifications required to allow them to coexist safely alongside the enhanced population. The other core problem would still remain: their performance levels would tend systematically to relegate them to the lower echelons of the economy and social spheres. One possible solution might be for the nonmods to band together in voluntary self-segregation, establishing enclaves in which a parallel economy and society could emerge. Such a non-mod enclave would presumably generate its own relatively self-contained exchange of goods and services, as well as its own schools, culture, and social activities. In this scenario, non-mods would no longer attempt to compete with the enhanced humans of the mainstream population, but would work and compete and cooperate primarily among their own kind.

My mental image here, as one might imagine, is that of the Amish people. They, too, have opted out of the mainstream economy and culture of their country. They have chosen to reject a broad array of modern technologies. And they have managed to sustain their self-segregation with relative success. Nevertheless, the implications are startling: toward the end of this century, people who look and think and behave like you and me will be comparable, in that context, to the Amish of today. In a social and technological environment that is keyed to ever-rising performance, those who choose to remain biologically unchanged will take on the quality of quaint relics—the stubborn embodiments of a bygone era.

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Excerpted from Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future by Michael Bess (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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