A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dialogue Concerning the Internal World System

Debly Jean Sofwari: "If you think there is a vast universe out there in the sky, it is nothing to the vast universe inside each one of us.” 
Méarana Harper: “If the universe is infinite, I suppose it is only fitting that we be, too." 

-- Up Jim River

The Rialto
Scene: The Rialto of Venice, Salviati espies Simplicio approaching and greets him.

Salviati: What news on the Rialto, good Simpicio? 

Simplicio: Well-a-day.  Work progresses on our engineering of the genes.  Soon we shall be the sort of people we should be.  Pray tell, where is good Sagredo? 

Sal.: This is a dia-logue,  Who needs a third person, except to be a yes-man?  Sagredo is but an edmcmahon to my johnnycarson, and in the interests of simplicity, not to mention the interests of Simplicio, I have not included him. 

Sim.: I don't get it.  Why are the readers laughing? 

Sal.: Why only in that they appreciate the humor sophisticated of the sort of which I have delivered myself.  But tell me, my good Simplicio, what sort of people should we be?

Sim.: Well that you should inquire, good Salviati.  The geneticist Jonathon Glover has written a book on genetic engineering with that very title: What Sort of People Should There Be?  Verily, the code genetic is like unto a film strip, which we may unroll and examine to find the frame for any particular characteristic.  Then we may make whatever changes we wish to that frame and so optimize the human genome. 
The Superman sought by genetic engineering
Sal.: Optimization?  I see the quest for the superman goes ever onward; but the last bunch of übermenschen did not end at all well.  It is a mark of the problems with genetic engineering that there should be a book with that sort of title.  People who imagine futures often seem to think that these things are easily decided by a disembodied panel of experts somewhere outside the universe, for you note how Glover has placed himself rhetorically outside of "People" in order to pass judgment on what sort "they" should be.  But in the Real World™, such matters are often not decided at all.  This bother those who think society ought to be run like a corporation, with firm decisions from Central Planning, but those of us who have seen corporations running are just as well pleased that it is otherwise.

There are several assumptions behind the notion that we can design ourselves when we cannot design a really good toaster oven, and two of them are that the sort of people we should be can be well-defined, and secondly, that it has something to do with genetics. 

Sim.: But surely as for the first, there are improvements we can all agree on.  People should be more intelligent, more beautiful, less agressive. 

Wing-footed Hermes
Sal.: I might agree, dear Simplicio, if I knew what those terms signified.  There is no one thing meant by "intelligent," for surely you do not intend the sort of mechanical computation which our difference engines calculate so well and swiftly, as wing-footed Hermes, nor even the crude accumulation of facts stuffed like crabmeat into our heads by our revered teachers.  We do not become more intelligent by transforming ourselves into difference engines or file cabinets.  As for aggressiveness, it could easily comprise numerous distinct qualities lumped together under one catch-all term, as when English uses a single word "blue" to refer to two distinct colors: голубой and синий

Sim.:  Stop rushin' me. 

Sal.:  What? 

Sim.:  Only some more of that sophisticated humor of which you spoke. 

Sal.: A fig upon you, bold Simplicio!  But tell me, sirrah, what if we could design people to be "less aggressive"?  Deem you these the Sort of People We Should Be™

Sim.: Surely. 

Sal.:  But do you grant me that there are people today who by nature are already less aggressive? 

Sim.: Surely. 

Sal.: Pray thee, do not thou callest me "Shirley."  But I say further that these people are those we call "losers." 

Sim.: Sirrah!  You speak uncharitably!   

Sal.: Do not you bring religion into this dialogue, my good sir.  Do you prefer "pushovers"?  How about "yes-men" or "shrinking violets"?  Let us not play games.  All in all, the less aggressive among us do for that very cause make small impact upon society.  Would they have more impact were there more of them, or would there simply be more sheep for the more aggressive ones to dominate? 

Sim.:  But "less aggressive" need not mean "passive" or even "unassertive."

The Men of the Future
who solve all problems
Sal.: And your genes can parse these grammatical distinctions, how? 

Sim.:  We know not; but the Men of the Future™ will. 

Yes, there is nothing these mythical beings cannot accomplish.  They are veritable angels, and all problems can be resolved by referring them to their preternatural skills.  Does the term "unfalsifiable" ring any bells with thee?  Is my point taken, howe'er: that the nature of the good is uncertain.  Whether people should be more or less aggressive is not self-evident. 

Sim.:  Very well, let us concede that aggressiveness and other like qualities are not well-defined.  This does not refute our proposition that we may optimize those characteristics that we can define. 

Beauty, one definition
Sal.:  Save for achieving agreement on which direction constitutes the optimum.  That may prove far more insuperable than the genetics itself. 

Sim.:  Take beauty. 

Beauty, another definition
Sal.:  Do you mean a beauty with pendulous lower lips wherein lip plugs may be inserted?  Or plump fat beauties capable of many a baby?  Perhaps the ruggedly handsome beauty with perpetual five o'clock shadow and a manly pelt on his chest?  Or do you prefer the delicate beauty of a metrosexual free of all unsightly bodily hair? 

Sim.: I grant you all this.  But while beauty in the abstract may be undefined, beauty in the particular consists of such concrete things as eye color, complexion, nose length, cheekbone prominence, and so on. 

Sal.: Truly said.  But is it the longer nose or the shorter that is to be the optimum?

Beauty, still another
Note long nose
Sim.: That depends.  If the aphorism 'long nose, long hose' be true, then...  But let us maintain the G rating of this dialogue.  The solution is simplicity itself: the parents will choose whichever constellation of these traits most pleasing to them.  After all, choice is the only criterion of the good, right? 

Beauty, as improved
upon by SCIENCE!
Sal.:  I think it may matter what you choose and not only that you choose.  Yet there is one player in this game who has no choice, and it is the one upon whom the choice will be imposed.  I speak of the child whose genetic material you propose to alter.  But say on. 

Sim.:  Even so; but here we have in physical traits a more particularly defined goal for our engines genetic. 

Sal.: I will grant you so much.  But surely the Sort of People We Should Be™ is not merely to be prettier than you!  Such a goal is rather too easily attained.  But let me summarize a moment for the reader's benefit.   

But we have now two objections to your program. 
Primus, that the quality to be optimized may not be well-defined. 
Secundus, that the direction of improvement is not evident. 
But there is also a third objection.  As the philosopher, Midgley explained, many qualities are present more or less, and are affected both in their degree and their kind by a great many factors during the individual's life, and not only by the genetic make up.  Thus, even were the genes engineered as you hope, there is no presumption that the desired characteristics would result.  How could one even separate the genetic contribution from the environmental and cultural contributions? 

Men of the Future contemplate
the problem of beauty

Sim.:  We wot not; but the Men of the Future™ will. 

Sal.:  I fear even Futureman will have a tough row to hoe, and that for still two more reasons.  Even insofar as the genes are a factor, most characteristics are not formed by a single gene, but by many genes; and most genes affect many factors.  Lo!  It is like unto an acrostic, in which the same letters may participate in multiple words. 

Sim.: That is a new Lo for you. 

Sal.: In such a complex were you to change one letter in one word, you may change another word at the same time.  If you change the b in "bat" to a c to make "cat," then the cross word employing the "b" will change , also and "able" will become "acle." 



Sim.: But "acle" makes no sense!

The zig-zag of design showing functional requirements Y
deployed to design parameters X at two levels on indenture
FRs are Verbs; DPs are nouns
Sal.: Indeed, and that is what the organism will say when it tries to read that part of its genetic code.  And so instead of making this protein, it will make that protein or a defective protein or no protein at all.  This is not a deficiency in the skills of the Men of the Future™ but an inherent property of the genome itself.  Among the engineers of design this is known as coupling.  Ideally, each functional performance Y should be affected by one and only one design parameter X.  This would be a decoupled design.  But in fact each function Y is affected by several parameters X, and each parameter affects multiple functions.  Thus, one may target the X's in such a way as to optimize Y1, but in so doing sub-optimize Y2. 

Sim.: What then, pray tell, does the designer do? 

Sal.: He employs divers modes strategic, like partitioning, TRIZ, and so forth, whose explication would take us far afield from our symposium.

Sim.: Symposium?  Have you brought your lunch with you? 

Sal.: Is this more of that sophisticated humor with which you titilate our readers? 

Sim.: Better to titilate than titi-never.  But hear you, sir, my engineers genetic shall employ the same tactics as do your engineers mechanic and electric! 

Dominatrix with whip
Build this better and receive houseguests
Sal.: Not so, for an organism has a wholeness which a toaster oven or transmission system does not.  In an artifact, the components have no inherent tendency to join together; while in an organism, the parts grow naturally from the original seed by a process of morphogenesis.  That is why a paramecium's flagellum is not in the least like a mousetrap.  It is not an assembly of pre-existing parts which otherwise have no relationship one to the other.  Rather, it is an outgrowth of the paramecium's own unfolding.  In consequence of this, the methods of engineering inanimate objects are not suited those more animate. 

Sim.: Sir, you dispirit me. 

Sal.: I should hope so, for the objections multiply.  Due to polymorphism, characteristics which are similar in different organisms may be produced by different constellations of genes; so that if genes A+B+C+D would make your offspring more beautiful, as unlikely a prospect as it is, your engineers will not be able to transfer that knowledge to Sagredo or myself, for in us our children's beauty might be governed by genes B+D+E+M. 

Sim.: That the task would be difficult I whist no doubt.  We shall have to proceed person by person until the Men of the Future™ come to our aid. 

Sal.: But consider further.  What a gene actualizes may vary greatly according to the presence of other genes which are combined with it, and even with the epigenetic factors under which they actualize.  Recall how one population of cloned water fleas developed hard "helmets" while a genetically identical population did not, depending on the presence or absence of a chemical marker of a predator fish in their respective tanks.  We know, too, from the example of the horse and the zebra, that what a gene does depends also on when during morphogenesis it is called upon to actualize.  Surely, these are insuperable obstacles. 

Sim.: Now who calleth whom Shirley?  I grant you that design coupling sounds disheartening, but the remainder are surely not insuperable to....

The Men of the Future live here;
but where are their flying cars?
Sal. (sighs): the Men of the Future™.  I know.  But you really ought not rely upon miracles.  Genes tend to be correlated in blocks, which makes it hard to identify the effects of any one of them.  Thus, even properties as simple as eye color may be impossible to change without large, unpredictable changes elsewhere.  I remind you of what Midgley wrote: "Intelligence, to take a simple example, is known to have a very complex physiological basis, with two brain hemispheres contributing in extremely subtle ways and... other parts of the nervous and glandular systems playing unknown parts."  It is not a matter of finding which complex of genes control Y1 and then checking what other effects they have, but of finding an entire range of interlinked Y's, each controlled by its own overlapping complexes of genes. 

Sim.: Still, it seems merely a long task, to be dealt with by persistent experimentation.  Which the Men of the Future™ will accomplish. 

Sal.: Experimentation, yes.  But pray tell you me, good Simplicio, how these experiments will be carried out? 

Sim.: Sir, we have already had good successes in genetic engineering involving bacteria and plants and the like. 

Sal.: And did you ask their consent?

Sim. (laughing): Who asks consent of a bacterium!  Oh.  Oops. 

The Sort of People who experiment on other people
Sal.: Yes, to carry out a similar program of experimentation to identify the relevant gene complexes affecting a complex of characteristics in humans you must proceed in the same manner.  You must outlive your subjects by a wide margin so that you may observe the necessary number of generations; but secondly, you must treat them as you treat the bacteria.  You must make the alterations your experimental design requires, not the alterations the experimental objects desire.  We know that the initial exploratory experiments are bound to fail, produce monsters, produce unwanted side effects.  Which parents would consent to do that to their offspring?  And are the sort of people who would experiment without consent on other human beings really the Sort of People We Should Be?™

Sim.: But what of those who suffer grievously under divers maladies genetic?  Surely, we can agree that the repair of their disease is a wonderful thing.  Must they be left to suffer? 

Sal.: But I have not argued from the moral rightness; I have argued from the practical impossibility.  As for defects genetic, you find most of the objections falling away.  First, as to the nature of the good and the direction of improvement, there is no quarrel.  Consider too, that for something to fail, it is sufficient that one part fail -- what we call a single-point failure mode.  So in many if not most cases we are talking of a single defect on a single gene, and we know what the gene should look like hale.  So little in the way of experiment would be required.  And while still a complex and uncertain prospect, the consent of the person, or of the parents, is for a "risky but promising prospect of cure," not for an uncertain tampering with their only set of capacities in the hope of an improvement.  If they are ill enough, they may put it to the touch and hazard all.  There is a wise old saying that "If it be broke, thou must fix it."  But there is likewise a wise saying that "If it be not broke, don't fix it." 

Sim.: And yet, my good Salviati, I have the urge to improve upon nature!

Sal.: No, my good Simplicio, you have the urge to try.  Unfortunately, that you will make matters worse rather than improved is implicit in the functional coupling of design parameters and in the necessary objectification of human life entailed by the experimental program to unravel the connections between suites of functions and the influential design parameters.  I fear, good Simplicio, that your quest for the superman will impale itself upon a lee shore, due to
  • Lack of well-defined goods (Y), like intelligence, beauty, etc.
  • Uncertainty in the direction of improvement for Y
  • That Y is influenced by factors other than the genetic, esp. including cultural factors
  • That even the genetic portion is due to a complex of many genes
  • That the relationship between the genes (X) and the goods (Y) is coupled, so that changing one Y results in changes to other Y's
  • That the operation of genes depends on what other genes they are partnered with, when during morphogenesis they actualize, and what epigenetic cues surround them
  • That the experimental program to unravel these connections require experimenters much longer-lived than humans
  • That the experimental program to unravel these connections will have sufficient early failures to make it repugnant to human beings
So even if the Men of the Future™ can do all that they are expected to do in an Ideal World, the Real World™ renders the program a practical impossibility. 

Simplicio: This is not a proof of philosophical impossibility, then, like that of downloading minds into computers?

Salviati: No, only that the sort of men who would carry out such a program are not the Sort of People We Want to Be™.

Reference: Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion.


  1. I have often envisioned the results of trying to breed for mathematical genius. Down the end of many, many of those paths would be the classical autistic savant.

  2. Oh dear. Paramecia have cilia. Flagellae are a distinguishing characteristic of euglenae.


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