Ted Chiang's "Op Ed From the Future": socialized transhumanism vs American oligarchy

The New York Times has inaugurated its "Op-Eds From the Future" ("science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years in the future") with a piece from Ted Chiang (previously) that imagines a future in which genetic engineering of human embryos is commonplace, leading to a well-intentioned attempt at preventing literal speciation into the haves and have-nots by subsidizing "intelligence boosting" genetic manipulation for lower-income families.

Chiang's editorialist is looking back on the long-term effects of this Gene Equality Project and observing that despite closing the genetic gap, in 2059 the children of poorer families are still not attaining the wealth and privilege of the children of the rich. And while some of this might be attributed to the optional genetic manipulation that the wealthy can choose (selecting for tallness, say), the ultimate conclusion is that America is no meritocracy: the most reliable way to become a rich and powerful person in the USA is to have the self-discipline and foresight to choose really rich parents.

It's a great pricking of the bubble of the cherished American myth of social mobility and meritocracy — a myth that leads people to resolving the apparent contradiction of a "hereditary meritocracy" by turning to eugenics (cue the president boasting about his "good blood").

It's also an important counterpoint to Jim Hughes's excellent 2005 Citizen Cyborg, which warns that left to its own devices, any transhumanist project will create a have/have-not dichotomy that's embedded in our germ plasm. Hughes's solution — a call for a subsidized, "humanist transhumanism" that ensure equal access to genetic modifications — is limited by the American ruling class's willingness to share its wealth and privilege.

After all the reason America is so unequal today isn't that some Americans have better DNA: it's because sociopathy is a reliable wealth-accumulation strategy. Equalizing access to genetic advantages won't solve that.

It has long been known that a person's ZIP code is an excellent predictor of lifetime income, educational success and health. Yet we continue to ignore this because it runs counter to one of the founding myths of this nation: that anyone who is smart and hardworking can get ahead. Our lack of hereditary titles has made it easy for people to dismiss the importance of family wealth and claim that everyone who is successful has earned it. The fact that affluent parents believe that genetic enhancements will improve their children's prospects is a sign of this: They believe that ability will lead to success because they assume that their own success was a result of their ability.

For those who assume that the New Elite are ascending the corporate ladder purely on the basis of merit, consider that many of them are in leadership positions, but I.Q. has historically had only a weak correlation with effectiveness as a leader. Also consider that genetic height enhancement is frequently purchased by affluent parents, and the tendency to view taller individuals as more capable leaders is well documented. In a society increasingly obsessed with credentials, being genetically engineered is like having an Ivy-League M.B.A.: It is a marker of status that makes a candidate a safe bet for hiring, rather than an indicator of actual competence.

It's 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning [Ted Chiang/New York Times]