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Jonathan Anomaly joins the show to talk about genetic selection and what it could look like in 10 years.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Dr. Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer in the philosophy, politics, and economic (PPE) program at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to his role at Penn, Anomaly taught at Duke University.


Jonathan Anomaly takes seriously the diversity of preferences parents have, and the limits of public policy in regulating what could soon be a global market for reproductive technology. He argues that once embryo selection for complex traits happens it will change the moral landscape by altering the incentives parents face.

What will happen in the next 10–20 years with CRISPR? What is embryo selection? Is there a way to enhance morality genetically? Should there be mandatory enhancements?

Further Reading:



00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:11 Aaron Powell: Our guest today is Jonathan Anomaly, he is Associate Director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a visiting scholar at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University. His new book is Creating Future People: The Ethics of Genetic Enhancement. Welcome to the show, Jonathan.

00:30 Jonathan Anomaly: Thank you, glad to be here.

00:32 Aaron Powell: Can you give us a sense of what our gene editing capabilities look like today?

00:39 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, I’d say they’re pretty limited, so as you probably heard, last week, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who were the co‐​discovers of CRISPR‐​Cas9, the system by which bacteria can edit the genes of viruses, they won the Nobel Prize last week. And that technology has already been used to edit human embryos and specifically to edit the embryos of two Chinese children who were born in 2018. So it is technically possible, it’s very much on the horizon that it’ll be used more widely. On the other hand, the only thing we can really do with it realistically right now is to edit, for example, single‐​gene disorders. Most of the traits that we care about are highly polygenic, meaning they involve hundreds or even thousands of genetic variants interacting, and so we don’t even know enough about genetics right now to feasibly alter complex traits, let alone have a handle on CRISPR‐​Cas9 to do so. And the reason for that, as I’m sure we’ll get into, is that there are still so‐​called downstream mistakes or errors that happen when we use CRISPR‐​Cas9 to edit genes.

01:51 Trevor Burrus: Now, of course, future prognostication, to be notoriously difficult, what the famous IBM quote about seeing a need for maybe three or four computers in the world, but understanding something about genetics, not too much, but something… Some people might say, oh, by 2100 we’ll be editing people to not be criminals or not be psychopaths, at least, but that seems like a very complex trait or maybe psychopath is not as complex, but much more complex kinda behavioral editing that seems further off the horizon than most people would think.

02:27 Jonathan Anomaly: I think that’s absolutely right. So when CRISPR is first used legally, although it’s been used illegally on humans, whether that’s 10, 20 years from now, who knows, it’s going to almost certainly going to be for monogenic disorders, again, a particular heritable disease that involves just one gene or a small set of genes, what’s much more likely to happen, and in fact is happening right now, is the ability to test not only for health conditions, but sets of genes that predict longevity, intelligence, empathy, things like this, and the way it’s going to happen… And I describe this in the book, is through embryo selection using polygenic scores. The idea is, what people will do is shop around, as gay couples already do, for sperm and eggs, and then they can choose that embryo, which they’ve scanned among a set of embryos for the traits that they’d like to have. Now, again, this is still a fairly limited power, but we’re very quickly gaining knowledge about what clusters of genes do.

03:32 Jonathan Anomaly: And on my view, what’s going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years is again, CRISPR‐​Cas9 will be used almost not at all, and maybe not at all actually legally, but embryo selection is going to get extremely powerful. And the main obstacle to using it over the next five to 10 years, although that’s going to be solved too, is the number of embryos that we can produce, and that’s limited, not so much by the number of sperm that we can produce, men produce billions per day, but by the number of eggs that we can get through induced ovulation.

04:06 Aaron Powell: Is there… It seems like there’s a lot of moral issues bound up in all of this, that’s basically what your entire book is about, is how to sort through a lot of these important questions, but is there, at some fundamental level, something worrying about meddling in genetics and genetics of not ourselves, but our offspring and future people, the phrase “playing God” gets thrown around, but is there a fundamental worry here or is it all just kind of edge cases that we should try to figure out how to address?

04:44 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, well, we’ll get into the edge cases in a minute here. It’s pretty clear to me whether you teach this kind of material or just talk to people in an everyday conversation, there is often initial revulsion. Now, some people almost seem to be predisposed to be excited about these prospects, and maybe they’re also excited about, I don’t know, nuclear energy and other things too, maybe they just have risk‐​seeking personalities or very open personalities, but most people seem to have a kind of intrinsic fear or revulsion. I think it’s mostly misplaced, as I do throughout the book, I think like a Darwinian, and whenever I see this kind of universal reaction, I think, huh, I wonder what kind of heuristic is guiding people to have this visceral revulsion or sense of disgust toward intentional genetic modification.

05:35 Jonathan Anomaly: But I think what we need to do is really sort of set aside or at least sort out what is an unjustifiable heuristic or sort of mental disposition, we have to resist these things from a rationally justifiable one. And what I have in mind is, we can think of all kinds of cases, like we’re programmed to be disgusted by incest, and it’s maybe more controversial, but it seems to be true that even some natural revulsion toward homosexuality, especially by men, and maybe that’s partly culturally induced, maybe it’s partly genetic, I don’t know, but there are all kinds of heuristics that we have that we think are unjustifiable.

06:14 Jonathan Anomaly: And so we have to sort out what’s justifiable and what’s not. I do recognize again, that there’s this widely shared response to this, but one of the things we can do is argue by consistency, so we’ve been genetically modifying dogs, cattle, the things that we eat, plants that we buy for many thousands of years, and it’s been intentional, it’s been intentional in the sense that we select certain seeds or select certain animals, with traits that we value and we breed them more. Now, of course, when you talk about humans and doing that, there is a rational response that, well, we don’t want to have a government or some entity selecting which humans get to breed, but I’m rather making the more general point that we’ve been intentionally modifying, at the genetic level, the things that we eat and the things that we have around us, like dogs and cats, for many thousands of years, so I don’t think there’s any intrinsic reason to worry. We should worry rather more about the consequences and the uncertainty that we have.

07:18 Aaron Powell: But it seems like there’s a real difference between the examples you’ve given of breeding dogs to get different traits or making more robust soy beans or whatever, and selecting embryos or genetically modifying people and that’s that… If I have a high risk tolerance, I can take risks for myself, but what I’m doing, if I am taking risks or making choices for someone else, is making choices for someone else, and we, I think, rightly think there’s something potentially wrong with that, especially if we’re making the wrong choices for them. So I could have designer ideas for what I want my kids to look like and use CRISPR to build them that way, I’m thinking of… I think when I was a kid, I remember hearing about genetic modification and my brother drew a picture of what he wanted his future offspring to look like, if he could genetically modify them, and it was a… He gave them large bat wings and a bone whip instead of one arm, and that would be… I could imagine that being morally problematic for the offspring who now has to look like this. So it seems like there’s a fundamental difference here, or is it not as much a difference as I’m making it out to be?

08:33 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, that’s great. So first of all, I’m enjoying the image of bat wings, and my general response is it depends on the proportion of other people in the population that have bat wings, that’s my general approach in the book. On a more serious note, though, I think what we can do is follow economists in separating out things like all‐​purpose goods from mere positional goods. There are other kinds of goods too, but what I have in mind here is that there are certain traits that are good for almost anyone to have, a well‐​functioning immune system, for example, that’s just generally good at producing antibodies that fight off infectious diseases like viruses and bacteria. Similarly, having something close to the averageness in height or average looks, that sort of thing. But more generally, we can think of traits like intelligence, so it looks like having above average intelligence is both good for the individual and socially beneficial, and it’s good for the individual in the sense that intelligence, working memory, things like this, they help you with almost anything you want to do, whether it be maintaining friendships, gaining business partners, doing well in school, learning from an ever‐​changing environment and adapting to it.

09:52 Jonathan Anomaly: And so I would say that there are all‐​purpose goods that most people would have an interest in enhancing and then there are mere positional goods or these kinds of bizarre luxury goods, like bat wings that some people might try to do, and I would agree with you that if someone wanted to do that to their children, and that trait wasn’t prevalent, and didn’t seem to have any benefit, other than being a kind of odd luxury good for the parent, it’s conceivable… Well, first of all, it’s just true that it seems like it’s immoral, but it’s conceivable we’d even ban it.

10:23 Trevor Burrus: Do we have to define pretty carefully the moral relationship between parents and children and even possible children to kind of answer these questions? Because I see a similar thing of saying, you know, take tiger mom type of things, where parents are making their kids go through piano lessons and all these sort of personal betterment things that is in vogue in different circles, even if the kid doesn’t want it, on the theory that they will like it in the future. And someone can argue that that’s an illegitimate use of the parental power, and maybe similarly apply that to some sort of genetic modification you could do before the child is born.

11:02 Jonathan Anomaly: I think that’s right. We do need to think through the ethics of parenting and the parent‐​child relationship. After all, this is a being that if he or she isn’t already autonomous, is becoming autonomous, and part of the job of good parenting is to cultivate in the child certain kinds of virtues, including openness and curiosity, not just compliance with what the parents want. So I think that’s true, and that’s got to be part of the public discussion. There’s the sort of public policy part, and then there’s just the ethics part, which is difficult to enforce through policy, but is nevertheless worth considering. So I agree, and by the way, I should mention, there’s a kind of literature on this, and the fear that was mentioned earlier is this idea that by genetically altering your children, you’re in some sense closing off the future and children have a right to an open future.

11:55 Jonathan Anomaly: Now, as many people have mentioned in the bioethics literature, well, although that’s true, that you should confer on the child an open future, it’s actually the case that certain kinds of modifications or selecting for certain traits is likely to give them a more open future. So if they’re healthier, if they’re smarter, and here we’re talking about general intelligence, that’s actually opening up possibilities in ways that other traits aren’t.

12:21 Trevor Burrus: It also seems like it’s difficult to draw a line if we’re… So we were talking about doing actual gene editing, but if someone in the dating market, in the marriage market, if their preeminent concern is the genetic status of their child, it’s not even love, if they are… Maybe they want a mixed‐​race kid, or maybe intelligence is the only thing they’re looking for, on the hope that they create an intelligent kid, that doesn’t seem like some sort of harm or wrong done to the future generation, possibly even if it’s something more specifically, like I said, like a mixed‐​race kid, so it seems very difficult to draw a line about what sort of behavior you can use to modify the genetics and what sort of stuff you can’t use.

13:06 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, well, let me ask you, do you mean that we can’t control the traits fully? Is your question that parents that try to control traits actually won’t end up doing it?

13:18 Trevor Burrus: No, actually, aside from the efficacy, is that I think that the philosophical question. So if I’m comparing it to actually gene editing, so the question of whether or not it’s okay to do the gene editing sort of pre‐​supposes, if successful, if there’s an error rate that it doesn’t work or some sort of problem that emerges from the gene editing. Similar, if you’re doing a much more blunt way of trying to find a mate with specific traits, and maybe it doesn’t work, maybe you do not achieve your goal of those specific traits, but the question here is that, is the attempt, is the choice to try and do this, is there a philosophically salient difference between those two behaviors?

14:00 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, that’s a good question. In a way, it is different because when you’re trying to find a mate, as David Friedman has argued, this is intrinsically a barter market because you need a double coincidence of wants, at least in a free society. The mate has to want you back, and people like to couple up for all kinds of reasons, and I think most of them are legitimate. In the act of creating a child, as you’re suggesting, it’s quite different and there’s no consent on the part of the child, and that is a salient difference. There’s also the question of efficacy, like you said, whether it be gene editing or, as I suggested, I think it’s going to be embryo selection for the next, I don’t know, four or five decades, that’s going to be the really powerful one, and it’s going to get increasingly powerful. Again, what that’s going to do is it’s going to allow us to assign polygenic scores to different embryos, which is going to tell us the likelihood that this embryo will develop into a person with this or that trait, but where there’s some degree of uncertainty and there are really two issues that arise there.

15:01 Jonathan Anomaly: One is that… Well, there can be a kind of virtue associated with choosing wisely, choosing on behalf of the child rather than just whatever your fetish happens to be, like really tall children or children with a particular skin color, which the child may or may not want. So that’s one aspect of this. Another is choosing in a way that they would consent to later on or that they’d have reason to consent to, and I think that that’s really important to do. So it’s kind of in the same way that you require consent on behalf of a mate, you would want a counterfactual consent on behalf of the child that the embryo becomes that you select.

15:44 Aaron Powell: Let’s turn to some of the specific kinds of enhancement that you grapple with in the book. The chapter I found particularly interesting was the one on moral enhancement, because morality, when we think about… We’ve just been talking about morality for the last 15 minutes, morality is about values, beliefs, behaviors and so on, so how would we even begin to “enhance morality genetically?”

16:11 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, that’s a great question. And philosophers up till now have not paid much attention to the scientific details. I try to do that in the book. And what philosophers have done is they’ve said, “Look, one of the things we’d want to do is potentially enhance affective empathy,” so psychologists define empathy into two kinds: There’s cognitive empathy, which allows us to have a kind of theory of mind, to understand what other people are thinking, maybe via their facial expressions and language and so on; and then there’s affective empathy, which gives us a predisposition to respond to the needs and feelings of other people appropriately.

16:48 Jonathan Anomaly: So if you see someone in pain, then a natural response, if you have normal levels of affective empathy is to help them out. Similarly, if you see someone who could use a hand in some other way, affective empathy sort of allows you to understand them and then to respond to them, in what we would consider a morally justifiable way. Another thing that people have talked about increasing, philosophers have talked about, is the sense of justice, and that’s a little bit more vague. As you probably know, there are various conceptions of justice ranging from sort of Aristotelian proportionality, like justice is just giving people their due versus a kind of radical leftist conception of justice where equal outcomes is what we’re after.

17:33 Jonathan Anomaly: So what I try to do is sort of say, okay, if we’re really serious about enhancing a sense of justice or affective empathy, what we’re going to need to do is figure out what the genes are and the hormones are that actually lead us in particular directions here. And it turns out it’s really complicated. I won’t get into the details, but one really simple way of doing this, especially enhancing affective empathy, is by boosting oxytocin or by altering the receptors of oxytocin to make it more efficacious, to make them more efficacious. And one of the things that does is it helps us empathize more with the people around us, but there are problems which I can get into if you want to follow up on that.

18:15 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting, ’cause it makes me think about certain drugs that are used to increase that sense of togetherness and affective empathy, one is being MDMA. For many people it performs that oxytocin increase.

18:30 Jonathan Anomaly: That’s right. That’s right.

18:31 Trevor Burrus: And then we could use… Maybe using those for conflict resolution. Now, that’s not genetically enhancing or changing entities, genetic makeup, but it strikes me as… I’m thinking, because we have this, how much effective empathy someone has, there’s a very big political aspect to this, wherein if I think about, say, the Soviet Union, which spent a very long time defining and creating a curriculum around the Homo Sovieticus, like a different type of person, a different type of being that had unlimited altruism basically in the story, like limited altruism, having only more care for your parents and your children and your friends than you do for your fellow Soviet citizens was a capitalist trait and that you could change that in people and create a society with unlimited altruism. I could see a lot… If you can actually do this, I could see a lot of governments and political philosophers trying to say this is how we create a just society, is change the people who go into the society.

19:36 Jonathan Anomaly: I agree, and that’s a real worry, and in fact, some philosophers have already taken the position that these should be mandatory enhancements, and I’ve tried to say, “Hey, hang on here, let’s put on the brakes here because we don’t even understand the full biochemical or genetic interactions that shape these moral dispositions.” Now, these philosophers aren’t saying we should do it right now, obviously, but they’re kind of playing through the logic and sort of saying, “Well, if some people are allowed to do this or are morally required to do it, then maybe we should force everyone else into it, because otherwise what we’re not going to get is a society of cooperators,” so that is a real worry. Now, let me back up really quickly and throw in some complications. It turns out one of the interesting things about oxytocin in particular is that the best experimental evidence suggests it allows us to or enables us to identify more closely with those around us and to behave more generously towards those around us, but it predisposes us to think less in statistical terms.

20:34 Jonathan Anomaly: In other words, or less like consequentialists, so it leads us to care more about the tribe around us, and that could be race, it could be our local neighborhood, but it makes us think less about just general people. And so there’s a real trade‐​off there, it’s not clear at all that enhancing the uptake of oxytocin even is a moral enhancement. It’s a moral enhancement, I suppose you would say, in the sense that it facilitates cooperation among a specific set of people, but not necessarily generalized co‐​operation anyway.

21:08 Aaron Powell: Is there too a worry about too much of a good thing? So bracket the issue of possibly making ingroup‐​outgroup preferences worse, you mentioned Aristotle, and Aristotle says that… Said virtue is a mean between extremes, and if we have lots of oxytocin or lots of a sense of justice, can we end up with too much of it? Can we overdo it in the enhancement grounds?

21:36 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, and I think one of the themes of the book is, I think sort of like an economist, micro motives and macro behavior, and what I argue, and what I think is true, is that a moral enhancement has to be relative to the average moral dispositions in a population. So if you’re too much of an outlier, what we can get is too much altruism or too little, so just as psychopathy is having almost no affective empathy and just not caring, morally speaking, about other people, there can be too much, and that we might call pathological altruism, which is a term coined by Barbara Oakley. And let me just give a quick example here. So I won’t get into too many complex details, but you can think of prisoner’s dilemma games or public goods games, which I won’t describe here, but basically situations in which what’s good for each is not necessarily good for all. And an example is this, generally speaking, in human life, it pays to cooperate with cooperators, but also to punish defectors, people who don’t cooperate.

22:39 Jonathan Anomaly: If you’re an unconditional cooperator, which is equivalent to the Soviet man, so to speak, right, just unequivocally altruistic, you actually not only will be worse off than you would be as a conditional cooperator, ’cause you’re going to get taken advantage of all the time, you make the world less safe for conditional cooperators because you make it more… You make the payoff to psychopathy, so to speak, bigger. So people who have more parasitic personality styles are going to thrive in a world in which you have a set of people who are sort of unconditionally altruistic, and so the real trick here is to turn people into, as we already mostly are, reciprocal altruists or conditional cooperators, so to speak.

23:22 Trevor Burrus: Well, then, I mean, in the situation where, say, everyone is designing their children and you’re looking at the nature of the cooperation, the effect, the altruism, and in that situation, parents who really just care about their kids getting the most might choose psychopathy as a trait that would prefer them in a situation where everyone is co‐​operating.

23:46 Jonathan Anomaly: Yes, so I agree with the spirit of that. I don’t think anyone would choose a psychopath in modern environments, at least in sort of rich industrialized societies, because psychopaths do tend to spend a lot of time in prison, and they don’t seem to be especially happy, at least in the Aristotelian sense of having goals and pursuing them, long‐​term goals, plans. Something like 20% to 25% of federal prisoners are psychopaths and they’re almost always repeat offenders. However, the spirit of your point is right, which is to say, it may pay to be a little bit more selfish than average for that person, and yet from a population standpoint, we wouldn’t want that, we want cooperators. I think that’s just a fact. That’s just clearly true.

24:27 Jonathan Anomaly: Now, it turns out when you get evidence from what women choose when they’re going to sperm banks, they choose not only intelligence and health and cues of that, they want a person of a certain size and athleticism, they actually choose kindness as one of their most important features, and so there is at least good evidence that people choose kindness and they want kinder than average people. However, there’s also evidence that they want retaliators. They don’t want people who are just going to sit there and take abuse.

24:53 Jonathan Anomaly: And let me just add one really quick thing to this, ’cause I think it’s pretty important, a couple of really famous economists named Sam Bowles and Herb Gentis, they started their careers in the 1950s as radical Marxists, they’ve come around to sort of more market‐​based views, and they coined a term in 2013, and that term is strong reciprocity. So they actually distinguish weak from strong reciprocity. And what they actually argued, and they give lots of evidence, is that although there are lots of species that are… They reciprocate with cooperators and then they punish defectors, we’re one of the only species, probably the only ones that are strong reciprocates, and what that means is that there’s at least a subset of people who actually get joy out of co‐​operating, and so when they come to a kind of game where there are some real benefits from ripping people off, but there are also joint benefits from cooperation, they tend to start off as cooperators and really ramp up cooperation when they encounter other cooperators, and that’s a really interesting disposition.

26:00 Jonathan Anomaly: And so what I think parents would have reason to select is for strong reciprocity, not merely weak reciprocity, provided that it goes along with the strategy that you also are inclined to severely punish defectors, that is people who exploit cooperators.

26:16 Aaron Powell: This might be a good time to take a step back and ask about the decision‐​making process for all of this, because what we’ve just been talking about, these moral considerations and the interactions of different kinds of enhancements, and not just the interactions within the person, but within that… From that person to society as a whole, these are all really complicated issues and they’re issues that if we live in a world where genetic enhancement of this kind, whether through embryo selection or through gene modification directly, is a live issue for a lot of people, these are decisions that parents are going to have to make. And they’re often decisions where it’s like, whether you get it right or wrong isn’t going to be… You’re not going to know for two decades or more as you see… You know, you… I’m going to build my child or select my child to have the following traits, but it takes until adulthood to see how they interact with other people and so on. And our lives are determined by many, many factors beyond these particular ones, so who knows if I got it right, so it’s just an incredibly complicated problem.

27:26 Aaron Powell: How do we… How do those kinds of decisions then get made, especially among parents with different levels of education, different levels of time to commit to these kinds of questions, especially if we are worried about the government making these decisions for us in a monolithic way? Like that doesn’t seem like an appealing direction from a libertarian perspective, but you can imagine these are awfully difficult decisions for individual parents to make.

27:57 Jonathan Anomaly: I totally agree, and where we are now as a society, even the Western world, where there are a series of taboos on even talking about genetically encoded individual differences, for example, in intelligence, the fact that this is even a taboo subject at all in 2020 is I think… Well, it doesn’t bode well for our future ability to talk about these things. I do think that as this technology evolves, and I think it’s happening very quickly with companies like Genomic Predictions, what’s going to happen is a few people will test these things out, we already do select, of course, embryos using IVF and that sort of thing for diseases, but as they’re tested out on psychological traits, for example, and people see the successes and failures, they’re going to be more likely to take the genetic knowledge seriously. As economists say, actions reveal preferences, and right now, there’s really not a cost to sort of lying to society or to yourself about the extent to which genes predispose us to do things, because right now this technology isn’t being used, but once it’s a real live possibility, I think people’s incentives to understand it will dramatically increase, and the incentives are going to be equivalent to the incentives to educate your children.

29:18 Jonathan Anomaly: I mean, right now we have mandates in Western countries that you have to educate your children, but my view is very few parents would choose to have their children be illiterate, because the cost of doing that is so high. And I think the same is going to be true for genetic knowledge, not that everyone’s going to use CRISPR or even embryo selection, but I think people will, for example, genetically test themselves, their mates and things like this, and it’ll evolve from there. They’re going to trust genetics more as they go. And I think one role that the government could play is making genetic knowledge freely available. Now, I don’t mean they even have to subsidize it, that’s one possibility, I just mean that there could be reasons for governments, for example, to either buy up patents or to just at least allow people to have access to the kinds of information that comes out over the coming decades. And one thing I’ll just add briefly, is that a lot of insurance companies are already offering genetic counseling as one of the benefits of being part of an insurance pool, and I think that’s going to happen more and more, there’s just going to be a demand for it, both for the parents themselves, and for the kinds of children that they’ll create.

30:31 Trevor Burrus: There is, of course, a prevailing sense, I think of a lot of people who would be listening to this, and maybe many people who wouldn’t be listening to this, a fear of the inegalitarian results that could come from this technology. If it is a capitalist system where there’s high‐​end gene editing and low‐​end gene editing bargain basement stuff for poor people, people who are relatively less well off, then you could really exacerbate existing differences between the classes by allowing rich people to very much prefer certain traits in their kids that continue to express those inequalities while the poor people can’t afford it. Is this something that we should be concerned about?

31:14 Jonathan Anomaly: I think so, and it’s just because people care about it, so I think libertarian personality types simply aren’t universally shared. I think a lot of people don’t think like libertarians and some probably never will. And another way of putting that is, some people just seem to care about equality more than others. I think we all care about certain kinds of equality, like equalities of opportunity, equality under the law and so on. But equality of outcome, people seem to have radically different views about that, and you might say, well, people who care about equality of outcome are misguided. Maybe, but those attitudes seem pretty sticky to me. And to the extent people care about it, it may be that there’s going to be political pressure to, for example, for governments to use policy to subsidize some of these technologies for everyone to use. That may just be part of the cost of living in a democratic society. Or by contrast, if you have a more constitutional society that doesn’t sort of put everything off to democracies and democratic votes, it may be that a cost of liberty is massive inequalities, and that’s just a cost worth paying for some people.

32:23 Jonathan Anomaly: Now, my view is over the long run, over the coming centuries, we should be breaking up into far more states, I just think the experiment in unlimited size states like the United States, 300 million, 500 million, a billion people, India with over a billion people, I don’t think it’s working very well, I think we should have a lot more decentralization and a lot more experiments in the way that people organize political societies. And one of the reasons I say that, it ties to your point, is that there are fewer negative or positive externalities to reproductive decisions when we live in smaller communities or smaller political societies. We don’t have to say, “Well, this person living 3,000 miles away, they don’t want to genetically enhance their kid or they can’t afford it, therefore they pay the relative cost of inequality.” The answer to me is, let’s break apart, let’s have more political societies, and then we don’t have to constantly centralize the interest that everyone takes in what other people do.

33:25 Aaron Powell: So a lot of new technologies come along and are very expensive at first, and are because of that only accessible to the very wealthy, but then the very wealthy, through buying them, they’re buying the early expensive, relatively poor, essentially prototypes, but the technology improves, the cost comes down, and so the very wealthy are basically subsidizing the development of this technology for the rest of us, and eventually the technology spreads to everyone else. And we can see this play out with all sorts of different pieces of tech that have come along over the last several hundred years. But I guess I’m skeptical of that kind of argument in this particular instance, in the genetic enhancement instance, and this is picking up off of Trevor’s question, which is, let’s say for the sake of argument that we have a market economy, and success in the market economy, you know, how much wealth you gain is, there’s a whole lot of factors, a lot of it luck, but a lot of it not luck. But intelligent social capital, those kinds of things play a big role.

34:31 Aaron Powell: And so, if the wealthy can enhance their children’s intelligence, say, or whatever other traits are going to lead to market success, when the technology is new and very expensive, then their children are going to get even greater market success, even more wealth, enhance their own children. And you could imagine a runaway, like basically feedback loop here that, well before the time genetic enhancement becomes cheap enough that everyone can do it, you’ve essentially gone to the ultimate kind of dystopia of social stratification. Some people have everything, everyone else has nothing, and that seems like… It doesn’t seem like a satisfying solution to that is, well, we should have lots of states and some are the states for the people who have everything, and some are the states for the people who have nothing, because that level of inequality does seem to be morally problematic. Is there a way to avoid that sort of thing?

35:36 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, as David Schmidtz likes to say, “In political philosophy, there are no guarantees.” So is there a way? Yes. Is it guaranteed? No. Here’s what I’d say about that, I think you’re right, so it’s true that people like us who support markets, we tend to say, hey, look, HIV medication, cellphones, sure, they were expensive at first, but basically, the rich subsidized them for the poor, so the ultimate beneficiaries are actually the poor and the future poor who get to buy these technologies much cheaper and use them in ways that are more effective once they go off patent and so on. And the same we might say is true of genetic enhancement technology, and then you give this argument, “No, but it happens so quickly.” Right?

36:14 Jonathan Anomaly: The advantages to my children of having, let’s say, a 30‐​point IQ boost relative to yours are so massive, so big and so quick that essentially they become almost like two species, they can interbreed, but one just has huge advantages over the other, and so if they broke off into these communities of the super‐​intelligent and then the ordinary, then you might say, and this is a kind of objection that G.A Cohen gave to Robert Nozick, well, then the rich and powerful and the genetically advantaged could use their talents to infiltrate the political system, and more or less take advantage even more of the poor, so it’s not just that the poor don’t have the abilities of the rich, which they don’t, but they then also get exploited politically.

37:01 Jonathan Anomaly: That is a real problem. Again, I think that’s part of the price of liberty, so only a partial solution is to have different political communities in order to avoid having these very big differences in interests, the interests of the genetically enhanced and the un‐​enhanced. I think we need to make political divorce a little easier. But here’s another way of looking at it, and that is to think about the counterfactual. What happens if we… In response to your very good objection, we say, “Look, we’re just going to ban this technology,” Well, my view is that in the future, there’s going to be a really strong demand to use it anyway, either on the black market or to go to states that offer it. States like Singapore, I think, who are pretty optimistic about the future of these genetic enhancement technologies.

37:52 Jonathan Anomaly: My sense is, states like Singapore will probably offer them; in the same way that you can go to Mexico for cosmetic surgery, India for a spare kidney, or in states that don’t allow abortion, people often fly to states that do. And so I don’t think you can actually stop the use of this enhancement, what you can do is harness it in very subtle ways using public policy and social norms, so that it’s to the advantage of all. But again, there are no guarantees.

38:20 Trevor Burrus: If I run my Black Mirror episode creator in my head forward and I picture this situation where you have very popular genetic modification, maybe there are specialty ones for richer people, but it’s widely available, but you also see a significant number of people, possibly due to religious convictions, who refuse to participate in this out of moral objections to altering children and saying, “There’s something unnatural about this.” So there’s a significant number of babies born that have no genetic alterations whatsoever, who are then seen as sort of an underclass or parasitic on the more productive genetically enhanced people, and this discussion of whether or not they need to be supported or helped, even though their parents didn’t choose for them the best sort of genetic path for their success. I can see that Black Mirror episode running through and creating massive social problems of how we deal with those who simply refuse to use this, what I think could be a bigger issue that many people might think, that people will just refuse to do this on moral and religious grounds.

39:27 Jonathan Anomaly: I think that’s exactly right. And my view is laws and social norms are two rival solutions to the kinds of problems that we face. And in this case, the preferable solution would be that eventually norms will emerge because they are a kind of emergent order that pressure certain people, people who opt out in order to do this, and the same thing goes for vaccines and for other things. Now, it turns out there are some people who simply won’t vaccinate their children under any circumstances, they’ll pull them out of school and so on. And sometimes there are laws that force them to, but of course, a law that forces you to vaccinate your children, that’s not a very high cost, it’s not a lot of coercion. A law that forces you to genetically modify or select certain traits in children, as we can imagine, that’s eugenics in the bad sense of the word eugenics.

40:17 Jonathan Anomaly: We can think of 1930s and ‘40s Germany. And that’s something I think we all want to avoid. And so I think the only way to avoid it is, again, through social pressure, or through the rights of freedom of association. And again, that’s why I think of the Nozickian vision of society where people have the right to peacefully separate into different political communities. Because the alternative I see is using lots of force in order to make parents or induce them to do certain things that really are imposing costs.

40:52 Jonathan Anomaly: One of the things here is that, as Garett Jones has argued in his book, Hive Mind, from 2016, it turns out higher IQ has really strong network effects. Higher IQ people tend to be more cooperative, and IQ and cooperation is a good predictor of all kinds of things like low levels of corruption, high GDP, low crime, all of these things. And so once this gets ramped up, the idea that you’re going to opt out of this and your kids are just going to be sort of low IQ or low empathy, whatever, that actually is a cost that you’re imposing on others in some sense of the word cost. And so my hope is that we can still have laws and norms that respect people’s rights to choose, but I think there’s going to have to be… There just will be a lot of social pressure to make the socially beneficial choice, that is to enhance in certain ways. Not necessarily to enhance height or something like that, but to ensure at least a minimum of things like general intelligence or certain kinds of immuno enhancements and so on. I think there will be a lot of pressure if parents don’t do that.

42:00 Trevor Burrus: Alright, and you mentioned eugenics, which I’ve written about before, or especially in the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, I could see traditional procreation being outlawed in some basic sense because of these concerns that are being raised in eugenics in the really negative sense coming back basically in the way they did for Carrie Buck in 1927, saying that this feeble‐​minded woman, she wasn’t, but that’s what they called her, is undeserving to have a child who will simply be a sort of ward of the state or some sort of parasite on society, and so we’re going to sterilize her now, or if not, prohibit the traditional procreation. I can see that becoming a very strong possibility, which seems pretty bad.

42:43 Jonathan Anomaly: I agree with that. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it. Whether we like it or not, any action that imposes strong social benefits or costs is the kind of thing, at least in a democracy, that is going to end up being up for grabs. This is why people fight so much even about education. And education, probably, according to most evidence we have, doesn’t have nearly as big effect on people’s personalities as just genetics. So is this going to be on the table? I think it will. And the question is, how do we avoid it? I of course want to avoid it too. I will say, some of the more interesting things, there are some subtleties here.

43:19 Jonathan Anomaly: So for example, many states around the country, in the United States here, like North Carolina, actually do have what you might call eugenic sterilizations. Buck v. Bell was never overturned, it’s just very rarely carried out now. So I have a friend who works at UNC Hospital as a psychiatrist, and he says every year a few people are involuntarily sterilized. Now, what are the grounds for that? It’s usually they have an extreme psychological disorder, they’re extremely mentally disabled and they’re hospitalized and they end up getting raped in the hospital. Or in some cases, a severely mentally defective or a challenged person just chooses to have sex and they have a baby. And it turns out you can actually, and it is done occasionally, forcibly sterilize those people.

44:07 Jonathan Anomaly: Is that wrong? Well, this is a dicey thing to talk about. I don’t think it’s wrong in those extreme cases, but empowering the state to do that in general, I think, is wrong, and that’s exactly what happened with Buck v. Bell. So my sense is to agree with you on that, morally speaking. I do predict, nevertheless, that people will put that on the table again in the distant future, and I don’t know that there’s a way around that. That’s why I think freedom of exit and freedom of association is going to become increasingly important.

44:39 Aaron Powell: We’ve spent most of the last 45 minutes talking about parents making choices for their children and what they want those children to be like and what traits they’re going to pick, but a lot of the traits that you’re talking about, a lot of the enhancements, would seem to lead to increasing education, increasing wealth. All of these things would drive those up. And one of the most consistent trends that we have witnessed globally in the last several, many years is the wealthier people are, the more educated they are, the freer they are, the fewer children they tend to have. And so is it possible that these genetic enhancements would not lead to just a litany of questions about what kinds of kids each of us wants to have, but a declining interest in even having them? Especially if other enhancements give us radically longer life for… We’re healthier for longer periods, we live decades longer. I can imagine that lots of people, maybe even too many people, would simply decide not to have children at all.

45:48 Jonathan Anomaly: I totally agree, and I love the question. I think this is an under‐​discussed issue. I actually think the greatest tragedy of our time is that so many people are opting out of parenthood. Now, if we all lived 1000 years or forever, and I don’t think the technology for that is anywhere near on the horizon, but if we did, maybe that wouldn’t be a tragedy because there’s billions of people on Earth and we’re living happy, productive lives, that’s fine. But yeah, intelligence is negatively correlated with fertility, so as well so is education, and when you have all three together, yeah, you’ve got way below replacement levels in places like Japan, Korea, even China now, and certainly all of Western Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada. All of them are well below replacement levels of fertility. And people aren’t living 1000 years, they’re just living 80 years. So I think this is already a big problem and it can become an even bigger problem.

46:45 Jonathan Anomaly: Now, I do consider in the last chapter some sort of far off things, and Nick Bostrom over at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and others have argued that it may be in the distant future people will have an interest in subsidizing genetically enhanced children that aren’t even their own, in subsidizing other people reproducing just because we want kids, we want people who are smart and creative and interesting and empathetic and whatever traits that you like. It’s just nice to have them. Not only as trading partners that’s a good predictor of wealth and social success, but just having them in the population. This is far off, I think, but I do imagine a world in which some people would voluntarily either pay on their own or even pay through taxation to subsidize some people in having children. It would be a kind of labor. I know that sounds strange from our current year, but I do see that as actually a big problem, the plummeting fertility, and why would people have children if they don’t have these kinds of reasons to that they do now.

47:50 Trevor Burrus: Given the inevitability of these technologies and even as you pointed out, if they’re highly regulated or even prohibited, the black market will be thriving, what should we be doing now to prepare culturally, socially, technologically, legally, to prepare for this future that is coming?

48:09 Jonathan Anomaly: Yeah, it’s a good question. I really think paying attention to how choice works, so studying both economics and genetics. So what I mean by economics is really the essence of it, in my view is, well, it’s really micro‐​economics, it’s how individual choices end up shaping overall patterns in ways that people don’t naturally think about. So going back to Smith, Hayek, people like this, really what they’re doing is studying emergent orders, or also David Hume. How do we get these appearances of design and order in these overall social patterns from micro‐​choices and micro‐​motives? That’s the essence of economics. And I think it’s really important for people to just understand how that works and how just you making a rational choice or thinking others will too is going to necessarily produce a good outcome. It doesn’t, and so we need to pay attention to the dynamics of choice. People need to understand that more. And the other field is, of course, genetics, just understanding biology, evolutionary biology, and the basics of genetics. People are, in the West, woefully ignorant of this. And as I argue in the book and in other places, I think a lot of this is just politically motivated resistance, and there’s a real cost to that.

49:27 Jonathan Anomaly: People end up, for example, blaming parents as bad parents because their children ended up in certain ways. And sometimes that’s true, but it’s often not. We simply have a lot more genetic knowledge out there, there’s more genetic information than most people know. They just don’t understand the extent to which the traits that we have are so heavily influenced by genes. So I think as people, again, learn to think on the one hand more like economists, then on the other, understand genetics more, we’ll be in better shape. My own view, strangely enough, even though I’m a moral philosopher technically, I was one of Gerry Gaus’s students, I think more like an economist, and that’s partly because I think people naturally already think in moral terms, we don’t have to teach them to be moral agents. It is good for parents to teach them to be nice to others and so on, but I actually think moral reasoning just comes out naturally, but economic reasoning, genetics, evolutionary biology, I think people don’t naturally think like that, and it really has to be taught.


50:39 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. And if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at https://​www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.