The debate over designing babies for frivolous traits (hair color/eye color) or breading superhuman soldiers kinda makes it seem as if those are the only options. Being honest there are many positives that can be point to when it comes to gene editing and manipulating the DNA of humans. Improving the health and survival of individuals is usually at the top of the list. I love science and have always gotten all gushy at the idea of the innovations developed by scientist to improve the plight of all humanity. I distinctly remember as a child watching science clips that talked about how scientists were working hard to create foods that would save the world. These foods would stay fresh longer and have more nutrients so that they could reach those in need to supply them with the vitamins and nutrients they needed to survive and we could save the children just like in the song. Yes I was sold on the We Are The World save the children concept as a kid. I know it sounds odd but between saving the world from starvation and gliding through space with Carl Sagan on PBS how could you not fall in love with the possibilities that science had to offer?! I understand that GMO foods are not super popular but technically ALL the foods that humans have ever cultivated and grown have been modified for our benefit. What if this new technology and the new era of eugenics will be the way of the future, used to modify humans for our own benefits as well? How does one look at the parents of sick children knowing that there are technologies that could totally erase their child’s suffering, and do nothing? The potential benefits are plentiful but just like with the perceptions of GMO foods the possible pitfalls can appear just as abundant. So, is the ethical answer to abandon this particular branch on the scientific tree? Of course, the answer to that is no, we have started down this path and the ball will keep on a rolling. It is only through the passage of time and the beautiful perspective of hindsight that we will fully understand the fullness of our actions. Will we have improved humanity or simply created a new genetic way for us humans to categorize ourselves into an Us or a Them?
The mechanism for categorizing is definitely written in our DNA, and for good reason. From the beginning we humans needed to be able to distinguish between all manner of things for all manner of reasons. We need to know what things were fit for eating and those that were not. We needed to know what places had dangerous predators and where it was safe to set up camp. We needed to know who was OUR kin/clan, and who was not. I am by trade a biology teacher and as such I have to teach lessons on taxonomy every year. I usually start with a random collection of things and ask students to group them and through various rounds of grouping the list is dwindled down to a single item just as is the technique of naming and categorizing all organisms down to the species. But this is not just a scientific thing if you walk into any Walmart anywhere in the world it will only take you a few minutes to get your baring’s and have a general knowledge where things are located in the store. Categorizing things is functional, practical, and efficient. Categorizing is how we make sense of the world and it is something that comes naturally that we will never stop doing. In general, it’s a good (dare I say) great thing but often leads to problems when used to create the Us /Them categories.
The first Us groupings of humans were into kin groups, this is my family=Us, you are not my family=Them. Simple enough I am responsible for the survival of my family and need to be able to ensure that the resources I have access to are provided to them. This is true for a wide variety of animals not just us organization loving humans. The feature that is unique to humans is the way we identify who is an Us (family) and who is a Them (stranger). You can’t look at another of your species and see their DNA sequence so, we can’t know just from looking who is and is not our kin. Many species have mechanisms that aid in the identification process, such as olfactory identifiers that allow them to know by a specific smell who is an Us and a Them. We humans have no such mechanisms, for us kin is simply based on the types of faces we see early in our development and the amount of altruism bestowed upon us by the folks with those faces. In this way children who are raised together but have absolutely no genetic connections can still believe that a random human is their sister or brother, as is the case with adoption and close family friends who become “family”. Us/Them is automatic and provides individuals with a sense of safety as well as an identity. The notion that these are your people who love and care for you is comforting, humans need that sense of connection to thrive, to explore, and to be confident in who they are as an individual. This is why in the modern era where the family has become fractured so many seek outside sources as a sense of support and community ie., gangs, factions, political parties, and if you look online there are millions of groups that allow the most isolated and obscure traits to be a unifying attribute in the creation of an Us.
With all that said is being in a family, political party, gang or group inherently bad? We know the obvious answer is no. Creating healthy loving families and groups are needed for society to develop, it’s the meaning and importance placed on belonging to a specific US and the devaluing those humans identified as THEMS that is the problem….
This article is a part of a series focused on the analysis and origins of hate:
What Is Hate? Published 01.14.2021
So, What’s The Plan? Published 01.21.2021
How to Make Mutant Published 01.28.2021
Don’t Take it Personal Published 02.04.21
Social Darwinism Published 02.25.21
Selective Breeding Published 03.04.21
1. Beck, A. T. (2000). Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. New York, NY: Perennial Library.
2. Sapolsky, R. (2018). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. London: Vintage.
3. Times, H. (2012, May 21). Us vs. Them [Digital image]. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://www.hoosiertimes.com/herald_times_online/opinion/cartoon-us-vs-them/article_c05a63fe-f838-5fed-871e-c60a29ccd7bd.html