Bad Code

Posted on 2012 November 21


There’s a guy over at Stanford who believes humans have been getting dumber for centuries. “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly extreme selection is a thing of the past.

Now we know why there are so many dopes out there! They drive badly, screw things up at work, and otherwise make our lives miserable, so we’ve been right all along to give them their true name: “Idiots!”

I’ve thought of other ways our human gene pool might be diluting itself. Take me, for example. I wear glasses to correct for a large degree of nearsightedness. How long would I have lasted in the Stone Age? Or think of all the diseases that could have killed me, had I not received immunization shots and antibacterial meds over the years. My eyes — and my immune system — have been excused from the perfection I would have needed without the high-tech workarounds that prop me up.

You, too. You’d probably be dead if not for booster shots. Fat people lumber through their lives, palanquined about in automobiles and protected from the raw elements — and bared teeth — of wild nature. Couples who can’t conceive may avail themselves of in-vitro fertilization techniques. Congenital defects, or foolish drunken accidents, that result in crippling disabilities can nowadays be survived, the victims zipping around in wheelchairs.

It takes twenty or more years, on average, to pass our traits from one generation to the next. So you’d think these changes would take centuries. But sometimes genetic shifts can happen quickly, as with the trait for lactose tolerance, which swept across Europe several thousand years ago as dairy farmers displaced the hunter-gatherers who lived there. Cow’s milk eased mothers’ nursing burdens, enabling them to raise more children, who in turn could depend on a more reliable food supply. This favored people who could digest lactose, the sugar in milk; today, most Europeans have the lactase enzyme that enables it. In the same way, our rapidly advancing technology must be removing pressure on genetic traits by the handful, making them no longer necessary.

Modern life insulates us from many threats, so our DNA no longer has to code for them. The gene pool grows cloudy.

Is this a bad thing? Essentially, we’re moving our survivability from the insides of our bodies and onto exterior technologies. Instead of precise protein coding within us, we’re using machinery outside of us. We no longer need our chromosomes to protect us from every harm — not if appliances are doing the job instead.

At this rate, we’ll all end up as brains in jars, communicating with remote-controlled mannequins that move about at our mental command and live our lives for us.

Or maybe we’ll be able to recode faulty genes, allowing the handicapped to walk again with their own legs, or preventing obesity from setting in, or reshaping our eyes to perfection so we don’t need glasses. Perhaps the slow collapse of our DNA will be reversed until our genes once again code exactly for what we need, and we no longer must strap on crutches of one sort or another.

But what about intelligence? It’s such a complex trait that it’s hard fully to understand, much less find all the interlocking gene sequences that give rise to its many attributes. Will we be able, one day, to inject people with benign viral delivery systems that ferry smartness DNA into our brains, making us brilliant?

For that matter, will we all strive to achieve designer bodies — altering skin texture, eye and hair colors, muscle thickness, height and weight, and so forth, to go with our newly enhanced heads? Will we change ourselves at whim with the latest fashions? Will our personalities reshape as well, so that we can become dour and Goth-like for Halloween, or sweet and sentimental on Valentine’s Day? And might this process run amok? Could unforseen side effects warp our attempts at genetic self-improvement? Would vicious murderers, hopped up on genetic overkill, roam streets crowded with designer bodies, wreaking havoc?

Just as bad, will the public — panicked by reports of genetic experiments gone awry — scream for laws that ban all such testing? We could well push it underground, where Black Market Frankensteins would grow and fester in the dark.

…Nah. It’s just some researcher over at Stanford who has an obscure idea about modernization and its correlation to human intelligence. It amounts to nothing.

There, that’s better.

After all, I’m well insulated from lethal threats nowadays, so I don’t have to be smart and careful, or think ahead about approaching technologies that could pose problems.