Genetic modification could lead to inequality like we've never seen

Imagine a bunch of aristocrats. Now imagine them buying Einstein's intelligence.

Halo Transhumanism Xbox
(Image credit: (John W. Adkisson/ZUMA Press/Corbis))

If you could have the outlandish strength and agility of Halo's Master Chief, how much would you spend?

For the uninitiated, Master Chief is the hero of the Halo video game series. A heavily genetically enhanced supersoldier, he can run faster, jump higher, see further, think faster, and endure longer than regular humans. So powerful is Master Chief that his alien adversaries think of him as a "demon" because of his ability to destroy hundreds or sometimes thousands of alien soldiers.

And a genetically engineered human isn't a wild fantasy. Researchers have recently made impressive advances in real-life human enhancement — including in human genetic engineering and cyborg enhancements, like mechanical muscles and cognitive implants — that are inching us closer to the technologies that Halo and countless other sci-fi examples predicted. While still purely speculative, these technologies could one day have huge effects on society.

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Today, only Usain Bolt can run as fast as Usain Bolt. No matter how hard you or I train, we could never get close to him. The 27-year-old Jamaican has run the 100-meter dash in just 9.58 seconds, 0.16 seconds faster than anyone else, and far faster than the 12 or 15 or 20 seconds it might take a nonathlete to do it. But if you knew precisely which genes contributed to Bolt's speed — muscle texture, bone density, reaction time, mental determination, etc. — it might be possible to implant these genes in humans the way genetic engineers today can implant genes in plants to, for example, make them resistant to pesticides.

Of course, the traditional way that genetic material is distributed is through reproduction, where gene inheritance is determined by random chance. Usain Bolt's children might inherit his speed advantages, or they might not, depending on which genes they inherit. Similarly, the children of ingenious financiers and entrepreneurs might inherit the genes that allowed for their progenitor's ingenuity as well as their fortune, or they might grow up to be fast-spending, hard-partying money squanderers who end up losing the family fortune.

But seriously, imagine that in the future, the children of the wealthy don't just inherit their financial fortune; they are genetically engineered before birth to remain lean, to not get cancer, to run fast, to jump high, to think fast, to see crystal-clear, to sing in perfect pitch, to socialize easily, to remain calm under pressure, and to easily grasp abstract concepts like the subjective theory of value or vector calculus. They may have mechanical muscle enhancements to enhance their strength or speed, too. And their parents can choose genes that will shape their appearance: They could look like Leonardo DiCaprio, Halle Berry, Barack Obama, Selena Gomez, or anyone, really. They are born with a computer implanted in their brains that hooks them up to the internet, allowing them to Google a term in their minds, to take photographs just by looking at things, to send emails just by thinking, or to design and 3-D-print objects just by imagining them. And life-extension technologies could keep them looking and feeling youthful for hundreds of years, too.

Today, people who aren't born to the wealthy have some pretty serious educational, social, and economic disadvantages. Social mobility is falling. But today's privilege would be dwarfed by this possible future's. The kind of economic inequality that genetic alterations and technological enhancements could foster over multiple generations is huge. It could even split the human race: Various groups of transhumans who have been genetically and mechanically enhanced vs. regular humans like me and you who haven't.

Of course, we're not there yet: Human genetic engineering remains in its infancy, used so far only to help couples struggling to conceive. We still don't know exactly which genes give Usain Bolt his speed and exactly how the interaction between genes and environment make a human popular, interesting, or ingenious. And the very concept of eugenics remains rightfully taboo after it was used in the early 20th century to forcibly sterilize vulnerable minority individuals and inspired the Nazi extermination programs against Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, and other minority groups.

So, thankfully, the kind of supersoldiers envisaged in Halo remains a distant prospect. But it's coming.

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