40 Million Bachelors

by Martin Overby

"The demand is already in place for whatever advantages can be mined from genetic advances."

We've come through the Space Age and have just entered the Genetic Era. So far, so good. The genetic milestones on our journey pass regularly. Chemical birth control, test tube babies (IVF), Dolly the cloned sheep, the Human Genome (blueprint), Gene Therapy. And to come, cloned humans, designer babies, full medical (a term meaning one's own spare personal clone for body rejuvenation), superman and superwoman, and eventually eternal life ( or so it's hoped). The funny thing about this list is that Science Fiction writers have been imagining the `evolutionary' progress of man -- and they've been getting the details vaguely right, generations ahead of schedule. We can credit Mary Shelly for Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley for Brave New World, HG Wells for The Island of Dr. Moreau and others of great insight we are yet to appreciate. (It's interesting to note that these portentous writers were atheists. They seem to take an extremely pragmatic view of human life.)

Despite the fascinating tale of our unfolding understanding, we owe an untold debt to the communist Chinese of the 20th Century and the story of 40 million bachelors. We know that China is the most populous country on earth, and the Communists felt that this was one of the reasons why Communism wasn't working "as they suspected it should" -- so they came up with a novel idea. They called it the "One Child Family" and it was the solution to the (literally) pressing problem of overpopulation. As the tale (and fact) goes, each family unit was limited to one child. You have to admire the Chinese ingenuity because they achieved immediate negative population growth. Sadly, there were unprecedented abortions as upright citizens aspired to live according to the law. The preference to have a boy in Chinese culture meant that the girls paid the price. I'm not for the purpose of this article wanting to dwell on the girls. I am amazed that there are now 40 million eligible bachelors with scant hope of finding a girl. (India apparently has a similar problem.)

A typical family story is that the 20-year-old son from the provinces leaves for the city in search of a job, and a girl. He finds the job, but not the girl. Girls from the provinces (as few as there are) aren't in an advantageous position either, because they are vulnerable to kidnapping, and marital slavery. Local corruption undermines efforts of families searching for lost daughters, and the girls are treated like chattel. So we see that a little bit of genetic engineering results in tragic social mishap. One wonders what would happen if perhaps cloning or genetic trait selection were on the pre-natal menu.

It's a known fact that tall people get the best jobs, and attractive people are chosen first -- when all other factors are equal. And many times those traits are valued more than competence when it comes to making choices. It's also natural for a parent to want the best, and procure the best advantage for their offspring. So the demand is already in place for whatever advantages can be mined from genetic advances.

But what is the long view? Think of those Chinese bachelors… who foresaw that happening? The media in our society predispose us to appreciate, or even worship superlative traits. One future possibility, not that remote, is an undue proportion of our population with mirrored genetic characteristics. If we select preferred characteristics, we will be narrowing the gene pool. A narrowed gene pool is more susceptible to adverse events, like pandemic for example. Furthermore, a society based on or valuing superfluous traits may be very unbalanced -- there are precedents. Hitler and his partners initially succeeded, and were widely supported because they had an aggressive approach to getting Germany out of economic depression. They also believed in `superior' traits and it took the Nazis and the country a long way. But they made ghastly choices. Today, environmentalists are highly alarmed when some species of rainforest or wetland creature are endangered - they sing the hymns of ecologic diversity. Yet we make the exact opposite mistake when we wish for taller, prettier, smarter and stronger offspring. Wishing is one thing, but making is perhaps dangerous or unwise.

We often credit scientists with great powers of observation, but forget that they are perhaps more skilled at imagination. That is why they try different experiments, to persistently test ideas and see if they work. So I'm sure we can expect someone, somewhere to succeed at cloning and genetic engineering, and we will then have to deal with that issue when it happens. The cloned or engineered person will not be a souless being, nor will they be a complete mirror of their progenitor. They will have a difficult time because, despite their genetics, they will be unlike everyone else. The decision to make them will have been a scientific one. Their rights to privacy -- or anonymity will be diminished -- and this implies they will be an underclass.

In line with our growing proficiency in genetics, there grows a faint sense of foreboding as we tinker with beings as complex and equal to ourselves. ( For a fuller exploration of this idea -- reread Mary Shelly's Frankenstein) Do we have the right, under the terms of equality, and individuality -- to experiment? We wonder if we are about to cross a hidden line in the sand, and inadvertently call down the wrath of Heaven. We forget that all knowledge is held by God, and He allows it to be uncovered (discovered) at a time and place of His choosing. We may not know His reasons, but the discoveries and implementation of science will be a looking glass into the soul of man. And like Frankenstein's monster or Dorian Gray1 -- will we like what we see?

1. Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: a tale about the hidden moral decisions of a man, and how they express themselves metaphysically in a painting.

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