While the plot of Genesis Code may seem far-fetched, Metzl says the basic technology is already in place, and that as a society we should prepare for the genetic revolution at hand, one where human beings will control our evolution by rewriting our genetic code.
Jamie Metzl isn’t just a futurist on a flight of fancy—he has impressive credentials that indicate he just may know what he’s talking about. Metzl is a graduate of both Harvard Law School and Oxford (at the latter he earned a PhD in Asian history). He is presently a Nonresident Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security of the Atlantic Council. He's held positions in the Asia Society, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council. He has also testified before Congress about national security as it relates to biotechnology and genomics, and he frequently appears in the national and international the media as an expert on Asian affairs and technology.
Beyond the Bris is pleased to feature the following exclusive interview with American author and futurist Jamie Metzl.
Rebecca Wald: If you can distill it down to the essence, what is it about Asia that has drawn you to it, time and again, throughout your career?
Jamie Metzl: When I was a freshman at Brown, I met a classmate of mine who was a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. Hearing him tell his story, I felt ashamed that this genocide had happened during my lifetime and neither I nor anyone in my world knew anything about it. I quit my job as a camp counselor that summer and headed to Thailand, where I worked in a refugee camp with Cambodian and Hmong refugees. It was a life-changing event and the beginning of a lifetime engagement with Asia. Now I am deeply involved across the region on many levels and in many ways, and I find Asia one of the most dynamic and interesting parts of the world. Over recent decades it has also become clear that America’s destiny is more intertwined with Asia than ever before.
Rebecca Wald: You made that point well during your book discussion at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). During the talk you said the Chinese believe they can raise IQ 20-30 points per generation using genetic engineering—and they’re working to do just that. In light of this, do you foresee the kind of genetic enhancement space race that is imagined in Genesis Code?
Jamie Metzl: I am absolutely convinced that we will be able to use genetic selection and, at a later date, active engineering to enhance human intelligence. Some individual and societies may choose to do this and others may not, but either choice will have profound implications. Let’s say that at some point in the future the US bans genetic manipulation of early stage embryos and China or some other country does not. Would we try to stop them, would we make it illegal for our citizens to procreate with genetically altered partners? What would be the ramifications of our choice for national competitiveness? The societal and national security implications of this would be huge, and we will face them in the future. That is the premise upon which Genesis Code is based.
Rebecca Wald: You've also spoken about a future where massive data banks will be used to compare human experiences with digitized genetic code, enabling us to find all sorts of correlations. Traits such as height, and even IQ, are relatively easy to quantify, but many desirable human traits cannot be easily measured. I am thinking of traits such as sound judgment, kindness, and the capacity to raise sensible and warmhearted children. Do you wonder if the best human traits—our very humanity—might be overlooked as being desirable because this can’t be easily quantified?
Jamie Metzl: Some single gene mutations, like that for Huntington’s disease, are relatively straightforward, but others, like those for the genetic components of polygenic traits like intelligence, empathy, etc. are far more complicated. Humans are not entirely our genes. Nurture has a lot to do with who and what we become. But we are very much our genes and I believe we will find that more and more of our traits have a significant genetic component. Philosophers have always known that humans have various capacities, both positive and negative, and that we need to cultivate our best selves. The same will be true in the genetic age. It would be terrible if we overlooked our humanity and came to see ourselves as genetically predetermined, but it would be equally false to lie to ourselves and suggest that there is not an important genetic component of who we are. We will need to bring the best of our traditional values to this process to help us make the wisest personal and societal decisions in a radically new environment.
Rebecca Wald: Do you think we’ll run the risk of “improving” ourselves out of existence? After all, it was high IQ individuals that brought us nuclear weapons.
Jamie Metzl: Yes. But the homo sapien 1.0 model is pretty dangerous, too.
Rebecca Wald: No kidding! And along those lines, if a society is going to preselect for certain traits, I can think of at least one that authoritarian regimes might wish to cull: a willingness to question authority. Do you foresee—say in a communist society—the potential for using genetic engineering to create a docile population, one with a herd mentality?
Jamie Metzl: Could be. Once we have this capacity, different societies may well begin thinking about what traits they wish to select for. Diversity is the greatest protection of our species, and it would be a terrible mistake, in my view, if we, over time, reduced significantly the genetic diversity of our species.
Rebecca Wald: One theme in your book is that the core of humanity is to love and connect with each other—yet human intellect is often a barrier to such emotions. Do you see the human capacity for love being compromised as our collective intellect grows through genomics or simply natural progress?
Jamie Metzl: An unfair question to a person who has been accused of thinking too much! As humans, we always need to balance our various capacities. Even if we understand the chemical underpinning of the feeling of love, it doesn’t make our experience of that dopamine rush any less profound for us. As you see, one of the core themes of my book is that even in a genetic age, love stands at the core of what it means to be a human being.
Rebecca Wald: In your book the protagonist says: “Everyone has a right to choose their own religion, but when one group tries to force itself on others is when I start to have problems.” I think most Americans share this view, but when it comes to freedom of religion it’s easy for different groups to end up in a competition for rights. Are you skeptical of how organized religion does or might impede scientific progress?
Jamie Metzl: I’m a huge believer in scientific progress within a values framework. May progressive religions and religious communities support such an approach, and have important perspectives to add to the debate. Others are more hostile to this type of change. Religious organizations should be part of the global conversation on genetic and other issues, but they should be no means have veto powers.
Rebecca Wald: You’re Jewish and someone who thinks deeply about things—about where we’re going as a society—so I thought I’d ask. What’s your take on circumcision? Are you surprised that even some Israeli and Jewish American parents are now deciding not to have their boys undergo the procedure?
Jamie Metzl: Funny you should ask, Rebecca! For many years I have expressed my strong reservations about religious circumcision, male or female. I’ve read a lot of the science and am not at all convinced there is a medical rationale for any of it. I think it’s great that many parents, Jewish and otherwise, are making their own decisions, and that people like you are demonstrating how meaningful alternative approaches can be.