An Op-Ed from the Future
May 27, 2019 1:33 PM   Subscribe

It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning An editorial by Ted Chiang, about the Gene Equality Project. (fictional)
posted by zabuni (28 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder if the "those who work hard will get ahead" myth will last to 2059.
posted by doctornemo at 1:47 PM on May 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's made it a few thousand years already...
posted by Scattercat at 1:58 PM on May 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


I don't know that particular Myth is maybe a couple hundred years old much older is the idea of divine right or the fickle fate of the gods or predestination or some kind of Quasi religious caste system
posted by The Whelk at 2:09 PM on May 27, 2019 [16 favorites]


I wonder if some segment of humanity will ever stop believing it is possible to ensure equality of outcomes...

If all of the outcomes are pretty close together (aka we have low inequality), then we can get closer to an equality of outcomes.

Which is also what the essay/story says, better than I can.

on a minor note: I laugh at the idea that "intelligence" would lead to economic and/or social success - as if the ability to perform certain, specific cognitive tasks like solving mazes or decoding would be more important than wisdom, charm or - as the essay points out - social connections. IQ, as measured today, includes no measure of emotional intelligence, which is essential in effective leadership. Also no measure of confidence and willingness to self-promote, which (warranted or not) is essential for getting into leadership.

but mostly I laugh, because while I absolutely don't support the idea of a "meritocracy" based on intelligence, the idea that we've ever had one is ludicrous. Just look to our leaders: there is no brain bank there.
posted by jb at 2:46 PM on May 27, 2019 [18 favorites]


Just look to our leaders: there is no brain bank there.
The leader of the free world misspelled achomlishments. I think we can bury, cremate, and otherwise dispose of that idea.
posted by zabuni at 2:53 PM on May 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


> I don't know that particular Myth is maybe a couple hundred years old much older is the idea of divine right or the fickle fate of the gods or predestination or some kind of Quasi religious caste system

"God's love for me is proof of my wealth, and my wealth is proof of God's love for me" is one pillar (or, at least, essential consequence) of Calvinism, and you can probably draw a line from the laws of divine rule to it, and draw another line from it to the libertarian belief that property is the foremost right and contract is the only law.
posted by at by at 2:55 PM on May 27, 2019 [21 favorites]


It forms an interesting contrast with his earlier fictional article, "Catching Crumbs from the Table" (which appeared in a 2000 issue of Nature) -- in that earlier piece, cognitive enhancement emphatically does lead to a stratified humanity where the elite are so advanced that even the most brilliant human scientists are reduced to probing their cast-off tech for clues. I think the more socialistic take here is more true to life, though.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:24 PM on May 27, 2019 [8 favorites]


I like this form of editorial for the NYT! It's a bit preachy for a sci-fi story but a lot more oblique than the usual editorial. And I like the point here.

I note with some amusement this link is apparently blackholed on Hacker News; at least it marks it as a duplicate when I submit it, but I can't find a discussion about it there either.

BTW in case you missed the memo, Ted Chiang's new story compilation was just published.
posted by Nelson at 3:28 PM on May 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


[A few comments deleted; let's aim for discussing the actual content]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:52 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


To tie explicitly to the thought-provoking article, in the last two paragraphs Chiang says
When the beneficiaries of free genetic cognitive enhancements become as successful as the ones whose parents bought the enhancements for them, only then will we have reason to believe that we live in an equitable society.
and then
Our goal should be to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, no matter the circumstances of birth.
Built into the combination of those two statements is the assumption that equality of opportunity will lead to equality of outcome.
posted by PhineasGage at 4:05 PM on May 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


>> Our goal should be to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, no matter the circumstances of birth.

> Built into the combination of those two statements is the assumption that equality of opportunity will lead to equality of outcome.


That's only true if you assume that everyone has the same full potential.

(whatever "potential" or "full potential" means. I'm not sure Chiang would designate "potential" or "full potential" as meaningful categories, although the hypothetical left-liberal op-ed columnist Chiang is portraying here appears to take them as meaningful categories.)
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:36 PM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


It has long been known that a person’s ZIP code is an excellent predictor of lifetime income, educational success and health. Yet we continue to ignore this because it runs counter to one of the founding myths of this nation: that anyone who is smart and hardworking can get ahead. Our lack of hereditary titles has made it easy for people to dismiss the importance of family wealth and claim that everyone who is successful has earned it. The fact that affluent parents believe that genetic enhancements will improve their children’s prospects is a sign of this: They believe that ability will lead to success because they assume that their own success was a result of their ability.
I know this has been said a thousand times before, but Chiang says it really well here, and it so badly needs repeating.
posted by straight at 4:46 PM on May 27, 2019 [19 favorites]


on a minor note: I laugh at the idea that "intelligence" would lead to economic and/or social success

I think IQ and EQ are more correlated than people give credit for. If you speak to someone and you think, wow they're really smart, is that really because their IQ is high, or that their EQ is high enough to convince you that their IQ is high? Even in terms of pure work output: a person with high EQ will know with greater clarity what their stakeholders consider important and focus their attention on it and ignore the rest. In the end, all intelligence is intelligence, the same means to the same ends...

And even knowing the rules of the game requires a certain intelligence, why each actor sits in the position they do. The principal of the business may sit in that role not because they are good at managing, but because they are able to bring in business for the firm. Put someone who is good at managing but bad at bringing in business and you quickly go bankrupt. The other half is probably explained by the world not operating with perfect efficiency - if you want to know what perfect looks like, it's the inside of an Amazon fulfillment center where human workers are turned into robots. Within the slack and inefficiency of the current world, of course people with substandard skills will manage to leverage various advantages to gain work that pays more than what some others consider them worth - is that a sign of their lack of intelligence, or conversely, precisely the proof that they are intelligent - that they managed to achieve more with so much less?
posted by xdvesper at 4:51 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


The leader of the free world misspelled achomlishments.

Isn't that like misspelling "covefe"?
posted by thelonius at 5:59 PM on May 27, 2019


The takeaway line for me was this one: Cognitive enhancements are useful only when you live in a society that rewards ability, and the United States isn’t one.

If we ever do develop any sort of neuro-enhancement gene-modding, the rich will snap it up and use it to justify the fact that their ancestors committed horrible crimes to get them rich. I remember trying to make the case to a friend who is actually quite liberal that the US does not, in fact, provide a great many places for people to advance above the status of their parents.

Reminds me a bit of this comic: "Good News, the next "Einstein" is alive and living on the earth as we speak!" (spoiler: it doesn't matter)
posted by Hactar at 6:05 PM on May 27, 2019 [9 favorites]


Thinking about buying genetic enhancements for one's offspring, it occurs to me you could use a Roko's Basilisk-esque argument to try to get the currently rich and powerful to stop ruining all possible futures by pointing out that when the factory farms full of chickens they are launching into the air finally do come home to roost, as must happen, and the world finds itself with a population far in excess of Global Warming ravaged carrying capacity, someone is certain to suggest using DNA testing to identify all their lineal descendants and sterilize them, if not kill them outright.

Which is abhorrent, but vastly ironically, would be in perfect harmony with the programs of eugenics and genocide they themselves and their immediate ancestors thought up and implemented in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which they appear to be determined to bring back here in the 21st, disguised now as the Invisible Hand of the Market.
posted by jamjam at 7:01 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


A whole school of thinkers have been discussing issues of "democractic transhumanism" for a while. One smart book on the topic is "Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond To The Redesigned Human Of The Future."
posted by PhineasGage at 8:07 PM on May 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


To tie explicitly to the thought-provoking article, in the last two paragraphs Chiang says
When the beneficiaries of free genetic cognitive enhancements become as successful as the ones whose parents bought the enhancements for them, only then will we have reason to believe that we live in an equitable society.
and then
Our goal should be to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, no matter the circumstances of birth.
Built into the combination of those two statements is the assumption that equality of opportunity will lead to equality of outcome.


I feel like I'm missing something here, but - a standard defense of "equal opportunity" over "equal outcome," as a criterion for fairness, is that the latter does not account for the possibility of differences of potential. Right? In reality there are some nuances to what "equality of outcome" and "equality of opportunity" even mean, but it is pretty common for people to argue using a model that's something like: [potential] + [opportunity] = [outcome]. In the story it is proposed that genetic engineering allows (one definition of) "potential" to be controlled for. Therefore if equality of outcome still has not been be achieved (the op-ed argues) it must be assumed that equality of opportunity has not been achieved.
posted by atoxyl at 8:20 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Hm. This seems to overlook the point that genetic enhancements are presumably hereditary, and hence don’t need repeating in every generation? Some people wouldn’t benefit in the first place, because they’d have these genes by chance anyway. Rich kids whose partners were also rich would increasingly find that they’d already both got the good genes and no further enhancement was needed. And if these IQ enhancements are unambiguously good with no downside, the government could realistically aim to roll them out to everyone who hadn’t got them in a few generations and finish the job more or less permanently, couldn’t they?
posted by Segundus at 10:43 PM on May 27, 2019


if these IQ enhancements are unambiguously good with no downside

That’s some ‘if’ there, Segundus.
posted by Segundus at 10:47 PM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Hm. This seems to overlook the point that genetic enhancements are presumably hereditary, and hence don’t need repeating in every generation? Some people wouldn’t benefit in the first place, because they’d have these genes by chance anyway. Rich kids whose partners were also rich would increasingly find that they’d already both got the good genes and no further enhancement was needed. And if these IQ enhancements are unambiguously good with no downside, the government could realistically aim to roll them out to everyone who hadn’t got them in a few generations and finish the job more or less permanently, couldn’t they?


The specific combination of 80 engineered alleles would be diluted very rapidly over generations, so unless you intentionally mate with modified people you’d only do slightly better than the population average. The premise that you could find *one specific set* of alleles that gives an IQ boost is already tough (these alleles will have different effects in different genetic backgrounds). But that set, once randomly broken up and recombined with other alleles from the population, would be even harder to predict, so much so that I wonder if it would have any average positive effect.
posted by Buckt at 4:16 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think IQ and EQ are more correlated than people give credit for. If you speak to someone and you think, wow they're really smart, is that really because their IQ is high, or that their EQ is high enough to convince you that their IQ is high?

Whereas I know far, far too many high IQ, low EQ people to ever think they are connected. In fact, even the high IQ, high EQ people I know have been far from economically successful - and they started in upper-middle class families. But sometimes shit happens (parental death, illness) that just derails your career. Success is as much about luck as it is about ability.

Ability is required, of course. Intelligence is required - but not too high. People with very high intelligence are often too weird, too different thinking to succeed in most environments. Even academia has become intolerant of the weirdo who tries new things that don't always work. Better to have the intelligent but not brilliant person who will stick to the tried and true, and produce a nice steady flow of publications.
posted by jb at 5:06 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


And if these IQ enhancements are unambiguously good with no downside, the government could realistically aim to roll them out to everyone who hadn’t got them in a few generations and finish the job more or less permanently, couldn’t they?

If we accept that 'if', governments should nationalise them and then provide them along with welfare on a means-tested basis.
posted by pompomtom at 5:35 AM on May 28, 2019


Seems like Universal Basic Intelligence would be a better idea.
posted by straight at 10:53 AM on May 28, 2019


hey if y're redding this

its 2061 noew

new genex hancers were boggy

my frends fried out quicky

rest of us hiding

always hurtin always hunted

-Bisco
Class of '59
HANCERS RULE, TOWNIES DROOL
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 11:26 AM on May 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


The rich parents of 2059 should watch 1997's Gattaca to see what genetic markers have to do with ability and caste.
posted by ascii at 2:52 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Whereas I know far, far too many high IQ, low EQ people to ever think they are connected

-- I'd just lump that person you described as generally low intelligence, actually. If you can learn how to do calculus, but not how to talk to the opposite gender without weirding them out, you aren't actually that intelligent. Arguably the former is an easier skill to learn... clear rules, constrained variables, repeatable outcomes...
posted by xdvesper at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2019


There was an interesting essay by Michael Staub in the Boston Review a few weeks ago, adapted from his book The Mismeasure of Minds: Debating Race and Intelligence between Brown and The Bell Curve.

It discusses the challenges for both racists and anti-racists of using scientific thinking when trying to understand intelligence, what shapes it, and what it shapes. From the article:
Twenty-five years later, The Bell Curve's analysis of race and intelligence refuses to die. Reckoning with its legacy may help redirect the conversation in urgently needed ways....

Even as critics found the The Bell Curve infuriating, they often bought into its methodological premise, that one could draw a clear connection between scientific facts and political conclusions. Not unlike the liberal reaction to the scientific racist backlash against Brown v. Board of Education four decades earlier—which had sought empirical data in the form of raised IQs to buttress its case for desegregation and enrichment programs—both liberal politicians and liberal-minded scientists scrambled to marshal genuine scientific evidence to combat what they characterized as pseudoscience. In place of scientific racism, a kind of scientific anti-racism was born.

posted by PhineasGage at 5:35 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


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