I recently heard a man on a podcast describe a perfect planet as a place where differences in gender, race, class, sexual preference, and physical abilities are no longer cause for prejudices, “a hyper-accepting place without genocide, an all accepting world.” If he visited Los Angeles for a night, our shared affinity for diversity and difference might lead us to visit the oddball collection at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, to dine at an underground restaurant where recent immigrants serve unfamiliar cuisine, and to patronize transgressive art that tests the limits of our comfort.
Now think of a person who would hate that evening. Their nature or nurture inclines them to prefer the familiar, to prize sameness, and to feel most comfortable when diversity in people, beliefs, and behavior are minimized or suppressed. If I sit at the near end of a spectrum that ranges from finding diversity appealing to finding it uncomfortable or scary, these folks reside at the opposite end.
Despite having family members and friends with diverse ideological views, I know few people at that far end of the spectrum. It may be where my bubble is thickest. I’ve been thinking about their moral psychology since delving into the scholarship of Karen Stenner, who persuasively shows that people with a strong preference for sameness exists across eras, societies, and cultures, and that their perhaps immutable discomfort with difference can cause them, in certain circumstances, to push for social arrangements that she describes as “authoritarian.”
I want to understand those people. More than vegans, orthodox Catholics, progressive technocrats, conservatives, or queer activists, there is a gulf between me and them that makes it especially hard for me to imagine their interior lives, reasoning, and emotions. And last week, I was able to bridge that gap just a little bit.
The podcast Love+Radio features long, magnificently edited interviews with characters who speak insightfully about … well, almost every episode is a singular experience.
The most recent is “Doing the No No.” Its main subject, bio-artist Adam Zaretsky, is not one of these authoritarians. Rather, he is a member of my tribe, a “libertarian,” Stenner’s term for those who prize individualism, diversity, and difference. And he is the first person to evoke in me a gut desire for enforced sameness and suppressed diversity––a visceral reaction I cannot recall having before.
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At the edge of science, researchers are using a newfound ability to edit any gene to work toward wonders: sustainable biofuels, ridding the world of malaria, seeking cures for genetic diseases. Trans-genesis, the process of taking a gene from one organism, cutting it out, and pasting it into another, has advanced radically, with new precision that will revolutionize medicine. It could give rise to genetically enhanced soldiers or astronauts; it may allow whole nations to increase their IQs.
Its aesthetic ramifications are less discussed. Consider the embryos that Adam Zaretsky has tweaked in the course of his bio-art projects and the art classes he teaches. “To call a developing embryo that’s been altered a sculpture is meant to cause a kind of double-bind in people’s minds,” he said. “They’re like, ‘It’s not a sculpture, it’s a being, or growing to be a being.’ What I’m trying to get across is that the making of transgenic humans, or non-humans, is a somewhat invasive act, but also based on a particular aesthetic, at a particular time, in a particular state of mind.”
Never mind curing Alzheimer’s or understanding the universe.
“I’m not here to cure anything or make knowledge. I’m here to make enigma,” he said. “I’m trying to problematize the concept and de-science it so people can see it for what it is.”
Whether he is fully in earnest or speaking in part to provoke, I can’t unsee his vision. It begins with something that has already occurred to most of us. There will be expectant parents. They will go, as expectant parents now do, to genetic counseling sessions. But instead of merely being offered the ability to preempt a genetic disease or developmental disability, parents will be given the ability to choose enhancements—perfect pitch, say, or violet eyes, or a radically reduced possibility of becoming obese. Given options of that sort, some parents will opt in. “There are certain people who think that the human genome is sacrosanct—that it’s okay to engineer every other organism on earth except for humans, but humans have to do it the old-fashioned way, by luck, including losing through luck,” he said. “And there are other people who think we should go forward as fast as possible.”
Zaretsky wants to go almost that fast. But unlike those parents that we can all imagine, creating “perfect” designer babies with symmetrical faces, quick wits, and excrement that smells of pumpkin spice, he doesn’t want conventional idealism.
He wants to subvert it.
“There’s a movement based on the idea of synthetic enhancement to make us taller, stronger, longer living, resistant to disease, resistant to radiation, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” he explained. “I have a problem with this first from the standpoint of the history of eugenics, or master-racing. What is this enhancement? It’s always toward the better. Now I’m an artist, I’m not into utilitarianism as an aesthetic. But if it’s going on already, somebody’s gotta come up with alternatives.”
He sees himself as that somebody.
For a decade, he has wanted to make transgenic humans, adding genes, knocking out others, even reinvigorating genes that have been there dormant for millions of years.
What interests him most are the aesthetic possibilities.
“The idea is that you take a gene, say for pig noses, or ostrich anuses, or aardvark tongue, and you paste that into a human sperm, a human egg, a human zygote. A baby starts to form,” he said. “Developmentally, the baby is mostly human, but it has an aardvark tongue, a pig nose, and an ostrich anus. That makes for difference––bodily difference, and surely metabolic difference, but it also makes for a version of ourselves that is based on collage, so it is literally gene collage. What’s weird is once you get that started, if it stabilizes, if you can find partners, if you’re still fertile, if you’re still into it, you go ahead and reproduce, then you’ll have children who are born with ostrich anuses and aardvark tongues and pig noses.”
Obviously, there would be resistance.
“Idealist non-cynical happy-go-lucky TED-Talk-style trans-humanists would say, that’s a degraded version of what we’re working towards,” he acknowledged. “But if we talk about the Nazi-relation to modern art, calling it degenerate art unless it’s hyper-realism, which has to do with superheroes, then these trans-humanists sound a lot like neo-Nazis. What would degenerate human transgenic children look like? What would be another aesthetic than Michaelangelo’s perfection of the human ideal? We could start with Cubism. What would Picasso make as a baby?”
Given his druthers, he will find out—and so will we.
“It’s important to make versions of transgenic human anatomy that are not based on idealism,” he insists. “I want to make sure that there’s plaid kids, like queer anatomy out there, to compete with the other add-ons that other parents are going to be paying for. To get bio-queer transgenic humans is going to save a lot of difference on the planet. It’s going to stop us from mono-culturing ourselves. It’s going to offer a real and possibly unacceptable face of the democratization of the human genome.”
He conjures many “unacceptable faces” of what we could become—“arachnid, more worm-like, covered in clitori, that wouldn’t necessarily be anything but fringe, and might not ever exist unless someone was willing to make that transgenic human fringe as a project.” He would attempt projects like that in his perfect world.
I’m comfortable with existing difference in our world, but listening to Zaretsky, I felt a strong impulse to stop anyone from deliberately creating the sorts of differences he imagines.
“It’s not just making ourselves better in different ways, but go ahead and make ourselves degraded, debased, defaced, dehumanized,” he said, “and then eventually just go ahead and be beyond body as we know it. It’s not the human as we know it anymore. What does it mean to make a baby that has antlers, or a third eye, or that is blue? Yeah, it’s a little showy. Pinstripes would be a little more stylish. You have to feel for the kids who are born with penises rather than hair, the neo-Medusas.”
“On the other hand,” he declared, “in a perfect world where every difference was really accepted, that understood that queerness and being differently abled and all the standard stuff that we’re trying to be sensitive about––gender, race, even class––if the world is going to turn into a hyper-accepting place without genocide, an all accepting world, then we don’t just have to take psychedelics to be appreciative of the radical porousness of reality. We could let it flow into our anatomy, and these people––who yes, are humans––should be appreciated for who and what they are, after they are forced to be born in a really radically strange way.”
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If babies began to be born with antlers, or arachnid properties, or with penises for hair, many people, myself very much included, would treat them with dignity and advocate for their rights. My newfound empathy for those with a visceral desire to prevent an introduction of difference has not helped me to understand bigotry toward those who are different. I am nevertheless struck by Adam Zaretsky’s beliefs that willfully introducing transgressive differences into society would be both desirable as an end in itself and bring about a world that was ultimately more tolerant.
Much of human history, social-science research about negative effects of diversity, and the science-fiction canon all lead me to the more pessimistic conclusion that sentient beings of that sort would face much hatred and persecution, and would, if so empowered, dole out much hatred and persecution in turn.
I wonder if my diversity-loving tribe has lost the ability to see that.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, he explained that within the United States, members of the educated upper-middle class are outliers when it comes to their intuitions about morality, and that there is more to morality as many practice it than concerns about harm and fairness. Later, while sketching alternative foundations of moral concern, he writes about sanctity and degradation, and the human relationship to disgust.
...why do we care so much what other people choose to do with their bodies? Most animals are born knowing what to eat. A koala bear’s sensory systems are ‘structured in advance of experience’ to guide it to eucalyptus leaves. Humans, however, must learn what to eat. Like rats and cockroaches, we’re omnivores. Being an omnivore has the enormous advantage of flexibility: You can wander into a new continent and be quite confident that you’ll find something to eat. But it also has the disadvantage that new foods can be toxic, infected with microbes, or riddled with parasitic worms… Omnivores therefore go through life with two competing motives: neophilia (an attraction to new things) and neophobia (a fear of new things). People vary in terms of which motive is stronger.
While a need to avoid poisoned food, infectious waste, and fellow humans with diseases were the original challenges that evolved into a moral foundation of sanctity, Haidt argues, current triggers “are extraordinarily variable and expandable.” He writs that “a common and direct expansion is to out-group members. Cultures differ in their attitudes toward immigrants, and there is some evidence that liberal and welcoming attitudes are more common in times and places where disease risks are lower. Plagues, epidemics, and new diseases are usually brought in by foreigners––as are many new ideas, goods, and technologies––so societies face an analogue of the omnivore’s dilemma, balancing xenophobia and xenophilia.”
The point here is not to evaluate sanctity as a moral intuition, never mind to defend every application of it. The point, rather, is to remember that sanctity is a powerful driver of moral intuition for many, and that lots of Americans who aren’t particularly prone to disgust would, when confronted with antlered, aardvark-tongued babies, agree with Leon Kass.
“Repugnance,” he once wrote, “revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.”
Insofar as the power of those intuitions is forgotten or dismissed by liberals, or libertarians, or difference loving peoples, or transgressive artists understandably alarmed by the prospect of “perfect” designer babies, the result is as likely to be a horrific backlash against diversity and neophilia as a future in which they face no limits.
“Authoritarians and libertarians are mobilized in defense of that which they value only when those valued ends appear to be in jeopardy,” Stenner writes. “For each side, this will be when they are induced to fear that those ends, and the social arrangements that serve them, might be at risk, or starting to seem too risky to the collective.”
This foregrounds her plea. “Vain hopes aside,” she writes, “if our objective is for those of different race, belief, and disposition to live in peace with one another, we ought to take a clear-eyed view of how that might best be accomplished, within the constraints set by the normal distribution of human capacities and imperfections.”
My thanks to Love+Radio for another episode of the most empathy-expanding podcast that I know. There’s lots more to the interview that I quote, which can be heard in full here.