May 24, 2024

In praise of H.G. Wells’s Eloi

I stumbled across a provocative article in MIT’s Technology Review the other day – even though it dates back to 1967.

Nobel Prize laureate Joshua Lederberg had suggested reviving eugenics in a 1966 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In response two  MIT civil-engineering professors named Robert Hansen and Myle Holley suggested a change – to make people shorter. This was, you might recall, an era of anxiety over the population bomb. Hansen and Holly calculated that shorter people would consume less, take up less space and would fit into smaller cars. Height and strength were no longer needed because machines could do all the heavy lifting that society needed. Now that we have guns, we no longer need to fight with our fists.

This does sound a bit like choosing to direct human evolution towards the pale, weak, peaceful Eloi featured in H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. However, it raises an intriguing question about genetic engineering and designer children. We tend to assume that parents would want children who are brighter and stronger. What if they wanted – or society wanted – children who were weaker and duller? The MIT professors argued optimistically in the 60s that: “A reduction in man’s size might be compared to an increase in the size of the earth.”

Some bioethicists contend that it would be immoral not to genetically engineer children to make them “better”. But who determines what is “better”? Perhaps it’s preferable to take the cards Nature deals us rather than try to direct our own evolution.

What do  you think?