Iain M. Banks: Humans Could Join the Culture via Genetic Engineering

Illustration for article titled Iain M. Banks: Humans Could Join the Culture via Genetic Engineering

Apparently scifi author Iain M. Banks (Matter, Consider Phlebas) believes that future humans could conceivably reach the advanced techno-political state of the Culture, a vast, intragalactic society he describes in several of his novels. And we'll get there via designer babies. Over at Biology in Science Fiction, Peggy quotes the author saying we'll become like his A.I.-loving Culture folk by "genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect." And he's figured out exactly how we'll do it.

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He continues:

Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general - these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) - and knocking them out. Possibly then we'll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it. Of course maybe inventing true AIs will be enough, always assuming that they're as benign - and yet sympathetically interested in us - as they are taken to be in the Culture.

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I love it when a progressive author comes out in favor of genetic engineering like this. GMO humans are a huge can of worms that Banks just blithely opened before hurling those squirmy nematodes all around the room.

Banks isn't the only progressive scifi author to advocate extracting our xenophobic tendencies via genetic engineering. In her series Lilith's Brood, Octavia Butler describes how a group of (mostly) benevolent aliens think the basic problem with humans is that we are hardwired to be both intelligent and hierarchical, which is the most dangerous combination imaginable. They have to genetically alter humans to remove their hierarchical tendencies.

Could We Evolve into the Culture? [via Biology in Science Fiction]

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DISCUSSION

@dingleberry: Really? Of all the possible authors you could chose for "realistic" science fiction, you went with Hamilton? Who's largest series centered on ghosts who came back to posses the living, could fling fire, and transmute matter? Where people were genetically engineered to have telepathy, or giant living spaceships had biological FTL organs? Or his most recent works, where mystical paths connected worlds and one main character was reincarnated as an alien? I love his stories, yes, but they don't exactly fit in with the tone of the site. And that, I think, is where the answer lies. This is after all a blog, and therefor shaped by the whims and interests in its editors. They write about the kind of science fiction they like, and that happens to be best expressed in its written form by authors like Mr. Banks.

Back on topic, considering that recently scientists were able to knock out the fear of cats in in mice with only one or two genes, I'd say he might not be too far off. (In fact, he might even have run across that article, it was heavily in the news for a little while.) When it comes to things like xenophobia and racism, we're dealing to a great extent with a self vs. other distinction. Religion has been shown to be heavily influenced by pattern-seeking behavior, and the ability to perceive a false order in a chaotic system where there is none. Both of those are hardwired into our brains. (Why yes, I have taken neuro anatomy) The genes (plural, almost certainly) coding for those structures can likely be modified to alter the size, complexity, and interconnectivity of those regions of the brain. By all means, that is in no way possible with today's technology to do with any hope of success. But fifty years ago, it wasn't possible to so much as knock out a single gene by any means other than breeding animals that had lost it naturally. It will probably first be done it rats or mice, and then non-human primates. Given the current trend of IRB committees, I'd say the most likely way for something like that to enter the human gene pool would be a radical group, possibly either a messianic figure and his cult (although I doubt they'd try and reduce religious tendencies or a utopian bunch of renegades, hell-bent on starting their own happy little colony.

The claim that similar goals could be achieved with higher levels of education and material wealth is, for the most part, absolutely correct. (Wait, what?) Certainly that appears to be the trend anyway. However, it's not perfect, as there are any number of very rich, well educated people who are rabidly xenophobic, racist, sexist or are devoutly religious. Often they become politicians. That said, I do think raising worldwide levels of education and lifting people out of poverty would do wonders for reducing those tendencies on a large scale. The problem is that there, you need an unceasing effort to maintain those standards, whereas preserving genes is a simple (and enjoyable) and having sex. Even (especially?) politicians know which one they'd prefer.