It’s 2059, And The Rich Kids are Still Winning, a short story in which award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang introduces us to the Gene Equity Project, a program that provides genetic enhancement of intelligence for people of color. Despite an IQ around 130, low-income recipients of the cognitive-enhancement protocol fared no better than their parents. They worked unhappily in dead end jobs and could never seem to get ahead. The long-standing wealthy elite, on the other hand, continued to thrive in all areas of life.
Though a brief and simple narrative at first glance, the story felt like a punch in the gut. I believe that, were such a program introduced, one’s zip code would play a much larger role in their success than anyone would care to admit and, almost certainly, more so than intelligence. The conversation around nature versus nurture has never been put to rest and, in all likelihood, outcomes are based upon the nuanced interaction between genetics, access to basic resources, and interpersonal relationships.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Chiang’s short story over the last few day, both in relation to the current discussion around equity and in the context of a rapidly-unfurling future. However, unlike the nyctinasty of a tulip, Pandora’s box of biochemical experiments can’t be shut at the end of a long and disastrous day. The petals and pests will continue to spill out uncontrollably.
The three-page story immediately hearkened back memories of the motive Gattaca. The 1997 box office flop turned sci-fi classic highlights a future where eugenics is common. Biometrics are used to classify the genetically enhanced as “valids” while those conceived by traditional means, and thus more susceptible to genetic disorders, are known as “invalids”. While genetic discrimination is illegal, valids naturally qualify for professional employment while invalids are relegated to menial tasks and jobs.
There are widespread social ambitions to create a level playing field. However, when we zoom out, I think it becomes obvious that not ever human being is playing the same sport, nor are we meant to be. Studies in evolutionary biology have shown that those of West African descent have more fast twitch muscles that Europeans, allowing the intense bursts of power necessary to become a strong running back or defensive linemen. Research suggests that because European and Asian environments feature extremely cold winters, the inhabitants of these regions historically spent a great amount of time indoors thinking and innovating. In a full conference room, you will encounter people who excel at running, swimming, football, cooking, painting, structural engineering, telling jokes, or completing Sudoku puzzles in record time, but rarely all of the above.
Thinking back to Chiang’s story, I think Gene Equity Project represent an instance of equality–equal access to resources. The experiment is successful in that children from impoverished families attend and graduate from prestigious universities. However, the intelligence and education don’t offer the confidence, motivation, and other self-guided abilities necessary to discover satisfaction in life. The story seems to frame the failure of low-income recipients of the intelligence boost to achieve endless happiness as an overall failure. It does not address the possibility that some of the rich kids may, too, be unsatisfied. I think it would be a fallacy, and a naive on that at, to believe otherwise.
So, in this hypothetical future where rich kids are genetically enhanced and a limited number of those born into poverty receive an intellectual boost, what factors might contribute to the disparity of outcomes? As mentioned earlier, I personally believe it comes down to the nuanced interaction between genetics, access to basic resources, and interpersonal relationships. I believe that human potential is given fertile ground to thrive when an individual has: basic necessities (food, water, shelter), a steady and predictable home life (safe neighborhood, location permanence, attentive family members), and opportunities for learning (good education, books, an active imagination).
What if, instead of intellectual enhancement (or in addition to) we were to provide low income families with pillars of stability and training on how to maintain such stability through their own behavior? Some of my most successful friends don’t have a college degree, but were motivated to provide food and shelter for their family. Education around personal finance, basic home/car maintenance, nutrition, civics, and interpersonal communication will change a life, arguably even more so than genetic enhancement.
A few weeks ago, I heard a fascinating and dense interview with Balaji Srinivasan on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Srinivassan spoke of Ramanujan, an Indian man who discovered a book of mathematician theorems in his rural hometown at age 15 and then developed conclusions of his own, eventually being invited to teach in learn and teach in the US. Srinivassan’s most recent recent project, 1729.com, is a newsletter that gives out $1,000 in bitcoin each day for completing tasks and tutorials. The site is meant to discover the yet-unnoticed geniuses of the world, while allowing smart people in rural locales to support their families and create open-source content to facilitate effective learning across the globe. You can be paid to video record yourself working out, write an article on how to solve a calculus problem, or listing an organization that is doing good in your community.
The interview made me ponder whether, rather than reparations and affirmative action, the best path forward may be creating equal-access lessons, incentives, and rewards. Whatever your skills or abilities, you can apply them in ways that earn money and build confidence. You can learn effectively on any topic and participate in a global community. I don’t know how realistic the project might be but, theoretically, it presents as a promising solution.
Maybe, in 2059, the rich kids will still be winning, but everyone else will be too.