The story was heart-warming: A 30-year-old woman gave birth to a baby free of her family’s curse of early Alzheimer’s disease, thanks to the wonders of medical science.
It was hard not to feel the joy of the baby’s family, or the hope of the many others who feel helpless by their genetic inheritance.
The breakthrough occurred when doctors in Chicago applied genetic tests to batches of human eggs, helping the woman to have a baby free of her family’s early Alzheimer’s disease. Without such intervention, the child would have faced 50-50 odds of becoming senile by the time she was 40.
But I had a terrible feeling as I thought about the implications of this seemingly wonderful evolution of medical engineering: Before long, the rich will be able to buy not only better education for their kids but also better genes. This thought was especially troubling for someone who studies development and peace and who can’t help but notice the alarming global gap between rich and poor.
As a child, I was taught this in school: Given a choice between being rich and being smart one should always choose the latter, for a smart person will find a way to get rich and a foolish person could easily lose the wealth.
This simple proposition was powerful for those of us who grew up with less and whose hope derived from the knowledge that even poor, talented individuals will have a shot in an otherwise unequal world. Now it turns out that money will buy smarts, too. I cannot help but feel that the gap between the haves and the have-nots only will grow.
In part, the issue is moral: The benefits reaped by some from the medical revolution will come at the expense of others. This will happen within our country, where the gap remains wide, and across nations where the divide is even wider. In the end, the prospects for the poor, which are now daunting, will become almost hopeless.
But the issue is not just about morality; it is also about national interest.
As we fight a global war on terrorism, having been tragically awakened to the potential horror that can be inflicted by only a few individuals in the age of globalization, we are increasingly aware of the desperate conditions and hopelessness that allow ruthless terrorist organizers to recruit members and find refuge.
We can certainly limit terrorism by fighting the organizers, as we must. But if we increase hopelessness, the danger that greater numbers will become willing new recruits will also increase.
We must find a way to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Technology has been mostly positive (although sometimes hauntingly devastating, as in the case of weapons of mass destruction). Generally, most people, rich and poor, have benefited somewhat. But it is also clear that the rich have benefited more, and the consequence has been a widening gap.
Left without societal and political intervention to address the moral and other collective needs, technology is likely to exacerbate the problems of the poor.
I know: Evolution is unstoppable, technology will keep changing and, in the end, the human race may even be better for it; the survival of the fittest will prevail.
But forgive me for worrying that the “fittest” will be defined increasingly by wealth alone, and for pitying the poor, who will have less of a chance – even if I am happy for the mother of the disease-free baby who can sleep better tonight.