Privilege just became hereditary.

September 11th, 2015

An Alpha Human, looking superiorly at a normal.

Of course, to some extent it always has been. Lachlan Murdoch is only 5′ 11″ – fully two and a half inches shorter than I am – but for some unknown reason he is Executive Chairman of NewsCorp and Twentieth Century Fox, while I am neither executed nor chairful at all. We’re both white, male, Australian, with good educations and a Bachelor degree apiece.

We both also have young kids. My daughter started kindergarten this year, at the same time as his little girl, although at vastly different schools. And while my child is bright, pretty and engaging, it’s a simple fact that his daughter will have a lower student to teacher ratio, more iPads in the classroom, and vastly superior quality of glitter and plastic scissors than my child will in her brown-brick public school across the road from our house.

But there’s another difference between our daughters. When they grow up, and have little bundles of joy of their own, Lachlan’s grandkids will be some of the genetically rich. My grandchildren? Maybe not.

Two kind of incredible advancements in genetics got some media attention this week. And I’m not even talking about the Crispr-Cas9 gene re-sequencing therapy that WIRED had as their cover story this August. That’s about developing medical therapies that change your genome from what it is to something else. But they’re still therapies – treatments you’d have to purchase, to treat specific conditions. And that’s great. Well, great and terrifying. Go read that article too.

No, the two advances I am talking about are much more mundane: partly because one of them is a commercially available treatment that has just entered practice. I’m talking about the two babies born to Australian couples earlier this year, after a procedure called karyomapping. Short version of that article: there’s now a two-week turnaround, $2,500 test to screen IVF embryos for genetic conditions. Considering the fact that I just drove past a billboard on the M4 loudly advertising “Bulk Billed IVF”, that makes testing your potential offspring very achievable. Well, very achievable for the middle class, anyway….

A lot of the discussion around the therapy focuses on the incredible boon it offers couples with known recessive conditions that can harm their children. Or the case of baby Sophie, who’s mum was a known carrier of an aggressive Breast and Ovarian cancer gene. And the fact is, it’s a brilliant development: The babies born of this procedure will no longer have those malign genes in their bodies. So they won’t pass on the condition to their children, either. That’s great. It’s a medical treatment that doesn’t just eliminate disease in the recipient, but in all their descendants, for the rest of time. You are buying a healthy life for your grandkids, and great grandkids, and theirs….

And we’ve already got known markers for a whole heap of genetically linked conditions. And as scientists work hard on identifying further ones, these treatments will only get more effective. If you have a teenage child now, then odds are that when they come to consider having children, we’ll know the markers for a hell of a lot more. Because we don’t actually need to know how the genes cause cancer, or why they lead to congenital myasthenia. We just need to know that certain genes are markers for the conditions. Or traits.

Imagine it: a simple, reasonably affordable procedure that ensures your children (and theirs, and theirs) are certain to live life without cancer. Without heart disease. Without early onset dementia, or Alzheimer’s. Or Parkinson’s. Or Autism, Asperger’s or Down’s. How about Diabetes (I and II)? Or asthma? How about tendency to obesity? To alcoholism?

Who wouldn’t give their child that gift, if they could?

Ah. There’s the rub. And this should be no surprise to anyone who remembers the film GATTACA. What if my five year old daughter grows into a beautiful, easygoing lady one day, and happens to fall naturally pregnant? Or doesn’t have the money to go through IVF and karyomapping? Her children will inherit my own genetic history of cancer at age 29, and my wife’s inheritance of a father who died of cancer at age 63. But what of our other subject? Aerin Elisabeth Murdoch. What do you think the chances are of her offspring NOT being screened?

When you consider this, throw in the second scientific advance that I mentioned before. That one is a recent discovery by scientists of a set of 150 genes that are markers for healthy biological ageing. In other words, while some sixty five year olds seem hale and hearty, others seem much older than their years. We can all think of examples on both sides of that spectrum. It turns out that some people literally age faster than others. Are you a “young for your age” type, or an “old before your timer”? And, what will your grandchildren be?

So that’s right: we have just begun breeding two strains of humanity. The gene rich, and the gene poor. It’s happening today. And because of the inevitable forces of commerce, the divide will be along the boundaries of income, and class. Rich people will get to have children who are Alpha humans, while poor people will have to settle for giving birth to more of their own kind: normals.

And what will the difference look like? Normals will be just like you and I. Not a terrible fate, for most of them. Not until they hit middle age, anyway. But Alpha Humans, they’ll be a breed apart.

They will never have to worry about asthma. Or allergies. They’ll be taller than other kids. (What, you don’t think those markers will be identified, and selected for?) Perhaps they’ll have certain culturally preferred superficial markers of ‘beauty’. Blonde hair, blue eyes and tanned skin in Australia, green eyes and tiny feet in Japan. It’s likely that they’ll have lower levels of obesity, or even a tendency to store fat.

Perhaps they’ll have higher than average intelligence. At the least they’ll be fitter than the baseline, which has a direct correlation to increased neural cell linkages, which leads to higher performance in cognitive testing. And after further years of identifying markers, they won’t have even any minor deformities. No slight curvatures of the spine, or flat feet, or knock-knees. So as they progress into adulthood they won’t be pre-disposed to back pain. And they’ll live well into healthy old age. Becoming a centenarian won’t be unlikely for these kids.

Looking forty years into the future and beyond is when you’ll really see the difference. While normals sink into the thousand natural shocks that they are heir to, Alpha Humans will not. They’ll be kind of people who are still running triathalons at age fifty. Who still have 20/20 vision. Who are spry, and quick learners. Who never take a sick day. Imagine you were running a company then, and were filling a position for a management role. If you were seeing candidates, and one walked in looking like that, and the other was short. Or wore glasses. Or was a bit portly. Straight away, you’d come to the conclusion that they hadn’t had the benefit of IVF karyotyping. They’re middle aged. They could well be looking down the barrel of a raft of minor health issues. You’d have to pay out more sick leave, and back fill their position every now and then. And lose income in productivity hits. You wouldn’t have any of those worries with the other one.

It just makes more business sense to hire the Alpha Human.

Coming from a good background just went from being a perceptual and cultural advantage, to being a matter of medically provable fact. Alpha Humans won’t just be seen as being better. They will actually be better. Superior. And they’ll live forever, given any luck and expected advances in medicine for the ailments that do still afflict us.

These Alpha Humans are being born now. The first generation are suckling at their mother’s breast as you read this. If you already have kids, then it’s too late for you – or rather, for them. But that’s alright – it will take a few years at least, before large numbers of couples are aggressively testing their potential offspring for possible negative traits. At first it will just work to clean our collective gene pool of some terrible congenital conditions, and crippling recessive genes.

But if you haven’t had kids yet, or if you are concerned about the fate of your own children’s offspring, well…. We can’t exactly put this genie back in the bottle. It’s not like we’re going to start to deny prospective parents the right to screen out cancer, or crippling and fatal genetic conditions. But no matter how strong your faith in the honesty of fertility clinics, even if all we end up being able to do is select for offspring with the lowest possible chance of the top hundred or so conditions, that’s a hell of an advantage in life. So those privileged kids are going to be born. The only thing you can do about it, really, is ensure that any future children in your family are amongst their number.

Start saving for your children’s fertility. They’ll need it.

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