Friday, June 15, 2007

DAVID BROOKS: The National Pastime

At this very moment thousands of people are surfing the Web looking for genetic material so their children will be nothing like me. They are looking through files at sperm bank sites with Jetson-like names such as Xytex, which have become the new eBays for offspring.

These sites take sex and turn it into shopping. They allow you to browse through page after page of donor profiles, comparing weight, noses, personality and what one site calls “tannability.”

Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed. And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.

When given this kind of freedom of choice, people seem to want to produce athletic Aryans with a passion for housekeeping. There is tremendous market demand for DNA from blue-eyed, blond-haired, 6-foot-2 finely sculpted hunks who roast their own coffee. These are the kind of guys you see jogging in the park and nothing moves. They’ve got a stomach, a chest and flanks, but as they bounce along nothing jiggles, not even their hair. They’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime from the shoulders down, and Trent Lott from the scalp up.

Nor is brainpower neglected. In a bow to all that is sacred in our culture, one sperm bank has one branch located between Harvard and M.I.T. and the other next to Stanford. An ad in The Harvard Crimson offered $50,000 for an egg from a Harvard woman. A recent ad in the Chicago Maroon at the University of Chicago offered $35,000 for a Chicago egg and stipulated, “You must be very healthy, very intelligent and very attractive, and most of all, very happy. Liberal political views and athletic ability are pluses.”

(Is liberalism genetic? I thought it was the product of some environmental deprivation.)

In any case, a Harris poll suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically. If you get social acceptance at that level, then everybody has to do it or their kids will be left behind.

Which means that sooner or later reproduction becomes a casting call for “Baywatch” and people like me become an evolutionary dead end. For centuries my ancestors have been hewing peat in Wales and skipping school in Ukraine, but those of us in the low-center-of-gravity community will be left on evolution’s cutting-room floor. People under 5-foot-9 can’t even donate sperm to these banks, so my co-equals are doomed, let alone future Napoleons.

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.

In a world in which Brad Pitt is average, say farewell to loneliness, sublimation and nerds’ witty bids for attention. In a world in which everyone is smart, good-looking and pleasant, everyone will be fit to perform in hit movies, but no one will be fit to review them.

I’m not under the illusion that any of this can be stopped. Conservatives like me think that if you want your kids to have Harvard genes you should have to endure living with a Harvard spouse. But the rest of the country is not with us. There’s no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics. “I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don’t have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time,” one potential mother told Jennifer Egan of The Times Magazine last year.

So as my kind heads off to obsolescence, I wonder about the unintended consequences. What if it’s true, as some believe, that genes are dominant and home environment has little effect on children? You could have two lesbian bikers giving birth to Mitt Romney.

What if parents are perpetually buying genes on the downward slope? After all, for maximum success, you don’t want President Kennedy’s genes. You want Joseph Kennedy’s genes. You don’t want Bill Clinton’s genes. You want his father’s. What if we get the national equivalent of the 38th generation of the House of Windsor?

Or, on the other hand, what if nurture still trumps nature? After all, if you look at world-historical figures you’re struck by how many had their parents die when they were about 12. How many superconcerned moms and dads are going to put that in their datebook?

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