One of my students recently opened our “Ethics and Genetics” class with the assertion that if an athlete had Peyton Manning’s brain and LeBron James’ body, he (or she) would be ‘perfect.’ The idea of a ‘perfect human’ is very seductive. We have studied the evolution of natural philosophy, racial philosophy, racial pseudo-science, and eugenics over the last two months. Some of the most pervasive questions that shaped those fields were those that pursued my student’s line of thinking – what conditions produce the ‘best’ of human capacity and achievement? In many ways, my college emphasizes the pursuit of our best abilities by pushing students and faculty to always find a way to improve and produce a better result than we did yesterday. When I suggested that perhaps an alternative perfect athlete might have James’ mind and Manning’s body, the whole class greeted the idea with skepticism that reflected deep assumptions in Western civilization about the essential natures of Africans (physical) and Europeans (intellectual). In a subsequent conversation with my family, we considered the gendered aspects of these ideologies. Why are women (especially in the United States) measured so forcefully by their ‘beauty,’ while men are evaluated by their ‘intellect?’ Further, where did the assumption that being a singular intellect meant being less physically beautiful originate?
For now, I have settled on Albert Einstein. The popular image of this physicist is the embodiment of human intellect in the Western world. Yet his physical beauty never merits his inclusion as an Apollonian figure in the same way. (Some of my students recently crafted a digital image of Einstein’s head on Taylor Lautner’s body, reinforced with ironic commentary on this mythological ideal man.) In the ancient and medieval Western world, genius and beauty routinely coincided – though, I can’t recall Athena being confused with Aphrodite very often. The two categories were not assumed to be exclusive in the same ways many people appear to consider them today. Political figures play on these constructs. Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin often assert the stereotypes that “ugly, smart” women are Democrats, while “beautiful, passionate” women are Republicans. As I enter the second half of my semester in considering the ethical use of genetic information in the twenty-first century, I worry that our public discourse remains too crass to effectively use the knowledge that molecular biology offers us. When the epistemology of Cartesian binaries fails human reason, can the society effectively employ the surrealism of African fractals to craft an adaptive ethical framework?