a keyboard mercenary with a disorganized past, has worked on staff for Army Times, The Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and The Washington Times.
He has been published in Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper's, National Review, Signal, Air&Space, and suchlike. He has worked as a police writer, technology editor, military specialist, and authority on mercenary soldiers. He is by all accounts as looney as a tune.
I was born in 1945 in Crumpler, West Virginia, a coal camp near Bluefield. My father was a mathematician then serving in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Franks, which he described as a wallowing and bovine antique with absolutely no women aboard, but the best the Navy had at the time.
My paternal grandfather was dean and professor of mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College, a small and (then, and perhaps now) quite good liberal arts school in southwest Virginia. My maternal grandfather was a doctor in Crumpler. (When someone got sick on the other side of the mountain, the miners would put my grandfather in a coal car and take him under the mountain. He had a fairly robust conception of a house call.) In general my family for many generations were among the most literate, the most productive, and the dullest people in the South. Presbyterians.
After the war I lived as a navy brat here and there--San Diego, Mississippi, the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Alabama, what have you, and briefly in Farmville, Virginia, while my father went on active duty for the Korean War as an artillery spotter. I was an absorptive and voracious reader, a terrible student, and had by age eleven an eye for elevation and windage with a BB gun that would have awed a missile engineer. I was also was a bit of a mad scientist. For example, I think I was ten when I discovered the formula for thermite in the Britannica at Athens College in Athens, Alabama, stole the ingredients from the college chemistry laboratory, and ignited a mound of perfectly adequate thermite in the prize frying pan of the mother of my friend Perry, whose father was the college president. The resulting six-inch hole in the frying pan was hard to explain.
I went to high school in King George County, Virginia, while living on Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory (my father was always a weapons-development sort of mathematician, although civilian by this time), where I was the kid other kids weren't supposed to play with. My time was spent canoeing, shooting, drinking unwise but memorable amounts of beer with the local country boys, attempting to be a French rake with only indifferent success, and driving in a manner that, if you are a country boy, I don't have to describe, and if you aren't, you wouldn't believe anyway. I remember trying to explain to my father why his station wagon was upside down at three in the morning after flipping it at seventy on a hairpin turn that would have intimidated an Alpine goat.
As usual I was a woeful student--if my friend Butch and I hadn't found the mimeograph stencil for the senior Government exam in the school's Dempster Dumpster, I wouldn't have graduated--but was a National Merit Finalist, and in the 99th percentile on the SATs.
After two years at Hampden-Sydney, where I worked on a split major in chemistry and biology with an eye to oceanography, I decided I was bored. After spending the summer thumbing across the continent and down into Mexico, hopping freight trains up and down the eastern seaboard, and generally confusing myself with Jack Kerouac, I enlisted in the Marines, in the belief that it would be more interesting than stirring unpleasant glops in laboratories and pulling apart innocent frogs. It certainly was. On returning from Vietnam with a lot of stories, as well as a Purple Heart and more shrapnel in my eyes than I really wanted, I graduated from Hampden-Sydney with lousy grades and a bachelor-of-science degree with a major in history and a minor in computers. Really. My GREs were in the 99th percentile.
The years from 1970 to 1973 I spent in largely disreputable pursuits, a variety that has always come naturally to me. I wandered around Europe, Asia, and Mexico, and acquired the usual stock of implausible but true stories about odd back alleys and odder people.
When the 1973 war broke out in the Mid-East, I decided I ought to do something respectable, thought that journalism was, and told the editor of my home-town paper, "Hi! I want to be a war correspondent." This was a sufficiently damn-fool thing to do that he let me go, probably to see what would happen. Writing, it turned out, was the only thing I was good for. My clips from Israel were good enough that when I argued to the editors of Army Times that they needed my services to cover the war in Vietnam, they too let me do it.
I spent the last year of the war between Phnom Penh and Saigon, leaving each with the evacuation. Those were heady days in which I lived in slums that would have horrified a New York alley cat, but they appealed to the Steinbeck in me, of which there is a lot. After the fall of Saigon I returned to Asia, resumed residence for six months in my old haunts in Taipei, and studied Chinese while waiting for the next war, which didn't come. Returning overland, I took up a career of magazine free-lancing, a colorful route to starvation, with stints on various staffs interspersed. For a year I worked in Boulder, Colorado, on the staff of Soldier of Fortune magazine, half zoo and half asylum, with the intention of writing a book about it. Publishing houses said, yes, Fred, this is great stuff, but you are obviously making it up. I wasn't. Playboy eventually published it, making me extremely persona non grata at Soldier of Fortune.
Having gotten married somewhere along the way for reasons that escape me at the moment, though my wife was an extraordinary woman whodeserved better, I am now the happily divorced father of the World's Finest Daughters. Until recently I worked as, among other things, a law-enforcement columnist for the Washington Times. It allowed me to take trips to big cities and to ride around in police cars with the siren going woowoowoo and kick in doors of drug dealers. Recently I changed the column from law enforcement to technology, and now live in Mexico near Guadalajara, having found burros preferable to bureaucrats. My hobbies are wind surfing, scuba, listening to blues, swing-dancing in dirt bars, associating with colorful maniacs, weight-lifting, and people of the other sex. (Update: I married Violeta, my Spanish teacher, and, as so often happens with men, married up.) My principal accomplishment in life, aside from my children, is the discovery that it is possible to jitterbug to the Brandenburgs.
The Inevitability of Eugenics: A Race of Self-Designing Tinker Toys
Mention of eugenics inevitably results in whoops of horror, gnashing of hair, rending of teeth, and discussion of Hitler. Occasionally, however, matters of importance merit discussion even if they lead to Hitler. If by “eugenics” is meant both the selective breeding of humans and genetic manipulation of ourselves, we will shortly have to discuss it, Fuehrer or no Fuehrer. Google on “Designer babies.”
To the gnashers and renders, eugenics always involves the killing of genetically inferior children, preferably by uniformed Nazis. A better term for this might be “first-degree murder.” Usually it would be.
On the other hand, medical ambiguities exist. What does one do in the case of genetically-related anencephaly? These babies, literally having no brain, can perhaps be kept alive forever at enormous expense, but nobody is there. What is the correct policy?
Eugenics can mean many things other than the killing of defective babies. Many of us already practice an informal, jackleg, shade-tree eugenics. If kids at CalTech, who are very highly selected for intelligence, marry each other partly in hopes of having intelligent children, this is eugenics. How terrible is it? (Oh god,I shouldn’t have said that. We’ll end up with federally mandated genetic affirmative action.)
In a sense, the concentration of high intelligence in good universities and elsewhere, where marriage almost certainly will occur, amounts to inadvertent eugenics. In general, the bright seek each other out. Eugenics.
Other examples can be found. If a couple discover that they are genetically likely to have hemophiliac children,, and to adopt or use a sperm bank, they engage in eugenics. Should they be prevented from doing this?
A woman who goes to a sperm bank and asks for an intelligent donor is practicing eugenics. Is this not completely her business?
All of the foregoing are informal and pretty much under the radar. However, anyone who even casually follows the technical literature knows that we are rapidly approaching the point of being able to manipulate human genetics at the level of DNA. The thing to watch is what is being done with animals, such as the production of super-strong dogs in China by excising the gene for myostatin.
(CNN)”In a medical breakthrough that is as terrifying as it is extraordinary, scientists in China say they have created dogs that are twice as strong as they would be naturally, through genetic engineering.”
The pooches above are proof of principle. What can be done sometimes, sort of, and riskily in animals today will one day be possible with humans, safely. It is a classic case of not whether but when, and “when” is “real soon.” When “when” arrives, what then? (If you like technoglop, this on CRISPR research at CalBerkeley.)
The progression can be guessed. The advocates (who will not call it “eugenics”) will first argue for the elimination of genetic diseases. It will be hard to argue against the idea. Such things as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia have limited charm.
Next (I think) will come calls for the elimination of genes correlated with cancer, macular degeneration, atherosclerosis, and so on at great length. These too could go away without generating torrents of nostalgia.
Eliminating genetic errors will quickly be accompanied by calls for re-engineering the genome for desirable traits: athleticism, superb vision, and….
Here is where things will get sticky. Or begin to. There will be worse.
Intelligence beyond question is largely genetic. Yes, I know: The politically correct argue that intelligence doesn’t exist, and they are themselves compelling evidence for the thesis. Most people who actually have brains think that intelligence is a good thing.
Here uneasiness at Playing God enters the picture. Preventing disease seems pretty much like a vaccination. Nothing wrong with that. Editng ourselves for better hearing or athleticism? Maybe a bit creepy but, well, what’s wrong with having a better jump shot? Intelligence, though….
If increased intelligence meant ten or fifteen points of additional IQ, maybe not too much would happen. But if we designed people with IQs of 300, or mean IQs of 300, they would presumably regard the rest of us as little more than pets. I do not know where the upper bound of genetically engineered intelligence might lie. I don’t think anyone else knows either. It is certain that IQs extreme by our standards would instantly dominate the race. Given humanity’s instinctive immersion in corruption, egotism, psychopathy, war, slaughter, totalitarianism, torture, murder and thievery, caution might be advisable in producing people better than we are at these things. It could be a case of finding out what you asked for after getting it.
Here we encounter other thorny problems. A great deal of evidence suggests that behavior is substantially genetic in origin: twin studies, the ease of breeding dogs to be aggressive or pacific, similarities of neural responses in conservatives and other responses in liberals. This would explain why blacks, whites, Jews and the Chinese have exhibited their characteristic personalities over milennia and most of the planet.
Would we then design people to have desirable behavior? Who would decide what was desirable? The virtuous at NPR would want nice, sensitive people with an appreciation of diversity, safe spaces, and opposition to guns, along with an inability to recognize reality. Conservatives would want stern, wary people yearning to fight to the death against nonexistent threats.
Predictably, militaries already are salivating at the thought of phenomenally strong soldiers with Terminator characteristics: (Daily Mail) supertroops who could run over large distances while carrying extremely heavy loads, go for days without sleep, and so on.
Militaries attract men who seem to be genetically disposed to war and to subclinical paranoia, much in the manner of dogs who are alarmed by every passing stranger. The said genetically-modified soldiers would of course need the pugnacity of pit-bulls, and the Pentagon, which sees existential threats in pretty much everything, will warn that we have to develop such myrmidons as otherwise the Chinese will do it first. A psychopathy gap will loom.
For the thoughtful, the question of playing God is…unnerving. Are we to be modeling clay, shaped by whatever shapers to be whatever they want us to be? Will the State control the design? To what ends? Idealists may dream of brilliant, pacific philosophers living as one with nature and thinking deep thoughts. Is that what (See? We are back to Hitler) the Fuehrer would create? Do we have any foggy idea of what we apparently are about to get into?
Does this sound ridiculous? Alarmist? Wait ten years