The Genetically Modified Guitarist: Genetic Enhancement, Musical Experience, and the Good Art Gene

by Dan Jacob Wallace

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of The Gadfly. Updated versions of this article are available at Dan’s website.

Genetic Enhancement - Photo by Anna Sharova

In an episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (5/16/2009) dealing with the topic of
genetic enhancement, host Nigel Warburton poses a thought experiment to his guest, philosopher Allen Buchanan, in which Warburton takes a pill that enhances his memory and coordination, enabling him to learn a guitar composition that had previously proven beyond his ability.Warburton worries that bypassing the struggle to learn might devalue his relationship with the instrument. Buchanan responds that Warburton need not be concerned, as he would proceed to find new challenges, elevating his struggle to a higher plateau.

While I think Buchanan is right, I also think Warburton’s experience as a musician would be positively enhanced, struggle or not, simply because playing guitar well is rewarding in its own right. I’m not here, though, to challenge Buchanan (whose view might very well be compatible with mine), but rather to more deeply consider, in light of Warburton’s enhancement pill, our experience of performing and listening to music, and the social implications such a pill might bring. First, some words on what we mean by “genetic enhancement.”

Genetic enhancement, simply put, is the deliberate manipulation of an organism’s genetic material for the sake of extending that organism’s capacities in some way. Manipulation can occur at the earliest stages of conception or near the end of life, and can be isolated to an individual, or made part of that individual’s heritable genes. Effects can be temporary, as in the case of consuming caffeine in order to enhance attention, or long-lasting, as when gene therapy is used to correct a child’s congenital immune system deficiency.

It’s difficult to determine exactly what counts as deliberate manipulation. Choosing a mate with desirable heritable traits, for example, could be seen as an attempt to genetically enhance one’s potential offspring. This might seem a stretch, given that there is no actual organism to enhance at that stage of reproduction. I nevertheless find the example telling, as it does appear to involve a kind of genetic manipulation or engineering, and it doesn’t seem that much different from, for instance, couples using early-stage prenatal screening to terminate their pregnancies until a desirable zygote is produced. And that process, aside from being more cumbersome, doesn’t seem significantly different from having a scientist simply engineer their first zygote into a desirable prospect.

We tend to feel that designing a baby with the help of a lab is somehow ickier than choosing a mate in the wild, as it were, even if that more ‘natural’ choice is motivated in part by a desire to produce well endowed offspring. Some might argue that this intuition signifies an important distinction, giving us good reason to think that choosing a healthy mate is not really genetic intervention in the way that lab-engineering a zygote would be. But the notion of mate-selection has recently come under controversy as well.

Consider the fascinating case of the deaf lesbian couple from Maryland who have twice managed to deliberately conceive a deaf child with the donated sperm of a deaf man with a long family history of congenital deafness. One might argue that this doesn’t seem like enhancement, but for this family, deafness was valued over audition. The point, however, is that this outcome was achieved by deliberately manipulating the genetic material of a future organism: that sperm and that egg were brought together to form a zygote that would become their child.

In other words, even though the organism in question did not exist before pregnancy, at least half that organism’s known, basic genetic material did indeed exist in the world at that time, i.e., in the mother seeking a donor. And the mother chose which sperm to couple with that genetic material based on explicit fitness criteria. Thus I maintain that mate-selection can be a form of genetic engineering and enhancement, and that it’s not so clear that the above-noted intuition signifies any distinction, in principle, between this and lab-engineered enhancement. Clearly, though, more opportunities for enhancement will be available in the lab as technology advances. It’s not hard to imagine parents attempting to increase the likelihood of traits like eye color, height, sexual orientation, and moral disposition. Making this indeed an area meriting a great deal of careful attention.

This thought in mind, let’s consider a variation Warburton’s thought experiment. In this version, the pill functions by altering the guitarist’s genetic makeup.

Suppose the guitar piece in question requires an intermediate level of technical proficiency, and that the Genetically Modified Guitarist (GMG) is willing to practice a reasonable amount of time, has taken several lessons from a competent instructor, and possesses physiologically capable arms and hands. In short, his inability to learn the piece is due to a lack in one or more capacities that can be enhanced. To see why this matters, imagine his fingers were shaped in such a way that makes it difficult to play the guitar. The pill would not cause his bone structure to quickly reform itself. Indeed, his genes might already be disposed to grow perfect guitar fingers, but some external influence caused his fingers to form oddly when he was a growing child. GMG doesn’t need to correct anything that drastic — just needs a boost in existing abilities.

GMG pops the pill, which releases a cassette that tiny robots deliver to a slot in an engineered, gene-free chromosome that was put in place just after GMG was conceived. Acquiring these new memory and coordination enhancement genes, however, doesn’t suddenly enable GMG to play the composition, or at least not well. For that, he will need to develop the muscles in his fingers, develop greater dedication to those fingers in his brain’s motor cortex, and so on. If the pill gives GMG the potential to develop to an advanced level, this would be best done under the guidance of an instructor, or at least with a conscious effort to avoid technical errors that can impede skill development. For example, if GMG’s former lack of strong coordination has led to bad technical habits, such as tensing the shoulders, the pill is unlikely to erase them.

Another necessary feature unlikely to come from the pill is motivation, though this very well might eventually arise from his newly developed skills. Indeed, I’ve known many a would-be musician to give up in frustration at their inability to advance much beyond a beginner stage. The praise and sense of accomplishment that come with excelling at something result in all sorts of reinforcements to keep at it.

Suppose now that GMG has learned the piece. Is GMG’s experience of playing that music devalued by the pill? It seems to me that the answer is no. In fact, I’d say the experience’s value is enhanced. Mind you, a lot of this depends on the fact that he wished to play a piece of music beyond his ability. Many guitarists are perfectly content learning a few chords and basic techniques, and need not develop beyond that to be happy with their experience. GMG, however, wished to enjoy the kind of experience that a naturally gifted musician would enjoy; really, what’s the difference between that experience having inborn genes or pill-borne genes as its basis? A naturally gifted musician still must practice, still must have functioning fingers, and still must have motivation. Indeed, the original idea wasn’t that naturally gifted musicians don’t struggle, but that their struggle pays off in special ways. The pill now gives the lesser endowed musician the ability to not only struggle, but to struggle and succeed.

The fact that GMG acquired his gifts from a pill rather than from his parents’ reproductive material doesn’t devalue his experience of playing guitar any more than it would devalue the experience of a gifted musician to receive correction of issues such as arthritis, tendonitis, or ailment-related memory loss. Nor is there a remarkable difference in the case of naturally gifted guitarists who take pills to enhance their giftedness, given that reaching their full potential as guitarists is still not going to be possible without rigorous practice, without struggle (see again Buchanan’s plateau principle).

I maintain, however, that, provided you’re playing music you like, there’s something rewarding in its own right about playing guitar well, even in the absence of struggle. In fact, struggle can become a deterrent, particularly for beginners. I think most musicians would prefer less rather than more struggle — to have learned the difficult piece rather than to be learning it. Though more struggle is always on the horizon for the ambitious ones. And so we can keep ratcheting the examples upward — the plateaus higher — to the limits of what’s physically possible. But these are technical concerns, and just as the technical plateaus extend far into the theoretical distance, so too do the questions that each plateau suggests. So I’d now like to turn to a different, I think far more important, question regarding GMG’s experience:

What are the implications of artificial performance enhancement for the aesthetic component of GMG’s musical experience?

This is a difficult question to answer. The qualities that go into our aesthetic experience of music are elusive, unquantifiable, and combine in ways too complex to fathom. These qualities make our emotional — or otherwise desirable — experience of music possible, and are constituted by features that are biological, cultural, and related to one’s ongoing personal history. Without a simultaneous enhancement in aesthetic experience, GMG’s mastery of a difficult piece of music is merely technical, rote, and, ultimately, an empty exercise.

To increase the likelihood of a positive aesthetic experience, GMG, who is functioning as both performer and listener, will need to draw from a trove of musical desiderata. These include phrasing, timbre, intonation, tempo, tone, vibrato, dynamics, and more. The masterful deployment of this toolkit is, in general, what constitutes a moving musical expression, and is the result not just of technical prowess, but also of non-technical gifts and sensibilities. This is true of whatever sort of music GMG might play — blues, classical, jazz, punk, huapango, heavy metal, or bluegrass. GMG’s overall experience, then, will depend not only on the extent to which technical mastery is itself for him a thing of beauty, but, especially, on the extent to which his newly-acquired skill allows him to express whatever existing artistic gifts were being held back by his pre-pill technical deficiencies.

So far I’ve been discussing GMG’s experience, but how might GMG’s artificial modification affect audience reception? Would GMG’s fans revise their opinions for the worse were it to be revealed that GMG’s gift came in large part from a pill? Well, it depends on the scenario. We do know that there are many instances in which an artwork’s origin affects our experience of it. For example, masterfully forged paintings that are hailed as brilliant, once exposed as fakes, lose their appeal. I think that ultimately, though, particularly once the technology becomes more common, GMG’s gene modification might only turn off fans in cases where non-modification is considered an essential genre feature — perhaps a subculture of non-modification purists would emerge.

In general, I think GMG’s modification would be accepted due to the aforementioned heightened playing field, and due to the fact that technological enhancement of musical technique has been accepted for generations, whether in the case of improvements made to instrument design, or in the case of compositing multiple takes in the recording studio into one fantastic performance. Also, and most importantly, there’s that elusive combination of aesthetic qualities that transcend technique, and make music the wonderful, mysterious force that it is. This poses a serious challenge to scientists, given that, in order to engineer a “good art” gene, one first has to know what “good art” is.

Indeed, just as they have often done with aesthetic philosophers, artists will consistently challenge whatever operational definition gene scientists might give to “good art.” For many artists, challenging these sorts of definitions is in their job description. This puts theorists constantly a step a behind artists, which makes sense given that, in order for scientists and philosophers to discuss “good art,” they must have existing examples to guide them (and if they are producing new examples, then they are in fact artists, though I touch on a possible exception to this in a forthcoming paper). Their observations about art come after, not before, instances of the creation and experience of art. So, it seems the best that can be done is to engineer and enhance capacities that tend to aid people in making some (preexisting) notion of “good art.”

But let’s suppose scientists make an array of “good art” types available. This would ultimately prove to be mere novelty in most cases, like a more sophisticated version of a computer programs that make easier the creation of visual or musical art. As with those programs, interesting work will arise only when modification is used by people with well developed creative and artistic sensibilities. And, furthermore, artists will still come along to challenge whatever types are in circulation, resulting in more and more types, but likely getting no closer to the meta-type that allows for creativity to be possible. A result of this could be to make soul-stirring artistic achievement all the more mysterious and valued.

Let’s take that improbable step forward, and imagine that scientists decode, based on the workings of the brain – e.g., how it is that the brain is susceptible to the cultural cues that contribute to our experience of music – the meta-type that results in transcendental creative innovation. In other words, that explains the underlying creative pathologies that, within our species, have formed, and have allowed audiences to love, the music of Mozart, The Notorious B.I.G., Slayer, ancient Chinese music, and son on. The next step for artists, then, might be to challenge even this drawn-in-brain-tissue paradigm by endeavoring to utilize principles of neuroplasticity to reform the brain so that it can have new experiences, such that defy what scientists think they have explained about our experience of art.

Perhaps this could be achieved through highly sophisticated virtual reality programs, which some thinkers view as a way to evolve humans in radical ways removed from the vicious process of natural selection. For example, our perceptual experience of pitches could be changed by making it possible to temporarily effectively cross one’s neural pathways for synesthetic effects, thereby adding to one’s experience of sound an experience of taste or color or numbers. This is looking far into the future, of course. At this point it would be helpful to look at a nearer and more likely future, and to consider for a moment its social ramifications.

By now I’ve argued that, once available and affordable to the average person, genetic enhancement would be more or less irrelevant to our continued enjoyment of music as listeners. It would also allow many people to experience the thrill of playing a challenging piece of music, an essentially rewarding experience in its own right. However, perhaps not everyone would be able to afford it. For or those who can’t, while this is unfortunate, it’s no more unfortunate than our current state of affairs, in which topnotch music lessons, quality instruments, and pretty much everything else involved with being a professional musician is very expensive.

One might argue, though, that genetic enhancement differs significantly from access to better equipment, since this new technology has the potential to double the cognitive capacities of one’s children, but would be affordable only to the wealthy, thereby creating even greater class inequality than those that already exist. However, I think that these concerns do not outweigh the potential benefits of such technologies. Eliminating life-saving gene therapy based on a principle of limited access would make about as much sense as eliminating any other life-saving medical procedures for the same reason. I don’t think that the societal effects of genetic modification will play out in any way that is significantly different than other forms of enhancement have in the past. Cognitive enhancement is nothing new, having already come about in the form of intelligence expanders like literacy and computers. Just as computer technology was once the prized possession of a select few but now is increasingly available, so too will the pill form of cognitive enhancement.

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3 comments

  1. Marc Shepard

    This is a very interesting argument and I tend to agree with your conclusions (given the necessary restriction imposed on the subject matter). Speaking for myself (and only for myself) though, it is usually the particular and idiosyncratic choices a composer or musician makes that reliably holds my attention; and these need not involve difficult or advanced techniques (in fact, they very often don’t). I’m always impressed when I hear a musician do something that’s technically proficient, but what I find genuinely meaningful is when I hear a musician do something that I could conceivably do myself (with bit of practice, perhaps) but would never think of doing in a million years. (It could be a single strummed chord or even just a few languid notes). It is at these moments that I seem to understand best what music is about and what it can achieve. These idiosyncrasies, it seems to me, have less to do with genetics or physiology than with all the innumerable accidents of experience and where these might lead us to find ourselves at particular moment in time.

  2. Donna M. Taylor

    I want a pill for playing the piano. Excellent aritcle, by the way. How can I get a copy of this magizine? I prefer the ‘hard copy’.

  3. Dan Wallace

    Hi Marc, thanks for the thoughtful response. I mostly agree with you, and in fact I try to express something similar in the second half (or so) of the article when I shift attention away from questions about technique, in favor of what I consider to be more important (and more difficult) questions — i.e., those surrounding aesthetic experience.

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