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

by Dan Jacob Wallace

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 such a shortcut might devalue his musical accomplishment. Buchanan’s response to this is that Warburton would proceed to find new challenges, elevating his struggle with the instrument to a higher plateau. While I think Buchanan is probably right, I also think Warburton’s experience as a musician would be positively enhanced, largely because there is something essentially rewarding in playing guitar well. There are deeper questions to consider here regarding our experience of performing and listening to music, as well as the social implications such a pill would bring. Before addressing those, it’d be helpful to look at what we mean by “genetic enhancement.”

Genetic enhancement is, essentially, the manipulation of genetic material in an organism 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 can become part of one’s heritable genes. 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.

One might argue that a lack of control disqualifies this as genetic enhancement. However, this doesn’t pose a challenge when one considers that there are no guarantees for the scientist in the lab either, as well as the potential for prenatal screening that would make it possible for couples to terminate pregnancy at very early stages until a desirable prospect is reached. Consider also 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. Some might argue that this doesn’t seem like enhancement, but for this family, deafness was valued over audition. As genetic manipulation technology improves, it’s not hard to imagine parents attempting to increase the likelihood of traits like eye color, height, sexual orientation, and moral disposition. With all this in mind, let’s flesh out the thought experiment we began with so we can take a closer, more nuanced look at it.

Let’s suppose that the guitar piece requires an intermediate level of technical proficiency, and that the Genetically Modified Guitarist (GMG) is willing to practice a reasonable amount of time, has spent some time taking lessons from a competent instructor, and possesses physiologically capable arms and hands. His inability to learn the piece, then, is due to a lack in one or more capacities that can be enhanced. To illustrate this, imagine if his fingers were shaped in some idiosyncratic way that made it difficult to play the guitar. Genetic intervention within the realm of imaginable possibility will not cause his bone structure to reform itself. Indeed, his genes might very well have been designed to grow perfect guitar fingers, but some external influence caused his fingers to form oddly when he was a baby. With all this in mind, let’s examine one plausible scenario in which GMG is enabled to learn the piece.

GMG pops the pill; there is a cassette that is carried by tiny robots to a slot in an engineered, gene-free chromosome that was put there when GMG was first conceived. Acquiring these new memory and coordination 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 best be 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 that’s unlikely to come from the pill itself is intrinsic motivation. 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.

Is GMG’s experience of playing the piece of music devalued given the intervention of the pill upon his naturally ungifted DNA? It seems clear to me that the answer is: No, the experience is not devalued, rather it is in fact increased. 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 as its basis genes or a pill? A naturally gifted musician still must practice, still must have functioning fingers, and still must have motivation.

The fact that GMG acquired his gifts from a pill rather than from his parents doesn’t devalue his experience of playing guitar any more than it would be the case for a gifted musician who required correction of issues such as arthritis, tendonitis, or memory loss resulting from some degenerative ailment. Nor is there a remarkable difference in the case of naturally gifted guitarists who take the pill as a short cut or to further enhance an existing gift, as here the plateau principle Buchanan mentioned would take effect, given that reaching their full potential as guitarists is not going to be possible without rigorous practice. This is also true in the case where the technique is already developed, and the pill doesn’t intervene genetically with a cassette, but instead allows for a temporary burst of heightened memory and coordination, or, to put it another way, attention. Again we could be talking about caffeine, a drug that we readily accept as a performance aid, such as for students and doctors. Its use in sports is contentious, given that it has been shown to increase performance, but, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, to ban it poses too many complications given its ubiquity.

All of what we’ve been looking at so far deals with but one aspect of musical performance, the technical, though I think there’s an even more important question to be asked about GMG’s experience: What are the implications of performance or gift enhancement for the aesthetic component of his playing experience? This is an impossible question to answer. Why? Because it’s impossible for anyone to answer, gifted or not, enhanced or not, due to the elusive, unquantifiable combination of qualities that go into our aesthetic experience of music. These qualities make our emotional – or otherwise desirable – experience of music possible, and are constituted by features that are biological, cultural, and related to personal experience. Without this sort of experience, GMG’s mastery of a piece of music is merely technical, rote, and, ultimately, empty.

GMG is functioning as performer and listener, and will need to draw upon those things that make a positive aesthetic experience more likely. This includes phrasing, tone, intonation, tempo, vibrato, dynamics, and other considerations. The masterful deployment of this toolkit contributes greatly towards the creation of a moving musical expression, and is the result not just of being freed by the constraints of technical limitations, but also of artistic gifts that are not themselves technical. This is true of whatever sort of music GMG might play, whether blues, classical, jazz, punk, heavy metal, or folk. GMG’s overall experience, then, will depend on the extent to which technical mastery is itself for him a thing of beauty to behold, and to which his newly-acquired skills allow him to express whatever innate artistic gifts were being held back by this lack of technical skill.

We begin to think of GMG’s experience of himself as performer and listener, but how might the fact of his having used modification to acquire his skills affect the reception he receives from other listeners? Would his fans revise their view of him for the worse were it to be revealed that he had acquired his gifts from a pill? Like so many of the questions related to modification, it depends on the scenario. We do know that there are many instances in which an artwork’s origin can affect our experience of it. For example, masterful 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 was considered an essential genre feature, such as in the case that a subculture of non-modification purists emerges.

In general, however, I think that GMG’s modification would be accepted due to the aforementioned heightened playing field, and due to the fact that technological enhancement of musical technique have 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, there’s that elusive combination of qualities that transcend technique, which poses a serious challenge to scientists, who, in order to engineer a “good art” gene, would first have to know what “good art” is.

Indeed, just as they have 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 define “good art,” they must have existing examples to guide them. Their observations about art come after instances of the creation and experience of art, not before them. 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 nothing more than a novelty, like a more sophisticated version of a computer program that makes creating visual or musical art easier, and, like those programs, would still only result in the best work at the hands of the people with the most ingenuity and developed creative/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 figure out, 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 so 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 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, and would 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-based 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 procedure 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 to all, so too will the pill form of cognitive enhancement.



  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. Pingback: Gadfly Article: The Genetically Enhanced Guitarist | DAN JACOB WALLACE

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