Natural Selection and the New Economy: Online auction for superior genes
By Felix Stalder
[posted to nettime 28.10.1999]
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This story could be right out of a William Gibson novel. A surreal combination of cutting-edge technology, showbiz, popular Darwinism, global markets, genetic engineering and pornography all mixed into one headline: the online auction of eggs of supermodels is open now!
But this is not post-apocalyptic Japan, this is normal US craziness, right now, right here. Just a click away. Ron's Angels, a web-based business , also known as Art and Sex, that usually peddles pictures of nude 'supermodels' to a paying membership, has now expanded the range of its commercial activities. As of now, it offers to the highest bidder eggs of a few 'supermodels', pictured but unnamed on the site. The bidding starts at $10.000 to $150.000, depending on which model's egg you're bidding for. Starting with the photo, the prospective bidder can go through a brief background file, which includes vital statistics and the age of parents and grandparents. Before placing a bid, the would-be father has to pay the membership fee for Ron's erotica site. Once the highest bid is determined 15% of the price is due when the model begins the hormone treatment, the remaining 85% have to be paid when the eggs are delivered.
Harris, 66, a photographer who worked for Playboy Television and has specialized in high-brow porn, charges 20% on top the arranged price for a service which simply covers the transaction of the merchandise, the eggs containing the desired gene material, nothing more.
For Harris, there is nothing problematic in the combination of female fertility and crude capitalism. To the contrary, under the tag line "Beauty to the Higgest Bidder" he explains that capitalism and evolution are indeed one and the same. In nature and society, it's all about selection. In the case of the auction, selection determines the best bidder in two steps. The first round of selection is carried out by society at large. It rewards superior genes with the ultimate form of success: money. The second round of selection is the bidding process itself, when the preselected, that is wealthy, alpha-males fight against each other. Here the most determined males is selected, that is the one willing to pay the highest price for a particular gene set. The donors‚-the 'supermodels'--are selected by Ron Harris himself who makes choices that are, of course, not his own but are 'objectived' by the need to match supply to demand. This ensures that only the best make it through. As Harris explains:
"This is Darwin's "Natural Selection" at its very best. The highest bidder gets youth and beauty. "Natural Selection" is choosing genes that are healthy and beautiful. This "Celebrity Culture" that we have created does better economically than any other civilization in our history. We are turned on by beauty. Why?
In the view of Harris, the Internet has created the chance to let natural selection play on a global scale. Selection, then, is no longer hampered by relying on ultimately arbitrary, local face-to-face encounters -- maybe even better genes are just in the other room, but heck, you cannot be at two places at once! Online, you can be everywhere at once. No gene pool, particularly none that is presented so appealingly as the one on Harris' site, will be missed by your all seeing altavista-gaze. Harris, as he presents himself, is doing mankind a favour. A technically enhanced nature can now accomplish its age old goal much more effectively: advancing the superior, thus in extension, sorting out the inferior.
We know our genetic code dates back to purple photosynthetic, sulfur producing bacteria, then on to Chimpanzees and us. We are evolving upward. The world economies are booming and there is just enough instability to create growth
It is human nature to strive to improve everything. From fruits and vegetables, to animals, to medicine, and even to human genes, we modify everything to produce the best we can. And of course we all want the best for ourselves and our children."
In a culture dominated by media-driven capitalism, bidding for genes poses no moral dilemma. It is simply the somewhat crude combination of two dominating values: money and appearance. Money is good; and more money is even better. Screen appearance is an end in itself. The more appealing you look, the higher your value as a person. Plastic surgery is not booming for nothing.
All of this has, of course, nothing to do with social Darwinism, eugenics and crypto-rascism. Mind you. Harris citing an Asian couple who chose an egg from a tall blond, blue-eyed model is just a fact. Nothing more. It's neither good nor bad, it's how the world works, pragmatically seen.
Bidding for model eggs, is the ultimate extension of what Ignacio Ramonet (Le Monde Diplomatique) called the "One-Idea-System." This system has been created by current discourse of inevitability, call it neoliberalism or techno-determinism, arguing that whatever happens--mass deprevation and genetic cleansing--are nothing but natural and necessary, and above all, unavoidable. Therefore, promoting them is nothing but pragmatic realism in an "post-ideological" era. Resistance would be delusionary and simply make worse what needs to come anyway.
What is so appalling about this website is not so much the offer. That is not very different from what more respectable infertility clinics, most of them private and for-profit, do as everyday business. Of course, the spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, Sean Tipton has to come out and declare in the New York Times that Harris' offer "screams of unethical behavior." How much of his outrage, one wonders, is motivated by concerns over the negative impact of Harris' crude offer on his own business environment? What is appalling is Harris' righteousness which he can afford for he knows the basis of his business, money and screen beauty as the ultimate normative values, is the very heart of 21st century rampant capitalism.
After all, as Harris says, "if you could increase the chance of reproducing beautiful children, and thus giving them an advantage in society, wouldn't you?"