Using science fiction as a tool for understanding bigger issues… 

This week we are using the blog ‘Political Science Fiction’ by Chris Borgen as a springboard to discuss how science fiction in particular can be used as a method for understanding bigger issues. In his blog, Borgen discusses a number of fiction works and how they have brought on thinking about larger issues. Hopefully you will have had a similar experience that you can tell us about in the comments.

Here’s what we thought:


In this blog entry, Borgen sets out to highlight that science fiction can be a useful tool for international lawyers and foreign policy professionals. He notes that certain works provide a useful optic through which law and international policy can be considered and gives the example of Iain Banks’ ‘Culture’ series, which challenged prevailing notions of good and evil, moral relativism and ends-based justification. The ability for fiction to convey ideas that contest mainstream thought or challenge dominant narratives is certainly one of the key components that makes fiction such a useful tool for learning. Fiction can evoke alternative visions of the world (and its possible futures), or as Borgen puts it, fiction can be a way of seeing the present from a new angle. However, despite brief declarations of science fiction’s usefulness (and a great list of recommended sci-fi reads) Borgen does not reflect further on why fiction is such a useful tool or how we might get the most out of it, which I think could have been useful for gaining a greater understanding of fiction’s deeper potential. This got me thinking about what it is about fiction that makes it a particularly good tool for learning and about the process of this learning itself.

One of the greatest powers fiction both wields and enables is that of vision. By capturing a certain vision and anchoring it in place – be it through ink on a page or images on a screen – fiction both offers a vision (that denoted by the author) and demands a vision (an interpretation from the reader). As these two distinct visions collide, an ether bursting with overlapping and opposing ideas/thoughts, points of familiarity and drastic divergence is created. In order to glean the most useful insights from fiction, I think we as readers must seek to continually inhabit that chaotic space of conflictual ideas, endeavouring to tease out the unapparent by seeing beyond the surface narrative. A quote I am particularly fond of articulates one aspect of this learning opportunity nicely: ‘Vision is the art of seeing things invisible’ .1 By seeking out the invisible within fictional narratives – the unaddressed and the unarticulated by an author for example – readers can awaken useful lines of inquiry that may inform our understanding of today’s reality or tomorrow’s future. It is not only what is said or depicted within a fictional narrative that should capture our attention, but also what is left unspoken. What might such instances (whether purposeful omissions or simple oversights) reveal about the limits or flaws in our current thinking and exploration of certain issues?

Fiction is a multifaceted and ongoing process, one that begins with the author, but then wholly surpasses the author to evolve and take on a new form in the hands of the reader. With each reader’s interpretation comes a unique vision of that narrative itself, one that is imbued with countless connotations specific to that individual’s own lived experience. If fiction is a multi-layered process, then the way in which we learn from it can be too. Whilst thinking about this, I was reminded of an observation made by literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes on the difference between authors and writers. He notes that whilst writers consider their work an attempt to resolve an ambiguity of some sort, authors know that their work ‘inaugurates an ambiguity’ and offers itself to the reader as ‘…a monumental silence to be deciphered’.2 For me, this absolutely sums up the power of fiction as a medium: fiction is always a starting point and never a final destination, it is a literary spark that ignites a much vaster constellation. A constellation of thought just as much as of vision. Coming back to fiction as a tool for learning, particularly the idea of addressing the unarticulated within narratives, it is by deciphering these silences that we begin to see beyond the narrative itself and expand this constellation further. By doing so we can arrive at a deeper understanding of the limitations in the ways that we think, observe and approach certain issues; lessons vital for improving our present reality and impending future.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

1) Jonathan Swift. (1745). Thoughts on Various Subjects (Further Thoughts on Various Subjects).

2) Roland Barthes. (1972). Critical Essays, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, p.190


 

This week’s topic is one that is very close to my heart. I am currently reading for a PhD on essentially, just this point – using science fiction to reconceptualise our understanding of modern-day biopolitics alongside the emergence of the computerised state. As such, I am more than interested in the link the author describes between SF and statecraft, plus issues relating to citizenship, surveillance, technology, autonomy and military ethics.

We should not forget here that SF is absolutely fundamental in helping normalise new technologies, or even inspiring new uses to which technology could be put. Star Trek for example, helped normalise the concept of computers in the home, while the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein all helped stoke the public imaginary for humankind’s first forays into space.

One caveat I would raise here however is that while we can certainly use SF (and other fiction) to help us understand ‘bigger issues’, we do need to be careful how we analyse them. Many texts can be misrepresented or misunderstood based on a cursory, simplistic analysis, and this can only harm our understanding as a result. After all, often there is much more meaning to be found between the lines in what’s not said, rather than what is.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


In general, I think that fiction can be an excellent tool for enabling understanding and discussion of greater issues. Primarily I would put this down to the emotional connection that skilful writers can create between readers and characters, and the sympathies that one can develop with someone completely different. Afterall, there’s nothing quite like developing understanding of another’s perspective when it is too emotionally difficult to think any other way – I doubt anyone could walk away from To Kill a Mockingbird without a greater understanding of race relations. Nor could anybody walk away from James Ellroy’s works without an appreciation that all people have deep faults.

Secondarily, the artificial nature of fiction allows for situations to be created which force difficult decisions that may never happen in real life. The upshot of this is that major issues we may have been ignoring are suddenly very much in the frame. For instance, John le Carre’s A Delicate Truth shows us how even in times of human rights, some degree of social mobility, and being shielded by middle class sensibilities, we never consider the truth that everyone without power can be done over purely so that those with power can retain and expand their power.

Of course, political science fiction isn’t all good. Because stories are open to interpretation, people remember them differently. This causes some annoyance in my own work on autonomous weapon systems. I’ve lost count of the number of articles (both periodical and peer-reviewed) which suggest Asimov’s rules of robotics as the basis for governing killer robots. This is despite the entire point of his books being that his rules sound good but don’t work in practice. Perhaps this is also symptomatic of modern academic life, that there are such great pressures on people that most people don’t have the time to do their own work the justice it requires.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years? 

This week we round out our consideration of nuclear weapons with the question ‘To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years?

 There are, of course, no correct answers. But it is interesting to try. If you try, let us know what you think in the comments box.


My main concern is less nuclear proliferation among states, but rather non-state actors. In my view, ISIS, and other groups, represent perhaps the biggest global threat today. While Iran and North Korea certainly remain a threat, they are at least ‘fixed’ and locatable, and we have heard some positive movement coming from North Korea. The real danger however to me is not so much nuclear weapons as it is biological and chemical weapons that are far easier to make and disperse. Given this fact, I fear that bio-chemical weapons may well become the new nuclear bomb. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


Within 20 years, I would have expected Iran to have gained a nuclear weapon. Considering their regular breaching of previous nuclear deals, I am not surprised at their breaches of the current deal. This is aside from the fact that the current deal does not allow for inspection of military sites, so they could be developing bombs and just hiding them from inspectors well within the terms of their deal. 

For North Korea, I have no idea. If Trump’s surprisingly effective diplomacy actually works we could be looking at a de-nuclearised Korean peninsula. Or, a nuclear war. I don’t think anybody knows what will happen. 

However, because nuclear is such a large threat, I think it is generally pretty well maintained. I am far more concerned about powerful military (or dual-use) technologies proliferation to terrorist groups and other violent non-state actors. There is on predicting how this would play out when motives and operational capabilities of future terrorists cannot be predicted. All we know is that technology is democratising and de-centralising power, and that includes the possibility for violent action. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Sagan – Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb 

Continuing our look at nuclear proliferation, this week we take a look at ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb’ by Scott Sagan (International Security 21, no. 3 (1996): 54), available here. It is over 20 years old now, but still provides plenty of interesting points and is definitely worth a read. Let us know what you think.

 


Published now over 20 years ago, this article from International Security gives a good oversight of three key models to assessing the motivations behind nuclear proliferation: the security model, the domestic model, and the norms model. Each model certainly has its pros and cons, and it seems slightly strange to me as a modern reader to find out that just so little work was done prior to this article to consider any option other than the security model. The recent example of North Korea would certainly seem to suggest that nuclear proliferation in some cases is far more skewed towards the domestic and norms approach, rather than security. It is then perhaps testament to the legacy of this paper that examples such as North Korea have essentially demonstrated that the author is ‘right’ and that nuclear proliferation is far more nuanced and complex than the chain-reaction-approach suggested by the security model alone.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


What was nice to see in this article was an acceptance that understanding nuclear issues is really hard. Perhaps it is due to my limited reading on nuclear proliferation being focussed on a number of modern papers on nuclear weapons, or that some of the players in the push towards the recent nuclear prohibition treaty presented that argument as relatively simple to make, but it does seem that a lot of thinking on nuclear weapons is fairly simplistic. Perhaps the influence of game theory parsing the discussion down to simplified win or lose terms helped with this, and indeed that is a valid route of enquiry. But I felt it refreshing to read this piece and have someone acknowledge that dealing with nuclear weapon politics is really difficult. I also liked the thorough way in which the author dealt with the troika of reasons states have for wanting to develop nuclear weapons. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

Moshirzadeh – Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy

 This week we continue looking at nuclear proliferation with a specific look at Iran. Obviously the focus of a lot of attention in relation to its nuclear programme, this weeks paper ‘Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy’ by Homeira Moshirzadeh (Security Dialogue 38, no. 4 (2007): 521–43), available here) looks at Iranian nuclear policy from a few years ago, It is interesting to see the simliarities before the most recent IRan deal and now. Let us know what you think.


This article gives an interesting insight into some of the wider factors surrounding Iran’s nuclear policy, relating it back to three key rationales: independence, justice and resistance. Just as with other readings we’ve addressed / will be addressing on nuclear proliferation, this article presents a complex picture that is far more complicated than a simple security-based approach would suggest. I was particularly interested by the author’s suggestion that a kind of national ‘identity politics’ of sorts is the prime motivator for Iran, and the influence of how they see themselves in relation to others (523).  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


Reading something on Iranian nuclear policy from inside Iran was really interesting. Indeed, in the post-modern times that we are living in, it seems that nobody is prepared to even consider view points that come from the opposite end of whatever spectrum is under discussion. So it was good to go against this trend in order to learn something from a new perspective. Perhaps it would be good for foreign policy experts to read more of this type of stuff in order to appreciate why Iran keeps cheating on nuclear deals that it, and the P5+1, spend so much time and money negotiating.  

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

Dong-Joon and Gartzke – Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation 

This week we move on from military human enhancement to nuclear proliferation. We begin this topic by looking at ‘Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation‘ by Dong-Joon Jo, and Erik Gartzke (Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume: 51 issue: 1, page(s): 167-194), available here. It is a great study using mixed methods to analyse what factors affect nuclear proliferation. Here are our thoughts:


In this paper the authors conduct a statistical analysis of nuclear proliferation and offer some insight into factors influencing proliferation, and trends going forward. While I have little to offer in terms of the practical application of the study itself (I am not a statistics scholar), I find some of the conclusions quite interesting. Most notably perhaps is the fact that the authors claim ‘there is no difference between democracy and autocracy in terms of a tendency to pursue nuclear weapons production programs’ (186). To be honest, I’m not really sure how much we can take from this conclusion, as I would suggest this trend has more to do with the outcomes of the Second World War, and the following Cold War, than it has to do with nuclear weapons per se. I wonder then if perhaps the authors are confusing symptom and cause? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


I found this paper to be excellent. I love the surety that the quantitative analysis brings to this study, and indeed found the conclusions to be wonderful. It must be disappointing to those who put so much effort in to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and continue to work for its application for it only to result in ‘modest or marginal impacts on nuclear proliferation.‘ The article also looks at reasons for this. But it made me wonder if there are better option for arms control? If the NPT does very little, what options could there be to create a greater impact? As mentioned in previous weeks, soft law might be an option, but is also problematic. I remember in Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature the suggestion that taboo plays a very large role in preventing WMD use, but negative press are hardly going to be of concern to a nation using a nuclear strike as the last hope for state survival. Perhaps, a concerted effort from all angles is required. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

How should states strike the best balance between medical ethics, human rights, national security, and international law? 

This week we go back to thinking about questions, and answering:

How should states strike the best balance between medical ethics, human rights, national security, and international law?

It is, of course, a difficult one. Here’s what we thought. Let us know your answers below.


For me, this question highlights the problematic and abstract nature of the state, ethics, law, the human and ‘human rights’. While we (for the most part) assume these concepts are all set in stone, the reality is that they are anything but, and we exist in a permanent situation of Orwellian ‘double think’ in which we tell ourselves the world works in a different way to that in which it actually does.  

The question then for me is one of presentation vs representation – or rather ‘what states say’ and ‘what states do’. We shouldn’t then be asking so much how states should balance the four categories in this question, but rather why they should balance them. Without a proper debate on the question of why, then the question of how we go about achieving balance doesn’t make much sense. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


To me, this question is difficult to answer. Quite honestly I don’t see anything wrong with the current set up that deal with military human enhancement.  

In terms of international law, there is nothing wrong with using enhanced soldiers. What would be problematic about having military personnel be less tired, more accurate, and take greater care in terms of the two central tenants of the law of armed conflict to only attack lawful targets and reduce civilian suffering? If we could have current military personnel do a better job of those we would think it great, but some people falsely believe that this is suddenly problematic if the individuals are medically enhanced. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to argue that if super soldiers would reduce civilian harm, that the law of armed conflict would require their use. 

In terms of national security, better soldiers mean more efficient forces and a likely quicker end to conflicts. Who doesn’t want that? The only national security issues I could think of would be if soldier-spies were used to infiltrate foreign countries under the guise of being ordinary humans only to begin a violent campaign from within, or the increased likelihood of other states wanting to steal information on super soldier programmes in order to create their own and compete (with all the issues that creates). 

I don’t really see any issue of human rights for using super soldiers. However, there are clear rights issues for the soldiers themselves if the enhancement programme creates unexpected results, or if they are somehow coerced into participating. These issues are, however, not new and are present in all medical experiments.  

Not having much experience in medical ethics, the key issue that jumps out at me it’s whether these super soldiers would still be human after enhancement.  

It seems to me that although there are clear issues, I don’t see any reason why current frameworks would not be sufficient in international law and human rights. National security frameworks would seem to be sufficient as they currently recognise and prevent foreign intelligence agents and transnational espionage; although they obviously have trouble identifying this, perhaps all that is needed is greater vigilance. I doubt medical ethics would allow for procedures taking personnel beyond humanity, so I don’t see any problem there. So, apart from greater vigilance in terms of national security I do not see what is wrong with current frameworks.  

It would be possible to improve the current situation, but the terms of that improvement would be ideologically biased. Either decision-makers would want to ease, or salt, the path towards super soldiers, so any ‘improvements’ to the current framework would only be seen as positive if they align with your ideological bent. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Mehlmann, Lin, Abeny – Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy

We are continuing our look at military human enhancement, with ‘Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy‘ by Maxwell Mehlman, Patrick Lin, and Keith Abney, available here. It is a very wide-ranging about through consideration of pretty much every aspect of military human enhancement for a policy audience.

Here are out thoughts:


This long, detailed report attempts to define key terms and principles in relation to warfighter enhancements in order to create a framework with which to understand military risk, ethics and policy. Unfortunately, I do find many of the authors’ distinctions arbitrary, and certainly problematic in terms of how they choose to define ‘enhancement’ – a word on which much of this report is based.

Another problem for me is that perhaps too little thought is given to the robot in warfare. While I certainly agree that robotics and bio-enhancements are (sort of) aiming towards the same goal, I don’t think the authors quite understand the ethics and implications of the machine when compared with the human. To suggest, as they do in the conclusion, that machines don’t have a sense of ethics (and we must assume, that humans therefore *do*) (86), is for me, to mistake the point, and not to engage with what is in reality quite a complex and detailed debate. I for one certainly don’t ascribe to the authors’ implied sentiment that a human will always be more ethical than a machine. Are human soldiers not ‘machines’ already?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


There is no denying that this report is thorough. It seems to cover every possible base. I did, however, often wonder to myself why the authors were dealing with a lot of the points mentioned. Many seemed to be irrelevant, or able to be removed from consideration straight away for a lack of relatability. Perhaps i viewed the report negatively because I did not like the executive summary. It wasn’t a summary. More of a blurb to advertise the report to a potential reader. Still, this is a systematic review of many relevant issues, and definitely worth reading if you are interested in the topic. I just wish it had been executed better.

Joshua Hughes,  Lancaster University 

Dinnis and Kleffner – Soldier 2.0: Military Human Enhancement and International Law 

This week we continue our look at military human enhancement to look at ‘Soldier 2.0: Military Human Enhancement and International Law ‘ by Heather A. Harrison Dinniss and Jann K. Kleffner (International Law Studies 92 (2016): 432–82), available here. It is a brilliant and fascinating look at many different legal aspects of military human enhancement, and I recommend you take a look.

Here’s what we think about the piece. Let you know your thoughts below.


I’ve been a part of the TTAC21 reading group for almost 18 months now, and this may well be one of the most interesting articles we’ve covered. In it, the authors explore the implications of human enhancement for the law of war, investigating various aspects of biochemical, cybernetic and prosthetic enhancements, and how they influence soldiers’ abilities on the battlefield and what they may then mean for the interaction between belligerent states.  

One of the best points about this paper in my mind is that it demonstrates an awareness of issues that go beyond the practical application of law, and it is willing to engage with issues that many other legalistic papers tend to ignore. The blurring of the human in particular is a key issue in future warfare and the working of law – especially when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the human and the machine. 

In other readings for TTAC21, I have criticised papers for ignoring issues relating to human enhancement and the role of soldiers once their service ends. I’m therefore really pleased that this paper seeks to engage with some of these issues. I was particularly interested in the question of the ‘ownership’ of enhancement, as this was something that hasn’t really come up in the course of my own related research. I was also interested to read the authors’ take on autonomy in light of the altered state of individuals subject to enhancement. While I certainly agree that enhancement impacts on the question of human responsibility, I believe we need to reassess the question of human autonomy in light of the ongoing ‘robotization’ of soldiers within a programmatic military framework.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


This article is, undeniably, a thorough and systematic consideration of one of the most fascinating topics in modern war. However, a lot of the worries about super soldiers seems to be based on the idea that they will become almost machine-like and could act without mercy or humanity, perhaps not taking compassionate actions to spare the lives of those who need no die. It seems odd to me that this would even be a consideration. Surely human elements are key to all soldiers. After all, that is why we still have humans in our armed forces, and have not yet just replaced them with robots. I have yet to hear of anybody suggest that machines should play any role that it not totally subordinate to humans. I presume this is because something intrinsically human is key to military success. If that it so, then keeping human traits in super soldiers can only be a good thing. If they are kept, and human enhancement focuses on physical improvement (better eyesight, less fatigue, etc.) Then this could give us a situation whereby not only do advanced militaries gain a lot for the improvements to their soldiers, but do not loose key human elements. In terms of the law of armed conflict, greater awareness of a situation can only lead to better appreciation of the impact which operations will have, and therefore should only lead to better compliance with  the law of armed conflict unless this appreciation is ignored. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  


 

Parasidis – Emerging Military Technologies: Balancing Medical Ethics and National Security

This week we consider ‘Emerging Military Technologies: Balancing Medical Ethics and National Security’ by Efthimios Parasidis (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47, no. 167 (2015): 168–81), available here. This is an interesting look into several different aspects related to bioethics and the military.

Let us know what you think in the comments below. 


In this article the author examines the many difficulties of balancing medical ethics against the needs of national security. He cites for example the case of the pre-emptive vaccination of soldiers after 9/11 (169), in which the smallpox vaccine was administered against the risk of biological attack, only for many service members to suffer vaccine-related adverse health effects (169). While on the one hand the move might have proved prescient were smallpox to be used as a chemical weapon against US forces, as it wasn’t, the vaccination actually had a cumulative negative effect, for which the US military cannot be held to account.

Clearly, responsibility is a major issue to emerge out of the use of bio-technologies, especially as soldiers are effectively ‘forced’ to obey the military chain of command. Without a clear line of accountability, there seem at present to be insufficient checks and balances in place to protect soldiers against flagrant abuse from the powers that be. While would seem clear that the military does have a certain right to treat soldiers in a different way to civilians, this should not preclude the application of technologies that have not gone through certain checks and balances to ensure authorities do not abuse their power and cause lasting effects to soldiers who are, at the end of the day, also civilians too.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


When reviewing pieces for TTAC21, I much prefer to focus on the substantive issues rather than anything methodological in the readings. But, I found this article a bit odd. The main bulk of the article was good and explained a lot. But it then switched focus to identity politics in the conclusion to consider the apparently disproportionate effects on lower-social class and ethnic minority personnel. It seems an odd view point considering that military promotions are meritocratic. Furthermore, the way the conclusion as written felt as though it had an undercurrent reinforcing the stereotype that the military is where the stupid and poor go for work because they cannot do anything else in the West. This really annoys me. Modern war is highly complex, and those fighting in them are highly-trained professionals. Indeed, the US military will not accept anybody with an IQ score in the bottom 10% because they are so stupid that they would be counterproductive on the battlefield. Furthermore, Western militaries often take considerable time and effort to educate their personnel. Famously, Andy McNab, of Bravo Two Zero fame, could barely read when he entered the British Army and left it not only as the most highly decorated soldier in the force, but also with the skills to go on to become best-selling writer. Frankly, if the author had stuck to the bioethics focus of the paper it would have made for a much better read.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Mehmann  and Li – Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military

This week we look at the use of DNA technologies in an enthralling article by Maxwell J. Mehmann and Tracy Yeheng Li, ‘Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military’ (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47, no. 1 (2015): 115–65.), available here.

Here’s what we thought. Let you know what you think in the comments below, or send us a message to join to network.


This long but incredibly interesting paper explores many of the bioethical issues associated with the use of genetic and genomic science by the US military. Such is the scope of the paper that there are almost too many points to discuss in a short blog, so for this reason I’d therefore like to focus on the question of genomic enhancement (pp. 161–164). While I am sure many people can agree that genomic enhancement has great potential to improve the effectiveness of warfighters, I wonder what the implications will be for soldiers once their term of service comes to an end? The author doesn’t address this question, and it remains for me perhaps the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ when we come to consider bio-technology and the military. While I agree there are certainly distinctions to be made between the civilian and military paradigms when it comes to ethics and responsibility, we should not forget that the two worlds are of course interlinked. What this means on a practical level is that any civilian can potentially become an enlisted member of the military, and of course any member of the military is always already a member of the civilian world as well.

My concern here is that by introducing bio-enhancements to the military (which we must assume will slowly filter through to the civilian world) we will in effect be creating a new category of the human, entrenching difference within human society. Indeed, we should ask, are these ‘enhanced’ soldiers even human at all? This question becomes even more significant when we consider the author’s claim that the most powerful enhancements may well need to be engineered at the embryonic stage, thus leading to the possibility that we will ‘lab grow’ our future soldiers. If they are lab grown and effectively enlisted from birth, what happens when their term of service ends? Does it ever end? Or will they rather be put down, like a dangerous dog, when they no longer demonstrate value for the military machine?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


This article was absolutely fascinating. However, it made me think of things far closer to home than the US military. For a while, I have been considering having my DNA sequenced as a shortcut to find out how I will react to different physical fitness training programmes (and in the vain hope that it will reveal I’ve got the genetic talent to be a world-beating talent at an obscure sport that I’ve never tried!). At least one of the companies offering this also look at corporate wellbeing, allowing employees to volunteer to have their DNA sequenced in order for their employer to be able to optimise their staff’s efficacy and work plans. What this article made me think of is why not use DNA sequencing to optimise military personnel? We know that all people have different skills and aptitudes, so why not inform commanders through genetics about which of their subordinates will be best for different tasks? Of course, this does not incorporate the impact that the environment has upon the individuals, so it is not foolproof. But, if DNA sequencing can help troops train and perform better, then it is surely beneficial to military effectiveness. However, it is currently expensive. Perhaps when prices drop it will be worth it for militaries to test all their personnel. At the very least it will be less problematic than enabling troops to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University