The interplay of science and ethics: the case of eugenics

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by Massimo Pigliucci

It is a rare case where I find myself sympathetic to quotes from both Steven Pinker and a Pope. And yet, reading and thinking about eugenics can cause this sort of strange happening, and more.

Here is Pinker, from an interview with Steve Sailer [1] about The Blank Slate, criticizing what he called “the conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics” and their obsession with Nazi-inspired eugenics:

“The 20th century suffered ‘two’ ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn’t believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it’s not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It’s the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.”

Fair enough. And here is Pope Pius XI in a 1930 encyclical [2], condemning eugenics:

“Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with eugenics: it is an idea at the complex intersection between science and ethics, which often also means a heavy dose of ideology.

Let’s start with the science. As is well known, the father of eugenics was Francis Galton, Darwin’s half-cousin – a fact predictably exploited by creationists to reject the science of evolution on the grounds of its alleged immoral implications (which, needless to say, is a non sequitur even if true). Of course, Galton wrote before the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, and therefore before the onset of modern genetics, so his grasp of the subject was statistical and a-causal in nature.

Overall, the science behind the first phase of eugenics – roughly from Galton’s founding of the field to its disreputable association with the Nazis, which caused a marked decline of interest and support after World War II – was somewhat shaky, but not entirely flawed. The basic idea was the same that inspired Darwin’s metaphor of natural selection: if we can breed certain traits in or out of plants and animals, and if human beings are biological organisms not fundamentally different from plants and animals, then we should be able – if we so wished – to “improve” the human race by means similar to those developed over the centuries by plant and animal breeders.

The devil, of course, is in the details. A crucial problem with the science of eugenics (I’ll get to the ethics soon enough) was pointed out by one of the foremost geneticists of the early 20th century, Thomas Hunt Morgan, who discovered mutations in the fruit fly. Morgan thought that some of the target “traits” of eugenists, like intelligence, or criminality, are not at all sufficiently well defined and biologically coherent enough to lend themselves to a rigorous science of genetics. Research since Morgan’s time has repeatedly confirmed his insight: sure, there is a “genetic basis” for pretty much any human behavior, in the weak sense that one genetic variant or another, in one human population or another, can always be found that has a statistical effect on said behavior. But when the behavior is as complex and ill-defined as intelligence or criminality, such effects are usually highly multigenic (i.e., there is a very large number of genes that produce them), individual genes make tiny and hard to replicate contributions, and additionally, the environment has a huge impact on how such genetic effects are expressed. All of which makes the eugenic research program very difficult to carry out. But it also doesn’t make it anything like a pseudoscience, contra what seems to be widespread belief among what Pinker rather disdainfully refers to as left-leaning academic intellectuals.

Despite the early criticism and the Nazi debacle, the idea of eugenics is making something of a comeback in the era of genomics, under a very different, and somewhat improved, scientific guise. Just like the original version drew on an analogy with plant and animal breeding, the new eugenics is predicated on a parallel with genetic engineering of crops and other domesticated species [3] (and is, predictably, endorsed by that bizarre techno-cult known as transhumanism [4]).

And again, similarly to the original incarnation, the science behind the new eugenics is problematic but not entirely bogus. Can we, in principle, make a Genetically Modified Human (GMH) analogously to the way we are making GMOs? Of course. Is it going to be just as straightforward as it is for other genetically modified organisms? No, and for precisely the same reasons intuited by Morgan. Sure, some human traits (eye color, for instance), have relatively simple genetic bases, and can therefore (in principle) be somewhat straightforwardly altered by direct insertion and replacement of specific genetic elements. Many others (intelligence, criminality, and so forth), do not behave so conveniently from the point of view of human manipulation.

All of the above is simply to say that it is wrong both to say that the problem with eugenics was (and is) “just” with the ethics, not with the science; and that eugenics (old or new) can easily be dismissed as pseudoscience quite regardless of any discussion about morality.

Which means it is now time to turn to that pesky, inherently philosophical, quagmire: ethics.

The original eugenics began as an exercise in racism and ended up being discredited because of its adoption by the mother of all racist movements. William Goodell, already in 1882 (the year before Galton’s coinage of the word eugenics) advocated extirpation of the ovaries from “insane” women, and managed to publish this in the respectable American Journal of Psychiatry [5]. Eugenics laws were implemented initially in the self-described best democracy in the world, the United States, and then in a number of other countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan, and Sweden. In the latter place those laws stayed on the books as late as 1975. The Nazi concept of racial hygiene and their implementation of policies aimed at achieving it in practice were simply the logical conclusion – carried out with German efficiency – of what was a very common idea in the first part of the 20th century, surprisingly (or maybe not) endorsed by both conservatives and progressives (e.g., Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, among many others).

I’m going to be so bold as to assume that for most of my readers there is really no question that the old eugenics was immoral for a number of reasons, chiefly: i) it was based on clearly racial, sexist, and classist stereotypes and assumptions (its victims were non-whites, women, and the poor) ; ii) it was imposed by a coercive state in a decidedly non democratic fashion that had little concern for human rights.

But what about the new, kinder, eugenics? Once again, things become more complicated. Let us set aside for the moment the still worrisome possibility that even in the 21st century, governments (democratic or not) could in fact implement coercive eugenic measures on their populations. The novel aspect of the current resurgence of interest in eugenics is that it is supposed to be voluntary and driven by market forces – as opposed to involuntary and state-imposed. Does that make it ethically unproblematic, though?

No, even if the new problems are a bit more subtle and difficult to untangle. Let’s start with the idea that if a medical decision (eugenics is considered by its supporters to be a medical issue) is voluntary it is therefore morally straightforward. This is obviously not the case. Just think of, say, the decision to forgo vaccination. The increasingly popular anti-vaccination movement is causing significant health problems for both individuals and societies, quite regardless of whether it is imposed by an external authority like the Taliban or chosen by well intentioned soccer moms in the United States [6]. Anti-vaccers themselves have to face the moral implications of possibly harming their own kids, and the rest of us have to deal with the morality of letting people make that sort of decision about themselves and their offspring, knowing that those decisions will also negatively affect the health of countless others who were not party to those decisions.

In the case of eugenics, decisions made by individuals may similarly carry two orders of consequences: first, the recipient of a eugenic treatment (say, your daughter) may suffer the unintended consequences of whatever genetic transplant you have decided would “improve” her. Of course, unlike the case of withholding vaccination, eugenic treatment may or may not be harmful, but it is easy to imagine a number of rushed or bad choices being made by parents if the pharmaceutical industry were to dangle the prospect of smarter, more attractive, and eventually more successful offspring.

Second, if we are talking eugenics we are talking alteration of the human germline, and therefore about the course of human evolution. Unlike some, I do not find this to be inherently morally questionable. I do not think that human life is sacred, and even less so the particular genetic heritage we got as a result of the serendipitous effects of millions of years of evolution. Still, leaving eugenic decisions to individuals would essentially mean that a number of people with low scientific literacy, and likely also little appreciation of ethical consequences, would be given the power to significantly alter the human collective genome, thus affecting the entire course of humanity’s future. But, you may object, this is no different from what people have done for countless generations, simply by choosing to have kids with certain partners rather than others. True, but remember that we are now talking new eugenics, supercharged by the power of modern genomics and the promise of direct genetic engineering. It’s a whole different ballpark, with a game whose stakes are much higher and significantly more difficult to predict.

The other thing that is supposed to make the new eugenics more benign than its predecessor is that it would be (allegedly) market driven, not government imposed. Except that I just don’t buy into the popular idea that markets are a purely a-moral means of increasing economic efficiency. Without getting into a detailed discussion of libertarianism or economic theory more broadly, markets are human social inventions (i.e., there is no such thing as a “natural” market), and they function only within whatever set of constraints and allowances a given society happens to provide. This in turn means that government influences are, in fact, never excluded just because something is left in the hands of a “free” market, which also implies that the specter of state-imposed (or at the least state-“facilitated”) eugenics may simply be hidden from view, rather than precluded.

Moreover, private forces are often anything but benign, especially in an era of globalization where large international corporations are becoming significantly more powerful than individual governments. After all, a chief reason the world seems incapable of tackling the problem of anthropogenic climate change is precisely because many of our politicians are in the pockets of powerful industries who would stand to lose billions upon billions if something meaningful were to be done.

In the case of the health industry, and therefore coming closer to eugenics, it is by now pretty well established that pharmaceutical companies have literally manufactured a number of “conditions” for which they then have eagerly provided “cures” by way of mass direct marketing campaigns to “consumers” (as opposed to patients) as well as significant financial incentives freely distributed to doctors, so much so that even professional medical organizations finally have begun to take notice [7]. One can only imagine the breathtaking onslaught of misleading advertisements Big Pharma would unleash on the public if GMH became a practical possibility.

The answer, of course, is not an outright ban – which would likely simply generate an even more dangerous black market – but tight regulation of the industry, as is currently the case for a number of chemical and biomedical products. Which, however, brings us right back to the issue of government involvement with the new eugenics, quite irrespectively of the above mentioned problem with corruption and an increasingly supra-state corporatism.

Finally, but not at all least importantly, there is the issue of access. Even assuming that the new eugenicists can adequately work out the science of what they aim to do, that we can manage to sufficiently educate the public about it, and that we can put in place well working restrictions and guarantees concerning the eugenic industry, there would be the perennial issue of how to allow equal access to the new technologies.

We are already experiencing, especially in the United States, a crisis in health care costs and access, where millions of people go uninsured in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Adding presumably highly costly (at the least in the beginning, and likely for a long time) eugenic procedures to health care would only exacerbate the problem and create even more disparity. What would happen, almost certainly, is that a small number of super-rich people would be able to afford direct access to the new technologies, thereby endowing their offspring not just with the already existing crushing advantages in terms of money and (therefore) education, but also with permanent biological enhancement. If you can’t see how quickly a Gattaca-type scenario [8] would likely develop from there, your imagination is hopelessly limited (and you may need to work on your sense of critical analysis as well). And if you remember the movie, the initial divide between the “naturals” and the eugenically enhanced individuals quickly becomes a difference between DNA “in-valids” and valids, thereby effectively creating not just two new races (with the predictable attitude of superiority, discriminative behaviors, etc.), but essentially two species, one clearly subjugated by the other.

But it’s science fiction, you say. Yes, for now.
_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Steven Pinker interviewed by Steve Sailer for United Press International, 10 October 2002.

[2] On Christian Marriage, by Pope Pius XI, 31 December 1930.

[3] Is a new eugenics afoot?, by Garland E. Allen, Science, 5 October 2001.

[4] A transhumanist manifesto, by some bloke who names himself Socrates (!), over at the Singularity Institute.

[5] Clinical notes on the extirpation of the ovaries for insanity, by William Goodell, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1 January 1882.

[6] Anti-vaccination movement causes a deadly year in the US, by Brian Krans, Healthline News, 3 December 2013.

[7] Inappropriate prescribing, by Brendan L. Smith, American Psychological Association, June 2012.

[8] Gattaca, 1997.



Categories: Public Policy, Science

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95 replies

  1. By the “it” I mean our genetic destiny. Our genome will change over time. As you have noted, there is no particular reason that nature will encourage it to change in ways we want. We might end up like your cockroach. I prefer to leave these decisions in the hands of humans who, as fallible as we are, at least have human interests in mind.

  2. LOL, thanks for the tip, labnut. I’m only laughing because I know you didn’t mean to imply that perhaps I live in a pigsty. Boric acid is effective, but I have had great success with “Bengal Roach Spray.” The point of the reference to the cockroach is that in modern form they’ve been around for about 100 million years despite lacking anything that humans might consider evidence of, well, human intelligence. Anyway, as I read Massimo’s post and the commentary the lines from e.e. cummings’s poem “Buffalo Bill” resurfaced: “and what i want to know is / how do you like you blueeyed boy / Mister Death,” though I doubt cummings was addressing eugenics.

  3. Massimo, Steven,
    Steven Pinker says the following of Gregory Clark’s thesis(in Better Angels):
    The other claim of a recent evolutionary change appeals to a civilizing rather than a pacification process. In A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Gregory Clark sought to explain the timing and location of the Industrial Revolution, which for the first time in history increased material well-being faster than the increase could be eaten up by population growth (see, for example, figure 4–7, taken from his book). Why, Clark asked, was it England that hosted this one-time escape from the Malthusian trap?

    The answer, he suggested, was that the nature of Englishmen had changed. Starting around 1250, when England began to shift from a knightly society to “a nation of shopkeepers” (as Napoleon would sneeringly call it), the wealthier commoners had more surviving children than the poorer ones, presumably because they married younger and could afford better food and cleaner living conditions. Clark calls it “the survival of the richest”: the rich got richer and they got children. This upper middle class was also out-reproducing the aristocrats, who were splitting heads and chopping off body parts in their tournaments and private wars, as we saw in figure 3–7, also taken from Clark’s data. Since the economy as a whole would not begin to expand until the 19th century, the extra surviving children of the wealthier merchants and tradesmen had nowhere to go on the economic ladder but downward. They continuously replaced the poorer commoners, bringing with them their bourgeois traits of thrift, hard work, self-control, patient future discounting, and avoidance of violence. The population of England literally evolved middle-class values. That in turn positioned them to take advantage of the commercial opportunities opened up by the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Though Clark occasionally dodges the political correctness police by noting that non violence and self-control can be passed from parent to child as cultural habits, in a précis of his book entitled “Genetically Capitalist?” he offers the full-strength version of his thesis: The highly capitalistic nature of English society by 1800—individualism, low time preference rates, long work hours, high levels of human capital—may thus stem from the nature of the Darwinian struggle in a very stable agrarian society in the long run up to the Industrial Revolution. The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.

    He later goes on to list the criticisms of Clark’s work. I contribute this to show that Steven Pinker took Gregory Clark’s work very seriously and so the book is well worth reading. Pinker rejects recent biological evolution though I think this is premature.

  4. Thomas,
    they’ve been around for about 100 million years despite lacking anything that humans might consider evidence of, well, human intelligence.
    And that’s why they still furtively creep around in the crevices and that is why I am at the moment enjoying the sublime beauty of Handel’s Messiah.
    (I like to play Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and then Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.)

    I had a good laugh at the way my comment could have been inadvertently interpreted. Gosh, there are so many pitfalls to be navigated. That is the penalty of intelligence, we have the luxury of imagining so many interpretations.

  5. DM,
    I side with you in one respect. We need to adopt a kind of playful willingness to entertain unusual ideas. The act of doing so develops a creative mindset and every now and then it also uncovers a wholly new approach we might have otherwise missed.

    Every fruitful discussion begins with a “What if…?” or a “Let’s just suppose for the sake of argument that…”, or “Have you ever considered the possibility that…?”, or “Why ever not…?”, or “let’s just consider that for a moment”.

  6. Massimo,

    first, my heart-felt condolences on the loss of your mother. The hurt is deep, and lasting. It surges, searing unexpectedly. It puts everything in question, and at the same time, it is liberating. It gives one courage to face one’s own future.

    If you achieved for her a good end in Italy, triple thumbs up to you. Not an easy task there.

    Positive eugenics is twenty years away, or so. “Cost of dying” is a present problem.

    Here is how it may play out: in the Canton where I live in Switzerland. a law in 1870 (!) determined that hospitals should be built “within half an hour horse ride of every citizen.” These hospitals were built. During WWII, underground hospitals were built underneath, in case the Germans would attack The Defense Department paid for and maintained them. So the landscape is strewn with “double” hospitals, akin to a game of cards where the king has opposite heads.

    Today, if there is some retrenchment in the public health sector, it is due to private competition. I suspect the number of beds/citizen has not declined. In fact, in order to make the hospital “attractive” more and more machines have been added. Once these structures are in place – and they are being readied NOW – there is an incentive to staff and use them, twenty years down the pike. The outcome is akin to Germany, where close to 50% of people die in hospital, rather than in their own bed. One calls it “path-dependent outcome.”

    In the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, privately funded hospices emerged in the 60s where people would go and die, under palliative care. They were very successful. These countries have the highest rating as “quality of end of life” and far less costs.

    You have here different, silent, cultures. If palliative care were offered in my country, many people would opt for this. Word of mouth would soon make these facilities popular. In Germany, the medical schools opposed introducing “palliative care” in the medical curriculum, let alone build structures.

    Rational discourse will solve little. The task is to make as many people as possible “comfortable” with the idea that they need to determine the quality of their end of life. How to achieve this is the challenge, given both institutional and religious opposition. But experience is all.

    Unfortunately, we don’t have here an easy enabler as the pill was in the 60s: young women started using it, and the mentality changed within a decade or less.

    I’m coming back, once more, to the need to change mentalities, rather than foregrounding rational discourse. Nothing wrong with it – just too slow.

  7. DM,
    If there is competition and no natural limit on supply, then market forces bring the price down, almost always.
    Yes, classic market theory with the unwritten assumption, “all other things being equal”.

    But all other things are seldom equal. Specifically, power lacks morality and inevitably acts to monopolize and maximise wealth by using all the social levers at its disposal. Classic market theory cannot and does not take into account the power, determination and intelligence that the powerful use to distort, manipulate and exploit the social system to its own ends. Right now Congress is a living demonstration of this truism.

  8. A few things (while remaining cognizant of not hijacking the thread):

    1. I did not think you were arguing from authority. Just observing that competing advocate lists doesn’t do much.
    2. Computationalism just bears too many burdens to survive them all. There are the specific problems, mostly having to do with the semantic content of mental states. But then, there are also the more fundamental problems that apply to Functionalist theories as a whole, and which thus, will also count against computationalism — problems with qualia; vacillation between “liberalism” and “chauvinism”; and the like. And finally, there is the even more fundamental problem that faces all varieties of Reductionism and, if one chooses to shrug those off and dive off the Churchland/Stich diving board, the worse problems facing Eliminative Materialism.
    3. I actually think that to a great degree, novelists and other writers of fiction have a far better insight into human nature–and especially, human weaknesses–than do philosophers, whose framework is impoverished by its excessive rationalism. Huxley’s warnings, then, are well-heeded and ignored at our peril.

  9. And yet prices do come down where they can come down. Almost without fail. I see no reason to think that genetic enhancement will be a special case.

    In fact, I suspect that once the knowledge is out there, this technology will be relatively trivial to implement. We can already do IVF in humans and manipulate genomes to our heart’s content in other organisms. The only thing stopping us is the knowledge of which genes to modify for which effects, and the will to actually do it.

    As such, the only thing that will keep prices high will be patents. As such, I’m for limiting patents, not technological progress.

  10. DM, when you write “human interests in mind,” you neglect the nuance of human “self-interest,” which of course is a matter of some contention the last time I was out and about.

    You may have read Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but perhaps you should also read, or perhaps reread, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” from which Huxley pulled his title with ironic intent. Huxley’s John the Savage is modeled on Caliban in “The Tempest.” You are correct in pointing out that fiction is neither evidence nor argument per se, but that is not its intent. Some are precautionary tales that are designed to foment political and ethical reflection. Take another look at Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” for example. It’s nothing like the popular movie. In many ways, fiction is elaborate thought experiment, or simulation if you prefer (Yes, computers simulate what humans simulate and have simulated for centuries both orally and in written form.) .

    You and I apparently have completely different mindsets when it comes to this issue. Believe me, I’m no Luddite, but your attitude leaves me nonplussed as if going from genetic modification of crops to genetic modification of humans were simply a question of degrees. No one here doubts that eugenics is feasible. It’s just some of us would rather not seem to characterize this issue as a sort of genetic botox, if for no other reason than our current experience with the abuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans. (BTW, “genetic enhancement” is a phrase worthy of an early morning infomercial. And “genetic destiny”? Careful now. Are you being teleological? Or are you suggesting some trial and error exercise disguised as what’s supposed as useful?)

  11. Hi Aravis,

    All topics worthy of discussion and debate, but perhaps not here.

    I don’t mind anyone saying that they think the case has been made against computationalism. I just take objection to dismissing computationalists as kooks. That kind of dismissal is really only warranted when you have a consensus on your side.

  12. He (and I) were dismissing transhumanists as kooks, not computationalists. Their computationalism is only one element and is only rendered kooky by fantasies about “uploading;”

  13. Massimo Pigliucci : (I’ve looked at the data (my previous job was as an evolutionary biologist, specializing on natural selection) and I fail to see the discrepancy you mention.
    “Only when 14% of the total population or more acquires a special trait, it will become a new trait for the species.”
    Where did you get that?)

    It is already obvious that the ‘evolving with intelligence’ is completely different from the ‘creation with intelligent design’, but let me make sure that there is no confusion on this here.

    Darwin’s theory was not only driving off the ‘Divine story’ but made great advancement on scientific concepts. But, I think that the nutshell of his theory (Chapter 4: Natural selection; or the survival of the fittest) is not scientific per se in the 21st century standard. His natural selection was not scientifically precisely defined. While he did separate the ‘domestic selection’ from the ‘natural selection’, there are many different forces in nature, and the ‘intelligence’ can definitely be a part of nature. The problem is that the ‘intelligent challenge’ is very different from the other nature challenges. And, the ‘intelligent responds’ are totally different from the ‘pre-challenge-fittest’ respond. In short, Darwinian Theory has two key features.
    One, the Darwinian challenge is ‘blind’.
    Two, the Darwinian respond is ‘mainly’ based on the ‘pre-challenge-fitness’, and it is only a ‘forward’ moving force. There is no reverse-gear.

    For an intelligent respond on a challenge (intelligent or otherwise), it might not be based on the ‘pre-challenge-fitness’ but must use a ‘retreat’ strategy, that is, abandoning its strong points. This ‘strong suit’ abandonment is the ‘source’ for the evolution of human-like intelligence which ‘requires’ a big mass of ‘non-specialized’ neurons (such as, the frontal lobe). Yet, there is no evidence of any kind for a Darwinian type of ‘challenge’ which invokes the development of ‘non-specialized’ neurons. One scenario is that it came from the accumulation of the abandoned (Layoff) ‘specialized’ neurons when the species gave up its many strong suits. Thus, the more intelligent species, in general, have less super specialized strong suits but can still sit at the top of the ecosystem. This fact is a clear evidence that the ‘backwards’ evolution strategy works (see http://sexevolution.wikia.com/wiki/Sexevolution_Wiki ).

    Then, Darwin did not formally address the ‘critical mass’ issue. For a given trait, what the % of the population must acquire it before it becomes a trait of the whole species? Without knowing this critical mass issue, the ‘evolution speed equation’ cannot be precisely defined. Obviously, even while the best weapon on fighting the challenge is developed, it will be useless if it is not learned and acquired by the members of the species.
    This critical mass can be computer-simulated in two ways.

    One, vaccination: when X% is vaccinated, 95% of the population will be protected. My rough calculation is that X = 65%.

    Two, extinction: when X% of the population is wiped out in time Y (species nature revival time), the species will extinct. Again, the X = 65%. Note: if the wipeout time is longer than the Y (nature revival time), the species has the chance to go into a new state.

    The two calculations above can be verified by computer-simulation. But, I would like to show a simplified theoretical calculation. While information is not reality itself, it is a very important ‘part’ of reality. This case is about the information transmission and preservation. How can an information be ‘preserved’ by a group, such as a species which has new born and deaths all the time? Obviously, the information must not just be kept by one or a few. One strategy is to break this information to n-pieces. So, the death of a big chunk of the population will not spell the loss of the information. Let this information as a ‘unit’ = one-square meter. Regardless of how this unit is breaking up into pieces, the information is not lost as long as we can regain the unit. Now, I am not going into the math details but just give the result. The re-integration of these pieces (as hyperbola function) is the sum of a logarithms equation (log x = 1), and x = e (2.718…). That is, by knowing the (1/e), we can regain the ‘unit’. In fact, the (1/e)^2 is enough, and this is the 14% all about.

  14. fowler,

    “But if you are, say, a construction worker would intelligence really be the trait you would most prize over, say, bodily flexibility or again physical strength… and wouldn’t those be the traits you would wish to pass onto your children?”

    I’m going to bet that the hypothetical construction worker would still prefer greater intelligence for his kids, because he would want them to have a better life than that of a construction worker.

    “we have the example from the article I posted above of a deaf family that want to select a deaf child”

    Yes, I’m aware of those examples and, frankly, I find them disturbing. Those are parents who willfully impose a disability on their child in order to keep him bound to their own community.

    DM,

    “This is an extraordinarily energy inefficient way to travel. The scarcity of fuel means that there is no reason that the price of this should go down. It should go up.”

    Sounds like entirely post hoc reasoning to me. I bet the designers and investors of supersonic planes made a different calculus…

    “But those standards are not a fixed target, and they are rising, so you’re comparing apples to oranges.”

    The idea that health care standards in the US is rising is more mythology than reality. And my point was that “costs” often have little to do with actual costs and more with how the system is set up. Usually, to augment profits at the expense of the quality of the product. But that’s a whole different discussion.

    “It’s never going to be cheap, again because it needs a lot of energy. The same is not true of genetic manipulation”

    I wonder where you get that. We are not talking about simple sequencing, which has indeed gotten much cheaper, we are talking medical intervention.

    “Well, for a start you can’t train a chimpanzee to think like a human, so intelligence clearly has something to do with genetics”

    Resorting to straw men, my friend? ;-)

    “They don’t have to act generously. If there is a demand for their services, then self-interest will motivate them to deliver”

    I am not a believer in benign selfishness.

    “My libertarian sympathies are showing”

    I noticed. But so are my libertarian antipathies…

    “modern technologies tend to be relatively recent developments. Come back to me in a hundred years and see if they haven’t been commodified.”

    But in a hundred years of eugenics we will likely have two different human species.

    “Frankly, I’d rather leave it the hands of humans than leave it to chance.”

    “It” has been in the hands of humans for a long time. What we are discussing now is putting it into the hands of a very small number of self-selected humans with very high purchasing power.

    “The only thing stopping us is the knowledge of which genes to modify for which effects, and the will to actually do it.”

    There is mounting evidence that the whole idea of “which genes affects which traits” is profoundly misleading, except in exceptional cases of genes with major effects.

    steven,

    “the “ethical” problem there is the old one of people discovering their preconceptions, then rephrasing those old prejudices in jargon.”

    I really think you are dismissing a number of serious ethical issues out of what I am inclined to think is misguided optimism about the ability of humanity to make wise decisions. See, for instance, the much more urgent problem of climate change.

    labnut,

    “Pinker rejects recent biological evolution though I think this is premature.”

    Biological evolution has never stopped, including in humans. But, honestly, I find the idea that the British middle class evolved genetically into the makers of the Industrial Revolution ludicrous — not to mention supported by zero data. I’m not a historian, but why not push things back just a bit, and claim that it was really the (genetic?) evolution of the French during the Enlightenment that triggered the whole thing? Or of the Florentines during the Renaissance?

    Aldo,

    “first, my heart-felt condolences on the loss of your mother”

    Thank you.

    “Rational discourse will solve little. The task is to make as many people as possible “comfortable” with the idea that they need to determine the quality of their end of life.”

    I think part of that goes through rational discourse.

    tienzengong,

    “Darwin’s theory was not only driving off the ‘Divine story’ but made great advancement on scientific concepts. But, I think that the nutshell of his theory (Chapter 4: Natural selection; or the survival of the fittest) is not scientific per se in the 21st century standard.”

    I think you are completely off base here. The Darwinian theory, and its central concept of natural selection, are as scientific as they come.

    “The problem is that the ‘intelligent challenge’ is very different from the other nature challenges.”

    I don’t know what this means.

    “This ‘strong suit’ abandonment is the ‘source’ for the evolution of human-like intelligence which ‘requires’ a big mass of ‘non-specialized’ neurons”

    Again, no idea where you are getting this from. Any link to peer reviewed literature?

    “For a given trait, what the % of the population must acquire it before it becomes a trait of the whole species?”

    I’m familiar with population genetics theory, and nowhere in that theory does that number come up. Same goes for your 14% calculation.

  15. Hi Massimo,

    I don’t expect you will be sending another round of replies, but I hope you read this anyway to better understand where I’m coming from.

    If my explanation of the cost of supersonic is post hoc, fair enough, but I’m not seeing too many examples of expensive technologies that are not explained by high running costs.

    “I bet the designers and investors of supersonic planes made a different calculus…”

    And if so they were wrong. The concorde no longer flies, after all. They realised that the costs would always be high, they just miscalculated on the demand. If it was within their power to reduce the price to stimulate demand, they surely would have done so. But they couldn’t, because it’s simply too expensive to run a supersonic jet.

    “The idea that health care standards in the US is rising is more mythology than reality.”

    Really? Even on the long term? Do you not think that healthcare is better now than it was fifty years ago? Do you seriously doubt that it will be better in another fifty years?

    “And my point was that “costs” often have little to do with actual costs and more with how the system is set up.”

    True. But the problem is with the system, not with technology, and if the technology is cheap enough to deploy then even the system cannot keep the cost to the consumer down forever.

    “I wonder where you get that.”

    An MRI needs a lot of energy to manufacture and maintain, particularly to keep a lot of liquid helium near absolute zero, but it is true that I was overestimating the running costs. From googling, it seems that a typical MRI machine in a hospital uses only the annual energy consumed by about eight households. I’m not sure if this is enough to account for the cost. There may be issues with the system also.

    “we are talking medical intervention.”

    The simplest case is not a medical intervention in the life of an existing person, but the genetic engineering of an unborn person. We already have the tech to do this and it is getting cheaper all the time. In particular, there are no significant costs in energy or material that I am aware of.

    “But in a hundred years of eugenics we will likely have two different human species.”

    I don’t see how. I doubt any proposed genetic intervention would seek to make the engineered genome incompatible with the existing genome, at least not for some time. There will be interbreeding. Sure, society may be a little bit stratified, but you don’t see the different castes in India separating into different species, do you? If that hasn’t happened in India in thousands of years, I don’t think it’s going to happen during the brief few decades when only the wealthy can afford genetic engineering. Also, the USA is not the whole world. Some countries have universal health care, and in those countries there will be no stratification. There is no reason to suppose that immigration and intermarriage between countries will not continue, so I think the idea of separation into two distinct species is extremely implausible.

    I don’t understand how you cannot believe in benign selfishness. Steve Jobs was not motivated by love for mankind when he designed the iPad, yet my life is in some small way improved by the enjoyment I get from using mine. I anticipate that the exploited workers in Shenzhen might be brought up, some of whom committed suicide. Yes, of course I would like to see better conditions for those workers, yet I find it hard to believe that the manufacture of iPads made their lives worse on average. They did not have to work there, after all. If those jobs didn’t exist, they would have found it even harder to survive. To be clear, that does not mean that I condone exploitation. I would prefer to see fair wages. But exploitation may be better than no work at all.

    The same is true for all the products of industry and the services which improve my life in all kinds of small ways. I’m not saying there are no issues with capitalism, but to assume that the powerful will always act in ways to harm the powerless is to ignore the truth that it is often in the interests of the powerful to do otherwise.

    Finally, my comment about chimpanzees is not a straw man, because I know you agree with me that the differences between humans and chimpanzees come down to genes. It would be a strawman if I assumed you did not. So if the differences in intelligence between humans and chimps have a genetic basis, it seems reasonable to extrapolate that the right genes could provide the potential for genius. I’m not claiming the mapping is straightforward or even that we will ever understand it. I am only postulating that there is some genome in the space of possible genomes that allows for more intelligence than humans currently exhibit. This does not seem to me to be an extravagant assumption. The alternative would be to assume that humans are already at the pinnacle of what biological intelligence can achieve, which seems unlikely to me.

  16. I’ve read fiction that both supports and warns about ideas such as transhumanism. It’s all good for providing food for thought and making the issues more vivid. I just think that at this point no fiction is likely to change my mind on these issues because I’ve already given them plenty of thought.

    I have read Brave New World, but not the Tempest. As noted on a previous thread, I don’t personally have much time for Shakespeare. My view is that Shakespeare is likely a genius but that there exist more accessible modern writers of comparable talent, so my time is better spent on them.

    By “genetic destiny”, I mean nothing more than whatever our genome happens to end up like in the distant future. I’m not being teleological.

  17. For those readers interested in film and fiction that explore the issues of genetics, see this site:

    http://www.literatureandgenetics.org/rating.php

  18. The Tempest is quite an easy read–I read it in ninth grade–and speaks directly to many of the issues raised in this thread. It was a major influence on Huxley in writing Brave New World–not just with respect to the title–and the character of the Savage is meant not just to draw elements from Caliban, but from Miranda, as well.

    Your dismissal of this literature as undeserving of your “better spent time” strikes me as part of the problem, as does your prior remarks about literature and other arts “not providing evidence.”
    Indeed, it brings to mind some of the themes of the other discussion on Scientism. Our writers of fiction and other fine artists are often our *best* source of understanding and wisdom, on the subject of the human condition, not some mere, ancillary commentary, and I would argue that the questions raised by movements like Transhumanism are more substantially–and more usefully–addressed via these avenues than by way of the sciences or philosophy.

  19. DM,
    I agree with you that genetic mixing will quickly happen(for reasons I gave earlier) and that the scenario of two human races is just plain catastrophizing. Separation into species mainly happens when there is strong geographic isolation, preventing genetic mixing. Today technology promotes the opposite, very high mobility, and this will certainly result in genetic mixing.

    I also agree that your comment about chimpanzees was not a strawman. The point you were trying to make was perfectly obvious. You used deliberate overstatement to give your opinion some dramatic weight, a useful rhetorical technique.

    Hey, how many times do you and I agree? This is glasnost!

    Massimo’s general point is that the link between human traits like intelligence, criminality. sociability, etc and genetics is weak. He uses the same argument in reply to my reference to A Farewell From Arms. Gregory Clark has done a lot of careful research and his arguments are worth considering carefully. That begins with reading the book(as Steven Pinker did), failing that one should adopt a more nuanced approach..

    The reply is very simple, today we know far too little to prove the point one way or the other. Science inexorably moves forward and we will discover the connection between genetics and intelligence. When that happens we will begin selecting for higher intelligence.

    Massimo lists several concerns, implicit coercion, unintended consequences, mistakes, malign market forces, unequal access and separation of species and I agree with some of them. Though I think he missed the most important ethical argument and I will deal with that in my next comment.

    He accepts the inevitability of the process and as the solution he advocates tight regulation. My reply was that one highly regulated industry, banking, demonstrated the inadequacy of tight regulations. I could have added the pharmaceutical industry to that list. Massimo replied that we have successful regulation in other areas, such as water standards. I thought that was a poor comparison as it is an exponentially simpler area with easily measured outcomes.

    Complying with regulations proceeds in two ways, one very effective and the other ineffective, motivation and compulsion. The first is by way of virtue ethics supplying an intrinsic motivation. The other way is by external compulsion which is the way the regulations work today. We have seen again and again, in high reward areas, that people are prepared to bend or evade regulations. Make no mistake, eugenics will be a very high reward area. Massimo makes the facile assumption that somehow, magically, people will suddenly start to adhere to regulations. Why should we believe that? In the Great Recession only one banker was punished with a jail sentence, some compulsion!

  20. DM,
    I just think that at this point no fiction is likely to change my mind on these issues because I’ve already given them plenty of thought.
    That is a terrible admission to make. We should always leave our minds open to the possibility of new understanding.
    Thomas’ general point is that fiction is a perceptive and imaginative commentary that helps us to see the problem in new lights. I agree completely with him.

  21. DM, you might be interested in seeing what our favourite non-philosopher physicist has to say about AI: “Stephen Hawking: ‘Transcendence looks at the implications of artificial intelligence – but are we taking AI seriously enough?” (http://ind.pn/1i3aWlU)

    I think that Steven Hawking is right in that this is the immediate and most compelling problem we should be looking at. I think he is wrong in that machines will never achieve consciousness. But I know you and I are on the opposite sides of that argument!

  22. Hi Aravis,

    Time spent reading Shakespeare is time not spent reading some other wonderful author, someone equally understanding and equally wise, but more up to speed with the modern world and less littered with pop culture references for a sixteenth century audience.

    The more Shakespeare influenced Huxley, the more I don’t need to read him, as I have already been exposed to the ideas by reading Huxley.

    I am not dismissing fiction, or even Shakespeare. I’m just explaining that I would prefer to spend my time reading modern fiction that I can relate to more easily. Shakespeare does not have a monopoly on insight.

    And by commenting that it doesn’t provide evidence, I am not saying that it should. I am saying that I would personally be more responsive to actual arguments than instructions to read this or that work of fiction. Works of fiction tend only to be impressive if you agree with the fundamental premises the author draws on. As such, I don’t find Brave New World terribly convincing. If you do, then of course you will find it compelling, but it’s not going to persuade someone who is not predisposed to see things in this way. As such, I don’t really recommend that you read Iain M. Banks, despite the fact that he is my favourite author, because I just don’t think he will resonate with you.

  23. Yes, I actually found this a rather shocking admission on DM’s part – a statement of purposeful close-mindedness.

    I teach courses in my philosophy department, in which all the readings are works of literature. Novels I have used include Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” Wells’ “Time Machine,” Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” Philip K. Dick’s “Scanner Darkly” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” just to name a few.

    I have found them equally or more effective than purely philosophical texts in teaching substantial philosophical topics, whether personal identity, freewill and determinism, selfishness and altruism, the nature of mind, or what have you. Not only do they provide compelling frameworks within which to discuss these issues in a philosophical way, they more often than not provide penetrating wisdom on the subjects themselves.

    The subject we are discussing–eugenics, transhumanism, and the uses and abuses of science and technology more generally, often have been most fruitfully addressed in the literary canon. To exclude it, in favor of a purely philosophical curriculum, is to willfully narrow one’s vision and to deny oneself and one’s students some of our deepest resources, on these crucial issues.

  24. DM, our other favourite non-philosopher physicist is still gleefully demonstrating his ignorance: “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine The popular television host says he has no time for deep, philosophical questions. That’s a horrible message to send to young scientists.“(http://bit.ly/1j7GA78)

  25. Hi labnut,

    “That is a terrible admission to make. We should always leave our minds open to the possibility of new understanding.”

    Who said my mind isn’t open? Presented with a good enough argument, I’m sure my mind could be changed.

    I’m just making a probabilistic judgement, based on familiarity with my own thinking and past exposures to works of fiction of this kind (i.e. other works of Shakespeare’s and Brave New World), that it is unlikely that my mind would be changed, and it is unlikely that I would get much out of it. Since I have a finite amount of time available, I therefore choose to spend it on other things.

    If you and Aravis insist, perhaps I may read The Tempest after all, but I really think it would be a waste of my time. If I’m wrong I’ll let you know.

  26. I’m insisting on no such thing. Indeed, I would *not* read it, going in with the mindset you currently have. You will get nothing out of it, as a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    With respect to your response to a different comment of mine, that you are so fixated on evidence and arguments and so little concerned with *wisdom* strikes me as another part of the problem. Your approach to this subject is essentially technocratic in nature, and it is one that I believe is incredibly dangerous, when dealing with issues of this sort of paradigm-breaking significance.

  27. Again, Aravis, I’m not dismissing fiction. I think fiction is great. I just prefer Banks to Shakespeare. What’s wrong with that?

    Arguments help where fiction does not where the author is drawing on premises you disagree with. If you read fiction that’s based on a fundamentally different world view, it is alienating and frustrating, not eye-opening. Reading racist fiction from the nineteenth century will not turn a modern reader into a racist, it will just piss her off.

    Fiction is like a good slogan. It’s emotive, vivid and moving and can get you to think about things in new ways, but fundamentally it’s just an assertion, and if you disagree with it then it’s not going to achieve anything. Arguments at least help you see where the other person’s reasoning comes from and have the potential of spotting gaps in your own thought process.

  28. I wrote “the ‘ethical’ problem there is the old one of people discovering their preconceptions, then rephrasing those old prejudices in jargon.”

    Prof. Piglucci responded “I really think you are dismissing a number of serious ethical issues out of what I am inclined to think is misguided optimism about the ability of humanity to make wise decisions. See, for instance, the much more urgent problem of climate change.”

    It was a short comment that still managed to raise three red flags. First, the implication that the difficulties in finding the truth instead of elaborately confirming one’s preconceptions are so small that citing them as the main problem is equivalent to dismissing it? Words fail me. All I can say is that this is wildly wrong. Trying to understand, for example, “intelligence,” is actually much harder than a discussion of the ethics positively engineering intelligence in humans, precisely because the latter skips the hard part. Turning it around another way, what he’s saying is that philosophical arguments are both more pertinent and more persuasive than the facts about feasibility. This is the dismissive (and extreme) assertion.

    The second red flag is the misrepresentation about my “optimism” about the ability of humanity to make wise decisions. I didn’t express any. In fact my remark about the military assumed the opposite, that the military would make unwise decisions that harmed soldiers. For that reason, I think the real issue is his pessimism about the ability of humanity to find scientific knowledge. Prof. Piglucci essentially feels that we cannot justify laws against genetic engineering experiments on humans aimed at increasing “intelligence,” (to stick with the previous example,) on the scientific grounds that “intelligence” simply is not a scientifically valid genetic trait.

    The third red flag is the red herring of climate change.

    labnut wrote “Massimo’s general point is that the link between human traits like intelligence, criminality. sociability, etc and genetics is weak. He uses the same argument in reply to my reference to A Farewell From Arms. Gregory Clark has done a lot of careful research and his arguments are worth considering carefully. That begins with reading the book(as Steven Pinker did), failing that one should adopt a more nuanced approach.”

    No, Clark is not worth considering carefully, unless you’ve never really thought about any issues of genetic determinism etc. before. If by some odd chance or youthfulness, this is your first introduction, perhaps it could serve as a negative example. Evolutionary psychologists will clearly claim that the Standard Social Science Model is wrong, that people are not blank slates, and that unknown genes create unlocatable brain modules that lead to, probabilistically speaking, hereditary personality traits that determine the shape of a society. More or less as the structure of ionic bonds determine the type of crystal formed, I suppose.

    First, none of these propositions are correct in the way which the evolutionary psychologists claim. Second, Clark in particular cannot establish that the so-called bourgeois virtues have the causal power he attributes. He can’t even establish that it wasn’t aristocratic virtues that had the causal power, even if you accept that personal traits determine society in a linear process. Third, Pinker is not reliable, i.e., is cracked or crooked. For the first and simplest check, ask yourself, what is Pinker’s field? Linguistics? Cognitive science? Psychology? History? It is notorious that scientists working out of field are as a group not one bit more reliable than the man on the street.

    Here’s a specific, short example of the differences in an honest effort at social science and the kind of thing Pinker is into. Pinker supports the thesis of A Natural History of the Ashkenazi, which is that Ashkenazi were selected for intelligence, which was reproductively successful despite the increased genetic load of lethal recessives that have been identified in Ashkenazi populations. For an example of real social science at work, in contrast to the straw man that Pinker pilloried in The Blank Slate, try this link:http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/sites/fasn/files/How%20Jews%20Became%20Smart%20(2008).pdf

    I’ll leave it to you to find Natural History on your own.

  29. From the article “This paper was researched and written from March 2006 through January 2007. In February 2007 it was submitted to an anthropology journal, and in December it was rejected. It became clear that this paper was simply unpublishable in anything like its present form

  30. Your characterization of literature as being “like a good slogan” or an “assertion” is quite wrong, not to mention impoverished and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the uses of literature to philosophical inquiry and understanding. Reading this, it is unsurprising to me that you think in the technocratic manner I indicated earlier.

    Gilbert Ryle’s piece on Jane Austen is a nice beginning to understanding the usefulness of literature to philosophical inquiry–and human inquiry more generally, but it is just a beginning.

    http://www.logicmatters.net/resources/pdfs/JaneAusten.pdf

    The journal “Philosophy and Literature” is a good resource, with deep archives.

  31. I’ll take a look, Aravis.

    Incidentally, I’m a big fan of Austen’s.

  32. Steven said, an earlier post,
    As should be obvious I believe the practical limits to positive eugenics will remove for quite some time the problems .entailed by success in deep modifications.Thus I don’t think the ethics involved with redesigning the human organism are terribly important.

    You seem to be saying that, since we cannot, for the moment, overcome the practical problems of eugenics, that the ethics of eugenics is not terribly important, for the time being.

    There I disagree. It would seem to me that now is the best time. We should be actively thinking through the ethics problems well beforehand so that we can anticipate them and not be surprised by them.

    The main ethical issue involved with the grandiose notions is the problem of justifying human experimentation in a vain project aimed at achieving a scientifically undefinable goal. But the “ethical” problem there is the old one of people discovering their preconceptions, then rephrasing those old prejudices in jargon.

    I agree that testing genetic changes is an important ethical problem and that is a useful contribution from you. But your following sentence is difficult to parse: “the “ethical” problem there is the old one of people discovering their preconceptions, then rephrasing those old prejudices in jargon.

    What do you mean by this? Are you dismissing ethical concerns as prejudices rephrased in jargon?

  33. Hi Aravis,

    Looking at that paper, I find myself in agreement with pretty much all of it, yet find my views unchanged. As such, I think you misunderstand my views.

    I think you’re probably reading “slogan” or “assertion” as more of a denigration than it needs to be. A good work of literature illustrates, informs, sticks in the mind, and makes vivid an attitude about the world. But a good slogan or well-phrased assertion does the same thing. As it says in that paper, the message of “Emma” can be captured succinctly by the slogan “Proper solicitude is open and not secret”. Now that is wonderful if you agree with that message but if for some reason you disagree then Emma will likely not work for you.

    I think that to appreciate my point you need to consider not only literature that agrees with you but literature that disagrees with you. The most well-written work of literature in the world, if written from a transhumanist point of view, will only irritate you unless you are first persuaded that this point of view is legitimate. Literature requires suspension of disbelief in a way that argument does not, and when the worldview it presents discords with your own, that suspension is not possible. So a moving and powerful work about the prejudice encountered by the first post-uploading person will not persuade you to think kindly on transhumanism because you will reject it out of hand as a work based on a nonsensical premise. This is to some extent like my reaction to Brave New World (although I do think there are some good ideas within it so it wasn’t all that bad).

    All that said, I think maybe there could be examples of literature builds from a set of premises that the reader agrees with so slowly and masterfully throughout the course of the work so as to lead the reader to a new worldview altogether. I’m sure this has happened for some people, but no examples spring to mind in my own life.

    I will say that Neal Stephenson’s Anathem caused me to think a lot about various metaphysical issues that eventually led me to the MUH, but I don’t think that was leading me to change my mind about something so much as making me think about issues I had not properly considered before. I also first encountered the idea of mind uploading in fiction, but my initial reaction was to regard it as absurd. It was later reflection and not the fiction itself that led me to accept is as a reasonable possibility.

  34. There has been some pushback regarding Massimo’s statement regarding “species,” specifically his comment, “But in a hundred years of eugenics we will likely have two different human species.”

    I didn’t particularly find this statement controversial given the topic of the post, and in the movie Gattaca the common perception of the inhabitants is tantamount to such a distinction (the euphemistic terms “valids” and “in-valids”). He is, after all, both a biologist and a philosopher and probably has good reason to make such a statement. But, for those interested, the is an entry in SEP regarding this controversial subject here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/species/

  35. Oh, forgot to mention that Massimo is cited in the article.

  36. Link to Ferguson: http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/sites/fasn/files/How%20Jews%20Became%20Smart%20(2008).pdf
    (Repeated, as the above does not seem to work. If this is a problem in this website, google “How Jews Became Smart + Brian Ferguson” I found a working link in the metapedia references, for example.)

    “This paper was researched and written from March 2006 through January 2007. In
    February 2007 it was submitted to an anthropology journal, and in December it was rejected. It
    became clear that this paper was simply unpublishable in anything like its present form. It is well
    over twice the length of a standard journal article, yet nowhere near a book. It is long because
    NHAI involves numerous claims about population genetics, neurobiology, psychology, and
    history, and an adequate critique must adequately cover all those areas. Another problem is the
    multidisciplinary character of this essay, and the single disciplinary character of reviewers. A
    population geneticist (apparently) said there should be more about population genetics, while
    curtailing the rest. An anthropologist (apparently) said it should focus on the anthropological
    literature criticizing genetic explanations (even though this article is an example of just that).
    Also, positions are very polarized. One reviewer said I did not recognize the strengths of NHAI,
    while another said that population geneticists regard it as obviously false, so that it may not merit
    such a published response.”

    I’m afraid I found your excerpt misleading.

    “Are you dismissing ethical concerns as prejudices rephrased in jargon?” No. I am trying to highlight one particular concern from the work ethic of science. It is difficult when studying nature, man and society to be object. I think it is pretty much a waste of time to contemplate ethical concerns before the science is clear. For an imaginary example, teasing out whether it would be ethical for humanity to engineer a genetic improvement which makes monogamy an instinct is more or less science fiction, in the ethics as well as the science. (By the way, this example came from George Turner’s Genetic Soldier.)

    We need to know objectively whether monogamy is in fact the natural, even if imperfect state. The overriding ethical issue is whether scientists can keep themselves from merely constructing elaborate rationalizations. And as a matter of practical ethics, we would also need a profound knowledge of what the consequences, good or bad, of a “perfected” monogamy would really be. And there again, we have the ethical necessity to be objective, rather than inadvertently disguising the assumption that monogamy is good as an objectively measurable and/or predictable consequence, good or bad.

    I am well aware that there have been precious justifications for social practice found, except that substantively people are pretty much equal. I think that fact could have such profound ethical consquences that all by itself it is possibly enough. But the negative result that many, many social practices upheld today are no more justifiable by reference to objective necessity, implies that sanctions to enforce them are arrangements that can be changed. I think that too has enormous implications for social and political life.

    If it were accepted it was possible to reasonably disprove the existence of God (any flavor,) every view of ethics or morals as how people relate to God would have a different status. Only views of morals as questions of how people treat other people would be regarded as debatable ppropositions, instead of mere impositions. Also, pervasive awareness of variability in ppopulations rules out demands for uniformity in many contexts. Equally, pervasive awareness oof objective limits to precision and accuracy rules out every proposition dependent upon uunattainable certainty.

    Fortunately, or not, those who struggle against scientism, have more or less won the day. Science, it is commonly agreed, cannot pronounce on these matters and it is a menace to humanity when it presumes to usurp the place of theology, philosophy and law. There are other ways of knowing or understanding or being concerned or whatever, so that logical analysis or personal authority or divine authority (according to taste of course,) can tell us about our social and political world.

  37. Massimo Pigliucci: (“The problem is that the ‘intelligent challenge’ is very different from the other nature challenges.”
    I don’t know what this means.
    “This ‘strong suit’ abandonment is the ‘source’ for the evolution of human-like intelligence which ‘requires’ a big mass of ‘non-specialized’ neurons”
    Again, no idea where you are getting this from. Any link to peer reviewed literature?)

    This is truly a very complicated issue, involving ‘individual/species/environment’. As Darwin said himself, “… This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.” A brevity indeed, a bit too brevity, as it consists of a least 10 different descriptions (one of which is as a source for adaptation and speciation). But, my previous comment was more focus on the ‘challenge’ (types of challenge) and the ‘responds’ on the ‘species’ level.

    Let me make the issue simpler, just talking about the ‘human’ evolution only, without considering any other branches. There should be two facts.
    One, we human today has an intelligent brain.
    Two, we human has a pre, pre, pre-human history, and the ppp-human had a brain much, much less-intelligent than ours.

    All I want to know is how the ppp-human (and I don’t care about any other species) ‘transformed’ his brain to ours. While I am looking for the advices from others, I gave my ‘opinion’ on this with three points.
    First, the current human-like intelligence arises from a pile of ‘non-specialized’ neuron mass (see http://www.prequark.org/inte001.htm ).

    Second, this pile of ‘non-specialized’ neuron mass arises from ‘the strong suit abandonment’ process (an intelligent choice), a bit different from the ‘natural selection’.

    Three, this ‘strong suit abandonment’ process can be achieved easier by ‘sex’-mechanism (not sexual selection).

  38. “Evolutionary psychologists will clearly claim that the Standard Social Science Model is wrong, that people are not blank slates, and that unknown genes create unlocatable brain modules that lead to, probabilistically speaking, hereditary personality traits that determine the shape of a society.”

    Unclear which evolutionary psychologists you have in mind here. Names and direct citations?

    “Hereditary personality traits that determine the shape of a society”.

    That seems like a pretty loaded statement.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that the prominent research program that travels under the name evolutionary psychology (the one sometimes referred to with capital-E and capital-P) does not claim that the genes underlying psychological adaptations, whatever those adaptations are, are in principle unknowable.

    The same argument against evolutionary psychologists that states that their findings are rendered invalid on account of a present inability to locate the molecular-genetic underpinnings of postulated psychological adaptations could be used, for example, to undercut general relativity, on account, for instance, of not knowing about the manner in which gravity is mediated by sub-atomic particles. True, the graviton, for instance, has been postulated as filling the role, but its existence still lacks empirical support.

    So, it seems that unless one is willing to oust extant scientific explanations like general relativity that lack a reductive account in terms of lower-level physical entities/processes, one cannot also oust evolutionary-psychological explanations for no other reason than because they currently lack a reductive explanation in terms of the underlying molecular-gentic basis of psychological adaptations.

    The same style of argumentation, inter alia, applies to the charge that evolutionary psychology traffics in “unlocatable brain modules”.

    “Clark in particular cannot establish that the so-called bourgeois virtues have the causal power he attributes. He can’t even establish that it wasn’t aristocratic virtues that had the causal power, even if you accept that personal traits determine society in a linear process.”

    How about comparative model assessment, whereby, in this case, one develops a competing model to Clark’s and then directly evaluates the relative merits of each model to account for the target phenomena to be explained?

  39. In outline, Massimo mentioned the following moral problems of eugenics,
    1) Possibility of coercion or implicit coercion by the state,
    2) Risks of unintended consequences,
    3) Risks of altering the collective genome by the scientifically illiterate/irresponsible/unethical,
    4) Distortions introduced by malign market forces such as manufactured demand,
    5) Unequal access will privilege the rich,
    6) Can increase inequality and discrimination,
    7) And in the extreme case can lead to the formation of two unequal species.

    I think that is a good statement of the ethical concerns but I want to emphasize (6), the dangers of increasing inequality and discrimination. We have come a long way towards accepting plurality and variety. We have been learning to abandon discriminative attitudes and this has to be one of the landmark moral achievements of the last few decades. If we allow eugenics to select for highly desirable traits we will be directly reversing this trend. By marking certain traits as highly desirable we are adversely judging those who do not possess the traits. Eugenics will inevitably increase inequality and feed into discriminative attitudes. The lucky possessors of the designer traits will feel selected and special. The remainder will feel resentful towards their parents and society for consigning them to an undeserved fate. This can turn into a social disaster.

    To this list I want to add another moral consideration, that of natural fairness. Eugenics will violate our deeply ingrained concept of natural fairness. Consider, as an example, that we will not tolerate chemical enhancement of sporting performance. This illustrates our concept of natural fairness. What if instead someone has his sporting performance enhanced by tailoring his genome? Will we still admit this super-fast runner to the competition? Would it be a fair competition? How would this be different to chemical enhancement through the use of drugs? Life is intensely competitive and the competition is already unfair because of unequal backgrounds or circumstances. But we remain deeply committed to making the competition more fair and equal. Genetic tailoring will mean a reversal of this principle.

    So I am strongly opposed to eugenics on the grounds it will increase discriminatory attitudes and violate our sense of natural fairness. The only solution I can see is that we clearly distinguish between genetic changes to prevent medical problems (corrective genetic changes) and genetic changes to enhance human traits. The former should be allowed and the latter should be banned outright. I know that any ban is porous but at least it will greatly limit the damage.

  40. For a basic introduction to the ideas underlying EP, consult Cosmides & Tooby Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer https://www.google.com/search?q=tooby+and+cosmides+primer&oq=toob&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j69i59j0l4.14213j0j8&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=93&ie=UTF-8

    For an example of what this sort of thing really means in practice, Pinker’s Better Angels or Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence or King’s A Farewell to Alms have already been mentioned. But you might want to add Natural History of Rape. I suppose the cumulative embarrassment might have led the supposedly reputable EPs to emphasize adaptations for the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness.) You can consult Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy for a corrective.

    The whole point to EP is that there really is a universal human nature, genetically determined. EP ignores the universal findings of all social science for generations that people really do differ from one culture to another, without even pretending to have an answer for the puzzling question of why there are different cultures. If EP has an explanation other than the obvious default, differential distribution of genes for personality, you tell me what it is.

    Seriously, tell me, I really have overlooked it. I have never found an instance where EP attributed any causal power to anything other than individual psychology. A healthy chunk of Better Angels is devoted to Pinker’s “theory” that the criminality of black men is due to their psychological needs for “rough justice.” The obvious starting point, from a social science perspective, whether black men really are so criminal, is not even on the EP radar.

    Also, I would have to disagree that EP allows in principle that genes or neural tissues might be identified as the mechanisms for their “propensities,” because never finding any genes or neural structures is not considered a problem. Also, EP is announced to be completely different from behavioral genetics. EP is pretty much sealed off from any confrontation with anything but its own premises. So far as I can tell, EP doesn’t even confront empirical data from the social sciences, contenting itself with a dismissal of the Blank Slate. No, that book by Donald Brown does not count! I think you should deem this a symptom of pseudoscience or ideology.

    “How about comparative model assessment, whereby, in this case, one develops a competing model to Clark’s and then directly evaluates the relative merits of each model to account for the target phenomena to be explained?” Is the implication supposed to be that since the different simulations can be compared, then the theory is testable, maybe even falsifiable? And King (and EP etc.) is genuinely scientific and serious and should be addressed? Well, to start with, I don’t think King or any one else could actually program models to carry out simulation. And if we are to interpret this as argument to best explanation, I think the idea that being thrifty makes you wealthy prima facie is not a best explanation. I’m sorry, I think King is a kind of ironic joke on an academia and society that is still permeated with bad science jargon that covers up old racist ideas.

  41. stevenjohnson,

    Well, firstly, the paper by Cochran et al. (on Ashkenazi intelligence) does not pertain to evolutionary psychology in the same sense that Tooby and Cosmides define evolutionary psychology. Whereas Cochran et al. were discussing possible group differences resulting from selective pressures that possibly differed (in this case, relatively recently, evolutionarily-speaking), Tooby and Cosmides focus on species-typical psychological adaptations. Secondly, Clark’s book, A Farewell to Alms, while evolutionarily-oriented, is, like Cochran et al.’s work, also focused on possible group differences resulting from selection pressures that possibly differed. Hence, it is wrong to conflate the projects by Cochran et al., and Clark, with the project of Tooby, Cosmides, and other (upper-case) Evolutionary Psychologists. They are broadly compatible, though different in emphases.

    As for Thornhill and Palmer’s book, A Natural History of Rape, they were careful and did not come to a univocal conclusion as to whether rape is an adaptation. If I recall correctly, both authors actually disagreed in their respective conclusions.

    “The whole point to EP is that there really is a universal human nature, genetically determined. EP ignores the universal findings of all social science for generations that people really do differ from one culture to another, without even pretending to have an answer for the puzzling question of why there are different cultures.”

    Do Evolutionary Psychologists really ignore cultural variability? I don’t think that they do. And I think it’s wrong to claim that they do not advance a framework for explaining that variability (see below).

    “If EP has an explanation other than the obvious default, differential distribution of genes for personality, you tell me what it is.”

    There are a number of possibilities for explaining individual differences in personality from the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology.

    A useful overview can be found in the recent volume edited by Buss and Hawley:

    http://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-evolution-of-personality-and-individual-differences-9780195372090;jsessionid=4689312757FFE1777B3FCC42DF416A24?cc=ca&lang=en&

    Another, shorter, overview with a different emphasis is this Tooby and Cosmides paper:

    http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/jpersonality.pdf

    For recent successful and quite fascinating empirical tests of Tooby and Cosmides’ view on personality differences, see the following two papers:

    http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/LukaszewskiRoney2011_Extraversion.pdf

    http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/2013Lukaszewski_TraitCovariation.pdf

    “A healthy chunk of Better Angels is devoted to Pinker’s “theory” that the criminality of black men is due to their psychological needs for “rough justice.” The obvious starting point, from a social science perspective, whether black men really are so criminal, is not even on the EP radar.”

    I think it’s pretty clear from the statistical evidence that rates of criminal behavior in black men are greater than the rates found in men of other groups (e.g., http://colorofcrime.com/colorofcrime2005.pdf ). What explains that increased criminality, however, is a separate matter. Pinker’s hypothesis is reasonable, in my view.

    “Also, I would have to disagree that EP allows in principle that genes or neural tissues might be identified as the mechanisms for their “propensities,” because never finding any genes or neural structures is not considered a problem.”

    As I mentioned before, it is not considered a problem in the same way it is not considered a problem for, say, general relativity. That is, one can investigate the nature and origins of psychological adaptations apart from their neurobiological and molecular-genetic bases in the same way in which one can investigate general relativity without reference to the graviton (say). To use another example, virtually every psychological and behavioral trait ever measured is heritable to some degree, and we know this even independently of the molecular-genetic bases and or causal explanations for such heritable traits. Evolutionary Psychologists, insofar as they postulate the existence of psychological adaptations, expect that the molecular-genetic and neurobiological bases for them can in principle be identified (at least over the long-haul).

    “And if we are to interpret this as argument to best explanation, I think the idea that being thrifty makes you wealthy prima facie is not a best explanation. I’m sorry, I think King is a kind of ironic joke on an academia and society that is still permeated with bad science jargon that covers up old racist ideas.”

    I was following you until you insinuated that Clark’s work was “racist”. In the interests of impartial investigation, I suggest you refrain from leveling ad hominem attacks at those you might disagree with and instead focus on the nuts of bolts of their arguments and evidence. Have you perchance read A Farwell to Alms?

  42. When the course of events make diversion desirable, perhaps Prof. Piglucci could revisit the topic of new eugenics at a slightly different angle, what ethics has to tell us about sex determination of offspring? This does lead directly to discussion of any ethical issues connected to population growth rates. (Yet does not strictly speaking lead to the topic of abortion, which is old eugenics tech, no?)

  43. Reminds me of a certain episode in one of my favorite webcomics: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/2001-02-11

  44. Doing a word count. The most frequent words in this essay are, after philosophy:

    Philosophical
    Religious
    View/Religion
    Discipline
    One

    I always say – the question is answered by it’s asking.

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