Current Events

Eugenics: Problem?

Is the “real” problem with eugenics the principle, or the coercion?

A provocative essay by my Duke colleague Jonathan Anomaly….

The heritability of physical and psychological traits is not generally disputed among behavioral geneticists or evolutionary biologists. Indeed, the very equations we use to forecast the effectiveness of breeding programs depend partly on the heritability of traits, and those equations apply as much to people as they do to plants. It is no great secret why commentators and scientists dutifully avoid this topic, though. To discuss breeding in any organism besides humans is merely academic, but to toss Homo sapiens into the mix is to harken back to the horrors of eugenics. Fear of this topic (and disgust towards it) is understandable. At the same time, it seems reasonable to try to parse out why people initially thought it important to be concerned with human breeding, and also how that concern was mistakenly translated into atrocity and murder.

A response.

A response to the response.

  • Phil Magness

    I’ll bite on this one, and argue that the problem with eugenics is in fact the underlying principle. Eugenics is premised upon an belief that we may accurately discern highly specific hereditary causality from largely general perceptions, and then act consistently upon those perceptions in a way that “designs” a workaround to certain expected outcomes – including subjectively evaluated outcomes. Whether this is done coercively or voluntarily, it still rests upon an aggressive belief in the efficacy of planning in an instance where accurate and full knowledge is necessarily difficult to come by, costly to obtain, and complex beyond even our most generous capabilities of understanding.

    It is therefore difficult for me to see how even voluntary eugenics would not succumb to a number of the same afflictions that we see at play in most attempts of economic planning. Direct evidence of this may be seen in the history of the eugenic movement, which – for all its pretenses of being able to accurately “plan” heredity using the best available scientific knowledge – became a magnet for pseudoscientific quackery and the persons who invested in the same. Variations of this affliction remain whether the eugenic approach being advocated was of the type they termed “negative,” generally meaning coerced, or “positive,” referring to the voluntary instances. In this sense, where coerced eugenics suffers from the problems we might expect to see in command-style regulatory planning, so-called voluntary eugenics is more akin to regulatory “nudging.”

    • Anomaly

      I think a lot depends on how you define “eugenics”: if it just means that we should create children with qualities that we care about, it is something we should obviously strive for as individuals (through mate selection, embryo selection, and possibly eventually genetic engineering), though probably not something states should have much of a say in. But if eugenics is taken to imply (contra my wishes, and Galton’s), a state-directed program that presupposes benevolent bureaucrats with tons of information that they’ll use wisely, then eugenics is evil.

      I take it your point is that even we agree that eugenics would be a good idea in principle, in practice individual parents will not be able to navigate the complex information needed to make wise choices. Point taken. But I take this to be a call for epistemic humility and caution, not a moral principle. For moral reasons, many people rightly already try to avoid having children too late if doing so increases various genetic mutations, some screen partners for serious disorders like Tay Sachs (and most who have embryos with this disease abort), and many people — consciously or not — partly choose their partners on the basis of qualities they think their children might have.

      I agree with your skepticism about applying eugenic principles, especially in the political realm. And share your worries about poorly informed parents. But the moral principles behind eugenics, I think, are hard to disagree with.

    • Sean II

      The central fault in central planning is the calculation problem – the idea that certain key inputs are not just unknown but unknowable.

      There is no equivalent problem in eugenics…which really ought to kill the whole analogy.

      Now I suppose you could say “eugenics is like central planning, minus the calculation problem”. But that would be really weird, akin to saying “X is like cancer, minus the uncontrolled cell growth”. Yeah, in other words…not like it at all?

      The next line of retreat takes you to “eugenics is like central planning, in the sense that the former could go wrong while the latter invariably does”, but that seems even weirder. Why not just compare eugenics to something else that could go wrong, like any other practical science ever devised by man.

      So really, what work is the analogy doing here?

      • Hansjörg Walther

        I guess the original comparison was with the “knowledge problem,” the hubris that central planners could get hold of all the relevant data and all of them and how they interact and so forth, and the rest is an easy exercise in optimization. That would be parallel with a “knowledge problem” also for eugenicists. E.g. breeding for high intelligence might have side effects like lowering genetic diversity. So maybe you are inadvertently breeding out also that enough people become immune to the next influenza pandemic, and so mankind will be completely wiped out, and else it would survive. No one knows what trick the next influenza virus comes up with, but you would have to know all further tricks and whether some gene variant could counteract them to rule that out. And that might be (next to) impossible. (I think such a connection is unlikely as the structure of the brain and the immune system are very far apart. But who knows?)

        What Mises calls the “calculation problem” is that you cannot plan with market prices if you don’t have market prices. That is rather trivial, and perhaps not such a problem for a convinced socialist: Who said you have to plan with market prices? You could just roll your dice. Of course, this leads to the embarrassing admission that you don’t really have a clear idea how you want to plan or why that would lead to any superior results in some sense. But as far as I can tell, Mises does not show that there cannot be any planning methods that would work better in some sense than a market economy. Rothbard solves this with circular reasoning: I define that market results are optimal and hence they are. But there could be other standards that would be more meaningful. In any way you run into a huge knowledge problem if you cannot rely on calculations with market prices.

        • Sean II

          “That would be parallel with a “knowledge problem” also for eugenicists. E.g. breeding for high intelligence might have side effects like lowering genetic diversity. So maybe you are inadvertently breeding out also that enough people become immune to the next influenza pandemic, and so mankind will be completely wiped out.”

          That’s just it: if we follow this same line of reasoning, we should also immediately stop messing around with space exploration, artificial intelligence, drug development, nuclear energy, particle physics, and indeed other forms of selective breeding, etc.

          It’s very strange to hear this sort of talk from libertarians, who are otherwise so reliable about not letting astronomically improbable doom scenarios be used as an excuse to retard scientific progress.

          The parsimonious explanation is: “Damn, science finally found something that triggers disgust even in the very people whose idea of utopia is a world where armed junkies can hire sovereign citizen whores while employing children for less than minimum wage and using inside information to reap untaxed capital gains by investing in a company that sells kidneys to undocumented immigrants.”

          Makes sense, anyway. The territory across which genetic science is now advancing was previously occupied by romantic ideas about free-will, “self-made soul”, a, individuated humanity for which “nothing is written”, etc.

          We libertarians worshipped that dirt for a long time. Hardly surprising many of us are still refusing to move.

          • Hansjörg Walther

            You are right, I should not go into hyperbole here, especially with such a made-up scenario. And I agree that the mere possibility that something weird could happen is not strong enough as a reason that you should not do it. Point taken.

    • Otto Lehto

      I completely agree with the knowledge problem, which translates into a planning problem. (See my other comments on this; and on my views on how using the private sphere of individuals for “experiments in living” is a crucially important aspect of social evolution.)

      But, to defend science a little here, it might be important to point out the huge disparity between the level of scientific knowledge in the times of the First Wave of eugenics (almost a century ago) and the level of scientific knowledge today. DNA was only discovered after the Second World War, coincident with the (justifiable) decline in the reputation of eugenics, mostly due to the Nazi regime. Since then, we have made huge advances in mapping the human genome, in developing techniques of gene splicing, creating computer models for analysis, and developing tools for the rather precise modification/removal/transplantation of individual genes. What we still lack is complete knowledge of the function of particular genes, the importance of environmental (/epigenetic) factors in human development, the role of the “junk” DNA, and many other important issues. So we have a long way to go; however, it is not as if we know nothing.

      And the things we know can be separated into the “quite certain”, “plausible” and “merely possible”. Even if only 5% of what we know about genetics is “quite certain”, that means there are some things that we CAN already do, with a high level of confidence in our abilities. (By “we”, I mean free individuals; I would be skeptical of using the “nudging” of the state to affect genetic outcomes.)

      For example, we should probably do more to eliminate such localizable genetic mutations that cause debilitating diseases, inheritable or not. Today we know that genetic factors play a major role perhaps in most forms of serious illness. We should probably also do more (within the limits of our own personal moral compass) to screen fetuses in the early phases of development for potential signs of misery-inducing conditions, and opt for abortion when the best medical advice recommends it. And we should probably also try and create “designer babies” – within the confines of some medical and ethical supervision – to modify our species in the long run. There is only so much you can do to influence human nature without digging into the genetic make-up that programs our animal nature.

      But the crucial thing is that the “knowledge problem” is not a debilitating one; and it can be mitigated by a) decentralizing experimentation away from a central authority and towards the private sphere of citizens; and b) encouraging scientific pluralism.
      Thus, even if rational “central planning” is a mistake 99% of the time, the chance of hitting that lucky 1% should be allowed; and I believe we have good reason to think that our chances of doing some “conservative eugenics” – e.g. eliminating certain diseases, improving pre-natal screening – have a much higher possibility of success (measured in terms of improving human welfare).

  • Hansjörg Walther

    What I find funny is how the people who are so bent on breeding what in German is ironically called „Intelligenzbestien“ (intelligence beasts) suffer from such muddled thinking.

    Here is the standard argument for IQ: Humans were rather stupid in the beginning. Then there were some exceptional mutations that made them more and more intelligent. Those only prevailed because there was fierce natural selection in favor of them and maybe also against those who did not have those mutations. Natural selection plays less and less of a role in civilized society, so these mutations will disappear over time: Obviously mankind will become less intelligent if we don’t stop this dysgenic trend and simulate natural selection.

    Here is a simple counter-theory that is at least as plausible (and I think more plausible): Natural selection selected _against_ high intelligence. (Note: that does not mean it selected against any intelligence.) How so? One idea would be that high intelligence needs a bigger brain which is costly energy-wise, another that humans with larger brains have longer generation lengths and hence have less fitness all else equal. Or larger brains induce a different skull geometry and indirectly myopia which is a huge disadvantage in the wild. So the mutations favored by natural selection were those that kept brain size and therefore intelligence in check. Natural selection plays less and less of a role in civilized society, so these mutations will disappear over time: Obviously mankind will become more intelligent if we don’t stop this dysgenic trend and simulate natural selection.

    Every eugenicist that I have seen so far treats it as if they had proved the first case a priori. That’s logically impossible because this is an empirical claim that can be either way. Don’t be surprised if eugenics makes you stupid.

    • Jeff R.

      Natural selection plays less and less of a role in civilized society…

      I believe this is incorrect. Up until very recently, much of the lower classes of society all throughout the civilized world failed to reproduce themselves thanks to war, poverty, famine, and disease. Selection was still very much a thing in the world of Malthus, Dickens, the Bubonic Plague, Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, etc. For more on selective pressure in modern times, see Gregory Clarke’s A Farewell to Alms or Cochran and Harpending’s The Ten Thousand Year Explosion.

      I would add that the situation we have today with birth control, is not entirely dissimilar in that some segments of society again fail to reproduce themselves, albeit this time, apparently, by choice.

      • Hansjörg Walther

        I have made no claim that natural selection has stopped operating in general, only that it plays less and less of a role for intelligence. It doesn’t matter for the argument whether the transition was gradual or happened on January 1, 1850.

        If you think that natural selection for intelligence works now as always and there was no change, then we’re fine. There would be no reason to expect any changes in intelligence because of some dysgenic trend.

        • Jeff R.

          Well, I guess my view is a bit half and half. I think you’re correct that big, powerful brains were subject to negative selective pressure when calories were particularly scarce (ie, among hunter-gatherers). However, I also think Clarke and Co. are correct that intelligence was selected for after the proliferation of agriculture and development of city-states. I think that has changed again, though, probably as recently as the last century or so, and the picture is a bit more muddled. All this is a long way ’round to say that I think there’s a very good chance that the eugenicists with their dire predictions of Idiocracy may in fact be correct.

          • Hansjörg Walther

            My point is not that I have proved the second case in this way. It could also be that both mechanisms operate. They could cancel out, one could take precedence some time, and then the other. It is not possible to decide the question on such an abstract level.

            But as far as I can see, eugenicists treat it as if they could prove the point in this way. And then they jump to speculations on how it could have happened. The curious thing is that they mostly resort to explanations how earlier _social_ arrangements, norms, customs, etc. worked as a eugenic program that selected for high intelligence, not that natural selection did the trick. (Another point where I’d say their thinking is muddled.)

            My speculations on how natural selection could have selected _against_ high intelligence are not meant as definitive, only to show that there are some conceivable mechanisms that would lead to higher intelligence with relaxed natural selection which at first glance seems counter-intuitive. E.g. many animal species have larger brains in an urban than in a rural environment.

            And if the second case is a major part of the explanation, and agricultural societies faced _less_ pressure from natural selection (viz. the respective populations grew massively relative to other societies), then it is not out of the question that causation runs the other way: Because they had less natural selection, they could afford more dysgenic mutations which took away checks on intelligence, and that’s why intelligence rose on average.

          • Jeff R.

            Gotcha. I think that’s a fair criticism.

    • Anomaly

      You’re right to be skeptical, especially of a priori claims in this realm! But there’s pretty good (albeit imperfect) evidence of recent declines in the genetic component of intelligence in western countries in books by Gregory Clark (e.g. The Son Also Rises, and A Farewell to Alms), and intelligence researchers like Teasdale and Owens.

      Economists since Becker have noticed a negative correlation between income and fertility, and education and fertility. Only recently have some intelligence researchers suggested that, independently in developed countries, there is a negative correlation between IQ and fertility.

      It turns out culture and opportunities can shape preferences, which in turn influences how many children people choose to have, and with whom.

      • Hansjörg Walther

        I addressed the argument: “Natural selection pushed intelligence up in the past. In modern society, natural selection plays less and less of a role. So intelligence will go down if we don’t do something about it by artificial selection.” You quote extensively from Galton, Darwin, and Smith who make such an argument (mixing it up with other arguments). So I understand you as saying, this argument is out. Good.

        The next argument which is also in the quotes and in the books you refer to, but is quite separate, goes like this: “Social arrangements implicitly work as breeding programs for intelligence. Or so they did until recently, and now they don’t.”

        The problem here is that we actually don’t know anything about the level of intelligence before perhaps the 1920s or at most the late 19th century. Was is constant, did it go up at times, go down at others, was the movement uniform, or were there different movements in different places, etc.? So any “explanations” for trends before that cannot even establish those trends were there. Take the favorite question every author of this genre will blithely answer once and for all: How did Ashkenazi Jews become so intelligent since circa 1000 (or whatever)? — But then maybe they were just as intelligent circa 1000 or even more intelligent than they are today. No one knows what their intelligence was in 1000 or that it went up at all. Still every new “explanation” can show this. Amazing.

        As for the correlations: Suppose fertility norms in a society propagate through it. They start with those who are perceived as superiors (income, education, both correlated with IQ) and then expand to ever more distant parts of society in these regards. If the trendsetters have fewer and fewer children and others the farther away they are follow them with longer and longer lags, you will find negative correlations with income and education. We only have observations over a time frame where that was the case, roughly a hundred years.

        If the trendsetters go for Bryan Caplan’s stealth eugenics program (people who read academic books should consider having more children ;-), then after some time you would probably see positive correlations. In other words, what you see in the cross section might be the result of a transition to lower fertility. There is no reason to extrapolate this observation into the future as if it were a law under all circumstances.

        It could just as well level off, or even turn around. Even if I believe the estimates by Richard Lynn, the loss in the “genetic component of intelligence” would be quite small. Or maybe zero or positive over the long run if you cannot extrapolate from the cross section. In any way, effects would be very small compared to a century of the Flynn effect. Not the stuff that dystopian scenarios are made of. We’d perhaps give a little back temporarily, or not. Actually, if you take a differential Flynn effect into account (more Flynn effect for those with lower IQ), it is not clear whether higher fertility of those with lower IQ has to drag average IQ down, it could as well drag it up. And eugenicists might dumb the population down with their mistaken prescriptions.

        Now, prima facie, IQ goes up and up. The Flynn effect is alive and kicking. The usual reply at this point is: That doesn’t count because you have to look at the “genetic component of intelligence.” The problem here is that you cannot do that so easily because you can only determine it indirectly under certain assumptions, e.g. that the Flynn effect is not (partially) genetic and there is additivity (see below).

        The only direct results I am aware of are (a) that reaction speeds have been going down for a long time, and (b) the latest data for Scandinavian recruits. I am very skeptical as for the latter. Those results are from a time when the draft was on the way out in those countries, and with the Cold War over, serving in the army did not feel like defending your country, but like a huge waste of time. I would suspect that recruits took the bonmot of Karl Krauss to heart: “The advantage of being intelligent is that you can play dumb. It is harder the other way around.” So if you wanted to lower the chances of being drafted, you would perhaps skip sleep for a few nights before the test. That would lead to results with a very systematic bias downwards that would be hard to prove (unlike some systematic scheme). I don’t know what others might do, but that’s what I would do. Regarding (a) maybe that is the same as the Flynn effect, only it works in the other direction this time (see below).

        As for the question whether the Flynn effect is genetic. There was a very interesting contribution by Michael Mingroni some time back which made the point that the Flynn effect could be genetic because of hybrid vigor. Even apparently very homogeneous populations were actually quite segregated until very recently. As soon as those segregated groups start to mix, IQ levels should go up if there is hybrid vigor. Mingroni had no luck. Both Lynn and Flynn hammered him although their arguments were insufficient in my view. As far as I can tell Mingroni’s academic career was over after that. He managed to defend himself later in an oblique way, but his theory is now at most mentioned as an oddity. Maybe his argument was really too weak because he relied too much on hybrid vigor. What you only need is that different innovations to IQ are superadditive, but it could be different genes. That’s actually quite plausible: Assume the explanation is correct that higher intelligence comes from some tweak that lets your brain grow larger (or part thereof), maybe by deteriorating some mechanism that kept it smaller. Then different such tweaks might have something like a multiplicative effect, not an additive effect (you grow by X * Y if you have both).

        Under natural selection against high intelligence, different such superadditive innovations should unmix. Those who have both, fare worse than those who have only one. Add to that, that humankind until rather recently (and sometimes even today) was organized in small bands, tight family units with a lot of consanguinity, etc. Then you would see an accumulation of innovations in the population over time, but those would stay segregated. If the constraint relaxes, you can have mixing and reap the superadditivity. And if you have social processes (like since the 19th century) that facilitate mixing a lot, you can have also large effects. In this case, the Flynn effect would be (partially) genetic and result from bringing different innovations together under relaxed conditions that had to unmix at earlier times.
        That would also explain why there is a tendency for the Flynn effect to slow down faster for higher IQ than for lower IQ. You might have different speeds of mixing in a society, and that would correlate with IQ, income, and education, but the causation would be different, e.g. people with low income and education tend to stay put, more so than those with high income and education. Note that a similar mechanism could also lead to a downward trend, e.g. if innovations that raise IQ also lower reaction speed, more synapses to pass over a longer distance or whatever. Myopia might be another example.

        If anything of this kind is true (or part of the truth), it is unclear what the conclusions are.
        Maybe there is no downward trend at all if you have to include (part of) the Flynn effect in the genetic component. The downward trend might be temporary and reverse later, oscillate around some level, and so be unimportant in the long run, and minimal in the short run. No problem, no need for a solution. If the second case above for natural selection is mostly correct, more and more “dysgenic” mutations would accumulate slowly over time that deteriorate mechanisms that used to keep intelligence in check, so the level of intelligence might go up by itself (until you hit some bound where larger brains or whatever run into some other constraint).
        Differential fertility might work in the other direction if you have a stronger Flynn effect for lower IQ and you would see convergence and the distribution would become narrower over time as mixing speeds up in all parts of society. In principle, it could be the case that if the least mixed part of society catches up with regard to mixing, it could even overtake those now on top. That is not so likely within a society where you had some mixing for a longer time. But it could well be true for one that is still very segregated, and especially between societies. It’s quite funny to see how Richard Lynn discusses unexpectedly good results for mixed populations away with adhoc stories (e.g. his grand gambit that IQ in Africa is actually higher because else he would have to admit that results for more mixed populations in America cannot be explained with additivity.)

        As far as I can see, all you can say is that segregation by IQ might be the eugenic path or it might be panmixia within a society. Between societies segregation might be eugenic or mixing might be. It might be that a positive correlation is eugenic or a negative correlation. There might be no downward trend or only minimal effects that could reverse later. Or there might be a long upward trend if the second case above is mostly true.

        Don’t misunderstand my point here: What I have argued may all be false. I have thought about this, but this is not in the best form or definitive. But I’d say it’s plausible enough that you have to disprove the contrarian hypotheses to be on safe ground . I don’t see how you have done this. It is more like: “The mechanism is pretty obvious. Intelligence will go down if we don’t do something about it. Let’s now talk about how we get high IQ people to have more children and low IQ people to have less.”

  • Otto Lehto

    I’m glad to see eugenics is making a come-back. It appeared first time as tragedy, but its second coming doesn’t necessarily need to be a farce. In fact, to strip eugenics of its coercion, and to move towards a voluntary regime of conscious self- and group-improvement could be a worthwhile intellectual voyage that we should embrace – but not without trepidation.

    First of all, the reason it went so wrong first time is two-fold: 1) a mistaken belief in the omnipotence of experts (we overrated our knowledge); 2) a mistaken belief in the omnipotence of the state (we overrated the moral compass of the political authority). To overcome these problems, we need to embrace 1) a healthy skepticism of expert knowledge of all kinds; and 2) a healthy skepticism about political authority of all kinds. In short, we need to confess to our deep ignorance about what is “good” (“eu-“) in humanity; and to bury the dark dream of organizing our society after a “rational plan.”

    But even if second-guessing natural selection ends up almost certainly in hubris, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot we can do as individuals, in charge of our own lives and that of our families. While creating designer babies has its dangers (creating unncessary suffering in “failed babies”; or creating a new caste society with biological hierarchies), it also has its obvious advantages (alleviating unnecessary suffering by creating healthier, more intelligent, more attractive babies; creating a flourishing society of free and equal human beings capable of living in harmony).

    We have barely scratched the surface of the potential of science, and it makes sense that science should proceed, freely, in the direction of self-improvement. Self-improvement is a goal as old as the epic of Gilgamesh (wherein the king of Uruk scours the Earth after eternal life).

    The true goal of science is the empowerment of humanity. “Knowledge is power”, as Francis Bacon wrote. If we refuse, out of reasonable fear and timidity, to use the powers of science for genetic enhancement, we have taken advantage of only a fraction of our powers. There is thus a calling – a noble or ignoble one, depending on your perspective – to do more.

    Whatever the endgame, I doubt the moral dilemma of using scientific methods for the improvement, modification, transplantation and transmutation of organic humanity will go away any time soon. We should move fast towards the direction of developing tools and ideas to match that new reality, because technological determinism seems to rule the day.

    • King Goat

      On a thread of excellent comments and discussion I think I find yours to be the one I agree with the most. A confession about our ignorance of ‘the good’ or the ‘eu’ in humanity, well put. To the extent this is true it might not, as Sean points out, make any planned form of eugenics as impossible as central economic planning, but for practical purposes it would have the same results (we should never undertake policy in an area of deep ignorance, even if the subject is not ultimately unknowable [we should continue study, but no action]).

      But let me offer what to me is a nagging question that perhaps you can easily deal with. Take the field of hygiene. There’s reason to think that ultimate questions in hygiene are impossible. Just as eugenics involves promoting ‘good’ traits in humanity via genetic efforts, hygeine involves promoting ‘good’ health. There’s play around the end questions there; should we regulate or nudge or promote people voluntarily engaging in eating less fatty foods, or is the quality of life enhanced by eating yummy food worth more than a longer, blander life?

      While there’s play at the ultimate questions there seems to be less play for others. Who cares to argue for not taking basic steps to prevent malaria outbreaks?

      Likewise, why couldn’t one say that while, yes, the question of whether intelligence measured by g or cosmetic features are up in the air are part of the ‘eu’ in humanity and should be promoted is debatable, perhaps forever, that some questions eugenics might address are much more amenable to widespread agreement (if, via being more informed, more parents changed their behavior so that Tays-Sachs disappeared, who can argue against that?).

      • Otto Lehto

        Thank you for the comment. Here is a rather rambling note about evolution, if you’ll excuse me. 🙂

        There is a need for “experiments in living”, as great liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick have emphasized, in order to figure out “what actually works.” We cannot know in advance what works, or is “good for humanity,” so we need to allow for a wide variety of experimentation, within the framework of competition. This entails an institutionalized respect for the private sphere of individuals, within which variation and mutation can be undertaken in a way that minimizes the social cost of such experiments (i.e. taking risky ventures without endangering the whole society as a result).

        Evolution and progress are tricky issues. There is no steady scale towards improvement. On some level, there does not seem to be any deeper meaning to life. Anything we do to it – that is, to ourselves and our descendants – must be “permitted” in the grand cosmic scheme. No-one will stop us, unless we stop ourselves. And I would argue we should NOT try and stop ourselves, or our neighbours, from genetic experimentation. That does not mean we should be flippant about what we do to ourselves, however, since perceived “improvements” (in one domain) might eventually backfire – badly – due to unintended consequences. We have seen this over and over again – and evolution is an inherently uncontrollable, messy reality.

        Perhaps, say, “curing” autism, or ADHD, or homosexuality, would actually deprive humanity of some of its most wonderful mutations; thus it is not clear what we should be trying to “cure”. Some things seem quite obvious, like some congenital diseases without any redeeming qualities – anything from type-1 diabetes to breast cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease. But there is a danger that in trying to “purify” humanity, we end up creating more harm than good, by reducing (beneficial) variation.

        One thing to keep in mind is that evolution is a process of adaptation. The great driver of adaptation is variation within the species. Without differences, genetic or otherwise, evolution would come to a stop, and we would eventually perish.

        Variation, in the human world, consists of a) genetic mutation and b) social (cultural) mutation. These are both important. It is a truism that genetic evolution has been overtaken by social (cultural) evolution as the main driver of change. Through democratic politics, mass media, technological development, ideological struggle, the marketplace of ideas, globalization and capitalism, social (cultural) evolution/mutation/variation has been accelerated and our species has evolved tremendously.

        But, while we have taken great steps in using medicine, education and hygiene (which are all aspects of social or cultural evolution), we have been hesitant to touch our genes for self-benefit, even though the reasons for doing so are the same. This lamentable double-standard arises, it seems, from a combination of moral timidity, political inhibitions and historical trauma. And, of course, the right technology simply hasn’t been available. (And it’s still pretty elementary, let us not kid ourselves.)

        We should abolish this strange double-standard between laissez-faire approach to experimentation in social evolution and moralistic conservatism in the world of genetic evolution. Private “start-ups” in genetic engineering should be encouraged, and legal restrictions from the field of human genetic enhancement (or, indeed, modification) should be removed. Then we could have communities that take bold steps towards the eradication of genetic diseases, while others remain more conservative, wishing to protect “natural humanity” – whether because of nostalgia, religious feeling, or a healthy skepticism toward science.

  • Hansjörg Walther

    Maybe one further point: I take exception with the label “liberal eugenics” in “A response to the response.” Either this is very shallow in the sense of: we want to keep away from the ugly stuff. Or it lacks meaning.

    John Stuart Mill may not have been consistent on this point like on others, but the liberal principle is that people can do what they want as long as they don’t infringe someone else’s liberty. Of course, that also applies to having children with whomever they want. Only if there is an infringement is there a case for intervening, and actually it can be a case for coercive intervention, exactly in a liberal framework.

    Now in the case of an hereditary disease that makes life for a child virtual hell, I think there might be a justification to intervene in this sense. And actually, if you parallel it with other things, there might even be a case for coercive intervention within a liberal framework. However, for most of the things that eugenicists fret about, that is not the case. Pointing to such hereditary diseases is a red herring, and I took the case of IQ with forethought because it is not in the same class. Or you would have to prove that parents face a high risk that their child has an IQ that has similar effects. That is not what eugenicists have in mind when they ponder about “Hereditary Genius” and whether we run out of great men.

    One might argue that in the aggregate, lower IQ could make life hell in a way that amounts to an infringement of someone’s liberty. I don’t see how that could be the case with changes to average IQ that are on the table. Or someone would have to make the argument. Of course, that is the endgame for all those who think they have proved the first case above how IQ has to fall forever (but they haven’t), and that puts them under such pressure to find a “solution.” The final stage they see in the future is this: IQ will go down below any bound and it will end in a horrible world of braindead creatures. Or they will be extinguished by others who have heeded the warnings of eugenicists. I think that informed the people who saw no other way than to kill off those who they saw as the first step in that direction.

    If someone could make such a case, it would yield some ugly trolley problems also within a liberal framework. But if you cannot make such a case, then the liberal principle is: respect everybody’s liberty to do what they want.
    Surely, you could still ask private questions like: Wouldn’t it be nicer if IQ went up by 3 points on average or not more than 3 points down, and how could I influence this? But that has the same import as the question: Wouldn’t it be nicer if average height were 3 inches taller or not more than 3 inches shorter, and how could I influence this? I don’t have a problem if someone wants to obsess about this. But I don’t see why I or others should obsess about it and view it as a question that warrants demands for _public_policy_ (be they coercive or not) if the case is so weak, not to say non-existent. There is nothing liberal about eugenics.

  • I’ll try to be be brief: 1) The proposal of Anomaly and Boutwell for evaluation of prospective parents seems wrong-headed to me. This seems to me a classic example of people proposing policies whose primary impact will be on others, not themselves. And considering some of the past actions of the American medical and scientific establishment toward the less advantaged segments of society, I think some circumspection is called for.

    2) The first part of Krimsky’s response struck me as the scientific version of “mansplaining”. I suspect that Anomaly and Boutwell are pretty familiar with what “heritable” actually means in practice. As for the broader audience, I think Krimsky came off less as trying to inform them and more as trying to raise FUD and look clever prior to making his main points.

    3) Leaving the philosophical issues aside, in practice this sort of thing is already done in the context of infertility treatment and IVF: There are basic tests that can be and are run when evaluating embryos, e.g., for certain genetic conditions, and prospective parents already have to navigate the issues around the use of such tests, with the professional assistance of the IVF clinic personnel. It’s quite easy to imagine such tests becoming more sophisticated, and allowing for embryos to be evaluated on more general measures relating to the offspring’s physical and mental health. Since the people who can afford advanced IVF procedures are generally wealthier than average, the whole issue of “experimenting on the Others” is less salient: If more advanced future procedures don’t work as advertised then the rest of us can write it off as “silly things rich people do”. If however they do prove to be safe and effective then other people will likely want in on the action, and then (and only then) we can look at government policies to encourage their use. (Which might include subsidizing them for people who want to take advantage of them but can’t afford them.)

  • stevenjohnson2

    How does any of this have anything to do with libertarianism, except that eugenics is thoroughly reactionary and so is libertarianism?

    The issue of coercion in breeding has been settled with laws against abortion and incest and regulations about the selling of contraceptives. More generally, the libertarian position that the lives or deaths of children are not a matter of public concern is de facto eugenics, selective mortality of the poor and the oppressed. So far as abstract principles are concerned, libertarianism seems rather committed to the proposition that children are the property of the parents.

    So far as the scientific status of eugenics is concerned? Pretty much nonexistent so far as I can tell. It is not clear there is such a thing as a behavioral phenotype (descent groups persistently distinguishable in their behavior over generations regardless of cultural change.) Further, GWAS tends to find many genes with small contributions to various traits, meaning eugenics is incapable of addressing those kinds of traits anyhow. Invocations of the importance of natural selection are almost surely expressions of bias. It is likely that most natural selection of human beings takes place in the womb, leaving artificial selection by eugenics a diminished arena to work with any way. Human beings, as a recent species, appear to have very little genetic variation in comparison to other species. If in the greater scheme of things they are pretty similar, more of some than another makes far less difference in biology than it does in personal life.

    • Sean II

      This comment exposes a serious problem at the core of the eugenic enterprise.

      Moving the human IQ distribution means increasing the number of geniuses in our species, but it means increasing the number of pseudo-intellects much, much more.

      Now I’m thinking maybe it’s not worth it, and we should just start preparing for a graceful transfer of power to the robots.

      • stevenjohnson2

        Yes, yes, if you somehow imagine eugenics as bodily picking up a bell curve (normal, Gaussian distribution) and moving it so the peak is now somewhere to the right, presumably there would indeed be more people with enough vocabulary to fake genuine intelligence.

        The real joke is that your implied insult relies on a hilariously defective understanding of both statistical distributions and eugenics. A population undergoing massive eugenics program would be a normal distribution for one thing. And if it were somehow successful, the distribution would be narrower, which would also ruin your joke.

        • Sean II

          Holy shit.

    • King Goat

      Steve, a eugenics program could be an entirely voluntary, non governmental one. We could start an informational crusade to simply inform people about how some simple testing could identify choices that would be very risky for having exceedingly ill children and just persuade people that they consider this when making their potential reproductive choice.

      I can’t see why a libertarian would oppose that.

      • stevenjohnson2

        I don’t either, in relation to identifiable hereditary diseases, because this sort of thing is already happening on a scale limited by scientific knowledge. Libertarians don’t seem to be opposing that (nor much of anyone else besides religious people.) If this sort of thing is all the proposal is aiming at, it’s a waste. The source article (suspiciously, in my view) vague on the details about where they want to go with this, but if it means anything, it means more than that. Hence the opening question, as to what this has to do with libertarianism?

        • Joe

          They are vague probably because they are hiding their racialism and Pioneer Fund type views on IQ (think Arthur Jensen and the 80% heritability mark by class and by inference, race). CYA. Even so the fact that they play it safe on a host of nature v. nurture questions may also serve as yet more evidence that eugenics will likely not free itself from its abhorrent past any time soon– even if it is conceivably possible.

    • “Further, GWAS tends to find many genes with small contributions to various traits, meaning eugenics is incapable of addressing those kinds of traits anyhow.” I’m sorry, I find this confusing. Suppose that in an effort to promote US preeminence in the sport of basketball we were to encourage male professional basketball players to have children only with female pro basketball players, and vice versa. My understanding is that male (or female) pro basketball players are on average much taller than the typical male (or female), that height is highly heritable, and that the genetic influence on height occurs via many genes each with small effect. The statement I quoted seems to be claiming that this type of eugenics program is doomed to failure, and that the children of such parents would be no taller on average than the rest of the population who are not pro basketball players. Is that the intended claim, or I am missing something?

      • stevenjohnson2

        Height is indeed a highly heritable trait. Even so, historically changes in nutrition have still had vastly more effect on average height than breeding. Average population heights rose in post-war Japan but there most assuredly was not a major shift in gene frequencies within a single generation. So, the very example of a trait given, height, shows one of the pitfalls.

        But let’s suppose a basketball team owner wanted to breed his own stock, a plausible assumption after all. There seems to be a rough correlation between height, a thinner body build and tropical climate, versus shorter, stockier and cooler climates, a difference that appears at first glance to reflect different needs for body temperature regulation. One needs more to cool, the other to stay warm. In the event, some African peoples do appear to have the hereditary prerequisites for a greater average height. Thus, the owner might end up selectively breeding more African/partly African descended players. And end up concentrating sickle cell anemia trait, which increases full-blown sickle cell anemia. This is not conducive to height, much less basketball playing skills, the ostensible purpose of selecting for the trait in the first place.

        You can of course also select for absence of sickle cell trait in this simplified example. The thing is, with genetically complex traits, it becomes impossible to select for that many genes. If nothing else, the more genes your selecting for, the more likely pleiotropy will play a role, meaning you’re naive effort to select for a specific trait will end up causing incalculable consequences. The likelihood is these complex traits GWAS finds so many genes “for,” are an ensemble of genes associated with normally healthy development. It is even conceivable there are multiple ensembles capable of this, making the task of selecting for one even more complex. Negative traits like susceptibility to schizophrenia appear to be an unexpected consequence of the interplay of many genes. Natural selection can no more separate out the bad combinations of many genes than we can.

        • Re your first point, you’re certainly correct that malnutrition, disease, and other factors can negatively impact traits like height, and that in turn means that for any population the first priority should be ensuring adequate feeding and health of its members. Only once that were done would it make sense to refocus attention on genetic influences on traits (presuming one were interested in changing them).

          Re the second point, you’re also correct that aggressively selecting for one trait at the exclusion of others would be prone to problems. That’s why, for example, I discount the speculations of people who claim that we could raise human intelligence by 30 standard deviations or more, and similar considerations (in addition to obvious constraints of physics) would likely apply to raising human height more than the two or three standard deviations that separate the average US male or female from an NBA or WNBA player.

          But there are certainly tens of millions of people in the US who are both perfectly healthy and at least one standard deviation above average in height. So if someone were to claim that by appropriate genetic means they could raise the average height of a population by at least one standard deviation from its current average, with minimal or no impact on health, I would find that plausible (though not necessarily practical, depending on the size and nature of the population). And even a one standard deviation increase in a trait’s average value is a big deal–it means that half the population is at or above the trait value that only one sixth of the population were at or above previously.

          In the end this is really a question that will be settled by advances in genomics, including doing studies on very large sample populations, possibly accompanied by widespread use of new techniques based on such advances, for example, more extensive pre-implementation genetic diagnosis in the context of IVF. So I guess my final response would be, let’s wait a few years and see what happens and what’s possible (or not, as the case may be).

  • Fallon

    Come on, Prof. Anomaly, do you guys have some real examples of ‘Blank Slaters’ or is it, as I suspect, a straw man? I know that the psychologist Leon Kamin hypothesized IQ to be 100% environmental back during his debates with Hans Eysenck– but even if Kamin was wrong it would not necessarily harm his other arguments that cause hereditarians so much trouble. Then there was the time when Steven Pinker tried to hang the Blank Slate albatross on his Harvard colleague Sarah Richardson during a debate. But reviewing the transcript reveals that the differences came down to the suggested causal admixture of environment and genetics acting on the brain are in question. So Pinker’s charge amounted to hyperbole (A common Pinker modus operandi.). But I can’t seem to find any other examples in all these debates over race, class, gender, and IQ. I am sure you have some examples?

    • Anomaly

      Thanks Fallon. I hope you’re right, but I actually don’t think it’s a straw man.

      I’m not sure how many famous academics would consider themselves Blank Slaters — apart from Kamin, Rose, Lewontin, and Gould — but many (even most) of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences sure do argue as if the environment is all that matters, and that we can infer from unequal outcomes some kind of environmental cause, especially implicit bias or “structural racism.” I don’t have a dog in the fight. I just find it interesting how obsessed many academics are with dismissing hypotheses that make them uncomfortable.

      I had a perfectly respectable paper savaged by reviewers many times over last year, under the cover of blind review. Many reviewers simply wouldn’t acknowledge that there might, possibly, be statistically significant biologically-based differences between groups that have some predictive power over life outcomes. I wrote about this experience here:

      My most partisan reviewer was Jonathan Kaplan of Oregon State, who used words like “racist piece of shit” to describe people who I cited and who he disagreed with, who postulate that there are average group differences. Like him, many philosophers and sociologists have devoted their careers to either avoiding the study of biology, or interpreting its findings to bolster their worldview: all racial differences result from racism, or from a deprived home environment, etc. In the name of social justice, they build an impregnable fortress of dogma.

      • Fallon

        I don’t see where Lewontin and Gould would be labeled Blank Slaters. Lewontin certainly recognized group differences and his blood group analysis has been bolstered by many complimentary finds since. And I wonder where you think Gould denied that inherited genes weigh heavy on an individual’s potential? Gould concentrated on debunking IQ in itself– finding it prone to reification and perverse reductionism. Read how your and just about every other comment reads here on this blog post and you will see how Gould was right. People treat intelligence as if it has the concreteness and immutability of a gall bladder. But even Jensen admitted that intelligence is an abstract phenomenon. (I extend the problem of reification to race itself. This is a very complicated matter.)

        So even if you find persistent group differences it does little or nothing to solve the nature v. nurture question. Because environmental reasons can fit the data just as well as genetic. And surely, further, there is reason to believe that culture can manipulate gene expression…

        Merely saying that there are group differences and that some are due to genes– is almost not saying anything at all then. So i wonder why people insulted you. I know you might be expecting me to ‘take the high road’ and see you as a victim of political correctness etc. But it just isn’t that simple. If a researcher can make all the leaps of faith necessary for coming up with racialist conclusions– why can’t their naysayers who understand that eugenics has almost always been syncretically bound with racialism and classism. This is true from Malthus to today’s Richard Lynn. Maybe the Pioneer Fund view is indeed deserving of a solid “You racist Bastard!” Although this would only feed these types’ victimology. Of course when I label someone a racialist or classist– e.g. Hans Hoppe is a racist. Charles Murray is a classist.– I am characterizing their belief system– not making a normative judgment. Because I also understand that ones beliefs about race and class do not have uniform connections with ‘what to do about it’ conclusions.

        In this sense the label of racialist may fit you. And you may even be married to a sub-Saharan black person for all I know. Beliefs and norms are not the same.

        I bet the list of effronts I have suffered for merely pointing out the racialism among libertarian luminaries such as Rothbard, Rockwell, Block, David Gordon (who is a guest blogger here), Hoppe, etc., rivals yours… haha.
        Thanks for replying.

      • Fallon

        I agree that the attack by the Marxist Lewontin gang on E.O. Wilson was wrong. But it should be noted that Gould, I believe, refrained from the deplorable behavior. What a terrible show.

        But Pinker is calling these people ‘Blank Slate’ believers. This also looks like an unjustified attack. Does two-wrongs make a right? Lewontin is a Marxist of sorts but I see no evidence that it seeped into his lab. And if anything, the body of evidence supports the conclusion very strongly that the Pioneer Fund/Mankind Quarterly view of humanity is a perversion of science in the service of deeply rooted prejudice. But I also will say that science has to be judged on its own merits– e.g. even Shockley or Otmar von Verschuer might have been right about something. There is more than wiggle room in science. But that’s why it makes it the perfect last refuge of a scoundrel.

        • Anomaly

          Yeah, that sounds about right.