Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not. Continue reading “Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?”

Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint” – The Blank Slate and the Behavioral Genetics Insurgency

Robert Plomin‘s Blueprint is a must read. That would be true even if it were “merely” an account of recent stunning breakthroughs that have greatly expanded our understanding of the links between our DNA and behavior. However, beyond that it reveals an aspect of history that has been little appreciated to date; the guerilla warfare carried on by behavioral geneticists against the Blank Slate orthodoxy from a very early date. You might say the book is an account of the victorious end of that warfare. From now on those who deny the existence of heritable genetic effects on human behavior will self-identify as belonging to the same category as the more seedy televangelists, or even professors in university “studies” departments.

Let’s begin with the science.   We have long known by virtue of thousands of twin and adoption studies that many complex human traits, including psychological traits, are more or less heritable due to differences in DNA. These methods also enable us to come up with a ballpark estimate of the degree to which these traits are influenced by genetics. However, we have not been able until very recently to detect exactly what inherited differences in DNA sequences are actually responsible for the variations we see in these traits. That’s were the “revolution” in genetics described by Plomin comes in. It turns out that detecting these differences was to be a far more challenging task than optimistic scientists expected at first. As he put it,

When the hunt began twenty-five years ago everyone assumed we were after big game – a few genes of large effect that were mostly responsible for heritability. For example, for heritabilities of about 50 per cent, ten genes each accounting for 5 per cent of the variance would do the job. If the effects were this large, it would require a sample size of only 200 to have sufficient power to detect them.

This fond hope turned out to be wishful thinking. As noted in the book, some promising genes were studied, and some claims were occasionally made in the literature that a few such “magic” genes had been found. The result, according to Plomin, was a fiasco. The studies could not be replicated. It was clear by the turn of the century that a much broader approach would be necessary. This, however, would require the genotyping of tens of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (snips). A SNP is a change in a single one of the billions of rungs of the DNA ladder each of us carries. SNPs are one of the main reasons for differences in the DNA sequence among different human beings. To make matters worse, it was expected that sample sizes of a thousand or more individuals would have to be checked in this way to accumulate enough data to be statistically useful. At the time, such genome-wide association (GWA) studies would have been prohibitively expensive. Plomin notes that he attempted such an approach to find the DNA differences associated with intelligence, with the aid of a few shortcuts. He devoted two years to the study, only to be disappointed again. It was a second false start. Not a single DNA association with intelligence could be replicated.

Then, however, a major breakthrough began to make its appearance in the form of SNP chips.  According to Plomin, “These could “genotype many SNPs for an individual quickly and inexpensively. SNP chips triggered the explosion of genome-wide association studies.” He saw their promise immediately, and went back to work attempting to find SNP associations with intelligence. The result? A third false start. The chips available at the time were still too expensive, and could identify too few SNPs. Many other similar GWA studies failed miserably as well. Eventually, one did succeed, but there was a cloud within the silver lining. The effect size of the SNP associations found were all extremely small. Then things began to snowball. Chips were developed that could identify hundreds of thousands instead of just tens of thousands of SNPs, and sample sizes in the tens of thousands became feasible. Today, sample sizes can be in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of all this, revolutionary advances have been made in just the past few years. Numerous genome-wide significant hits have been found for a host of psychological traits. And now we know the reason why the initial studies were so disappointing. In Plomin’s words,

For complex traits, no genes have been found that account for 5 per cent of the variance, not even 0.5 per cent of the variance. The average effect sizes are in the order of 0.01 per cent of the variance, which means that thousands of SNP associations will be needed to account for heritabilities of 50 per cent… Thinking about so many SNPs with such small effects was a big jump from where we started twenty-five years ago. We now know for certain that heritability is caused by thousands of associations of incredibly small effect. Nonetheless, aggregating these associations in polygenic scores that combine the effects of tens of thousands of SNPs makes it possible to predict psychological traits such as depression, schizophrenia and school achievement.

In short, we now have a tool that, as I write this, is rapidly increasing in power, and that enables falsifiable predictions regarding many psychological traits based on DNA alone. As Plomin puts it,

The DNA revolution matters much more than merely replicating results from twin and adoption studies. It is a game-changer for science and society. For the first time, inherited DNA differences across our entire genome of billions of DNA sequences can be used to predict psychological strengths and weaknesses for individuals, called personal genomics.

As an appreciable side benefit, thanks to this revolution we can now officially declare the Blank Slate stone cold dead. It’s noteworthy that this revolutionary advance in our knowledge of the heritable aspects of our behavior did not happen in the field of evolutionary psychology, as one might expect. Diehard Blank Slaters have been directing their ire in that direction for some time. They could have saved themselves the trouble. While the evolutionary psychologists have been amusing themselves inventing inconsequential just so stories about the more abstruse aspects of our sexual behavior, a fifth column that germinated long ago in the field of behavioral genetics was about to drive the decisive nail in their coffin. Obviously, it would have been an inappropriate distraction for Plomin to expand on the fascinating history behind this development in Blueprint.  Read between the lines, though, and its quite clear that he knows what’s been going on.

It turns out that the behavioral geneticists were already astute at dodging the baleful attention of the high priests of the Blank Slate, flying just beneath their radar, at a very early date. A useful source document recounting some of that history entitled, Origins of Behavior Genetics: The Role of The Jackson Laboratory, was published in 2009 by Donald Dewsbury, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida. He notes that,

A new field can be established and coalesce around a book that takes loosely evolving material and organizes it into a single volume. Examples include Watson’s (1914) Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology and Wilson’s (1975) Sociobiology. It is generally agreed that Fuller and Thompson’s 1960 Behavior Genetics served a similar function in establishing behavior genetics as a separate field.

However, research on the effects of genes on behavior had already begun much earlier. In the 1930’s, when the Blank Slate already had a firm grip on the behavioral sciences, According to the paper, Harvard alumnus Alan Gregg, who was Director of the Medical Sciences Division of Rockefeller Foundation,

…developed a program of “psychobiology” or “mental hygiene” at the Foundation. Gregg viewed mental illness as a fundamental problem in society and believed that there were strong genetic influences. There was a firm belief that the principles to be discovered in nonhuman animals would generalize to humans. Thus, fundamental problems of human behavior might be more conveniently and effectively studied in other species.

The focus on animals turned out to be a very wise decision. For many years it enabled the behavioral geneticists to carry on their work while taking little flak from the high priests of the Blank Slate, whose ire was concentrated on scientists who were less discrete about their interest in humans, in fields such as ethology. Eventually Gregg teamed up with Clarence Little, head of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and established a program to study mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and, especially dogs. Gregg wrote papers about selective breeding of dogs for high intelligence and good disposition. However, as his colleagues were aware, another of his goals “was conclusively to demonstrate a high heritability of human intelligence.”

Fast forward to the 60’s. It was a decade in which the Blank Slate hegemony began to slowly crumble under the hammer blows of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Trivers, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and especially the outsider and “mere playwright” Robert Ardrey. In 1967 the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG) was established at the University of Colorado by Prof. Jerry McClearn with his colleagues Kurt Schlesinger and Jim Wilson. In the beginning, McClearn et. al. were a bit coy, conducting “harmless” research on the behavior of mice, but by the early 1970’s they had begun to publish papers that were explicitly about human behavior. It finally dawned on the Blank Slaters what they were up to, and they were subjected to the usual “scientific” accusations of fascism, Nazism, and serving as running dogs of the bourgeoisie, but by then it was too late. The Blank Slate had already become a laughing stock among lay people who were able to read and had an ounce of common sense. Only the “experts” in the behavioral sciences would be rash enough to continue futile attempts to breath life back into the corpse.

Would that some competent historian could reconstruct what was going through the minds of McClearn and the rest when they made their bold and potentially career ending decision to defy the Blank Slate and establish the IBG. I believe Jim Wilson is still alive, and no doubt could tell some wonderful stories about this nascent insurgency. In any case, in 1974 Robert Plomin made the very bold decision for a young professor to join the Institute. One of the results of that fortuitous decision was the superb book that is the subject of this post. As noted above, digression into the Blank Slate affair would only have been a distraction from the truly revolutionary developments revealed in his book. However, there is no question that that he was perfectly well aware of what had been going on in the “behavioral sciences” for many years. Consider, for example, the following passage, about why research results in behavioral genetics are so robust and replicate so strongly:

Another reason seems paradoxical: behavioral genetics has been the most controversial topic in psychology during the twentieth century. The controversy and conflict surrounding behavioral genetics raised the bar for the quality and quantity of research needed to convince people of the importance of genetics. This has had the positive effect of motivating bigger and better studies. A single study was not enough. Robust replication across studies tipped the balance of opinion.

As the Germans say, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stark” (What doesn’t kill me make me strong). If you were looking for a silver lining to the Blank Slate, there you have it. What more can I say. The book is a short 188 pages, but in those pages are concentrated a wealth of knowledge bearing on the critical need of our species to understand itself. If you would know yourself, then by all means, buy the book.

More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.


An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

“Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

…for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs

Of Race and Intelligence

An interesting article on intelligence recently turned up in Scott Barry Kaufman’s Beautiful Minds, one of the Scientific American blogs.  Entitled The Heritability of Intelligence:  Not What You Think, it described a recent study of the correlation of different types of cognitive ability with IQ, and the implications regarding the importance of culture to the development of those abilities.  In other words, it’s a nature versus nurture paper.  Indeed, it went so far as to allude to the significance of the study concerning the issue of racial IQ differences.  Can you guess, dear reader, the conclusion of the article, or at least its basic gist?  Of course!  The chances that the relentlessly politically correct Scientific American or any of its blogs would ever contain such a statement as, “There are significant racial differences in IQ, and genetic heritability accounts for a large component of those differences,” are about as likely as the chance that the Pope’s staff will suddenly sprout leaves.  Indeed, I sometimes suspect that Scientific American subscribes to the quantum entanglement theory of intelligence, according to which, if a really smart member of one race dies, an equally smart member of every other race dies at precisely the same moment, regardless of their spatial separation, to maintain exact parity between the IQ of the races.

And, true to form, the entirely predictable burden of the article was that culture accounts for the apparent IQ differences between blacks and whites.  That made the following bit from the article all the more surprising:

To be clear: these findings do not mean that differences in intelligence are entirely determined by culture. Numerous researchers have found that the structure of cognitive abilities is strongly influenced by genes (although we haven’t the foggiest idea which genes are reliably important). What these findings do suggest is that there is a much greater role of culture, education, and experience in the development of intelligence than mainstream theories of intelligence have assumed. Behavioral genetics researchers– who parse out genetic and environmental sources of variation– have often operated on the assumption that genotype and environment are independent and do not covary. These findings suggests they very much do.

There’s one more really important implication of these findings, which I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention.

Black-White Differences in IQ Test Scores

In his analysis of the US Army data, the British psychometrician Charles Spearman noticed that the more a test correlated with IQ, the larger the black-white difference on that test. Years later, Arthur Jensen came up with a full-fledged theory he referred to as “Spearman’s hypothesis: the magnitude of the black-white differences on tests of cognitive ability are directly proportional to the test’s correlation with IQ. In a controversial paper in 2005, Jensen teamed up with J. Philippe Rushton to make the case that this proves that black-white differences must be genetic in origin.

But these recent findings by Kees-Jan Kan and colleagues suggest just the opposite: The bigger the difference in cognitive ability between blacks and whites, the more the difference is determined by cultural influences.

Of course, as anyone who has actually read Jensen’s work is aware, he explicitly supported a correlation between culture and IQ.  And, of course, the author is evoking stark, nature-nurture divides where none exist in a fashion that would certainly bring a scowl to the face of orthodox evolutionary psychologists.  But beyond all that, what’s really stunning here is the author’s suggestion that the heritably of black/white intelligence differences is somehow the “orthodox” or mainstream point of view.  Doesn’t he actually read Scientific American himself?

After all, when Murray and Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, with its claim that IQ is 40% to 80% heritable, the SA review of their book called them racists.

After all,  In October 1973 a half-page advertisement entitled “Resolution Against Racism” appeared in the New York Times. With over 1000 academic signatories, it condemned “racist research”, denouncing in particular Jensen, Shockley and Herrnstein.

After all, The American Anthropological Association convened a panel discussion in 1969 at its annual general meeting, shortly after the appearance of Jensen’s first paper on the heritability of intelligence, where several participants labelled his research as “racist”.

After all, in a review of The Bell Curve, Steven Rosenthal referred to their work as “Academic Nazism.”

I could go on and on.  In a word, other than the absurd implication that “behavioral genetics researchers” claim that intelligence and culture do not co-vary (by all means, if anyone knows one, please name her/him), and other than the equally absurd implication that Jensen and Rushton believed that, because intelligence was, in part heritable, it was therefore uninfluenced by culture, quite apart from all that, the notion that the theoretical heritability of black/white intelligence differences is “mainstream” is ludicrous.  In fact, the “mainstream,” orthodox position, constantly reinforced in the popular as well as scientific literature, not to mention the pages of Scientific American, is that Jensen, Shockley, and Herrnstein, and those who agree with them, are deliberately evil racist miscreants.

Heaven forefend that I should ever stray from that orthodoxy by a jot or a tittle.  I do, however, think it would be quite interesting, though, of course, grossly immoral, if the dictator of some sub-Saharan country in Africa were to implement a draconian program of eugenics, exclusively for his country’s black population, promoting high IQ.  Suppose it were actually possible to keep it going for 200 or 300 years, and it actually succeeded (in spite of the fact that we don’t have “the foggiest idea” of where the relevant genes are, and because a = b, and b = c, it would quite clearly be mathematically impossible)?   At that point it would become necessary for the editors of Scientific American, at least in that country, to begin publishing articles proving that the lower IQ of whites compared to blacks was entirely an artifact of culture.  It might actually be quite amusing.

And, at the risk or provoking completely unwarranted accusations of political incorrectness, I might add that I wish it really would become as orthodox as Mr. Kaufman suggests to study inherited IQ differences between human groups, and even to come up with a useful metric for measuring the same.  True, it might offend some people, but, among other things, it might be quite useful as a tool for assessing the relative merits of the new moral systems that are cropping up these days.  We have certainly felt the lack of such a tool in the past.

In fact, the “covariance” between morality and intelligence has become quite pronounced in recent times.  This is particularly true of one of the “new-fashioned” moralities, of the type we are constantly assured we need to replace the old ones in the name of promoting “human flourishing.”  The one I have in mind is Marxism, and never did such a new secular religion, complete with a revolutionary new morality, introduce itself to the world with more extravagant promises of the “human flourishing” to come.  That’s where the usefulness of the proposed metric comes in.  I would maintain, quite apart from what was promised, that one of the most remarkable aspects of the reality of Marxist “human flourishing” that we have now been fortunate enough to witness has been the decapitation of at least two countries; the former Soviet Union and Cambodia.

In round numbers, 25 million of a population of something under 200 million in the Soviet Union, and two million of a population of around seven million in Cambodia, were shot, starved, or tortured to death in these two countries in the interest of promoting “human flourishing.”  These millions were not randomly chosen.  They were, in fact, an instance of reverse eugenics in action.  The historical source material is there in abundance for anyone who cares to look.  Read, for example, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner.  In both cases, the victims came disproportionately from the ranks of each nation’s best and brightest; its scientists, its engineers, its literary and philosophical intelligentsia, and anyone else who happened to be educated beyond the mean.

It seems to me wildly implausible that these events had no significant impact on the heritable cognitive abilities of the populations of these two nations, whether in the form of IQ or any other plausible measure.  Would not a metric of exactly what these effects were be extremely useful in helping us decide whether the whole project of coming up with yet another wonderful new morality is really in our best interests or not?  Who knows, we might find out that there are actually better ways to promote “human flourishing” after all.

The “Worry” of Chinese Eugenics

Click on the “About” link at the website, and you’ll  find that, was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere.  Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.

To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals.  This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?”  One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics.  In his words,

When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention.  China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.

He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:

The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of “bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca.  However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well.  Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.”  On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.

As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!”  All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses.  That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog.  It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs.  It exists because it promoted our survival in the past.  Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future?  Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals?  How much will all these moral niceties matter then?  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction.  The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small.  In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.

My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future.  I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals.  For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible.  There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up.  For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice.  I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach.  However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state.  States tend to serve their own interests.  Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies.  As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving.  Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.”  It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.

In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online.  In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally.  Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue.  To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals.  Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.


The Ethics of Individual Eugenics

Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring.  After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20’s and 30’s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not.  Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:

Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not.  I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.

Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding.  We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself.  In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good.  It stands to reason.  That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.

Morality exists because it evolved.  Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause.  Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved.  Specifically,  morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.

Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions.  Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one.  How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat?  His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method.  By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition.  Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins.  If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins.  If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win.  Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.

And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter.  Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim.  My whim is to survive.  It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival.  As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role.  Many of the intellectuals of the 20’s and 30’s believed in the perfectibility of the state.  They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism.  We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.

The Reincarnation of Eugenics

There’s an interesting link over at Chicago Boyz to what typically passes for a discussion of eugenics  in our day.  Of course, the issue has become toxic, thanks mainly to the antics of the Third Reich, and freedom of speech no longer applies.  Attempts to discuss it rationally are futile because of the social consensus that it is evil.  Most of us understand this, so that discussion of eugenics today normally emanates from the realm of the pathologically pious, in the context of their usual attempts to demonstrate their superior virtue.

It was not always so.  For example, their were some very interesting pro and con articles in Mencken’s American Mercury back in the mid-20’s.  In one exchange, the pro was H. M. Parshley, little known today, but a progressive who edited the first English version of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” and the con was none other than the equally progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.  In other words, eugenics was not a defining feature of the progressive narrative at the time.

Given the continued cancerous growth of the role of state power in people’s lives in the last century, and the emergence of totalitarian states that do not derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, but nevertheless presume to interfere in every aspect of the daily lives of their citizens, it would seem in retrospect that eugenics really was a very bad idea.  In fact, however, it has become a moot point.  Individuals already have the power to “vote with their feet” when it comes to controlling the genetic information they pass along to their offspring.  Their power to select for qualities such as intelligence, physical strength, size, emotional traits, etc., will only increase as our genetic knowledge continues to expand.  One can argue that the state should deprive individuals of the right to make such choices.  That, of course, would amount to a rebirth of eugenics.

“Designer Babies” and Transhumanism

Internet chatter over “designer babies” has died down considerably since early 2009, when a chain of fertility clinics headquartered in Los Angeles offered to allow prospective parents to select for cosmetic traits such as hair, eye, and skin color. However, the subject bears on the genetic future of mankind, and is of enduring importance whether the media gatekeepers are paying attention to it or not. The clinics in question quickly withdrew the offered services in response to the inevitable “storm of protest” by those who consider themselves the guardians of public morality.  Regardless, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the technology involved, has been around since the early 1990’s, and continues to advance. It involves checking the genetic material in a cell taken from an embryo very early in its development, when it only consists of about six cells. Initially developed to screen for diseases such as Down’s Syndrome, or reduce the probability of developing diseases such as diabetes or cancer, in principle it can be used to select for arbitrary inherited traits.  Recent research has focused on diseases and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia that do not appear traceable to simple genetic variations, and are more likely genetically heterogeneous; dependent on what is likely a complex combination of genetic factors.  As our knowledge increases along these lines, we will inevitably learn to better understand and eventually control the similarly complex genetic factors affecting cognitive ability, or intelligence.  One must hope that day comes sooner rather than later, and that when it comes, prospective parents will have the right to use it without state interference.

If we are to survive, we must become more intelligent, and the sooner the better.  The matter is urgent, and there is no alternative.  If we do survive, we will become more intelligent.  The only question is how.  Will it be by controlled genetic engineering, or by the “survival of the fittest” in the future holocausts we bring on ourselves because we are too stupid to avoid them?  Consider the events of the 20th century.  A great wave of popular idealism that had been growing ever stronger since the days of the American and French Revolutions among a large proportion of the most intelligent and highly educated elements of societies around the world metasticized into the incredibly destructive pseudo-religion, Communism.  The better part of a century and 100 million deaths later, we seem to have weathered that particular ideological storm, at least for the time being.  There is no compelling reason to believe that it was inevitable that we would, or that it was impossible that, under somewhat different but plausible conditions, Communist systems could have dominated the entire world, or that the resultant clash of ideologies might have culminated in a general nuclear exchange.  Orwell’s 1984 might very well have become a reality.  International boundaries might very well have been reduced to the role of marking where one North Korea ended, and another begun.  There is no guarantee that the outcome of the next storm will not be different. 

Communism was no historical anomaly.  It was a phenomenon dependent for its existence and its power on some of the best and brightest minds of its day.  As such, it provides us with an objective metric of our intelligence.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  Messianic Islamism has already begun occupying the ideological vacuum left by its demise, and the true believers of new and, perhaps, yet unheard of systems will surely swarm forth eventually to promote new “scientific” paths to the “salvation of humanity.”  Meanwhile, the technologies of mass destruction continue to develop at an alarming pace.  Unless we become intelligent enough to control them it is only a question of time until they are used.  If we take control of our own genetic future there is a slim chance that we will be able to avoid the worst.  If not, it will at least improve our chances of surviving it.

When it comes to making the necessary decisions, it would be best to leave the state out of it.  State eugenic programs have not been remarkably successful in the past, and they are unlikely to be more successful in the future, because states cannot be depended on to act in the interests of the individuals who are their citizens.  Individuals are remarkably acute judges of their own best interests.  Give individuals the power to use the technology or not, as they see fit.  Their genetic survival will be the metric of whether they made the right choices.  As noted in Psychology Today, they have always made those individual choices in the past by selectivity in the choice of a mate.  Technologies such as PGD will not change that.  It will merely give them the opportunity to make the choice more accurately.

Many articles have been written about the need to explore the “ethical” implications of the choices we must make about these technologies.  In fact, virtually anyone who describes themselves as a “bio-ethicist,” or, for that matter, an “ethics expert” of any other stripe is, objectively, a charlatan.  Their “ethical debates” are merely so much emotional posturing, in which the various sides carry on fantastical arguments about whose deeply felt emotions are the most “legitimate.”  Ethical debates that do not start with the recognition of the evolutionary origin of these emotions, of the reasons and conditions under which they evolved, and their nature as subjective constructs deriving from predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain, are no more rational than the raving of madmen. 

Values can never be legitimate in themselves.  They are, by their nature, subjective.  They exist, like virtually everything else of significance about us, because the wiring in the brain that gives rise to them promoted our survival.  If, then, one finds it necessary for some reason to pursue a “value,” none can rationally take precedence over survival.  That is the only “value” that can be accepted as seriously at issue here.  We can ignore the rest of the blather about “ethics,” because the “ethicists” quite literally do not know what they’re talking about.

I wish to survive, and I wish for my species and life in general to survive.  I don’t flatter myself that those wishes have any objective legitimacy, but, subjectively, I am very attached to them.  Assuming there are others out there who also wish to survive, I have a suggestion about how to fulfill that wish.  Let us become more intelligent as quickly as possible.