In Which Bryan Caplan Doesn’t Understand Evolution, Either

I’m sorry, Bryan. You’ve done some great work in the past, but this just hasn’t been your week:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Bryan, I’m right with you about the stupidity of anti-cloning arguments. Most of them are just plain silly and not even worth discussing (“Will clones be less than human?” Only if you treat them that way…). Many anti-cloning arguments were trotted out not so long ago about IVF, and before that they had an equally dismal run against the smallpox vaccine. Hooray for cloning!

But here’s where you’re wrong. You are deluding yourself when you say you will experience a “sublime bond” with your cloned son. The bond will be no more, and possibly a good bit less, than the bond shared between identical twins. Romanticizing cloning is just as silly as demonizing it. And the more you insist on the reality of that sublime bond, the more your cloned son is going to rebel against you. Perhaps he will even end up as a Marxist. It would serve you right, frankly.

I also have to say I am always puzzled when people — it seems to be exclusively straight people — valorize their own genes so much. Your genes are nothing special. They are shared by thousands of other people, in different combinations, all across the world. What you do or don’t do with them will scarcely affect your genes’ chances of survival at all. This is thanks to the thousands of others who also carry precisely the same genes — the same genes for brown hair, or pale skin, or hemoglobin, or whatever. Will your genes survive? It depends vastly more on what they do, and hardly at all on what you do.

Your genes are not little avatars of your Self. They are not post-theistic souls on which to pin your dashed hopes for immortality. They are not even alive, for crying out loud. Want to save your genes for all eternity? Build a fifty-foot granite monument and inscribe them. It would work about as well for your purposes.

Your genes are codified ways for building proteins, nothing more and nothing less. These different ways of building proteins play out an intricate mathematical game across some infinitely vast, unpredictable, and constantly changing dimensions of fitness. Just as with prices in the spontaneous order of economics, you cannot possibly know what makes one gene or set of genes better or worse in all possible circumstances. Nor should you try. Trying just shows that you don’t really understand the nature of the game that you are professing to control.

Imagining that you can change the course of evolution (which some, naively, seem to think that they can do by reproducing, and particularly by cloning, although I’m not sure Bryan does think this way) is every bit as naive as thinking, on learning the bare laws of supply and demand, that you can influence the market price by agreeing to buy a product at more than the market price. You’ve done nothing particularly interesting or notable, and nothing that necessarily influences outcomes for the system as a whole. But, you know, thanks for playing.

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31 thoughts on “In Which Bryan Caplan Doesn’t Understand Evolution, Either

  1. The argument against wide-spread cloning is precisely that evolution prevents plague and contagion through hybrid vigor; genetic diversity makes it far less likely that individual medical conditions can cause significant population decline that can threaten entire species.

    This is why species of banana and other fruit we like to eat are always going extinct; we breed them to look and taste exactly the same over and over again, eliminate hybrid vigor and lose them to contagion.

    Of course, that’s all remote, and you’re right about most everything. I have to tell you, though, that I think your last paragraph is guilty of exactly the same spirit that you are hear accusing Caplan of, if you think about it. In the way you are talking and thinking about evolution, that is.


    • @Freddie, it’s a complicated question when you try to match hybrid vigor against the benefits we’d get from, say, a second Beethoven. On the margin, two Beethovens would be fantastic, and the dangers are nil. But keep adding more Beethovens, and eventually they all die from the same plague. And meanwhile they wrote so much music that most of it will never even get recorded.

      And all that’s assuming that Beethoven’s talent was thanks purely to his genetics, which I don’t think it was.

      As to the criticism of the last paragraph, I am not as sure of what you’re getting at. I meant to say, if I can be a bit more formal about it, that the results of a spontaneous order are not subject to direct individual influence. Individuals can change their individual actions, but these typically have so little weight as to be trivial in the overall order.


      • @Jason Kuznicki, Ah ok I think I misread you in the last bit.

        And all that’s assuming that Beethoven’s talent was thanks purely to his genetics, which I don’t think it was.

        Right, or that Bryan Caplan’s more modest talents– or more importantly for his point, his personality– are the product of genetics, which is problematic at best. I know we live in an era that celebrates genetic determinism, but I think that is quite a stretch. I always make the identical twin connection in these debates– if there is something inherently “creepy” about clones, why not identical twins– and here, too, it’s instructive: many identical twins have deeply divergent personalities.


        • @Freddie, I’d just add that some societies in fact have demonized twins. Chinua Achebe describes this fear among the Ibo in Things Fall Apart. It stood out as a glaring evil in the midst of otherwise very decent social institutions.


    • @Mike at The Big Stick,

      Nope. Identical twin studies already show a significant likelihood (but not a certainty) of being gay based on having an identical twin who is gay, even when the two twins are raised in different (postnatal) environments.

      In other words, we already know enough to answer the narrowest form of the “nature” versus “nurture” question, and the answer is “a little of each.”


    • @Mike at The Big Stick, The Older Brothers Hypothesis is an important piece in this whole puzzle, in that it is a seemingly physiological influence on human sexual behavior that is nevertheless not genetic.

      It’s all an empirical question, and the science is still nascent. My guess is that it is a complicated combination of influences, and that all reductive readings (like nature or nurture) are insufficient.


      • @Freddie, I agree entirely, even though I am the oldest brother in my family, my husband is the oldest brother in his family, and all of our younger brothers are straight and married to women.

        It’s a complicated question. One logical possibility that can’t yet be dismissed is that homosexuality may have multiple, distinct causes, each of which produces roughly the same effect, or at any rate a set of effects that appear identical to us so far.

        This though is a lot less satisfying for any politics of homosexuality that I can imagine, so I sort of understand why it doesn’t get much attention.


        • @Jason Kuznicki, what are the political implications of the nature/nurture distinction? Is it to make some bizarre claim that homosexuality is a choice or an aberration? I have so little contact with the anti-gay crowd that I honestly can’t fathom.

          Even if homosexuality is a purely learned trait, I think it’s still reasonable to say that it’s one that cannot change later in life. In the same way that children who do not learn to speak by a certain age cannot do so at all, sexual preference seems like something that becomes fixed at an early stage of life regardless of how it came about to begin with.


          • @trizzlor, the usual claim from the anti-gay side is that homosexuality is a choice or else a deeply ingrained bad habit. It may take a long time to unlearn, but it definitely can and should be unlearned. Folks of that belief set tend to stress that “the gay gene is as myth,” as if anyone on my side were seriously saying that there were one. Nearly all gays and many lesbians will say they experience their orientation as unchangable, but they aren’t saying it’s caused solely by a gene or genes.


  2. “I also have to say I am always puzzled when people — it seems to be exclusively straight people — valorize their own genes so much. ”

    Meanwhile all us gay people valorize our jeans above our genes. Ha-HAH!


  3. I’m just going to have my head freeze-dried. You want to live forever? Well, cut your head off and freeze it and wait for us to be able to grow you the body you’ve always wanted in a vat.

    10 times better than a clone who will, inevitably, point out that “you aren’t my *real* dad”.


  4. Will your genes survive? It depends vastly more on what they do, and hardly at all on what you do.

    Yes and no. It is true that most genes are replicated many times over throughout the population thus meaning that any given individual will have an insignificant effect on the frequency of his or her particular set of genes, just as any one individual’s vote has an insignificant effect on a national election.

    However, claiming that “[i]t depends vastly more on what [your genes] do and hardly at all on what you do” clouds the issue, because what you do is indeed part of what your genes do, to the extent that your gene’s doings are what is responsible for their proliferation. The very reason that one’s genes exist today is because various similar combinations of genes have in the past driven their corresponding individuals to pass them on.

    Of course, when it comes to cloning, we are dealing with a behavior without precedent in our ancestral past, so there obviously isn’t a gene or set of genes that drive people to clone themselves. So, while Bryan hypothetically cloning himself would increase the frequency of his genes relative to the rest of humanity, it would be by a vanishingly small amount and would likely have little to no impact on how long various genes of his persisted. So you are right on that count.

    Your genes are codified ways for building proteins, nothing more and nothing less.

    Again, true, but I think that the framing of this point is misleading. While genes do code for the production of proteins, normally in such a way as to create a functioning organism and how the organism behaves depends a great deal on the environment, a significant and sometimes disregarded part of a gene’s environment is indeed the set of genes that it is bundled with in an organism. As such, clone of Bryan would be remarkably similar to Bryan himself, since it would have essentially the same bundle of genes (with a few mutations, of course). So, both because of the noticed similarities and because of how both individuals would react to the knowledge of their relationship, there probably would be a special bond, perhaps as Bryan put it, a sublime bond. I agree that it wouldn’t be the same as the bond between identical twins. My brothers, who are fraternal twins, have a special bond themselves, which arises out of being raised together at the same age.

    However, knowledge of genetic relationships isn’t meaningless. I remember the reaction I had (at age 12) when my mother told me that I had been conceived by artificial insemination by anonymous donor rather than by my father–I went to another room and cried, for no rational reason. I certainly didn’t have a well developed abstract notion of genetics at the time or a particular desire for my genes or my father’s genes to be passed on, but for whatever reason, knowing that my father wasn’t genetically related to me saddened me. I suspect that for similar reasons, the knowledge that they shared essentially the same set of genes would create a special bond between Bryan and his hypothetical son.

    As such, I don’t think that your criticism holds.


    • @Meng Bomin, I fear you’ve misunderstood me. When I wrote that it depends vastly more on what “they” do, the referent to the pronoun was “the countless other people who also carry the same genes.” I wasn’t referring to the genes themselves, which are best viewed deterministically and not as intentional actors.

      As to irrational attachment to one’s genes, I agree that it is irrational, but not that it is unreal. Obviously it exists. Personally, I have mild-to-moderate contempt for my own genes, because I either suffer from or am a carrier of several reasonably unpleasant genetic traits, including defective teeth, deafness, and celiac disease. Why anyone would or should want my genes is mysterious to me. I view them as a curse, and I’m happy that my daughter is adopted.


  5. “Perhaps he will even end up as a Marxist”

    This is a genuine question: can someone explain this comment? I’m English, and it seems to me that this is supposed to be either (1) a slightly tongue in cheek reference to what, for some people, is the worst fate that could befall someone; or (2) it actually *is* the worst fate that can befall someone.

    I’m not a Marxist, but some of my best friends are Marxists (possibly).


  6. As a technical matter, unless Caplan’s nuclear DNA goes into a denucleated egg from a female relative who shares the same female ancestor through a chain of females, his clone won’t be 100% genetically identical, due to mtDNA. Granted, mtDNA probably isn’t a key determinant of personality, but if you want to be precise about this….

    Then there’s the normal flora in his body, which influence nutrient uptake, immunity, and probably inflammation, and hence anything influenced by them. Although he could probably find some gross ways to pass those on, I imagine the clone’s response to eating Bryan Caplan’s shit….


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