Dawkins Sticks His Foot In It…Again

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar North
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    says:

    Man what a stupid thing for him to say. Yeah if we wanted to breed humans to have floppy ears or be, on average, taller or shorter we could certainly try to do so and reasonably expect to get some results along with a mountain of horrific abuse. But most of the traits Dawkins would want to breed for aren’t so easily measured to selected for. Also with humans having such a longer life cycle than dogs or horses the logistical challenges would be enormous even if the breeding pool could somehow be made obedient to the inhumane diktats of the breeders.

    Over all I agree Michael- it’s amazing how fishing stupid smart people can be. Lucky thing for him we don’t have some policy of banning people who say idiotic shit from breeding. He’d be outta luck.Report

  2. Avatar George Turner
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    says:

    Dawkins scores a lot of own-goals for team Science.Report

  3. Avatar DavidTC
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    says:

    Eugenics works if we a) have a few very specific things we are selecting for, b) have a way to test those things objectively, and c) exercise total control over the breeding.

    Literally none of those are true for people.

    B and C are something that gets overlooked a lot, in fact. Because some of the crappiest gene pools belong to the people with a lot of power and money, for example, various royal families have had a lot of hemophiliacs, which is an objectively bad genetic condition. It doesn’t confer any advantage at all and almost meant a death before reproductive age, so the only reason it survived in that gene pool is because royalty had a hell of a lot of help. We do not have any sort of objective ‘survival of the fittest’.

    And that’s an extreme example, but it’s true at almost every level. Because if you actually start looking at eugenics in any objective sense, you have to notice that, in actuality, poor people tend to be heartier, because if they aren’t…they get sick and die, as opposed to the wealthy, who get sick and get really expensive medical treatment. If you’re a poor person who lived to adulthood on crappy fast food and no health care, you’re genetically way better at this ‘living thing’ than the wealthy person who is deathly allergic to peanuts and is on three different blood pressure medications.

    I mean, hell, I myself am _alive_ because my parents had pretty good health insurance when I was born, which saved my life, and thus my crappy genes and the heart conditions that exist in my family could live for another generation. (Well, that’s not likely for me, I don’t ever want kids, but hypothetically.)

    But, of course, ‘We should sterilize some of the rich who are only alive due to very good medical care that others can’t afford.’, (despite being somewhat hilarious as a conclusion), is not a conclusion eugeneticists will come to, because they’re literally trying to justify the opposite belief. They are thinking of culling _less_ successful people, whose success they have hallucinated is due to intelligence.Report

  4. Avatar James K
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    says:

    There are certain things that social scientists get taught that physical scientists don’t, because there are things you need to know when you study people that don’t matter so much when you’re studying electrons or strands of DNA.

    One of those things is that “good” and its derivatives are slippery. In order for them to mean anything you have to establish a set of evaluative criteria and different people will have different criteria. This means that there is no such thing as objectively superior genes. Sometimes you can get a broad consensus, but there will be contentious cases.

    To put it another way, selective breeding works on animals, but it works for animal breeders.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K
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      says:

      Are there any genetic diseases that are objectively things that we don’t want?

      Is “avoiding bad” good?Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        As I said, there will be some things that have broad social consensus as being bad or good, but of course even this can be treacherous.

        We’re on pretty.safe ground with onatinggenetic diseases that cause death or severe impairment, but sometimes there can still be contention.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K
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          says:

          (“onatinggenetic”?)

          I’m down with arguing that this is a slope that has proven slippery in the past and given how slippery it was for others, I doubt that it will fail to be slippery for us.

          But the idea that we need be actively opposed to stuff like genetic testing for markers for various diseases and saying “you two people probably ought not date” strikes me as willful ignorance at best.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird
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            says:

            Sorry, that was a severe failure of my phone’s autocorrect. That was supposed to say “eliminating genetic”.

            I’m on board with voluntary genetic testing, I’m on board (with some caveats) for self-directed genetic modification.

            It’s the “you shouldn’t date” part where I start to get antsy.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K
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              says:

              For the record, the distinction I’m making is between “you shouldn’t date” and “you two shouldn’t date each other”.

              It’s the latter that strikes me as unfortunate but. (The former is kinda nuts.)Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Jaybird
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                says:

                “… because she’s your sister.”

                I think we’re on pretty safe ground on most of this.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Jaybird
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                says:

                What about the (still hypothetical) ‘You both are carriers for this recessive disease, so we will create an fertilized egg from two of your gametes that do not get the trait from both of you…and we go even farther and make sure it doesn’t get even one of them’?

                That sorta solves that problem, and even if only the people ‘at risk’ (Aka, who are both carriers) do that, that would slowly remove the genes from the gene pool.

                Of course, you can’t have that sort of thing without having sex selection, and that by itself is going to cause a hell of a lot of problems, so maybe I’m thinking about the wrong thing there.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    When you breed only the best people to the best people, you wind up with Charles II of Spain.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      Charles wasn’t bred for “best” he was bred for “most”

      “The Habsburgs had a genius for marrying princesses and inheriting their lands when no direct male heirs were available”

      But, on point… its the definition of “the good” that drives the breeding program.Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    Lots of horrible things “worked”, in the sense of “achieved their stated primary objective”. Prohibition worked; there was almost no drinking while it was in effect, and even after Repeal there was less drinking than there had been before. Stalin’s agricultural policies worked, in the sense that the places where he put people had more agricultural output than they had previously.

    They didn’t work well, and there were all kinds of awful side-effects, but to say they didn’t work is not true, and that’s what makes the argument against them hard. Because “it worked, but not as well as we wanted” can have all kinds of excuses and re-plans and “if only we fought harder” things, and arguments that it didn’t work are easily countered by pointing to the fact that it did.Report

  7. Avatar Dark Matter
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    says:

    I’m not getting notified of all OT subjects, just some of them. How do I sign up for notifications?

    RE: Dawkins
    My assumption is he’s selling a book and needs to raise his profile.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    An interesting thread that explains that Eugenics just wouldn’t *WORK*. And “work” is defined! I don’t agree entirely with what he has to say (e.g., he used autism and schizophrenia as examples of things that people would want to avoid rather than Tay Sachs, the example that I would ask about… and my criticisms don’t stop there) but he does a lot of heavy lifting here.

    Report

    • Avatar Ozzzy! in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      The bene gesserit actually started with the planned sharing of genetic material between Davosers and Occupiers.

      QED.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      Another reason is that humans are exposed to very different environments, so most of trait variation is not due to genetic factors but to differences in environment.

      For many traits, including cognitive ability, this is simply wrong. Twin studies in developed countries, including the US, typically find that 70-80% of variation in adult IQ is attributable to genetics, with most of the remainder attributable to nonshared environment (seemingly random stuff we can’t control or explain, not stuff like parental income).

      It’s also worth nothing that, despite the name, eugenics works just as well for traits transmitted via shared environment as it does for traits transmitted genetically. If criminals tend to have children who commit crimes, it doesn’t matter in the least whether that’s genetic or environmental—if we reduce the fertility of convicted criminals, there will be less crime in the next generation.

      With a recessive disease it may be possible to eliminate cases of the disease from the population using a combination of carrier testing, prenatal screening and selective termination. However this is not eugenics because the variants are still present in the population.

      This could also be done to reduce the frequency of recessive alleles, although at this point it’s probably not worth it. It’s worth noting, also, that there are some dominant genetic diseases, like Huntington disease and most forms of familial ALS. If you know that you have Huntington disease and you choose to have a child without PGS, you are a garbage human being and you deserve to die of Huntington disease.

      He’s correct that the biggest logistical problem is that humans have very long generation times. Genetic engineering would render eugenics obsolete before it had a chance to bear fruit.

      I still think we should sterilize people convicted of violent felonies, though. We don’t need violent criminals dropping the kids off at the gene pool, so to speak.

      Also anyone who’s ever participated in a Twitter mob. Just one generation of that was more than enough.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        Hated in the Nation, but unironically.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        I still think we should sterilize people convicted of violent felonies, though. We don’t need violent criminals dropping the kids off at the gene pool, so to speak.

        What about the descendants of a person convicted of a violent felony? Bobby has two young kids, Billy and Betty, then Bobby commits murder. Should Billy and Betty be sterilized to keep the gene pool clean?Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Stillwater
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          says:

          That would produce results faster, but it’s problematic because they haven’t actually committed any crimes, which means we don’t have the easy justification we have for sterilizing the actual criminals. So no. But the trade-off here is that people will be murdered. Not by this particular Billy or Betty, but multiplied it by 100,000, and you have some corpses showing up that wouldn’t otherwise have.

          The bloodline of Twitter trash must be purged without exception, though.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        If criminals tend to have children who commit crimes, it doesn’t matter in the least whether that’s genetic or environmental—if we reduce the fertility of convicted criminals, there will be less crime in the next generation.

        If what’s going on is _environmental_, then it seem significant that a lot of children of criminals, even one that go on to become criminals, are not _raised_ by said criminals. If there’s a area where 40% of the kids who grow up raised by single mothers become criminals, and also most of the men roaming around are criminals, then sterilizing those men would…still result in the same percentage of kids becoming criminals, because it’s the same environment. I guess the argument could be there might be less kids _overall_, but…would there be? Do we have any real evidence of that?

        And regardless, at that point the argument is really: We need to sterilize the _poor_, not the criminal.

        That’s the argument you’re actually making there, like it or not.Report

      • Avatar Swami in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        I too disagree with much of the article. Eugenics would clearly work, and we don’t need to know which genes do what any more than livestock breeders knew two centuries ago. If we select for the desired traits, whatever that might be, and bred people with those traits, we would quickly get more people with desired trait.

        Yes, we would probably get undesired side effects.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Swami
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          says:

          Yes, we would probably get undesired side effects.

          Giving the gov this kind of power puts us deep into Nazi territory. If I’m a politician appeasing my religious right base, then why shouldn’t I be using serious eugenics against their religious rivals or even my own political rivals or my rivals’ base?

          If we select for the desired traits, whatever that might be, and bred people with those traits, we would quickly get more people with desired trait.

          We already do. Human intelligence is our “peacock’s tail”, the vast levels we have is used for navigating our complex social environment which is key for attracting a mate. Someone at the bottom of the mental stability/sanity/inteligence pile(*) has a lot of difficulty in “being successful” and that includes finding a mate. Our brains are hugely expensive, so expensive that if we didn’t need them for basic reproduction we would lose them.

          (*) I don’t mean “minimum wage”, I mean “has problems with doors or basic communication”.Report

          • Avatar Swami in reply to Dark Matter
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            says:

            Yeah, and that is why Dawkins and everyone else isn’t recommending eugenics. It is a bad idea to give someone this power. A terrible idea.

            But…. I suspect parents will be doing this in the very near future. They will use our imperfect but not impotent knowledge of the genome to make choices on which babies to take to term. Decentralized, voluntary Selective breeding may not be eugenics, but it will lead to huge changes to human populations in very few generations. Again, not all desirable or intended.

            (Adding on, I notice you said something similar but even more insightful right below)Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      eh. I’ll quote my comment from earlier: when someone says “it works, except for (thing) that makes it not work”, the very first thing they’re saying is that it works.

      Like, “humans have long generational times!” okay, so it’s a long project, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “it’s hard to identify the proper subjects!” mandatory genetic screening at the whole-country level. “de novo mutations happen!” okay, so add “produced a de novo mutation” to the list of things that you screen for in your “these genetic profiles should not have children” law.

      I mean, if you want to say that something is impossible, then you need a better reason than “because we don’t want to”, because once someone comes along who does want to, suddenly it’s not impossible.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        Some people really hate to acknowledge trade-offs. Something can’t be bad but have some good results. If something is bad, it must be utterly incapable of producing any good results. No cloud has a silver lining.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        Yeah, the main thing that I kept noticing is that there were engineering solutions to all of the problems he mentioned except for the moral ones.

        Which is, I suppose, why it’s so important to hammer on the moral ones.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        This reminds me of the Computational Problem that libertarians talk about, where they note that the degree of control needed to completely direct all the factors of production is impossible because the marketplace of human desires is so complex.

        The point the doctor makes in his twitter feed is that the chromosomes that produce undesirable traits are so complex that to establish a government genetic database which could track literally every human genetic makeup and accurately predict the offspring of any given mating would be far more difficult than predicting the Five Year Plan of consumer production.

        I think when people say “impossible” this is what they mean, that a task would require such a freakish distortion of our world that it goes beyond our ability to imagine it.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          We are already catching criminals by their relatives four and five generations removed putting their genes up for public review. It would be easy, almost trivial, for everyone in the world to put their genes in some public database. This may even happen over the next century.

          We have already identified a number of nasty genes, this will also increase. After that it is trivial to decide you won’t have kids with people whose nasty recessive genes match your own.

          You don’t need to predict everything in order to have a lot of benefit.

          Now if we want to enter into designer baby territory, and we’re going to get there too, then it’s no longer necessary to worry about recessives.

          If it’s taking the best genes (and where you don’t know what is “best” you can flip a coin) from both parents and exclude diseased genes then that’s probably fine.

          Where we truly get into twilight zone is with ordering genes off the shelf. I googled “dense bones” and found a guy who silly tough bones because of his genes, apparently without much in terms of side effects. You can do the same with muscles, most people have muscles designed to atrophy if they’re not used… presumably to resist starvation when the next famine happens, but there are genes for muscles which don’t do that and the people with that are significantly stronger than normal with less effort.

          There is a genetic component to intelligence, the issue is complex, however this hits the radar as something which is only complex until someone figures out the answer.

          This is where society is going. It will take a while, but the technology will drive this and it will be fine. We should be cool with the idea that various genetic diseases are destroyed. We should be cool with the idea that our children’s grand children will be much healthier than us simply because of their genes. We’re looking at the next generation’s equiv of vaccinations.

          Even if we assume these are good(?) ideas at some level, it seems like a bad idea to give these abilities and choices to the government. The gov has a history of abusing these sorts of things, and letting it openly commit genocide seems like something which invites abuse.

          Having said that, I’m a lot better with the idea that parents will be able to select their children’s genes. If parents deliberately inflicting sickle cell anemia on their kids becomes a thing, then we can deal with that specifically… but I doubt it will become a thing.Report

  9. Avatar KenB
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    says:

    Twitter led me to this essay about the kerfuffle, and it’s a nice analysis of the overall category of argument, discussing in terms of “decoupling” vs “contextualizing” and tying back to the whole Klein vs Harris unpleasantness.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to KenB
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      says:

      That was a good essay.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to KenB
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      says:

      And tying back to discussions here, about books, where some are saying “this book made me feel bad and that means it’s a bad book and there can’t be anything good in it” or “the people that this book is about are bad and therefore the book is bad”.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to KenB
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      says:

      And that essay led me to this essay:

      https://unherd.com/thepost/without-god-its-harder-to-defend-against-eugenics/

      a lot to think about on this topic, no?Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        Yes, and it has been thought about, quite often.

        The author of that essay uses “God” interchangeably with a belief in human dignity and worth. She assumes that the belief in human dignity and equal worth is a necessary prerequisite for religious faith.

        Which for the most part* may be true, but those beliefs aren’t exclusive to deists. I think that the vast majority of unchurched people, whether lapsed churchgoers, agnostics, or atheists have a firm faith-based belief in the fundamental equality of all persons and their inherent dignity.

        This belief may be a necessary prerequisite of religion, but religion isn’t a necessary prerequisite to the belief.

        *The historical justification for slavery, mass exterminations, and other horrors by religious people suggests that if they so desired, a religious argument in favor of breeding humans like cattle could be whipped up in a jiffy.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          The historical justification for slavery, mass exterminations, and other horrors by religious people suggests that if they so desired, a religious argument in favor of breeding humans like cattle could be whipped up in a jiffy.

          That, exactly.

          God is on all sides of every argument. He’s a rhetorical technique or tool, not a cop policing his followers.Report

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