Gene Expression

Orac has a rather thorough post on eugenics, and what Richard Dawkins has recently had to say on it. Here is the dictionary.com definition of eugenics:

…the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, esp. by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).


First, in a historical context Dawkins’ addressing the question of eugenics makes sense. His intellectual forebears, William D. Hamilton and the great R.A. Fisher took a great interest in the topic. I have commented on Hamilton’s perceived nuttiness in this area before, reading a lot of his work you often get the feeling what was he thinking, saying that! In my interview with David Haig he was reluctant to even comment on Hamilton’s ideas (see question #6). Fisher was a eugenicist who practiced what he preached, raising a large family because of his beliefs. But, a note, Fisher emphasized positive eugenics, Hamilton’s most alarming comments (e.g., mooting infanticide of the unfit) tended to be fixed on negative eugenics. Negative eugenics has a long and unfortunate track record, with the Nazi genocide being its apotheosis.

In a contemporary sense eugenics will happen. Genomics guarantees that people will selectively abort and sift through their embryos. The abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome is not eugenics because these individuals cannot reproduce, but that is “proof of principle.” So it is important that intellectuals do discuss and address these topics so as a society we make decisions in line with our universal values. A peculiar aspect of modern testing is disassortative mating of individuals with unfit combinations. The testing of Jews for recessive diseases actually is anti-eugenical in that selection against the deleterious allele is prevented.

Finally, evolutionary biologists allude to eugenical ideas in personal communication all the time. Not that they do anything about it, but it isn’t like it isn’t in the scientific Zeitgeist ready to “break out.” Just wait.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 27, 2006

    What about ewe genetics? After all, sheep were among the first mammals to be cloned.

  2. #2 Reale
    November 27, 2006

    The abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome is not eugenics because these individuals can not reproduce, but that is “proof of principle.”

    Even if you can’t reproduce, aren’t you still a burden to society if you cost it more than you contribute to the common good? Seems to me it will still be eugenics if you choose an embryo unafflicted by Down’s syndrome over one afflicted with it.

  3. #3 razib
    November 27, 2006

    Seems to me it will still be eugenics if you choose an embryo unafflicted by Down’s syndrome over one afflicted with it.

    DS isn’t heritable, though it is age/pregnancy # dependent. it isn’t a real change in allele frequencies over the long term, just a reduction in the basal mutational load generated de novo in each generation. the overall character of the population doesn’t change much as DS individuals are a trivial %.

  4. #4 Scott
    November 28, 2006

    The “Draka” series by S.M. Stirling addresses the potential downsides of eugenics. It can be real scary if someone else starts deciding who can and cannot bread. On the one hand, if science comes up with a “fix” for a genetic disease, what parent would willingly subject their child to a preventable ailment? Sounds reasonable, right? But what if science comes up with a “tweak” that would increase your child’s IQ by 20 points, or increase his/her strength or reflexes by 10%, with no down sides? What parent (with the money) would turn down that opportunity? If the tools become available, self directed eugenics seems inevitable.

  5. #5 Daedalus
    November 28, 2006

    Finally, evolutionary biologists allude to eugenical ideas in personal communication all the time. Not that they do anything about it, but it isn’t like it isn’t in the scientific Zeitgeist ready to “break out.” Just wait.

    What do you think of James Watson and Lee Silver?

  6. #6 chet snicker
    November 28, 2006

    silver is less of a nut than watson, though watson-style comments are what i am alluding to.

    (watson has a background in organismic biology as an ornithologist, but i wouldn’t call him an evolutionary biologist)

  7. #7 dougjnn
    November 28, 2006

    Ok, OT but brief.

    In THE NAME OF SCIENCE, participate in a meme propagation speed and pathways experiment in real time! Just takes a moment.

  8. #8 dougjnn
    November 28, 2006

    Ok, trying again. (Ignore post immediately above.) OT but brief.

    In THE NAME OF SCIENCE, participate in a meme propagation speed and pathways experiment in real time! Just takes a moment.

  9. #9 dougjnn
    November 28, 2006

    ON topic. At least so far as transgenics is related to eugenics.

    Michael Crichton’s got a hot new work of fiction out concerning ‘geneticists gone wild’, fittingly titled “Next”, that’s gotten a pretty much rave review in today’s NY Times. That’s perhaps a bit surprisingly — after his Global Warming skeptical “State of Fear”, that is. Well, Janet Maslin, who’s taking a break from film reviewing lately, is perhaps a bit less party line than many there, though hardly a general iconoclast.

    Anyway, it features such developments as a chimp/man mix arising from embryo research that unexpectedly became viable and “got out of hand”, and many other things.

    According to Maslin in addition to being as fast paced as is Crichton’s usual trademark, the events portrayed are well researched and usually not such a stretch in the near future.

    Thought it might just be of some interest around here. :0

  10. #10 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 28, 2006

    as fast paced as is Crichton’s usual trademark

    Can we expect the usual wooden characters and predictable plot as well?

  11. #11 DuWayne
    November 29, 2006

    Chet -
    Thanks for helping this discussion along. I hope a lot more people pick up on this, besides the fearmongers.

    Scott -
    Is Stirling horror? My must reads for eugenics would be, Huxley’s Brave New World, kind of goes without saying, Herbert’s Dune series and Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

    Personaly I am intruiged by Heinlein’s notion of a private organization that builds a voluntary eugenics project. My general fear would be that such a project could evolve into Herbert’s vision of a eugenics project kept consistent by using a perpetual aristocracy.

  12. #12 Russell Blackford
    November 30, 2006

    I’ve just read Silver’s new book and can confirm that he is far from being a nut – not that Watson is nutty either, just refreshingly forthright. I’ll look forward to Crichton’s new book, but what can you say? Crichton writes thrillers. That’s honorable – and I’ve done it myself with a lot less success – but it means he has to portray danger and conflict. His books always need to be read in that context.

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