Mike the Mad Biologist

…I think he’s right (don’t tell driftglass). From the NY Times:

For a time, it seemed as if we were about to use the bright beam of science to illuminate the murky world of human action. Instead, as Turkheimer writes in his chapter in the book, “Wrestling With Behavioral Genetics,” science finds itself enmeshed with social science and the humanities in what researchers call the Gloomy Prospect, the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.

The prospect may be gloomy for those who seek to understand human behavior, but the flip side is the reminder that each of us is a Luxurious Growth. Our lives are not determined by uniform processes. Instead, human behavior is complex, nonlinear and unpredictable. The Brave New World is far away. Novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.

Just as important is the implication for politics. Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.

Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.

In some conservative circles, claiming a genetic basis for intelligence is all the rage (because then you don’t have to spend money trying to educate those people). Thankfully, one prominent conservative isn’t doing so.

Comments

  1. #1 D
    July 16, 2008

    Saying that intelligence has nothing to do with genes is plain bizarre – there’s a reason no bonobo does calculus.

    I *think* the controversy is about there are any genetic effects that might help account for group level differences observed in the results of IQ tests.

  2. #2 Katharine
    July 16, 2008

    I have a bunch of posts about this in my blog.

    Genes do affect your intelligence, but conservatives don’t know how to interpret the data and use it to make racist/sexist conjectures about other people.

  3. #3 windy
    July 16, 2008

    Brooks’ conclusion may be to your liking, but the article itself is shallow and muddled (although Brooks is not a scientist, so common misconceptions about genetics are understandable)

    Brooks uses totalitarian regimes that tried to biologically or socially re-engineer humans to conclude that trying to re-engineer society “on the basis of what we think we know” is a bad idea. How does that follow exactly? Why should the statement that we’ll never understand human behavior be a source of optimism?

    As Jim J. Manzi pointed out in a recent essay in National Review, if a trait like aggressiveness is influenced by just 100 genes, and each of those genes can be turned on or off, then there are a trillion trillion possible combinations of these gene states.

    Leaving aside the fact that usually it’s not so simple as turning whole genes “on or off”, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 100 SNPs or other types of genetic variants affected human height, but you don’t tend to hear so much about the inherent impossibility of studying a biological basis to human height.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    July 16, 2008

    Brooks’ conclusion may be to your liking, but the article itself is shallow and muddled (although Brooks is not a scientist, so common misconceptions about genetics are understandable)

    Not only that, but the writing (as always for the motherfucking asshole) is absolutely execrable. What he does to English sentences should be banned by the Geneva Convention.

  5. #5 Colugo
    July 16, 2008

    To be sure, Brooks is clearly not a professional biologist. But I’m with Mike on this one.

    Stuart Kauffman once made a similar point about combinations of gene expression.

    I think Brooks’ point is that the complexity of human nature thwarts totalitarian aspirations in the long run and that attempts to craft a psychosocially ‘perfected’ human are bound to fail. It’s a message that conservatives and progressives alike should heed.

    Peter Singer (Princeton), 2002:

    “Within the present century, we are likely to learn how to change the genes of future generations to make human nature flow in the direction we want it to flow. That knowledge will bring an awesome responsibility, a responsibility that some think should never be exercised: the responsibility of deciding to improve human nature. … Should we try to enhance the capacities of humans to care about others?”

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    July 17, 2008

    I think Brooks’ point is that the complexity of human nature thwarts totalitarian aspirations in the long run and that attempts to craft a psychosocially ‘perfected’ human are bound to fail.

    Brooks makes these points for one reason, and one reason alone: to further his morally and pragmatically bankrupt sick-fuck far-right-wing agenda. That is the underlying purpose of everyfuckingthing he writes. Do not be fooled by his fake-ass “moderate” tone. He is a pernicious liar.

  7. #7 Colugo
    July 17, 2008

    PhysioProf: “his morally and pragmatically bankrupt sick-fuck far-right-wing agenda.”

    Yes, Brooks is a conservative. But that doesn’t mean that he is wrong about everything.

    This bit in the piece is surely intended to be a brief for conservatism:

    “the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice”

    But that could be used to argue for a liberal-progressive agenda, if “accumulated practice” includes government regulation and social programs.

    There is a growing transhumanist presence on the left (extropy is the libertarian variant) and a resurgence of racialist science on the right (and actually a few centrists and progressives are on board), and they both need to be challenged.

  8. #8 D
    July 17, 2008

    Colugo – can you be establishing an equivalence between transhumanism and racism? Do I read that right?

  9. #9 Colugo
    July 17, 2008

    “establishing an equivalence between transhumanism and racism”

    No. Racism is inherently pernicious. But both scientific racism and transhumanism are predicated on a simplistic biodeterminism and are relatives of eugenics (coiner of ‘transhumanism’, Julian Huxley, was also a eugenicist; eugenics and transhumanists share the dream of improving human hereditary stock). These need not overlap, but rest assured there are racialist transhumanists.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    July 17, 2008

    Mark Liberman points out that either David Brooks has a short attention span or he flip-flopped without telling anybody.

    I seriously doubt that everyone who self-identifies as a “transhumanist” is a devotee of some simplistic biodeterminism. Of course, a simplistic caricature of the relevant science might well be too widely endorsed, but I’d be rather surprised if it were ubiquitous, even among the more prominent transhumanist voices. Also, are Julian Huxley’s views relevant today? (That’s not a rhetorical question; I honestly think it’s debatable either way.) He coined the word in, what, 1957, while transhumanism as we know it today didn’t get started until FM-2030 in the 1970s. Surely, the extent to which present-day transhumanists say prejudicial or just downright goofy things can be judged with present-day evidence.

    (I say this as a person for whom the silliness coming from Singulatarians, Extropians, etc., etc. is just so painful that I’d call myself an “anti-anti-transhumanist” long before identifying as “transhumanist”.)

  11. #11 D
    July 17, 2008

    Colugo – First transhumanism is conflated with racism. Now eugenics is. I realize there are connections, but seriously! I’m being only a bit facetious when I say you sound a bit like Jonah Goldberg :)

    Okay, enough snark:
    – Is your objection to transhumanists / eugenicists (your answer could obviously differ for the two or draw distinctions within each group) primarily that they’re ethically problematic or that they’re scientifically unrealistic?
    – It is my sense the transhumanists are somewhat more into computer technology (AI, cyborgs and what have you) than into biotechnology. That’s only an impression – as Blake Stacey indicates these are broad, diffuse groups – but I think it makes sense…with genetic interventions you hope (say) to your offspring better memory. With computers you can hope for yourself.

  12. #12 windy
    July 17, 2008

    To be sure, Brooks is clearly not a professional biologist. But I’m with Mike on this one.

    It’s hard to identify from this post what “this one” is – as D pointed out, “genetic basis” can mean many things. And when you follow Mike’s link, his previous post is skeptical of a specific claim of genetic causation of IQ, but doesn’t really say much on whether it’s generally a possibility or not.

    Stuart Kauffman once made a similar point about combinations of gene expression.

    It’s still almost completely irrelevant to whether a polygenic trait is understandable or malleable.

    I think Brooks’ point is that the complexity of human nature thwarts totalitarian aspirations in the long run and that attempts to craft a psychosocially ‘perfected’ human are bound to fail.

    Do we really need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find someone who’s willing to say that?

  13. #13 Colugo
    July 17, 2008

    Don’t get me started on how Goldberg has tarnished the serious study of fascism. Hopefully everyone will have forgotten all about that stinker before long.

    D: “Is your objection to transhumanists / eugenicists … primarily that they’re ethically problematic or that they’re scientifically unrealistic?”

    That’s a good question. I would say that the ethical issue is primary, because even if transhumanism or eugenics could deliver on exactly what they promise their methods and goals would still be problematic.

    My biggest problem with transhumanism is the involuntary experimentation on future generations – physically, mentally, socially – that any germline modification would entail. And realistically any such engineering would likely require countless trials resulting in many dead, malformed, and subfunctional human infants, children, and adults.

    I’m not opposed with getting rid of Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis (What about heterozygotes? Well…). But a normal, functional genetic variation is not at all like a lethal or severely deleterious variant. Some people seem to think that we can make ourselves (and our descendants) nicer, smarter, more creative through germline engineering. It’s not nearly that simple. And even if we could, we have no idea of the unintended consequences that might have.

    One thing that distinguishes transhumanism from eugenics (and the genome engineering side of transhumanism is really a form of voluntary positive eugenics) is that the tools available to today’s (and near-future) transhumanists are several orders of magnitude more potent than the crude selective breeding of eugenicists. That doesn’t mean that they will necessarily get the results they want, but they can in fact change the collective human hereditary material.

    I know, I sound like friggin’ Leon Kass or Jeremy Rifkin. Maybe I’ve turned bioconservative in my middle age. So be it.

    If an individual transhumanist wants to try to download his or her mind into an immortal computer/robot (an oddly Cartesian notion which is for all practical purposes impossible), that’s fine.

  14. #14 Paavo
    July 19, 2008

    I’m not sure I understand this conversation. What I gather is that you oppose eugenics, because we don’t know enough about human genome. But every time man selects a spouse, it’s an eugenic decision. should we not trust the theories and studies we have know, and instead rely on our instincts and pick the most beautiful one.

    which markers should we use. if people want their children to be somewhat similar to them, and also in some ways better than them. in the olden times people relied on marrying someone of the same race and class. those were primitive ideas about genetics, but they were succesful enough to become the norm in all human societies.

    now evil racists are saying that IQ correlates with race. I think that it’s more of an historical explanation than about future. if racists believe in the importance of IQ they will be happy when their daughter marries a high IQ african-american instead of low IQ white trash. thus they are less racist than their grandfathers who only recognized race.

    maybe their grandchildren will make fun of their preoccupation with IQ as a predictor for succesful life. they’ve found better predictors. but until then we have to make our decisions with what we’ve got. like our racist ancestors relied on their racist culture to make the best decisions possible with the available knowledge

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