pop sci eugenics, now with good intentions

March 6, 2011

Well ladies and gentlemen, I’m back from another unexpectedly busy day of giving a computer the equivalent of a lobotomy with a little gem from the IEET, or the Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technologies, which you may remember as the futuristic think tank of my Skeptically Speaking debate partner George Dvorsky. IEET regularly publishes posts looking far into the transhumanist future and this particular one featured a missive by Kyle Munkittrick of Discover’s Science Not Fiction arguing for the redefinition of eugenics so the notions of genetically engineering new generations of humans wouldn’t seem so taboo, especially for conservatives. I’m certainly willing to grant Munkittrick that not every desire to change the human genome is necessarily driven by racism, snobbism, or as a justification for genocidal campaigns, but as I’ve said on the air to George, and will repeat again for the transhumanists in the audience, if you want to engineer a better human through a genetic blueprint manipulated in the lab, you may be playing with fire because evolution is unpredictable. You’re not going to be able to just customize a genome or get behind the steering wheel of the evolutionary process. It’s nothing personal or ideological. It’s just that there’s no steering wheel to get behind. New was, never will be.

Before we go any further, let’s address the very big, bloody elephant in the room. Eugenics was an idea which came from Francis Galton’s gross misunderstanding of Darwin’s work on natural selection, and was often supported with his shoddy statistical analysis which seemed to indicate that with every generation, humanity recedes towards mediocrity across a number of factors like intelligence. What he really discovered was a very frequent statistical phenomenon called regression to the mean. Basically, he was measuring the new highs set by subsequent generations as the new average and it seemed that humans as a whole were basically in a constant rut of mediocrity, never quite living up to the standards set by the best and the brightest of the past generations. If the trend were to continue, the eugenicist argument went, humans would actually regress, and it was up to the best and brightest of society to stop all the mediocre people from reproducing to raise human accomplishment out of nature’s trap. Their methods were responsible for countless atrocities and gave class warfare a whole new meaning, as over-privileged, egomaniacal snobs armed with a pseudoscience believed it was up to them to save humanity by sterilizing, killing, or enslaving those with lighter wallets and no access to education. In modern times, eugenics public supporters have been overwhelmingly snobs and racists, as well as well-meaning ignoramuses who didn’t know anything about genetics, and their experiments failed in very telling and predictable ways. You simply can’t create a superhuman by playing with DNA.

And that brings us back to Munkittrick whose irreverent invocation of eugenics to what one would presume to be an audience with some education in biology and a working understanding of how natural selection works, is actually targeted at Peter Lawler, who wrote a fluffy musing about designer babies on Big Think, the very same site which brought us an asinine lecture on why human evolution supposedly stopped while it did no such thing, and the two have been going at each other with the typical blogger zeal. Lawler rightly argues that biological enhancement of humans is a rather fuzzy concept and involves us messing with the unpredictable forces of nature, triumphantly cheering that he found a scientist who also says so, and spectacularly misses the point that designer babies are far more fantasy than fact, and that every experiment to create one fails for the same reasons. Our genes are in constant flux and we’re constantly undergoing natural selection. We can spend all the time and effort we want into trying to raise kids who become top athletes or try to wire them for a predisposition towards a high IQ (which is a highly dubious and scientifically unsupported idea anyway), and nature will select them based on their environment, not their GPA and what college they’ll attend. All creating a designer baby will do is set the parents up for disappointment and the child for a lifetime of being expected to be an infallible genius and athletic prodigy. When the complexity of the genome and the body’s very elaborate chemistry come into play and neither really works out, all we’ll achieve is reciprocal misery.

So while Munkittrick and Lawler argue about designer babies and the latter’s spot on a political commission which ruled that advanced stem cell research and extreme life extension techniques should not be endorsed by the government because they’re somehow immoral, they might was well be arguing about the unrealistic dynamics of Batman’s utility belt or the dubiousness of Spider Man’s organic web shooters. It’s a comic book trope born from a bastardization of biology and we’re not going to suddenly start creating hordes of geniuses with superhuman athletic abilities to compete with the rest of the world. Instead of realizing that humans have to live in dynamic environments in which a complex array of genes has been narrowed down to help them get along with the chemical reactions and physical forces acting on them every minute of every hour of every day, they’re thinking about customizing them to get better test scores and bigger muscles so they’re really good at football or basketball. Both of them need to get their head out of the clouds and find a little perspective.

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  • Paul

    Of course, the thing that makes prodigies prodigious often isn’t the innate skill or intelligence, but the drive. When you dig into the background of “naturals”, you often find stories of how much time they spent perfecting their skills.

    Unfortunately, some research has identified at least one gene for drive… So it actually is possible to select for it.

    (That said, some days I wouldn’t mind if someone invented a drug for me that mimics the mechanism.)

  • J.Anne

    “Our genes are in constant flux and we’re constantly undergoing natural selection. ”

    No. This is not factually correct. First of all, there is not proof of any natural selection going on anywhere outside of a lab, and that hardly qualifies. And second, natural selection implies that it happens naturally based on outside variables that the organism has no control over other than the purposeful exploitation of some genetic factor which presents itself as a positive influence for survival. Humans haven’t required that type of adaptation for thousands of years, if ever. So try again.

  • Greg Fish

    J.Anne, before trying to correct someone about biology, I’d suggest being able to pass a high school biology class. Even the most basic, simplest biology books are filled with countless observations of natural selection in the wild. Humans are still undergoing natural selection as well.

    And this is before we even mention your inability to apply proper terminology…