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According to a widely reported paper by accomplished molecular geneticist Jerry Crabtree, the human species is getting ever less intelligent because our society removed the selective drives to nurture intelligence and get rid of mutations that can make us dumber. This is not a new idea by any means, in fact it’s been a science fiction trope for many years and had it’s own movie to remind us of the gloom and doom that awaits us if we don’t hit the books: Idiocracy. Crabtree’s addition to it revolves around some 5,000 genes he identified as playing a role in intelligence by analyzing the genetic roots of certain types of mental retardation. Then, he posits that because we tend to live in large, generally supportive communities, we don’t have to be very smart to get to a reproductive age and have plenty of offspring. Should mutations that make us duller rear their ugly heads in the next few thousand years, there’s no selective pressure to weed them out because the now dumber future humans will still be able to survive and reproduce.

Evolution does have its downsides, true, but Crabtree ignores two major issues with his idea of humanity’s evolutionary trajectory. The first is that he ignores beneficial mutations and that just two or three negative mutations won’t necessarily stunt our brains. Geneticists who reviewed his paper and decided to comment say that Crabtree’s gloom and doom just isn’t warranted by the evidence he presents, and that his statistical analysis leaves a lot to be desired. The second big issue, one that I haven’t yet seen addressed, is that Crabtree doesn’t seem to have any working definition of intelligence. These are not the days of eugenicists deluding themselves about their genetic superiority to all life on Earth and most scientifically literate people know that survival of the fittest wasn’t Darwin’s description of natural selection, but a catchphrase created by Herbert Spencer. Natural selection is the survival of the good enough in a particular environment, so we could well argue that as long as we’re smart enough to survive and reproduce, we’re fine.

This means that Crabtree’s description of us being intellectual inferiors of our ancient ancestors is at best, irrelevant and at worst pointless. However, it’s also very telling because it fits so well with the typical assessment of modern societies by eugenicists. They look at the great names in history, both scientific and creative, and wonder where our geniuses are. But they forget that we do have plenty of modern polymaths and brilliant scientists and that in Newton’s day, the typical person was illiterate and had no idea that there was such a thing as gravity or optics and really couldn’t be bothered to give less of a damn. Also, how do we define genius anyway? With an IQ test? We know those only measure certain pattern recognition and logic skills and anyone could learn how to score highly on them with enough practice. You can practice test your way to be the next Mensa member so you can talk about being in Mensa and how high your IQ scores were, which in my experience tend to be the predominant activities of Mensa members. But they are members of an organization created to guide us dullards to a better tomorrow after all…

But if IQ scores are a woefully incomplete measure of intelligence, what isn’t? Depends on who’s doing the measuring and by what metric. One of the most commonly cited factoids from those in agreement with Crabtree is how much time is being spent on Facebook an watching reality TV instead of reading the classics and inventing warp drives or whatnot. But is what we usually tend to call book smarts necessary for survival? What we consider to be trivial knowledge for children today was once considered the realm of brilliant, highly educated nobles. Wouldn’t that make us smarter than our ancestors because we’ve been able to parse the knowledge they accumulated to find the most useful and important theories and ideas, disseminate them to billions, and make things they couldn’t have even imagined in their day? How would Aristotle react to a computer? What would Hannibal think of a GPS? Would the deleterious genetic changes Crabtree sees as an unwelcome probability hamper our ability to run a society, and if so, how?

Without knowing how he views intelligence and how he measures it, all we have is an ominous warning and one that single-mindedly focuses only on potential negatives rather than entertain potential positives alongside them, and making conclusions about their impact on a somewhat nebulous concept which isn’t defined enough to support such conclusions. In fact, the jury is still out on how much intelligence is nature and how much is nurture, especially when we consider a number of failed experiments with designer babies who were supposed to be born geniuses. We can look at families of people considered to be very intelligent and note that they tend to have smart kids. But are the kids smart because their parents are smart or because they’re driven to learn by parents who greatly value academics? We don’t know, but to evolution, all that matters is that these kids secure a mate and reproduce. To look for selection’s role beyond that seems more like an exercise in confirmation bias than a scientific investigation into the origins of human intelligence. That research is much more complex and elaborate than gene counting…

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Imagine being able to customize your child and pick everything from gender to hair and eye color, athletic ability and intelligence. Why, with enough money and genetic tinkering, you could make the perfect little kid. Right? Well they do say hope springs eternal and over the last century there have been several attempts to create a super kid endowed with the athletic talents of a professional sports champion and the intellect of a Nobel Prize winning scientist.

super kidI’ve written before about the flaws of eugenics and its concept that somehow, through a practice of methodical reproductive planning, human evolution can be steered the same way as that of dogs or plants. The idea was developed without real understanding of genetics and with a whole lot of arrogance that still continues to this day. Even with a highly refined knowledge of genes and genetic mechanisms, there are still people who cling to the idea that somehow, we can put together the right genes like building blocks in a Lego set and come up with a perfect human.

Case in point, plastic eyeglass entrepreneur Robert Graham who used his wealth to create the infamous Repository for Germinal Choice better known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank after a few Nobel Prize winners agreed to donate their genetic data to the project. The goal was to use the gametes from people that had a particular type of intelligence to create a sort of factory in which future geniuses would be manufactured. You see, Graham decided that humanity wasn’t evolving in the right direction and it was up to him and people who shared his ideas to reverse this. Out of some 217 children who were born through the RGC, only a few were the prodigies that Graham wanted. After growing public disgust with the project, the sperm bank finally shut down in 1999 and sealed its files.

Graham and his Nobel Prize winning supporter William Shockley adhered to the same ideology that fueled some of the most monstrous eugenics experiments in history. Graham was pretty much a textbook Social Darwinist who believed that if people weren’t wealthy or at least well off, they were “retrograde humans” who were dumbing down humanity. Shockley was a racist who preached that blacks were genetically inferior and less intelligent than whites and that anyone with an IQ below a certain threshold should be sterilized. It’s a classic study in eugenic history. People with little to no idea of how genetics and heredity work believing themselves to be really smart and very resourceful decide to “uplift” the human species. Had they actually got off their high horses and got an education in biology, they would’ve known that their efforts would fail.

First and foremost, the idea of what human perfection should look like is a subjective one. In a natural environment, there’s no such thing as perfection. There are only attempts in which the rate of survival determines success of failure. Try to engineer something different and there’s no telling what hidden flaws your might expose or what environmental effect will override your efforts by activating or deactivating a gene crucial to your plans. Genomes evolved as dynamic systems so to think of taming this semi-controlled chaos the same way one thinks of making a change to a blueprint is just plain ridiculous. Even if you do succeed, what happens when your supposedly perfect human suddenly faces another definition of perfection later on?

Secondly, the role of nurture is not to be underestimated. You can have children with all sorts of propensities of intellectual or athletic achievement. But if you don’t try to grow and develop them, the kids will never be champions or Nobel Prize winners. Genes do contribute quite a bit, but they’re not the end-all-be-all and the best they can do is create predispositions that come in many forms and take many years to truly figure out. Just because you’re a child of a genius, you won’t necessarily be one. Amazingly for Graham and Shockley, this was the case with their RGC experiment. They didn’t help create a new generation of geniuses but rather, children who spanned a bell curve in every aspect of human development, just like any normal population in nature. Again, Genetics 101 would’ve been handy.

Finally, and most importantly, rather than trying to enhance humanity, Graham’s experiments were actually going against one of the fundamental principles of evolution. This is pretty ironic when we consider that he blamed social welfare programs for undermining evolution and yet, ended up doing the exact same thing though in a different way. You see, intelligence and talent come in many forms. Gifted actors, musicians, mathematicians, biologists, writers and artists can be considered geniuses in their unique ways. When we consider how evolution works, we’ll find a good reason for the variety of talents we see in humans. Each new organism is a sort of genetic experiment and the more variety a population has, the more likely it is to survive in an ever changing world. When a hack like Graham decides that only a certain strain of intelligence is the one that matters and tries to make it the dominant one, he’s in effect trying to make the species worse suited so survive through natural selection.

So here’s a bit of advice to parents who want the perfect baby. There is and never will be a baby that’s perfect. Rather than aiming for subjective ideas of perfection, embrace variety, try to find your child’s talents and nurture them. You will never succeed in doing something different. The rules of nature don’t cooperate with our personal desires.

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Would you believe that there are hundreds of bloggers, authors and people who have gone into the public eye and declared that evolution promotes eugenics through the concept of natural selection? Had the evil term never been coined or propagated, they say, Darwins half-cousin would never have come up with the idea that humans could steer their own evolution by purging their gene pools of lesser genes. They also point out that the concept was very popular in Victorian times and up to the Nazi movement among all sort of social luminaries and bigwigs. Some even go as far as calling Darwin a eugenicist.

eugenicsThis charge is the result a double dose of ignorance. For Francis Galton and all of his supporters, it’s the ignorance of what Darwin meant by natural selection and their insistence on fusing the various pseudo-scientific ideas at the time with the nascent science. For pundits attacking the theory of evolution, its the ignorance of the time and culture of the eugenicists as well as the same basic ignorance of what natural selection means.

First, lets start with the biology. When we talk about natural selection, what we really mean by it is that an animal lived long enough to pass on its genes. Most animals above cell level dont live long enough to do that. They die of disease, theyre eaten, they cant find enough food, etc. But if you lived long enough to mate and have offspring, youre naturally selected because you can survive and pass on the genetic makeup that helped you survive long enough to breed another generation. Congratulations. You were one of the fittest.

But eugenicists assume that there are good genes and bad genes according to their subjective assertion of what an ideal person should be. They then posit that people who exhibit the bad traits should be sterilized so their flaws dont enter the gene pool because they’re the ultimate blueprint for everything a person is and does. But it doesnt work that way. Genes do determine what you look like and how your body is built, but they wouldnt determine your IQ or any facet of your personality. You also never know whats inside your genome and how it could turn into a major advantage in the future. The bad genes of today could become the terrific genes of tomorrow. Like all Victorian pseudo-sciences, eugenics comes from the warped way in which many so-called intellectuals of the time accepted evolution.

Since the Victorians were very self-absorbed and very keen on complimenting themselves on their supposed civility and intellect, they took the idea that humans came from other creatures to mean that humanity was superior to all other life Earth. Drawing on Lamarck, they assumed that those who had evolved were somehow above, more advanced and all around better than all those who came before them. This ideology would eventually become the justification of Social Darwinism and allowed the Victorians to justify their abhorrent treatment of people they didnt like and refused to understand by calling them un-evolved savages. Perhaps this is why they accepted the theory of evolution despite the fact that the countless fossils and genetic evidence we have at our disposal today werent even dreamed off back in those days. It flattered them to think they were somehow the ultimate creature on the planet.

During their time, retellings of the popular occult mythologies like Theosophy incorporated the nascent evolutionary theory and focused on human “ascension” to some sort of transcendent form. This concept was so wildly popular, we still see it today in sci-fi shows featuring ancient aliens that become god-like beings of pure energy rather than simply continue to change with time. When combined with the racism and bigotry that was so fashionable and accepted at the time, it turned into a monstrous quest for perfection based on arrogance, willful ignorance and misguided energies of a condescending elite. Biology was selectively pillaged to back the ideas of those who fancied themselves as conduits for perfection is human evolution.

In his work Descent of Man, Darwin dismissed eugenics as an counter-beneficial construct and only after his death was eugenics promoted and unleashed into the world at large. He did write one passage which sounds somewhat supportive to some of his critics, but the ultimate take- away from chapter 5 is that he didnt really know what was hereditary or not past physical traits and would not endorse eugenics. Nevertheless, Galton plowed ahead with his idea. It would take the horrors of the Holocaust, Nazi sterilization programs and the total abject failure of all their experiments to breed the perfect human for the world at large to realize that frankly, Galton as well as adherents in America and Europe were full of crap.

Those who pin the blame on eugenics and what it had become on Darwins influence, havent learned enough about evolution themselves to know what was meant by natural selection and ironically, make the same mistake as Galton as they look for the underpinnings of eugenics in the evolutionary theory. The revolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin are not to blame for all the horrors and the sheer ugliness of Galtons hypothesis. The real culprits are human bigotry and arrogance coupled with the desire to cherrypick science for self-serving, self-congratulatory purposes. If you want to learn a lesson from eugenics experiments, here’s one. Ignorance and arrogance when it comes to science, can lead to horrifying results.

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