Eugenics, Ready or Not

There is an excellent essay about eugenics, genetic manipulation, and technology by Frank Salter here in the Australian webzine Quadrant and reprinted here. The essay is nearly free of the incessant hand wringing that pervades most journalism about the topic. Instead the treatment is thorough, wide ranging, and sensible—journalism for intelligent adults. Science writers will blush with shame as they read this essay.

The links above are to part one of the article: part two is promised to appear “shortly”.

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75 Responses to Eugenics, Ready or Not

  1. AllenM says:

    Well, next come the “cure for obesity”, a bit of reprogramming your mitochondria in your gut to allow sugar to be selectively sent into the bloodstream.

    But really, the next question is how much is a child going to be considered your genetic inheritor if significant portions of the dna have been upgraded, edited, or swapped?

    Hmmm, what are the ethics of having supergeniuses with a progeria gene- work hard, and we can replace your progeria gene before you are 15…

    Of course, my favorite thought, a clone with forced microcephaly being raised to age 16 and then the original brain is transplanted into the new body. Combine it with a way to do brain chemistry maintenance to cut back on the aging of the brain, and 500 years is not out of the question.

    Ethical dilemmas? Sure, but more along the lines of how to deal with all the systems not geared to longer term survival.

    And very interesting dynastic implications, five hundred year spans versus fifty year spans for the poor.

    Medicine might actually begin to deliver on the promises of the 20th century.

    And organlegging will be obsolete before it really even gets going.

    • Martin says:

      But really, the next question is how much is a child going to be considered your genetic inheritor if significant portions of the dna have been upgraded, edited, or swapped?

      That’s a good question, especially in light of Salter’s work on genetic interests defined in terms of copies of genes. Maybe Henry could address this.

      • MawBTS says:

        A parent could still take credit for his offspring’s traits if he’s the one that picked them in a lab. More than one way to skin a cat.

        • Martin says:

          I think altering the genes or the genes deviating from the parent’s would be against genetic interests in Salter’s framework. However, I don’t think Salter’s work objects to eugenics and I think eugenics would be regarded as a good tool to serve genetic interests. But the use of eugenics would involve engineering and altering genes, so presumably eugenics would be incorporated in the framework in a way that balances genetic alteration and genetic interests and ultimately serves genetic interests.

          • Abraham Lincoln says:

            Genetic engineering has a “fitness cost” of virtually nil in comparison to the “fitness cost” of sexual recombination.

    • Matt says:

      Re: how much such a child could be considered a genetic inheritor, probably not much if it’s that extensive.

      But then people get pet dogs and would probably buy replicants if they were available. I’m not sure they’d actually care that much.

      I think humans probably have some degree of triggerable fairly built in objections to raising other human people’s children, because that’s biologically relevant in the evolutionary environment – you don’t want to get cheated by free riders who want you to support their kids, and that’s maybe particularly relevant for males.

      Whether people have a strong response to raising a child that’s not really their own, but not really anyone else’s either (like a puppy or , that seems a lot more alien to the evolutionary environment. Not something people could’ve really adapted to develop a modular aversion to, I guess.

    • melendwyr says:

      Cloning new bodies does nothing for the brain, either in terms of repairing decay, or in dealing with information storage – both critical problems, especially if Alzheimer’s-like syndromes are only a matter of time.

    • TWS says:

      If they look like you sound like you and smell like you that’s probably enough to fool us into taking them as our own.

  2. JayMan says:

    He cites Woodley’s claim of the a near 1 SD decline in average IQ over the past century, but other than that and a few other things, pretty interesting.

  3. a reader says:

    “Children resulting from frozen embryos were more socially adept than those implanted fresh after eggs were fertilised. The children also moved better, had superior communication skills and showed more independence. Allan Pacey, a fertility expert at the University of Sheffield, suggested that this was caused in part by the rigours of the thawing process. Not all embryos survive thawing, and perhaps those that do are “stronger”, he said.[11] Perhaps freezing and thawing embryos is an inadvertent eugenics process, most successful with embryos having a low mutation load.”

    Does this make any sense at all?

    • harpend says:

      Sure, it is just natural selection being proposed.

      • Sean says:

        Early developers who grow up to be extroverted and good dancers, hmm. How is that supposed to be evidence for them not having low IQ?

    • He’s not claiming Lysenko-style epi-genetic improvement due to the vitrification. He’s referring to the freezing as a “survival-of-the-fittest” test of embryo hardiness. Makes perfect sense; and more importantly, the study referenced checks out.

      • I don’t think it makes any sense at all. Freezing and thawing may very well test embryo hardiness but that isn’t what the results are claiming. The results are claiming that embryos that survive this freezing and thawing process then develop superior attributes way down the line in development.

        But I could be wrong. Possibly you could put a million sperm through an olympics. And the winner gets the egg. Then you get a hundred fertilized eggs and you could put them through hell. Survival of the fittest egg. Possibly you would get the next generation of kids that moved way better, communicated wonderfully and showed amazing independence. But I seriously doubt it. I am going to assume that the genetic coding deep within a fertilized egg has little to do with how well that egg can survive very early in it’s development until repeated tests prove otherwise.

        • This kind of “embryo fitness test” goes on in nature all the time. Many flowers (like tulips) have a test where the fertilized zygote has to physically migrate a ridiculously complicated path down stamens, from the location of the female gamete all the way down to the ovule. It’s a much tougher test than surviving a freeze. Evolution probably could have made it easier and got larger numbers of pollen, but it the bitch made an obstacle course of it.

          Think of it like an md4 checksum. You’re not selecting for the 1 in a million best, that’s the wrong way to think. You’re killing out the bottom quartile. The tards.

          • Well said, but I think we will have to agree to disagree. I remain unconvinced that freezing and thawing of a human fertilized egg results in a weeding out process that results in superior attributes that only occur way down the line in development. To me this is yet another example of an extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence before i will accept it.

            That said I think it a fascinating line of research to investigate how and why evolution has selected humans to have such a high spontaneous abortion rate which must be doing exactly what you describe, killing off many from the bottom quartile.

          • I follow what you’re saying, and it might be a fluke. That said, it’s n>250, with a statistically significant difference (Wechsler, fresh embryos = 9.1, frozen = 10.2). If so, it’s a large fluke.

            I’d also argue that it’s not an extraordinary claim – to the contrary, the converse would be the extraordinary result. Any “checksum” trial should be expected to output superior organisms, due to fewer runts and tards. I’d expect these kids to be a bit taller, too, if the Chinese had bothered to apply a yardstick.

          • While I remain skeptical that this is an actual embryo fitness test I think further research along these lines is a great idea. There are plenty of singularity bullshitters out there who aren’t grounded. They don’t realize how complex the human brain is and how little we know about biology. We aren’t making artificial geniuses any time soon because that is ridiculously hard. We succeed by doing the simplest thing first. We don’t make legs, we make wheels, we still can’t artificially photosynthesize but we have been breeding plants for 10,000 plus years. Nature already has in place methods and means to weed out week fertilized human eggs and further understanding of these processes may very well be the easiest and safest means to successful eugenics.

            The popular consternation regarding “playing God” amuses me. The same folks who bellyache the loudest regarding stem cell research will muscle themselves to the front of the line when it’s applications create a medical breakthrough that will make their lives better. Popular opinion today is not popular opinion tomorrow, increase the odds just a little bit that junior won’t be retarded and the word eugenics will be left in the past and some spiffy positive feeling word will quickly take it’s place.

  4. Justin says:

    This is exciting, makes me feel less guilty for (hopefully) waiting until I’m old and my sperm are mutation-loaded to have kids.

    Seems to me that the easiest way to go about this, if you don’t have any catastrophic mutations, is to simply pick the embryo with the lowest number of rare alleles. Sort of a poor man’s version of your “spell checked” superhumans.

    • melendwyr says:

      Much would depend on how you determine what’s ‘rare’. And of course, if applied widely, it would spell doom for our entire species. But as with many quick and cheap solutions, it’ll work fine as long as it’s not generally adopted.

  5. Beyond Anon says:

    And what if parents choose not to have homosexual offspring?

    • Patrick Boyle says:

      If Harpending, Cochran, and Ewald are right then homosexuality is a disease. How can it be wrong to decline to have a diseased offspring?

      Homosexuals find all this sort of discussion abhorrent but normals seldom seem bothered. The ‘gay rights’ community seems to have kept a lid on homosexual research since Levay’s work twenty years ago.

      • Count Doofus says:

        Homosexuality is a symptom, not a desease,

      • melendwyr says:

        “How can it be wrong to decline to have a diseased offspring?”
        We can – and do – call conditions ‘diseases’ arbitrarily. Can it be wrong to decline to have a child with a trait you dislike?

    • cloudswrest says:

      Then they’ll have fewer homosexual offspring.

  6. AllenM says:

    And what if they choose to have it selected for, because they think it increases the artistic ability?

    Seven foot tall? Hair trigger reflexes? Skin color and eye color are going to be irrelevant when snp’s deviations are cataloged with all kinds of potential interactions prominent, and potentially inferred.

    This is really the end of racism per se, and instead will kick off a more finely tuned society in terms of selection- for instance has the LDS penchant for doing geneology been combined with tractability matrices for mate selection?

    Wild experiments, versus state control.

    The genius is out of the bottle.

  7. dearieme says:

    I used to read Quadrant regularly. I heartily recommend it.

  8. dearieme says:

    What sort of website is this anyway? When oh when is someone going to complain about “playing God”.?

  9. Matt says:

    I wonder if anything like the freezing process technique would work on a germline cells created in a lab.

    In which case you could get a “eugenic” process simply by taking lab brewed germline cells, throwing them through some trauma, selecting what survives best. Although at a certain level you’d probably be selecting for germline robusticity in those “weird” environments and not what you want.

  10. Uptown Resident says:

    Another weird thing about modern anxiety about eugenics is that many take eugenics to be a modern, post-Galton phenomenon. I have never seen a historian correct this misunderstanding, even though anyone who has read a lot of pre-industrial European literature knows that the word and concept go way way back. So for instance in The Boke Named the Gouernour (1531), Thomas Elyot explains how, when states were first formed, wealth and dignities were distributed to especially virtuous men as a reward for their beneficial labor and industry. These “good men were ingendred good children,” who maintained the family’s wealth and virtue, passing both on to their own children. The Greeks originally used the term “Eugenia,” meaning “good kinde or lignage,” to refer to the “goodness” brought about by “suche generation,” but these families eventually came to be called the “nobility” because they were notable, known, for their virtue and excellence. Another early modern scholar, the jurist John Selden traces the idea of the heritability of virtue back to a pseudo-Aristotelian fragment, “περι Ευγενειας,” or “of Eugenia” in his Titles of Honor (1615). Both Eylot and Selden discuss the heritability of virtue in the context of marriage laws prohibiting disparagement (unequal marriages). My impression is that marriage laws used to be regarded as a eugenic technology for improving the nobility by keeping bad blood out. I have tried to find out more about Aristotle’s writings on eugenics without much luck. Max Radin obliquely hints at the eugenic intention of ancient and medieval laws prohibiting disparagium in “Legal History of the Morganatic Marriage,” The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 4., No. 4 (Jun., 1937), 597-617. But that’s it. Would love for some heterodox classicist to go after it.

    • Martin says:

      I don’t think those anxious about modern eugenics are necessarily ignorant of marriage and other customs of the past and antiquity. I think they’re anxious because the industrial and technological nature of modern eugenics would mean a significant break from the customs of the past.

  11. Roland Müller says: shows the direction eugenics will take

  12. Patrick Boyle says:

    Most of the horror about Eugenics is the overhang of anti-Nazi feelings and residual Marxism. In the thirties the communists were interested in creating a new improved human through social and environmental means. Trotsky and the others tried to create the ‘New Soviet Man’ which would amalgamate all the various ethnicities into a new better human being. Of course Hitler and the Nazis tried to do much the same by breeding Nordics.

    At one time it was unclear which of these two contending ideologies would be supported by the Western Democracies. As it happened America and Britain ended up supporting the Soviet Union and therefore becoming the implacable opponent of what they think of as Nazi style eugenics.

    We are still a long way from considering any kind of eugenic program without seeing visions of blue eyed blond Hitler Youth who are mindlessly cruel. Give it another century and maybe we can discuss these matters again without all the emotion.

    • ghazisiz says:

      “Give it another century and maybe we can discuss these matters again without all the emotion.” It took over a century for the British to view Napoleon objectively. But time passes much faster for us. I sense that the almost hysterical repulsion felt toward the Nazis in my teen years (the 1970s) has already yielded to a curiosity that is almost objective.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        I don’t know how objective it is, but there certainly is s lot of curiosity, Almost every historical thing I see on cable and Roku has some sort of Nazi theme or other – “Nazi Megaweapons”, “Inside the Mind of Hitler”, “The Nazi Temple of Doom”, etc, etc. And from what I’ve seen, a lot of the audience is leftie. Creepy, I call it…

  13. Rick says:

    With the rate of change possible in this field, I just can’t see how the “selecting the best embryo” type of stuff will ever make a difference. Making changes to fix or improve things will just end up being cheaper and easier, even if there is initially higher resistance.

    Why screen through 1000s of embryos to find one with the best allele combo when you could just have an ‘improved’ germ-line growing in a lab dish, producing totally mutant-free sperms or eggs? Then there are never any embryos discarded, and even the religious can join in.

    Once this is common, then the really interesting things will begin. Things like changing the genetic code slightly to make people resistant to all known viruses, which has already been done in bacteria, and soon in yeast. That would probably give your kid a real advantage.

    • Esso says:

      I’m no expert on the subject, but making ad hoc edits sounds like a lot of work. Everyone has their “own form of misery”, and there’s lots of it. Making the edits might be risky as well.

      Cheapest full genome scans are about 1000$ a shot these days. Scanning costs no longer dominate if you were to make a 1-in-10 selection for the embryo with the least load. (Of course there would be other costs over a standard IVF associated with the selection.) And once producing gametes out of embryos is cheap, you can iterate the selection, which is worth many, many single edits.

      • Rick says:

        Right. But you are talking about today, or in ten years. In the long run, these selections will be minor. There are just so many ways that the chromosomes will recombine per generation because of physical linkage and statistics. There actually is not independent assortment of alleles when you are talking about hundreds of them. It would take centuries this way to make any but the smallest difference in the population.

        Making edits is a lot of work right now, but it won’t be in 20 years. And this will be done in germ line cells, not in embryos. In 50 years this will probably be standard in zoos for endangered animals with small populations and a lot of deleterious alleles. Once any bugs are worked out, people would accept it for themselves. Then all deleterious alleles could be changed in a single generation.

  14. Matt says:

    I’m not so sure about Salter’s claims about mutational load though.

    IQ is one measure of load.

    Another is general health, and I’m not aware that the healthy have fewer children than the unhealthy. E.g. Framingham study shows that women with better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure have more kids (not sure about the effect size, that perhaps may be striking if that’s against a background where load generally correlates with lower IQ).

    Seems like there’s a lot of reproductive potential in our time for the healthy who don’t spend too much time getting an education and having a rich life experience compared to having kids (i.e. the dull).

    Probably fluctuating asymmetry, mental health, etc. would also be in there. People with problems with these may have more kids than they did on average in the past, but if there’s still a gap there’s still selection in the right direction.

  15. bob sykes says:

    Economics is king.

    The real and only brake on these new technologies is cost. An IVF procedure can cost a few tens of thousands of dollars, mostly due to professional fees. And that is a low-risk technology, defective eggs are simply discarded or don’t implant. Try again; another fee.

    Genetic manipulation is a high-risk technology, and the need for very high level professional skill will make its cost very much higher than that of IVF. This will severely restrict the market to the already (super?) rich, who are, by definition, very few in number. The only mass market eugenics program is abortion.

    One remembers the 1950’s hype about nuclear power. The cost of electricity would be so low that its usage would not even be metered. Consumers would simply pay a low monthly fee. How did that turn out?

    • Rick says:

      “Genetic manipulation is a high-risk technology, and the need for very high level professional skill will make its cost very much higher than that of IVF.”

      This is in no way comparable to nuclear energy. You cannot set up a fusion power plant in your house, and you cannot dispose of the byproducts down the drain. Nuclear power can’t be hidden.

      Technology for genetic manipulation, however, can be performed anywhere. With robotics for repetitive tasks, it will only require a very few high level professionals to run an operation in a touristy country with few regulations. All genetic changes could be triple verified before any embryos are even produced.

      You can already pay someone else to carry your baby for you. You can already give children up for adoption, or have an abortion if something goes wrong. The risk is actually much lower than people are imagining. The only thing keeping the cost up will be government.

      A better analogy might be illegal drug production. Remember when the war on drugs was going to be won? How did that turn out?

      • ursiform says:

        So far no one has shown you can set up a fusion power plant at all …

        • Rick says:

          I assume you mean non-natural fusion power plants. But, even in that case, there are working ones. They just take in more energy than they put out. They are large, expensive, very hot, and still get everything radioactive.

          • Ursiform says:

            Natural ones weren’t set up by someone. I don’t consider an experiment that eats power to be a “power plant”.

        • Abraham Lincoln says:

          “””Natural ones weren’t set up by someone. I don’t consider an experiment that eats power to be a “power plant”.”””

          Organic plants are net energy sinks, too.

  16. Indigene says:

    Wow–can I ask what the origin of your surname is? That’s pretty remarkable for a philosopher.
    I haven’t yet finished your paper, but I will. Is there a short answer to why Australia (e.g. Quadrant, Monash Bioeth Rev.) seems to be more open to these kinds of thoughts? A tough frontier mentality? Or am I just making this up?

    • Indigene says:

      I believe East Asia’s going to come through for us regarding R&D in nuclear power (China) and genetic engineering (China, Korea, Singapore, HK), because they don’t share our hangups. Thanks in advance, guys!

      I know the philosopher of science Sesardic is in HK.

  17. Beyond Anon says:

    This bit from the article is interesting:

    Any survey of eugenics themes in the media must discuss reports of animal breeding. One newspaper article in the Weekend Australian in August 2012 described how farmers breed animals, using the latest DNA assay techniques as well as traditional folk genetics. The article, “Breeders split on the best way to pick a champ”, reported the new computerised DNA method for choosing Merino studs for fineness and length of wool, worm resistance and fertility.

    It is interesting from the PoV of the fertility reduction experienced by rams that are oriented to other rams, It would seem to provide quite an incentive to finding out the cause or at least reducing it below 1/10,000.

  18. Beyond Anon says:

    ESA Wants to build a lunar colony:

    Speculation about the makeup of such a colony would be interesting. Eugenics might be useful.

  19. Beyond Anon says:

    Blocking the expression of a couple of genes in chickens:

    How long until Harrison Bergeron does not need to carry weights or wear something to bang him on the head?

  20. Uber says:

    This all seems to miss the point. It doesn’t matter if you take out the worst mutations, as selection will do that anyway (at a cost of course).
    What matters is the accumulation of near-neutral mutations over generations (there are at least 100 per birth, possibly a thousand or more), which are silently and inexorably leading to our genetic destruction. No amount of selection can deal with that.
    Any program of eugenics will only make this insidious situation worse because it will effectively concentrate near-neutral mutations into a smaller genetic library, just as cloning does. This is because specific genotypes are being selected for reproduction which accelerates the fixation of un-noticed (by selection) mutations into the overall population.
    This is the great ironic joke that is being played on all advocates of eugenics, whether they be Nazi’s or pro-choicers or do-gooders: their own policies are accelerating their own destruction.

  21. Uber says:

    No, you are mistaken about truncation selection. It is a phenomic selection method (and not a very good one) which has no impact on near-neutral mutation accumulation (apart from helping to fix mutations into the population). The fact that it can fixate desirable phenomic traits is meaningless in genomic mutational terms because phenomic fitness selection cannot ‘see’ near-neutral genomic mutation accumulation. It is like trying to fix a decaying microchip with a sledge hammer.
    The reality is that all life is decaying inter-generationally through mutation, and selection is powerless to stop it.

  22. Uber says:

    You can’t just say ‘nonsense’ just because you don’t like it. How very establishmentarian of you.

  23. Indigene says:

    I don’t know much about genetics. Could you use CRISPR (or any method) to undo mutations in your gametes, pre-IVF? You know, for prospective parents of a certain age…. That would be (preventative) genetic engineering with positive expected effect, even if we didn’t know anything about the individual genes involved.
    You would find mutations by matching against sections of your own chromosomes or other gametes.
    The idea applies equally well to a zygote as to a gamete. If the substring doesn’t match the corresponding substring from either of the parents, make it match one of them.
    I guess that would be crazy expensive, because you’d have to custom-build the CRISPR mechanism for that particular mutation? Help me out here.

    • Sean says:

      Correcting mutations may have a deleterious effect . (Braess’s paradox).

      Magazine article:-

      “Many aspects of biological function are being increasingly recognised as network phenomena. The human body is made of vascular networks, neural networks, gene regulatory networks and so on. Motter has studied metabolic networks which determine the biochemical properties of cells. These often stop working correctly when a gene is damaged or missing, and this has led researchers to investigate repairing or replacing the missing gene, using a treatment known as gene therapy. Motter suggests that an entirely different approach may work just as well or even better. His idea is to restore network function by cutting out parts of the network. Just as closing a road can sometimes improve the flow of traffic, the removal of certain genes can improve the performance of damaged metabolic networks.”

      Anyway, talking about eugenics is an incredibly bad idea. it is associated with racial extermination (i’m sorry but in the public mind it effectively has been). In fact the scientific eugenicists like Earnest Hooton were unconcerned about race mixing, pro immigration, and focused on the people who had failed to improve after generation in the in the American environment (Lamarckian inheritance was being espoused by Hooton until the mid thirties). It was the old Americans that recalcitrantly refused to be transformed into New Americans, thereby showing themselves to have defective genes not amenable to Lamarckian improvement, which were the target of US eugenics laws. Appalachians were considered a particular problem.

      • Indigene says:

        Are you denying that mutations on average have negative effects? Or are you saying that a mutation may have a negative effect, but that undoing it in the germ line would have an even more negative effect? I’m more open to persuasion on the first point. The second point doesn’t make much sense. I am extremely unpersuaded that Braess’ paradox is a generally useful way to predict how genotype contributes to phenotype. If a road gets knocked out and that increases traffic, will replacing the road increase traffic further?

        Also…your claim is that undoing genetic mutations will make us want to exterminate races? I don’t see that happening. Just because a basic understanding of behavioral genetics is associated with racial extermination in your mind, and by your assertion in those of many others, doesn’t mean that it always will be. And technology for intervening on the germ line would mean that people of any race could make interventions, which should undercut eugenicist concern about differential fertility.

        • Matt says:

          The idea in the quote seems to be that loss of function mutations can knockout a functional network to beneficial results, as the resource for that network are plastically reallocated to different functions.

          That is quite possible. Sometimes we cut unhealthy tissue. At the same time, it’s really unlikely that a random 0.00001% frequency loss of function mutation is doing this, rather than just being negative noise. Mutational load from rare and private variants is probably just that, not secretly some kind of ultimately beneficial damping factor.

          Indigene And technology for intervening on the germ line would mean that people of any race could make interventions, which should undercut eugenicist concern about differential fertility.

          My experience is I think many folk in the “hbd sphere” who raises concerns about eugenics tend to be concerned precisely about this, that racial trait differences in ability that lead to between group romance and socialisation barriers would be eroded by rises in within group trait variation.

  24. jef says:

    Johnson: “Well, (said he) we had good talk.” Boswell: “Yes, Sir, you tossed and gored several persons.”

  25. Dylan says:

    The best essay on eugenics ever written:

  26. Steven C. says:

    Why is it almost always assumed that eugenics would be used to increase human inequality instead of decreasing it? I mean by raising the bottom, instead of lowering the top as in “Harrison Bergeron”. As for the irrational fear (eugenophobia?); East Asians don’t share this and are thus more likely to implement it. In fact; it is highly likely that the People’s Republic of China quietly discourages births among the less able segments of their population, whilst Singapore has set up a special matchmaking service for the more intelligent members of its citizenry.

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