post on darwinism and the societal consequences of its use and misuse. Only the nastiest and most self-serving person can deny that Darwin's ideas about the natural nature of inequity have been used to the cost of many peoples' lives. The eugenics movement, and the Nazi regime, and Stalin's Soviet Union all in their various ways used versions of evolutionary theory to victimize millions.
A counter to that is that society has been willing to find reasons to brutalize other people since time immemorial, and science is not particularly guilty. Science may aid and abet, and scientists have an ongoing history of showing that they can be bought. But if evil politicians on the right or the left (Hitler or Stalin, for example) couldn't find justification for their actions in science, they'd likely have found some other excuse. After all, today's Islam and medieval Christianity (crusades, Inquisition) make the point. No culture is innocent.
So the argument goes that the real world is as it is, and our job as scientists is to discover and understand it. We're not responsible, so the usual (self-serving) story goes, for how our findings are used. Atomic physicists developed the atomic bomb, which one day might annihilate our civilizations, but after all they were just helping atoms do what they do naturally. Weren't they? World War II presented some particular complications to this story, but the eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century don't have such an excuse. They did not, after all, have to use Darwin to decide who was fit and who wasn't. In that case it was scientists, not just politicians, who did the damage.
The Nazi abuses were in many ways led by prominent doctors and anthropologists.So maybe the lesson of history is to pass laws restricting what science can actually study. Robert Proctor of Stanford (late lamented of Penn State) has coined the term 'agnotology' for the study of ignorance. He had a different context in mind, but we might say that there are things we could know, but shouldn't, for societal reasons.
Various best-selling popular science books have basically argued that molecular biology will eventually explain everything, including art and esthetics. Their hubris has potentially ominous overtones for anyone who has read any of the history of claims of genetic or Darwnian inherency. The current romance with impersonal science has led the poet and novelist Wendell Berry to say (in his book, The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays) that there are two nuclei we humans should simply keep out of: the atom and the cell. That view won't go down well with scientists, of course, who usually argue that stifling research is not possible and is even wrong. The truth must be known! But that too is of course transparently self-serving.
We currently have many real constraints on research. Universities have Institutional Review Boards -- that are largely in service to the institution, it's true, but they do set limits on research that are generally agreed on. You can't do experiments on people without telling them what you're up to as best you can. And there are limits to what you can do, even if you inform people ahead of time. For example, you can't do a study of how long people can stand having their skin peeled off, or how long they can stay under water without drowning (the Nazis tried that). But neither can you expose people needlessly to x-ray or toxic chemicals or pain, or publish private information, and so forth. If you call it biomedical research, you can do a lot to mice but you can't outright torture them! So we certainly do have precedent that could allow us to decide that, as a democracy, it is forbidden to study, say, the genetics of race and IQ, or many aspects of behavior that are clearly far more about social structures, like inequalities, than genes.
Scientists bristle at any such suggestions, and of course there is the question of who should be privileged to decide on the exclusions and on what basis. But historically we in science are the privileged class that rakes in the grants and salaries but doesn't pay the social consequences when our findings are misused. Of course the majority of our work is either used for good or is useless. The question, and it's not an easy one, is how much of Mother Nature we should simply not attempt to understand, for societal reasons.
One thing that we can't legitimately do, is to make the politically-correct assertion that yes, basically any disease has a genetic component and is fair game, but genes have nothing to do with behavior. If genes are major causal factors in all ethically 'safe' traits like disease, they will also be relevant, and perhaps comparably important in socially sensitive traits. But, for reasons that we've discussed on MT many times, we think that the current determination to geneticize such traits--behaviors and disease alike--is not going to work out very well (though one can always, after the fact, point to successes and claim victory). But that's our view and is beside the point.
The point here is that putting some traits off limits would not be the same as declaring they aren't 'genetic'. It would be a decision that some things are simply judged to be more potentially harmful than good to learn about. Even the Constitution doesn't allow crying Fire! in a crowded theater, and for similar reasons it would be perfectly legitimate to say that there are areas in which scientists should not play with societal fire.