Monday, October 18, 2010

"Multikulti is dead"

Sometimes we ask ourselves if we're way out in left field when we occasionally caution that the wave of new genetic determinism needs to be watched lest it be a harbinger of a new era of eugenics.  Objections to this say that the new genetics is for biomedical and other improvements, not negative discrimination--but that, of course, privacy is needed to protect against the misuse of data by, for example, insurance companies.

And then an Angela Merkel will declare, to a standing ovation, that multiculturalism has 'utterly failed' in Germany.  Germany, of all places.

At "the beginning of the 1960s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country," said Ms. Merkel at the event in Potsdam, near Berlin. "We kidded ourselves a while. We said: 'They won't stay, [after some time] they will be gone,' but this isn't reality. And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other ... has failed, utterly failed."
The crowd gathered in Potsdam greeted the above remark, delivered from the podium with fervor by Ms. Merkel, with a standing ovation. And her comments come just days after a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation think tank (which is affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party) found that more than 30 percent of people believed Germany was "overrun by foreigners" who had come to Germany chiefly for its social benefits.
The study also found that 13 percent of Germans would welcome a "Führer" – a German word for leader that is explicitly associated with Adolf Hitler – to run the country “with a firm hand.” Some 60 percent of Germans would “restrict the practice of Islam,” and 17 percent think Jews have “too much influence,” according to the study. 

And the far-right is gaining all over Europe from an anti-immigrant backlash -- largely, but not entirely, anti-Muslim.  Many Roma have been deported from France in the last few months.  And of course this anti-immigration fervor is not restricted to Europe.  Here in the US we've got a level of rage we haven't seen for decades, as Frank Rich writes in the Sunday NYTimes.  And we've got the Tea Party movement, which officially is calling for smaller government, lower taxes, and strict interpretation of the Constitution, but the group is apparently most attractive to those with, shall we say, less than inclusive views.  Here we've lifted a paragraph from the Wikipedia description of the Tea Party:
Various polls have also probed Tea Party supporters for their views on a variety of political and controversial issues. A University of Washington poll of 1,695 registered voters in the State of Washington reported that 73% of Tea Party supporters disapprove of Obama's policy of engaging with Muslim countries, 88% approve of the controversial immigration law recently enacted in Arizona, 82% do not believe that gay and lesbian couples should have the legal right to marry, and that about 52% believed that "lesbians and gays have too much political power."

So the background of us vs. them is building.  What about the will to translate that to genetics?  Well, here's an excerpt from in an interview published in New Scientist with Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and commentator:

You were in China recently and got a glimpse of what’s happening in biogenetics there.
         In the west, we have debates about whether we should
         intervene to prevent disease or use stem cells, while the
         Chinese just do it on a massive scale. When I was in China,
         some researchers showed me a document from their
         Academy of Sciences which says openly that the goal of
         their biogenetic research is to enable large-scale medical
         procedures which will “rectify” the physical and physiological
         weaknesses of the Chinese people.

Is this true?  We can't confirm it, but it wouldn't be a surprise.  Not because it's China, but because we are in an age of belief in biotech and our ability to harness it to our will.  If it isn't true yet, it will be -- somewhere.

The New York Times is reporting that there is now a new museum exhibit open in Germany that shows that the holocaust was not something Hitler and his henchmen foisted off on a benign, unaware populace.   Instead, the populace put him into power.

There are many parallels between the rhetoric of the early Darwinian age, that started out piously voicing the idea that science could now improve humankind via genetics, and the kinds of rhetoric, such as we're citing here, that we hear so often today.  It started out mainly benign or even positive in the early eugenics era (encouraging the best of us to reproduce, and discouraging voluntary restraint on the rest of us unwashed).  But of course it turned coercive -- first in medicine, by the way -- and then murderously hateful.

Historically, this kind of thing happens most when a society is under stress.  We're seeing a version of that stress in the current recession -- the anger is palpable.  Is democracy robust to the schemes of the demogogues who would like power and would use emotive, anti-immigrant or religious crusading arguments to start a 21st century version of the eugenics era?  Hopefully so.  But there is much general societal parallel, including much of the rhetoric and even invocation of Darwinian concepts (or their pious, medicalized, benign-sounding equivalent), so that one can't just dismiss the possibility.

Personalized genomic medicine can become personalized genomic discrimination.  If concepts like 'racial profiling' take hold, 'personalized' can become 'personalized + race'.  And we have to realize that if we believe that genome sequence can predict risk for essentially all disease traits -- and that's basically the claim, or hope -- then there's no reason to also believe that other traits, including socially sensitive traits, will not be equally predictable.  This is what happened before, except that specific genes were not known (other criteria were used, such as family patterns).

And if you believe that you can predict complex disease effectively and if you believe in 'Darwinian' medicine, then you'll also be prone to argue that normal traits -- whatever suits your personal interests to advocate -- also reflect natural selection.  And that by definition means you place value differences on different versions of the trait -- like IQ. And if you believe these were selected differently to an important extent between  human populations (i.e., 'races'), then there's a short line from there to drawing value judgments about races.  And then you can worry about the inferior individuals out-reproducing the superior and being a danger to society down the road.  This is exactly the trail or reasoning that we've been through before.

We aren't saying that this is all happening now, as we write.  We're just saying that, for those with antennae for this sort of them vs us view of the world, the antennae are picking up signal. The lesson from the history of eugenics and what it spawned is that, like the fog in Carl Sandberg's poem, this stuff creeps in on little cat feet.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Thank you for writing about this and from this genetics/eugenics perspective. I've been reading everything in the news that I can about Germany right now. I wish I was there to talk it over!

Anne Buchanan said...

I wish you were too! But it's at least good to know that we're not worrying alone.

Anne Buchanan said...

by Carl Sandberg

THE FOG comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Jennifer said...

Ok, about China's use of stems cells to improve Chinese people physically and psychologically, if you back up a bit and look at it from their eyes, it makes a bit more sense. Western societies focus much more on the individual rights and freedoms, where in China the focus is more on the society as a whole. In an ideal perfect world, if the society was able to remove or treat all of the human imperfections (physical and psychological - from that particular society's point of view) then it could follow that individuals quality of life would improve along with that of the society in which they live. I think that that point of view makes at least as much sense as in the West where we treat each individual and society is expected to spend the money and resources to accomodate the individual imperfections so that each individual has equal access to what the society has to offer - education, jobs, leisure activities, housing, etc. If you take the political bias out of the equation, wouldn't it be more efficient to conform individuals to the society than the other way around. And if everyone was physically and psychologically able to access society's resources, then wouldn't it follow (ideally) that there would be less unrest and people as a whole might be more satisfied?

Anne Buchanan said...

Jennifer, you have a point. But the problem is that someone gets to decide what "physically and psychologically able" means, and that's where the danger lies.

Karen said...

Sounds like the stuff of a really rich, and scary, science fiction story.

Ken Weiss said...

The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to engineer society (culturally, not biologically). The Nazis tried to engineer society, biologically to preserve and advance the 'master' race. Stalin tried to engineer society by shipping opponents off to Siberia.

It never works in a positive way

Ken Weiss said...

The problem, of course, is that much of life-science is incredibly 'benign' to say the least. Agricultural science, painless dentistry and surgery, and vaccinations are only three of countless examples. And science finds many genuine aspects of biological causation, too.

The issue is balancing these against excess zeal, excess ideas of causal determinism,and the use or control of those ideas in social policy--and what we know of its history. Balancing what we know about the real world, with how we use that for--or against--people is the issue.

Jennifer said...

I didn't say it wasn't dangerous - that's why I said "in an ideal world", meaning that it sounds like a good idea, even if it wouldn't work very well in real life!

Ken Weiss said...

Right. The historical problem is that, going at least as far back as the Enlightenment period in the 16 & 1700's, people thought that 'in an ideal world' science would solve mankind's problems. Many were sincere, many were Utopian dreamers, and others just used the utopianism to grab totalitarian power.

Idi Amin said...

How does an education system thrive if the students dont all speak the same language? Multiculturalism will continually fail until everyone understands the sacrifices. That includes a willingness by immigrants to learn the language used in the country they move to.

Ken Weiss said...

Cultural common-feeling is probably very important to humans. Language is one of the many areas that are relevant. Each country has its own situation. Here, for example, I personally think everyone should learn Spanish in school. In parts of the US the same might apply to Chinese. One could go too far, of course, since there are other-language communities all over the country.

But our issue was about the way these problems don't seem to go away, and can get out of hand as history shows. That's not to say there should be no constructive approaches.