Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eugenics, or a new regime for beneficent science, or the fox in the henhouse once again?

Finally we return to a subject we promised months ago to write a bit more about.  It's an issue that pervades much of what we write about here on MT much of the time, but that we don't often address specifically.

Like it or not, we're in an age of genetic determinism, from the promises that risk of disease is readily predictable from genes to the easy way people have of, metaphorically or not, talking about traits that are "in my DNA".  Even in a nation's DNA.

Of course, few acknowledge that they are genetic determinists, because that sounds a lot like the bad old days of eugenics, when you were what your genes made you, inescapably and inherently.  If society could identify that, then it could do something about it.  It could be clothed in, and even to a great extent be, attempts to better mankind or even you as an individual.  But it had its very dark side.

Determinists of course acknowledge that evidence about genetic effects is statistical: few genotypes perfectly predict traits--they're generally not completely 'penetrant' they way Mendel's pea traits were.  But if you listen to how this is often expressed, you can tell that the underlying belief often is that if we identify a manageably small number of genetic variants our predictive power will be great....that in the main genotypes really do determine traits.

Today, there is a fervor for genetic Gotcha! like we have not seen since about 1945 (in case that year might ring a bell).  It starts with medicine, perhaps archetypically with Francis Collins' promise of 'personalized' genomic medicine. But it's spilling rapidly into the social sciences, where how you vote and whether you're in a gang or tolerate child abuse or make retirement investments well is going to be pronounced by your genome--indeed, by a few simple tests. We've been posting about this recently.

Once genome sequencing and testing become inexpensive, and because of their technological flash irresistible, there are many interests (besides professors needing grants or to be seen as deep thinkers revealing the true nature of Nature) who will want to know your genomic Destiny.  What will they do with that information?  Who will be given access?  Will they have your, or their, interests at heart? Will you know about it?

It is mistaken to take the spirit behind our asking these kinds of questions as merely reflecting our politics.  They do that, certainly.  But that's because science in areas like this is politics.  We've had two centuries of innocent proclamations that "we're just trying to understand how the world really is, regardless of human (i.e., religious etc.) illusions.  We scientists don't control what the world does with this knowledge!"  But anyone paying attention knows what society can do and has done with this kind of knowledge.  Some of it is good, surely, such as using knowledge to develop better medical care.  But that is for people who voluntarily show up at doctors' offices asking for help.  Other uses are not so good, as when people are typed genetically by others, such as government, insurers, schools, employers, the military or police, and so on.  Then, there is less control over what is good and what is bad for the people being categorized by their genes.

Maybe those with the information won't misuse it for selfish gain.  But the opportunity that they might do so is sufficient to make it so that they can't do so.  Why we have to learn this lesson again, or what those with good intentions can do about it, are serious questions.   But one thing needs to be understood: the logic of the reasoning in this area, and its implications.....and its history.  This will require understanding what 'determinism,'  invoking 'Darwin' or 'evolutionary' mean in this context.   And whether investigators' intentions matter in terms of the broader issues.

In fact, the lurking potentially ominous nature of these  issues can be readily seen in the resurgence of a classical view--going back centuries--that we should not help the unworthy, because they're that way inherently and thus the attempt is a waste of time and money.  In Britain, there was an effort to  use genetics to identify immigrants from a particular African region.  In Germany, the Chancellor declared multiculturalism dead on arrival, and pointed fingers at non-assimilating Muslim immigrants.  Jim Watson made the statement that it's wasting money to give foreign aid to Africans because they simply aren't capable of living up to standard and we've read that he also said that anyone who has employed African Americans knows what he's talking about.  In the US the Tea Party doesn't like helping those who over-borrowed for their mortgages (but they aren't as mad at the banks that lured people to make the loans).  Growing since Reagan and Thatcher is resentment against welfare-queens.  Why should my hard-earned money go to pay for some wastrel's health care?

These things are relevant because they involve, enable, or incite anger of groups against each other, and the classificatory nature of the accusations that goes with a deterministic view of human inherent value, or selfish retrenchment often couched in religious terms.  And this is without the intervention of actual genetic knowledge--but the easy way in which genetic claims are bought by the public these days reveals the mood, and the possibility that we're about to revisit a grievous history, including two chapters of opposite kinds, known as eugenics and Lysenkoism.

But it is easy to rant against this and one (we) must keep aware of the risk that we just do that without attempting to address the issues, carefully, themselves.  We'll try in the next post.


FUG said...

Is this really a worry, though? I've always dismissed genetic determinism as unsupported, and likely unsupportable. It's built on an essentialist concept of a person, taking no account of environmental fluctuations which also determine a person.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, history shows that this kind of determinism has been horrifically misused. That was the basis of eugenics and Naziism. It has been the informal basis of policy discussions, and probably unstatedly of policy, in regard to helping (say) inner city schools. On the other side of the ledger, horrors were visited on the Soviet Union by a different (Lamarckian) kind of determinism.

Even if the likelihood of revisiting major abuse is low, which hopefully it is, it's not zero, and prevention is by far the better path to take.

It may be that people try again to use genetic data, now explicit when in the past it was implicit (eg. attributed to groups like 'race'), and will see that it has sometimes great value in regard to frank disease and some traits like hair color or baldness, but generally weak value in predicting most normal traits. Then attention may return, in the natural Nature-Nurture cycle, back to environmentalism (which itself can be mis-used)

Pam said...

I don't think that this is a rant. You are making valuable, highly relevant points. There seems to be a mixture of excitement and fear in the public sphere when it comes to these issues. Excitement because linking one's genes to one's politics (for example) is "cool." Fear because we don't want the government, insurance companies, etc., as you suggest, to make decisions about us based on our genotype. The point is, it's a complex ethical issue and we need to talk about it. Thanks for posting.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for making this point.

FUG said...

M'kay. I think I was reading this from the perspective of scientific description of the world, and not the power of the idea to influence our culture and the way we go about and interpret the world. Mea culpa.