Monday, June 20, 2011

Eugenics is back...and YOU are paying for it!

It didn't take a genius to predict that the fervid ideology driven by genomic technology would lead to a revival of the geneticizing of every human trait, and once behavior was allowed back into the tent that we'd see eugenics not far behind.  And a story in the NYTimes suggests that criminality is already back in apparent good graces. 
The tainted history of using biology to explain criminal behavior has pushed criminologists to reject or ignore genetics and concentrate on social causes: miserable poverty, corrosive addictions, guns. Now that the human genome has been sequenced, and scientists are studying the genetics of areas as varied as alcoholism and party affiliation, criminologists are cautiously returning to the subject. A small cadre of experts is exploring how genes might heighten the risk of committing a crime and whether such a trait can be inherited.    
 It's couched in pious only-for-social-good kind of rhetoric, along with 'oh, no, your genes don't determine your future penal state, only give some suggestions about .....'

But this is eugenics by other names.  Once it is believed that genes affect your risk of being a criminal (or whatever other kind of undesirable), the acknowledged fact that environments can modify that probability tend to be swept away, because your genotype can be measured at birth and used to label you.  If you have an above-average 'tendency' to become a sociopath (of types other than those of the neo-eugenicists in modern genomics--now, as before, in major universities), then you or your kids and friends may be labeled, watched, shadowed, pressured (on pain of things like no insurance or jobs) to take preventive measures (e.g., be doped by psycho-meds).

It's understandable for a host of reasons, all of which were invoked by the first round of eugenecists, because we know that genetic variation affects variation in basically any trait you can name.  But the determinism is usually very weak, and the bulk of social problems, like criminality, could be cured not by professors at prestige universities with large grants, but by more social equity and integration, and so on--things we understand imperfectly but perhaps far better than we understand genes.  But who will know and what will they be allowed to do with that knowledge?  Will there be forms of subtle intimidation applied (insurance, jobs, school admissions, imposed preventive measures....).  And what traits will, incrementally, be added to the test list?  We all know from history--including some contemporary history--how it goes.

The current step sounds innocent, as it's about crime, as being discussed by NIJ (the National Institute of Justice; the 'J' is supposed to be about justice, but they have the money so they can define that however they want).  Big deal?  After all, how different will genomic surveillance be from communication surveillance that is apparently being expanded? 

The work is going to be done,  since nobody has the will to stop it....and YOU are paying for it.


Henry Harpending said...

"....the acknowledged fact that environments can modify that probability tend to be swept away, .."

Ken can you cite any evidence in support of this "fact?"


Ken Weiss said...

Is the train out of the station?

"If you knew wouldn't you want to do something about it?"

Henry Harpending said...

Nice article, Ken, but no support for your "fact." I was at a conference for a few days with Raine in the late 1980s, and it was apparent then that he would be a star.


Ken Weiss said...

The arguments go back to the classics, hardly changed. There are serious issues afoot. It's challenging enough to understand causes of phenotypes, and their evolution, without being ideological, when nobody cares about them--like, say, why crows caw, or the shape of petunia petals.

But when the traits apply to how we fare in our own society, personal biases and politics inevitably, and properly, entangle judgments about the 'evidence'. (Hell, even arguments on why crows caw don't seem to change anybody's mind.)

We have our say with our posts, and you have yours. Fortunately for the professor business, a century from now our academic descendants will be carrying on over the same issues--and whether we acted well or badly, and whether it made any difference.