One consequence of a genomic causation as highly deterministic and specific is that one comes to believe that once a person is conceived, his or her genome essentially predicts his/her life so that, in particular, we can (a) work preventive miracles in regard to disease, and (b) think of designing the traits we would like to engineer in our offspring. But the issues of genomic determinism are not at all new.
A new paper by Donald Fosdyke, a Peer J pre-print ("The relative roles of politics and science: William Bateson, black slavery, eugenics and speciation"), shows how controversies about genomic causation began in the late 1800s, not that long after Darwin's Origin of Species was published. Insufficiently circumspect appropriation of Darwinian ideas that occurred, contained within it the horrors of human abuse that would occur, under the rubric of eugenics, in genetics' and evolution's name. And those issues, like the ones we discussed yesterday, are very much still with us. Now, in principle at least, we have a chance to learn from history rather than repeat it. But the signs that such a benign outcome is likely are not very favorable.
|Wm Bateson. From nndb.com, on Google images|
William Bateson (1861-1926) was a leading biologist in the formative decades after Darwin's ideas of evolution and Mendel's of genetic inheritance were swirling in scientific circles. Mendel showed how stable, discrete traits were heritable, and essentially determined--to wit, the presence or absence of traits in his peas. Mendelian inheritance was 'rediscovered' in 1900 and seemed to provide a sound idea of inheritance. However, discrete Mendelian traits seemed at the time to be inherited without change. Such stability and discreteness were inconsistent with the apparent nature of adaptive evolution that Darwin had suggested. His idea was that traits vary infinitesimally among individuals and selection very gradually moves the resulting traits in a population to adapt to environmental change.
What was 'eugenics'?
The idea that society is composed of the ordinary and their betters is not new. It has long been part of the rhetorical, religious, and material ways in which the minority justify their position and dominance over the masses. That the role of the upper classes in pursuits like gluttony, debauchery, and warfare might be a danger to them, and hence to society as a whole if it must suffer without those lost in such endeavors, was a concern even to the classical Greek philosophers (well, they mainly worried about the warfare part).
In the years after Darwin's ideas were published, these concerns about what was good in bad in human nature, or who were the good or bad individuals in society, took on the panache of science, replaying, one might say, similar judgments made by invoking the will of God--the Divine Right of the upper classes, the inherent inferiority of non-Europeans that justified slavery, and so on. If evolution generated the truly-better, and that means genetically better, then the loss of the social elite to disease or warfare deprived society and its future patrimony of the best genes in the gene pool. And in any case, it is problematic that the masses outnumber the elites, yet have inferior genes. Or, to be a bit more charitable, it was thought that it was possible to distinguish between individuals who really were lesser--inherently criminal, drug-abusers, amoral, slovenly and the like--vs those who were better. The latter were the intellectual, scientific, military and other such leaders.
Now that Darwin had showed us how evolution worked, and that its workings were all about Nature making mortal value judgments (survival of the fittest), modern science could be used to further Nature's plan, speed it up, and ensure that bad luck didn't thwart that plan. The effort to use science for human and evolution's betterment was called eugenics. The key factor, of course, was reproductive success. Thus, if differences in individual character could be discerned, we could impose incentives to enhance the reproductive efforts of the better and lead the lessers to voluntarily restrain their own proliferation; that was called positive eugenics. If this didn't work, we could screen the population for those with better and lesser inherent qualities, and use social mechanisms to impose restricted reproduction on the latter. This was called negative eugenics.
The idea that genes specify who we are, implicitly meaning that even through the fog of culture, environment, and experience, has great appeal. It's simple. It leads to effective prediction. It can be built into policy. The eugenics movement was an application of Darwinian thinking that assumed many simplistic and/or unverifiable ideas about what Nature 'wanted' and which genotypes (and, of course, their specified traits) were good and which weren't, led textbook authors and research institutes to declare these things and this in turn reflected and/or led to policy imposed by society onto its citizens. We know what happened in nearly a century of the imposition of 'science' to manufacture such ends.
The temptation was to think of traits as single-gene, or clearly 'genetic'. Traits that are complex, such as we know many behavioral and common diseases are, can't be attributed to single genes or even a small list of additive contributors (though they can be modeled that way in statistical studies). Because the many components of complex genotypes recombine and shuffle their components among individuals and across generations. For that reason, thinking of these traits as due to a bean or two from the beanbag is misleading and, essentially, erroneous relative to the underlying causal principles (themselves not yet very well understood).
Whether or not one holds a eugenic view of this sort, the policies in the name of eugenic 'science'--even if that was just a rationalization for what politicians would do anyway--led to some of the worst horrors in human history, both to individuals and to whole groups. The lesson was learned, and led to a prevalent environmentalism after WWII, where explicit eugenics was basically itself 'blacklisted'. But memory is short, and the hubris of scientists powerful. Eugenics, in various new forms, is back.
Neo-eugenics: modernizing a ghastly idea (oh, no harm of course!)
Many readers may have seen the 19th-century-like OpEd in the recent NYTimes ("The downside of resilience," Jay Belsky), that advocated screening all children for a couple of markers of their personality and response to education. Of course, it was all couched in terms of salubrious value to society--eugenics started out and was often proclaimed that way. 'We' just have to test 'them' (all school children) to find those who need special help to respond to schooling as well as others (another value judgment that the 'we' make about the 'them'), and then we can devote extra resources to those with sub-par performance. Sure! That is about as naive as believing in Santa Claus. What history shows will likely happen is that the well-off will argue, with demagogues in politics at their side, that this is a waste of resources, which should be devoted instead to those like us, who will deliver for society's betterment. If you think it will be otherwise, then you should go straight to the Mall and tell Santa what you want for Christmas.
In a sense, from our point of view, it doesn't matter if these sub-par-performance traits are 'genetic' or not. The point is we have zero serious need to 'diagnose' them by genotyping. We know that even for the vast majority of diseases, actual phenotypes are better predictors by far than genotypes. So, if a trait is harmful, as disease or other limitations, we need only observe the trait itself or its prodrome--the signs it is coming. We can learn to identify these things earlier, but at least we only 'treat' those who actually have the trait.
Since such traits are at most only partly, usually slightly genetic, we have no real need to do the genotyping afterwards, either. Such traits might need therapy the way any disease needs therapy. There is not much gain in knowledge. A 'beanbag' approach or conceptualization makes policy decisions seem easy but in fact makes much of the inference at best inaccurate to an unknown (perhaps unknowable) degree.
The reason for restraint is that, as history clearly shows , social engineering to protect those in power and influence is typically detrimental to those with 'undesirable' traits. The value judgments are sometimes, if not perhaps often, based on irrelevant correlates (such as 'race'). But the consequences are that some group of 'we' decides what to do for (or to) some group of 'them'.
As the Fosdyke paper shows, these issues are not new, and even Bateson himself (who coined the term 'genetics') warned about the lack of knowledge of the complexities of biological trait determination, and the tendency towards unjustified eugenics a century ago. Fosdyke quotes Bateson from a 1905 piece of his in The Speaker:
What ... will happen when ... enlightenment actually comes to pass and the facts of heredity are ... commonly known? One thing is certain: mankind will begin to interfere; perhaps not in England, but in some country more ready to break with the past and eager for ‘national efficiency.’ ... Ignorance of the remoter consequences of interference has never long postponed such experiments. When power is discovered man always turns to it. The science of heredity will soon provide power on a stupendous scale; and in some country, at some time, not, perhaps, far distant, that power will be applied to control the composition of a nation. Whether the institution of such control will ultimately be good or bad for that nation, or for humanity at large, is a separate question.W. Bateson, ‘Heredity in the physiology of nations.’ The Speaker, 14th Oct (1905).
Bateson had many different ideas on genetics, but in a sense his approach was rather beanbag in nature, thinking of 'gene' as an independent causal agent (though so far before actual genes or their actual particulate nature were known that 'beanbag genetics' really can't apply to him). He was not convinced that Mendelian factors could even account for evolution.
Things are complex and so were the commenters during the eugenics era. Even JBS Haldane, about whom we wrote yesterday in Part I of this series, was a mix of viewpoints. He was a founder of the genetically based area of population genetics that became and still generally is viewed as 'the' formal theory of evolution. It rests on genetic determinism to a great extent, and the idea that what is here is because the relevant causal agents--the genetic 'beanbags'--were closely scrutinized and favored by natural selection. That idea, which certainly has much truth behind it, makes it complex when it comes to judgments about human traits that affected the eugenicists then (and their descendants today). We'll deal with that in Part III.
Bateson warned us about the issues before the major abuses that led to the disasters of the mid-century--human experimentation, Nazi genocide, forced sterilizations and institutionalization. Of course, in the hubris of the new genetics and evolutionary theories of the time, nobody listened to warnings. Too many listened to pompous, self-assured scientific 'experts' who were, of course, always speaking for the public good. And we all know what happened.
However, it is also fair to say that in the absence of relevant information, many different views were circulating around at that time, as the new ideas and discoveries were being assessed. One must be judicious in giving too much hindsight-based credit to views that seem now to have been prophetic. Nonetheless, when a cycle seems to be repeating, it is proper to note how history unfolded even within living memory.
Are these statements too cautious? Is there no chance of a return of the last century? Maybe. Of course a 'return' will have its own form, its own rhetoric, and its own consequences. Some may be quite good (such as effective genetic prenatal counseling for clearly known devastating genetic disorders). But in science as in politics, religion, or other areas of human affairs, the hubris and excitement of such success historically leads to excesses. There are many things we are not allowed to do, such as falsely shout Fire! in a crowded theater. The restrictions on science an always be revised and where risks may exceed benefit, work should just not be done: there are plenty of less ambiguous ways to invest in science for human betterment.
The time to take care of your horse is before it leaves the barn.