Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Are we still doing 'beanbag' eu(genetics)? Part II. History's unlearned lessons?

Yesterday we discussed some of the ways in which particularized views of genomic control and evolution were controversial and that, despite much more knowledge now than when the issues first surfaced nearly a century ago, they are still with us in largely unchanged form--even if with massive amounts of data and lots of chest-thumping about how modern our current view is.

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.


DG said...

And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

Ken Weiss said...

Can't really respond to this comment! Not just because we're not biblical scholars, but because we don't get your point. Or whether the sea and winds should be calmed, even if they could. Or is the tide not fearful?

DG said...

I was accusing you of losing faith in the better nature of us humans. I tried to do it in what I think of as a nice way. You seem to have decided before you know the answers that the risks outweigh the benefits. A theme of your writing is that we are not slaves to our genes. Instead, we use reason and our cultures to modulate our baser biological drives and emotions. Yet you get to a certain point and “lose your faith”. If free inquiry has worked so far, why would it not work now? And, yes, faith can calm the storm.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I may be a pessimist, but I pay attention to history. There are many good things afoot in biomedical research, but I think it can be directed in a more clearly relevant direction, and I also think more subjects ought to be taboo, at least as far as publicly funded research goes, because geneticizing (and hence attributing inherency) to socially sensitive traits has, for me, more risk than benefit. It's just my view, of course, and taking precautions isn't the usual mode of societal action when it comes to these sorts of thing.

Lyndon said...

Very enjoyable, all of this.

There is a bit of ambiguity here:

“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.”

Given what was above this passage, is not part of the problem that genotype explanations were actually bad explanations. That is, claims of genotype for these traits were wrong and even beyond our grasping at this point in time. Its not to say that genotype would always be beyond us, if we could first even define these traits or diseases. Addressing the issues via phenotype is the most appropriate because in reality it is all that is possible at the present time. There are larger issues, as displayed, about what a genotype explanation will look like, but there may be reason to think that such explanations could be socially beneficial if we could actually grasp them.

Also, from earlier on, the idea that inherited intelligence levels would mean leaving behind those on the bottom seems like a social issue that may come to the fore whether we stack those supposed intelligence levels gene-wise or as phenotype. Our guard against such problems will need to be by adequate social policy irregardless of what constitutes differences. As I see it, the current state of affairs has people running around hopelessly with very marginal theories of genotype (or essentialization of identity), and then applying or justifying social practices based on that muddle (e.g. multiple intelligences).

Ken Weiss said...

I agree with you, Lyndon.
Phenotypes are better predictors of later phenotypes than genotypes are (i.e., prodromal states vs inherited genotypes). There are many issues here, and social policy is an important one. Belief in inherent predictability is a ready-made excuse for demagoguic or other social policy to discriminate for or (usually) against people.

I think there is a practical side to the sometimes religion-like devotion to genotypic causation. We spend more time and resources mapping, mapping, mapping when if genetic causation is as important as is being claimed (here, we're referring to biomedical applications), then there is a clear way to show that:

We know of tens if not hundreds of essentially clear-cut single-gene causation of undesired disease-related, life-impairing traits. Other than prenatal prevention, however, there are scant cases where genetic knowledge is directly used to prevent or cure such traits. Let's focus resources on developing those, so we can systematically tackle them with success. Then, with such things in place, one can make a case for turning to the somewhat less clear-cut genetic predictors--those with lesser effects.

Meanwhile, perhaps resources would be better, or vastly better, spent on things like effective vaccines and the like for infectious agents. Indeed, since vaccine technology these days is (I think) largely genetic and directly molecular, transformative understanding of how to make good vaccines against external pathogens might then be turned to 'vaccinate' against pathogenic genetic variants.

Anyway, behavior genetics always flirts with societal disaster, even if rarely intended that way, which is why I think it is important to be very wary even of hints of it. I don't think we can invest the level of trust required that things will be done only for the good (hard to agree on anyway), based on what I see in human history.

DG said...


"the idea that inherited intelligence levels would mean leaving behind those on the bottom seems like a social issue that may come to the fore whether we stack those supposed intelligence levels gene-wise or as phenotype"

Excellent point. People are left behind now and lower intelligence is a major factor in their being left behind. If one is concerned about individuals being left behind for whatever reason, then deciding what is possible and what is not possible from a social and political view will benefit from free scientific inquiry.


Try to read some optimism into your history. It is near impossible to find someone today that will defend slavery. Back up 400 years and you would have had great difficulty finding someone who thought slavery needed a defense.

Ken Weiss said...

I believe that erring on the side of pessimism in situations such as this is the better policy--easing up on the caveats is always an excuse for those pushing ahead to push ahead (viz: fracking, GMO ag, climate change).

As to slavery, effective if not de facto slavery exists in many parts of the world (and from what I hear, de facto slavery even in the US). It is rare, of course, but... I think a lot of people here in the good ol' USA would accept slavery if it were allowed (de facto or de jure).

And what about the growing ISIS movement that essentially treats war captives, non-believers, and women essentially as slaves. The pattern is no different from what we read about in classic Greek and Roman etc times, or found in native American societies.

So you can voice your optimism if you want but I think we should err on the other side.

A number of years ago, but not all that many, Michigan voted to make an even distribution (not local income-based) distribution of school taxes to give lower income districts similar resources and redress structural racism. As I understand it, the program has basically failed--is the racist disadvantage in the state less than before as a result? Also, what I read, at least, was that the move led the people in the upper income areas to donate funds to their local districts, to keep the level of privilege.

Whatever the details, I think this is the general story, don't you? As has been said, democracy must be defended with vigilance at all times, because so many forces work against it (don't we see that in our country today?) In fact, a lot of people don't believe in democracy (their right, of course) and there is a lot of demagoguery around by politicians working in the interest of the powerful.

Read some work by Jews and others who were in Germany during the 30s and how they casually dismissed the rise of the Nazis. Read some of the textbooks in the eugenic era. See some of the history of the way Darwinism (biological or social) was used to justify and impose inequity.

I am not making any new observations! I claim no particular insight. Everyone has to evaluate risks and benefits from his/her own perspective. But I'm old enough to have seen enough of human tendencies to believe that casual optimism is the first step in acquiescence.

So I see your point but make no apology for my level of caution (and, of course, nobody's listening anyway!)

DG said...

You have every right to your point of view. You surely know that if you appeal to science to inform your views on social and political issues then you diminish your authority by placing certain areas off limits. I know that you know this so I don’t even know why I commented on it.

I will match your age and I have seen what some people once considered immutable personal tendencies turn out to be quite flexible cultural artifacts.

Ken Weiss said...

If I understand your latest message you have got mine 180 degrees off. I am very skeptical about attributing social issues to genes, and I am much more amenable to the malleability rather than genetic determination of personal traits. As an anthropologist as well as geneticist, I think that in areas of behavior what we evolved 'for' was making judgments about our surroundings and acting on those rather than being hard-wired.

Maybe we are just talking at cross-purposes or misperceiving each other's messages. Unfortunately, tomorrow's post may not help....

DG said...

Maybe I should limit my comments and keep them to an occasional high five.

Some people, common folk, educated folk, some of whom are qualified scientists are modern day Aryans. They think that culture is strictly controlled by genes. Some people(s) are not allowed to join their club even if they try to adopt their culture. If you don’t have their culture genes you fail at adoption. As a general rule they blame bleeding heart liberals and Jews for all of the world’s problems, past and present.

Some people, common folk, educated folk, some of whom are qualified scientists do not believe we are controlled by culture genes. However, if those scientists that are on the “right side” of history, throw up their hands in the face of genetic research and by default hand the victory to the other side, the common folk and educated folk on this side will be dis-advantaged in their attempt to use science to inform their beliefs.

Just because the Bell Curve describes the difference in IQ between blacks and whites is not reason to bring back slavery. Slavery was “wrong” before the Bell Curve and it is wrong now. Whatever research in genetics reveals, it will not give legitimacy to evil. Jews were murdered for hundreds of years before the word genetics came into being. People who hate will use what is a hand to justify what they want to do. The greater the taboo; the greater the need for inquiry.

Ken Weiss said...

Many do indeed think that there are genes 'for' particular aspects of culture-related behavior, such as adventure-seeking, being 'liberal' politically, IQ, and much else.

Many rationales have been found, usually various religious forms, for discrimination. My view is that science should not be allowed to become yet another rationale and Darwinian/genetic science already has proven, over more than a century, that it fits the bill for those seeking one.

Even when or where there may be genes predisposing relevant to culture-related traits we should be very restrictive as to what can be studied and done. The line is fine between doing this in entirely salubrious ways related to disease, and for optional ways that can lead to societal damage.

Mean IQ test scores by group are almost inevitable regardless of the group definitions, just as a matter of statistical sampling and one's choice of signficance cutoffs. The problem is when this is attributed to inherent rather than achieved abilities.

Anyway this is now well-trodden ground, and time to move on to other things.

DG said...

I will let it go Ken.

However, you cannot claim the mantle of science if you block inquiry.

You can "win" regardless of what the science reveals. That's where I want you to have faith.

Ken Weiss said...

I'll just finish by saying that the mantle of science does not allow one to study anything one chooses. We all have iRBs that do in fact block some sorts of inquiry (more accurately, we know better than to propose, say, torturing lab mice or even volunteer human subjects even if they'd consent, so investigators tend not to propose such things and are often told they can or can't do this or that method, etc). The question for me is where the lines are to be drawn, and why.

But this is not the place for such a discussion beyond what we've already had. So we'll move on to our next posts.....and hope for a good holiday season for one and all!