On the Improvement of the Population

Two related stories, Slashdot‘s “Where To Draw the Line With Embryo Selection?” and Scientific Blogging‘s “Analyzing The Homicide Trend In Young Men” together evoke questions about the future of eugenics (improvement in the genetics of a population) and dysgenics (degradation of the genetics of a population) in the future.

Clearly we’re rapidly approaching adoption of relatively painless choice-based selection when it comes to the future generation. If parents really are concerned their kid will be unacceptably lazy, unacceptably dull, unacceptably slow, etc., they will be able to ‘load the dice’ by selecting embryos that offer the best hope in the desired dimensions. If we ban the procedure in the west, there’s no reason to think it won’t become a booming industry in China, in India, in Thailand, in Mexico, or in other countries already popular for medical tourism.

However, it’s likely there will be government controls anyway. Consider the thugs who commit crimes and cause other troubles. There’s nothing theoretically to stop them from selecting children that are more vicious, more hostile, and more anti-social than would otherwise be the case. To stop this, the government will ban these procedures. Though the underclass is as free as the rest of the population to seek medical tourism abroad, what did Voltaire say about freedom? Something like, In France, the law prevents both the rich and the poor from sleeping under a bridge at night!.

So we probably will have a de facto eugenics policy, where those who look to improve their kids are able to afford to do so, while those not able to are not able to afford the procedure.

16 thoughts on “On the Improvement of the Population”

  1. “So we probably will have a de facto eugenics policy, where those who look to improve their kids are able to afford to do so, while those not able to are not able to afford the procedure.”

    But is this just? Doesn’t this further compromise the notion that Americans are born with an equal opportunity for success?

    For me the basic message of Gattaca still holds. If genetic enhancement can be bought, then we risk creating a new social elite, a new genetic elite which will have access to opportunities that the non-elite mass can never touch. Material capital can be used to purchase human capital for a future person. Thus, we create a new source of inequality in society which continues and perpetuates the inequalities of the previous generation. This is a new social order and new social classes to go with it. It’s hard to reconcile this kind of social system with anything that resembles democracy.

  2. But is this just? Doesn’t this further compromise the notion that Americans are born with an equal opportunity for success?

    This has never been an American notion, because it is absurdly false. Someone with a family history of cancer has a worse opportunity for success than someone without. Someone born into a family of capital has a worse opportunity to success than someone without.

    America is not built on a factually incorrect notion of equal ability, or equal liklihood of success.

    It’s built on a notion far more radical… equal rights under the law.

    For me the basic message of Gattaca still holds. If genetic enhancement can be bought, then we risk creating a new social elite, a new genetic elite which will have access to opportunities that the non-elite mass can never touch. Material capital can be used to purchase human capital for a future person. Thus, we create a new source of inequality in society which continues and perpetuates the inequalities of the previous generation. This is a new social order and new social classes to go with it. It’s hard to reconcile this kind of social system with anything that resembles democracy.

    Thus ushing in a nightmare future, where the intelligent and future-oriented marry each other, outproducing the less adept and gradually replacing the population?

    This has been going on for sometime [1,2].

    What our market economy allows for, however, is for luxury goods financed at the expense of the richer to reach mass production for the benefit of the poorer. This has been true of dish washers, hybrid cars, and doubtless soon gene therapy.

    There are already opportunities the non-elite mass do not touch. The question we face here is whether we should allow people to improve themselves or their families, or whether they should know their place.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/01/20/review-of-a-farewell-to-alms-by-gregory-clark.html
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Alms-Economic-History-Princeton/dp/0691121354

  3. “What our market economy allows for, however, is for luxury goods financed at the expense of the richer to reach mass production for the benefit of the poorer. This has been true of dish washers, hybrid cars, and doubtless soon gene therapy.”

    Right, but for the benefit of the poorer to continue to work within the market economy. If I as a poor person choose not to genetically enhance my offspring, I doom them to a less competitve existence compared to someone who is genetically enhanced. Even if I like my genes and want to pass them untouched onto my children, a genetically enhanced market of labor adds a cost to a decision to maintain one’s genes. This is the opposite of freedom in my view, as the society one lives makes the choice to maintain one’s genetic autonomy costly. I shouldn’t have to enhance my children’s genes just because the rest of society does also.

    “There are already opportunities the non-elite mass do not touch. The question we face here is whether we should allow people to improve themselves or their families, or whether they should know their place.”

    Yes, their ‘place’ in an inferior class, Gattaca’s ‘Invalids’ who do janitorial work while the ‘Valids’ fly in spaceships. Confining someone to a genetic caste is not freedom, it is slavery.

  4. Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Right, but for the benefit of the poorer to continue to work within the market economy. If I as a poor person choose not to genetically enhance my offspring, I doom them to a less competitve existence compared to someone who is genetically enhanced. Even if I like my genes and want to pass them untouched onto my children, a genetically enhanced market of labor adds a cost to a decision to maintain one’s genes. This is the opposite of freedom in my view, as the society one lives makes the choice to maintain one’s genetic autonomy costly. I shouldn’t have to enhance my children’s genes just because the rest of society does also.

    If I undertand you correctly, you are against wellness technolologies because the existence of the technology limits the social prestige of those who do not adopt the technology. So, chemotherapy discriminates against Christian Scientists (and their children), vaccinations discriminates against those who would prefer not to have shots (and their children), and gene therapy discriminates against those who do not wish the therapy (and their children).

    This position seems analogous to those who are against markets (beause those who do not want to participate do poorly) and against liberty generally (because those who make economically foolish choices tend to wind up with sub-optimal outcomes). Certainly I sympathize with the view that choices should not have consequences, but I cannot embrace it.

    Yes, their ‘place’ in an inferior class, Gattaca’s ‘Invalids’ who do janitorial work while the ‘Valids’ fly in spaceships. Confining someone to a genetic caste is not freedom, it is slavery.

    The wording here is poor. Caste-based systems discriminate on a case-itself. The system you are opposing discriminate based on ability.

    This would be like conemning the Hindu caste system, because it unfair gives Brahmin privilege because all Brahmin are more intelligent! Indeed, this would be a very insulting criticism: the Hindu caste system is unfair because it gives Brahmin privileges in spite of the fact that not all Brahmin are more intelligent!

    I’d remind you that in this world we have janitors and astronauts. And considering that intelligence is highly heritable, if you want to produce an astronaut as an offspring your choices in mates is already limited. I hardly see how the current regime, which is starkly unfair but is free of personal choice of one’s own genes, is better than the one you criticize, in which we expand liberty.

  5. Dan,

    No, nothing wrong will wellness technologies. Further, I don’t necessarily object to genetic manipulation to avoid an inherited tendency towards terminal or serious diseases. This would be ‘loading the dice’ not to roll snake eyes every time as opposed to fixing the game to roll an eleven every time. The latter is manipulating one’s genetic characteristics in a far more radical and fundamental sense. Further, vaccinations are also about the transmission of biological disease to another individual. Would one undertake gene therapy against their will? Unless they were a child?

    In a just society, choices should have consequences, I agree. Hence, I emphasize equality of opportunity at birth. That way, the choices one makes determines one’s place in society. This would be perfect social equality. I admit this is more an ideal and not a reality given differing stocks of genes and capital, yet certain social institutions are nominally designed to come as close as possible, the public education system being one.

    Nonetheless, ‘loading the dice’ to roll an eleven every time hardly seems to ensure choice should matter. If anything, it speaks to the opposite. It already resets the parameters for a future individual’s choices before they even exist. A Valid’s choices will always be the right choices because they have been engineered to act this way. The possibility of making a wrong choice is already factored out of his behavior. This the height of control and power, and ultimately perverts the Valid’s own liberty to choose.

    Liberty and equality need each other. If you allow liberty to run amok at the expense of equality, this destroys the basis of a democratic society as it concentrates power in the hands of a single class, the genetic-elite. I apologize for the neo-Marxism, but it applies too perfectly, better than original Marxism. Democratic-capitalist societies disproved Marxism precisely because they dispersed wealth widely, leading to many centers of power that could compete against each other. What you propose is a reconcentration of power in the hands of the genetic-elite. Its not that the Invalids should know their place. Instead, you are trying to put them in it. There is no liberty when it comes at the cost of subordination.

  6. Stephen,

    Thank you for the comment:

    No, nothing wrong will wellness technologies. Further, I don’t necessarily object to genetic manipulation to avoid an inherited tendency towards terminal or serious diseases. This would be ‘loading the dice’ not to roll snake eyes every time as opposed to fixing the game to roll an eleven every time.

    First, how is this different from supporting only those wellness technologies that are of low quality — that is, risky? If appears you are attacking low-risk technologies merely for not being random enough.

    Secondly, how is this a criticism of what I propose? (Or is it?)

    Would one undertake gene therapy against their will? Unless they were a child?

    We have a legal-medical regime for childhood innoculation as is, though obviously as government control gets more onerous, people will move in order to protect the health of themselves and those they love.

    As is sometimes said of private medical procedures, a choice is always made — you just aren’t always in the room.

    In a just society, choices should have consequences, I agree. Hence, I emphasize equality of opportunity at birth.

    Unless you propose mass cloning of a single genome to everyone, you’re not going to get this.

    Obvoiusly, though, we may approach or avoid genetic equality. If we wish to approach it, we should shun immigration applications from high- or low- intelligence immigrants, attempting to keep most of our immigrants in the IQ range of 98-100, with European-white skin, etc.

    I really don’t know where you could get the idea that equal rights rely on equal abilities. Certainly it’s a frightening dogma, because it implies that no country should justly have equal rights now (as none have a citizenry with equal abilities).

    That way, the choices one makes determines one’s place in society.

    If humans were born with a blank slate — or even with psychic unity — this might be a sensible political declaration.

    They are not, so it is not.

    y. I admit this is more an ideal and not a reality given differing stocks of genes and capital, yet certain social institutions are nominally designed to come as close as possible, the public education system being one.

    Perhaps — certainly it would explain why we have one of the worst public education systems in the world.

    Our university system is built on a radically different notion — that each individualyl should be able to ascend as far as his skill can carry him. We have the best universities in the world.

    The battle between centrally-enforced equality and competitive diversity is typically won by the latter, and lost by the former.

    Nonetheless, ‘loading the dice’ to roll an eleven every time hardly seems to ensure choice should matter.

    How is choice a function of a low-quality design?

    A Valid’s choices will always be the right choices because they have been engineered to act this way.

    I can’t comment on supernaturalism, or magic, or whatever nonsense this is. Certainly it’s not a serious claim.

    The possibility of making a wrong choice is already factored out of his behavior.

    More magic.

    This the height of control and power, and ultimately perverts the Valid’s own liberty to choose.

    More magic.

    Liberty and equality need each other. If you allow liberty to run amok at the expense of equality, this destroys the basis of a democratic society as it concentrates power in the hands of a single class, the genetic-elite.

    What is a “genetic-elite”?

    Under what standard do we not already have one?

    What you propose is a reconcentration of power in the hands of the genetic-elite. Its not that the Invalids should know their place. Instead, you are trying to put them in it. There is no liberty when it comes at the cost of subordination

    I do not see how this is not an equally effective argument against any progressive technology that some may opt out of.

  7. Dan,

    On the issue of low-quality/high-risk genetic engineering, I’m not sure what the riskiness of the procedure has to do with it. To perfect preventing people from getting cancer, certainly risks have to be taken to make the procedure work over time. This is completely unrelated to using eugenics to make an ubermensch.

    Responding to “Nonetheless, ‘loading the dice’ to roll an eleven every time hardly seems to ensure choice should matter,” you said:

    How is choice a function of a low-quality design?

    Well how one’s approaches a situation makes some responses more likely than others. The odds that one will choose the ‘better’ choice are more likely than the ‘worse’ choice. Having genes of ‘low-quality design’ increases the chances of making a ‘worse’ choice, while having ‘designer’ genes increases the chances of making a better choice.

    Magic? Define this, as I’m no magician. I merely used a metaphor from a sweet movie.

    What I’m arguing against is the idea that the genetically inferior have a ‘place’. If they do, they will define it themselves, and anyone who seeks to do it for them is de facto limiting their freedom and their liberty.

  8. Stephen,

    Perhaps it was my comment’s bad formatting. You did not answer two of my questions, so I will fix the formatting and post them again:

    Liberty and equality need each other. If you allow liberty to run amok at the expense of equality, this destroys the basis of a democratic society as it concentrates power in the hands of a single class, the genetic-elite.

    What is a “genetic-elite”?

    Under what standard do we not already have one?

  9. A genetic-elite: a social class comprised of individuals who genetic material is deliberately cultivated to prevent the occurence of certain behavioral or physiological traits, which are defined by the elite to be abnormal (yet they may occur regularly throughout society).

    To some extent we do have this already, certainly people reproduce with others who they judge to have genes that are satisfactory to their own standards. It is also true that these offspring have a better chance at succeeding in life (however defined) than other offspring, yet there is still an element of uncertainty regarding their future success: they have to persistly take positive actions toward success and avoid pitfalls along the way. All offspring must deal with this uncertainty.

    By loading the dice, one is taking any uncertainty or chance out of the equation. Success becomes guaranteed, and all choices regarding future success are practically guaranteed. The current genetic-elite do not have this luxury just yet, they still have not been made so perfect as to succeed in everything they do. Elites rise and elites fall. Using eugenics makes the fall of elites (through their own mistakes and choices) a non-issue. Thus, we have the new genetic-elite.

    Thank you for reasking those questions, they are important and cut to the heart of the issue.

  10. Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment.

    A genetic-elite: a social class comprised of individuals who genetic material is deliberately cultivated to prevent the occurence of certain behavioral or physiological traits, which are defined by the elite to be abnormal (yet they may occur regularly throughout society).

    Why does intent matter here?

    It strikes me that if you have genetically-driven classes in a society, whether this is through explicitly-genetic thoughts, through bigotry, or through accident, you end up with the same basic unfairness.

    By loading the dice, one is taking any uncertainty or chance out of the equation.

    Maybe this is a source of confusion.

    In real life, loading dice does not guarantee certain results. However, it biases results in one direction. So loaded dice may not always come up snake-eyes or boxcars, but statistically you’re going to get a different average result and different spread than you would otherwise.

    I think that being afriad of error-free processes is a strange stance, but here it is besides the point.

    Success becomes guaranteed, and all choices regarding future success are practically guaranteed. The current genetic-elite do not have this luxury just yet, they still have not been made so perfect as to succeed in everything they do.

    As mentions above, this is reaction to a proposal that I have not made, and so I will not address it.

    Elites rise and elites fall. Using eugenics makes the fall of elites (through their own mistakes and choices) a non-issue.

    This is a strange argument. In Britain, China, Japan, and probably other countries, malthusian selection made the high mideaval elite permanent, leading to the near-extinction of anyone except for descendants of what were the upper classes. [1,2] So you are attacking a proposed policy by saying that it would have the same results as the population replacement which triggered the Industrial Revolution and led to the greatest increase in wealth in human history!

    Thank you for asking those questions, they are important and cut to the heart of the issue.

    My pleasure. The new perspectives I get from conversations like this one is the reason I blog!

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/01/20/review-of-a-farewell-to-alms-by-gregory-clark.html
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Alms-Economic-History-Princeton/dp/0691121354

  11. *sarcasm alert*

    In the interest of promoting true equality of capabilities at birth, I suggest we make our policy one of cloning only one individual, and allowing no one else to breed. In a generation, these pesky genetic differences will be a thing of the past.

    Of course, we’ll all be the same sex, too. And we might want to be careful *whose* genes we’re using. And narrowing genetic diversity could have some very nasty consequences. And a complex division of labor might be more difficult to maintain when there is no genetic component to the distribution of talents or interests.

    Maybe I need to think this through.

  12. It was meant to be substantive, to point out how an overemphasis on genetic “equality” leads to outcomes that nobody who thought it through would want to see.

    As for “conservative” and “leftist” (why not “rightist? better symmetry)–I try to avoid using those labels. But I believe your post captures very well the essence of what people who are happy to use those labels usually mean by them. I have little doubt that many of Obama’s core supporters would rather lose in Iraq if that would gain them the White House. Doing both might even be considered a win-win situation. Core McCain supporters would probably see it as a real tradeoff. Victory in Iraq plus an Obama presidency might be too high a price (because of the future damage President Obama could do to their interests at home and abroad).

    Just my opinion, based on no scientific polling whatsoever.

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