The gene for hubris

A recent post by Jon Entine on the Forbes website leads with a complimentary citation of my book– and then goes on to undermine its central thesis. He concludes:

Modern eugenic aspirations are not about the draconian top-down measures promoted by the Nazis and their ilk. Instead of being driven by a desire to “improve” the species, new eugenics is driven by our personal desire to be as healthy, intelligent and fit as possible—and for the opportunity of our children to be so as well. And that’s not something that should be dismissed lightly.

Well, first of all, as the recent revelations of coerced sterilization of prisoners in California shows, “draconian, top-down” measures do still occur. Genetics and reproduction are intensely potent, and wherever we find abuse of power we should be alert to the harnessing of biology in the service of tyranny.

Second, there’s more than one kind of tyranny. Besides the tyranny of an absolute ruler, perhaps the two most potent and relevant here are the tyranny of the commons and the tyranny of the marketplace. The fact that they are more subtle makes them in some ways more dangerous. The healthcare industry does much good in the world, but it is naive to treat it as wholly benign.

Further, putting human evolution in the hands of humans, means accepting long-term consequences for short-term goals. The traits we value–health, intelligence, beauty–are the result of the action of many genes interacting with each other and with a dynamic environment. The entire system is contingent, inherently unpredictable. Yet we treat it as simple and deterministic. Until now, technology has been the major obstacle to guiding human evolution. It may be that now the major obstacle is our reasoning ability, our capacity for grasping contingency and probability and change. We’re tinkering with the machinery of a system whose complexity is still unfolding before us. The probability of unforeseen consequences is 100%. The only question is how severe they will be. We will only know in retrospect.

If we now have the tools to meaningfully guide our own evolution–as eugenicists have always wanted to do–we cannot take a blithe and Panglossian attitude. We have to be alert to the risks and take them seriously. That is not traditionally science’s strong suit. The public face of science is sunny, optimistic, fun. It strides boldly into the future, laughing and making striking promises. The industries behind science and health are wealthy and politically powerful. Not everything they do is benign.

To be a critic of that public-relations machine–of hype, in other words–is not to be a critic of health or knowledge or progress. Genetic science has the potential to bring us enormous benefits in health and well-being, and as they do, I stand in line with my fellow humans for my fair share. But that science also carries huge and unforeseeable risks, the root of which, perhaps, is arrogance. It’s one whose consequences are painfully evident in the historical record.


6 thoughts on “The gene for hubris

  1. Forgive me for being dense, but you never articulate a critique. My “bold” assertion is that the desire for health and fitness, or us and loved ones, is not to be ‘taken lightly.” So…what’s your beef?

    • My beef is this: the view that eugenics is safe in the hands of modern biomedical researchers is naive. Biomedicine can be and is abused and perverted–precisely because of its potency. Science has always excelled at sunny, Panglossian hype, and hype masks the social risks. Unless we remain alert to those risks, the (potentially huge) benefits from that research are overshadowed. I consider myself a friendly critic of biomedicine, pointing out hype and other problems to help ensure that those benefits are realized.

      • Who said it’s entirely safe? You’ve created a strawman here, exaggerating my words, for reasons that are bewildering. I was quite limited in my comments. Moreover, I’ve written extensively about eugenics in many articles and in two well praised books on race, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It” and Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People. The American Journal of Physical Anthropology called Taboo “incredibly well researched,” and wrote: “On balance, I recommend this book for use in biological anthropology classes and students of Sciences of Sport in general — ranging from introductory survey courses to graduate level seminars on human genetics, human adaptability, and theory in human biology.” I did not write my article to be confrontational–I was and am worried about their willingness to scuttle DNA screening–which is very short sighted. To believe that gene testing serves some genuine societal needs is neither over hyping the technology nor being Panglossian. There was no advocacy of abandoning sensible legal constraints. You clearly have a strong point of view–one that I generally hold in high regard. Would you consider writing a blog post/article (or a series) or just repositioning prior writings on the Genetic Literacy Project, which is the university housed biotech/DNA website that I run? Your voice is important, and I’d like to give your views more visibility–with no editorial interference from me. Let me know.

  2. I agree that genetic testing serves some genuine societal needs. I’m with you that far. But I am concerned about your minimization of the risks of controlling our evolution. For example, you write that negative eugenics was never widely advocated in the Progressive era. That’s simply not true. To a first approximation, EVERYone in the Progressive era was a eugenicist. Thousands of people were coercively sterilized; tens of thousands were institutionalized. The Nazis took the American Model Sterilization Law as the basis for their notorious law of 1933.

    In your blog post, you quote a sentence from my book about the eugenic dream, but then leave out the rest of the thought, which is that pursuing that dream is fraught with peril, and that unless genetic approaches to human improvement are balanced with environmental approaches (education, nutrition, responsible stewardship of the earth, etc.), we are likely to reap unfortunate consequences.

    I’ll think about your offer. I am interested in getting the word out, but I’d be concerned about being linked with strongly pro-eugenics views. If I were to write for you, it would take a rather different tone from what I’ve read on your site.

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