Eugenics? In California?

Pacific Colony hospital in California, where they used to perform the sterilizations.

[UPDATE: Changed the link from the Sacramento Bee article to the longer report from cironline. h/t Alex Stern.] A quick note on today’s report from the Center for Investigative Reporting that at least 150 pregnant inmates in prisons in Corona and Chowchilla, CA, were sterilized against their will. Between 2006 and 2010. That’s TWO THOUSAND six. Another hundred or more may have been sterilized in the 10 or so years before that. (See also this HuffPo piece from last month.)

In an earlier post, I noted that when I applied for my marriage license in California, my betrothed and I received a state-sponsored booklet called “Your future together.” It was heavily gene-centered and mentioned that one can obtain free birth control and sterilization, paid for by the state. The historian Alexandra Minna Stern has written about the racial politics of California sterilization (see my review of her latest book–and then buy the book). Not surprisingly, the largest number of people sterilized are poor Mexicans, often illegal immigrants. Those surgeries, however, are at least nominally voluntary. Involuntary sexual surgery on prisoners sounds like something from the 1910s, not the 2010s.

In my book, The Science of Human Perfection, I note that eugenics is alive and well, though it often travels under an assumed name. The principles of informed consent can be–and as this report shows, are–used to mask persuasion. When that persuasion includes being made to “feel like was a bad mother if I didn’t do it,” it grades into coercion. Further, the ethics of sterilizing minority women in prison are even more complex than doing it outside—one wonders, for example, how many of those women were impregnated by prison guards. We should not let the drawing of apparently bright ethical lines allow us to become complacent about the gray, unlit areas where that good ol’ time eugenics can still flourish.




Kashkow logo3lgKashkow University announced today the initiation of an innovative new program of online education that it says will create an “unprecedented revenue stream for non-profit institutions of higher learning,” while streamlining the university staff.

The Kashkow scheme is called Massive Money-Making Opportunity: Opting Out Of Courses! (MMMOOOOC!). Under MMMOOOOC! PROGRAM, Kashkow would eliminate all classes. Instead, it would offer college credits and diplomas through a subscription service similar to the online movie and television service Netflix. The caliber of the degree purchased would be tied to the subscription level. For $29.99 per month, for example, one can receive credit for a full load of coursework that is “equivalent to a Duke University or Washington University in St. Louis,” according to the university. Johns Hopkins or Wesleyan-level coursework costs $69.99 per month, while a Premium membership (Harvard, Princeton, or Yale) can be purchased for $99.99 monthly. There is a three-month minimum contract, which enables one to purchase a complete course; an automatic renewal system allows one to “drop out” of taking the spring semester. The university will also offer a “Basic” membership: for $9.99 a month, students can pursue coursework toward the equivalent of a philosophy degree from the Delaware College of Textiles and Mines.

The new MMMOOOOCs! would be packed with information and essentially content-free. Subscribers would receive a full set of lecture notes, digests of reading materials, complete term papers (with bibliographies), and exam keys—everything needed to pass a course with a grade of A+ or higher. All exams and essays will of course be open-book, and students are encouraged to cut and paste from lecture materials in order to save time. This greatly increases the efficiency of the learning process, university spokesmen say.

Think of education like filling a bucket, said the former Kashkow Dean of Students, Prof. Tweed Pantsuit. In conventional teaching, the faucet is an old fashioned pump handle and the bucket is full of holes. The massively online course movement is a firehose that the student can turn on and off at will, while holding the bucket herself. The result is much more water hitting the bucket in less time—and as we learned in quantum mechanics (wasn’t it?) time is money. Prof. Pantsuit said more about the bucket model, but frankly it wasn’t printable.

The streamlining of courses into “courseware” will have a big impact on the university’s bottom line, according to a Kashkow spokeman. It will enable the university to trim the faculty salary and benefits budget from $75 million to $342.50, according to official university documents we obtained. The bold new plan would reduce the current faculty of 225 full-time professors down to two part-time adjuncts: one for “arts” and one for “sciences.” The medical and engineering faculty would be spun off into for-profit companies, “Kashkow Medicine Dot Edu” and “Kashkow Engineering Dot Edu Dot Com,” respectively.

MMMOOOOCs! will “revolutionize higher education,” said to university president Dieter Geld. “By concentrating on what we do best,” said Geld, “We will be able to better serve our stakeholders.” Pressed on what it was that Kashkow did best, Geld said, “Serving our stakeholders!”

Further aiding the bottom line is the fact that Mr. Aristotle Spinoza, MA, the Professor of Arts, will be on leave next year, serving steakholders at a local “Surf-n-Turf” dining establishment. Raising profits while cutting costs is a “win-win” for education, Geld says.

Such a massive transformation of the university structure will not happen overnight, Geld noted; nor will it happen on its own. “To facilitate the reallocation of resources,” he said, “we are pleased to announce the appointment of a crack team of administrators.” Kashkow will be hiring six new deans and associate deans. Horatio S. O. B. Functionary, former Provost of Gouger Administrators’ College in Shillings-upon-Quid, U.K., will be the new Dean of Profiteering and will oversee the university’s money laundering program. Reed M. N. Weap, a freelance card sharp with over 20 years’ experience in money management, will be the new Dean of Accumulation. And John “Bud” Balls, formerly the football coach at Bigten University, will serve as Associate Dean of Associate Deans and will manage the university’s burgeoning roster of high-level administrators. (Balls will also head up the new varsity intramural sexual predator squad, The Fighting Flashers.) The Office of Public Relations will be split into three, each with its own associate dean: the Office of Stakeholder Relations, the Office of Trustee Relations, and the Office of Dean Relations. The new administrators will make an average of $550,000 per year salary, plus an average of nearly $4,000,000 per year in benefits.

When asked about the wisdom of adding high-paid staff as a cost-cutting measure, Geld replied, “It takes a crack team to bring out real educational change. When it comes to sparing expense, we spare no expense!”


Hilary Rose on eugenics & genetic medicine

Just saw this clip of an interview with the inveterate science critic Hilary Rose with The Guardian. She expresses beautifully and forcefully the idea I try, however awkwardly, to trace in The Science of Human Perfection and, often more humorously, here on Genotopia. She discusses how eugenics has always had a strand of preventive medicine, and how that strand runs continuously down to today’s genetic medicine. And that doesn’t make modern genetics evil. However, we have to be honest about what it is we’re up to. E.g.:

“Preventive [genetic] medicine is eugenics. Now, I’m not going to say I’m totally against eugenics. I just think we need to say what we’re doing.”

Rose is often a fairly radical critic, but this strikes me as a balanced and fair reading. I am ordering the new book Genes, Cells, and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose. I expect to post more on it.

How good it would be to see some momentum gather for an honest, non-polemical critique of genetic biomedicine, one in which the aim was not to strap ourselves to the gears and wheels and levers of the machine* but rather to steer it in a positive direction—one that maximally benefits those it is meant to serve.


*paraphrase of a favorite quote from my hometown history

News of genes for: the latest examples—and further reflections on why we persist in believing in them

There is a basic contradiction in the lay response to genome news. Somehow, the more we learn about how complex and nuanced gene action is, the more we seem drawn to “gene-for” explanations. Collectively, we know that genes do not directly determine or control traits, let alone behaviors. And we know that single genes do not produce complex traits, except (maybe) in a few extreme and rare circumstances. There are no genes for; and yet we keep talking about them—possibly more than ever. Why is that?

Individual cases, drawn from current events, both demonstrate my premise and give us some leverage for prying apart the halves of this paradox.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.


I stink, therefore I scam

One of the less appetizing findings of genetics is that if you can’t roll your earwax up into a nice, satisfying ball, your gym buddies in all likelihood choose lockers disconcertingly far from yours. The gene ABCC11 codes for a protein that is involved in the consistency of earwax—and that is apparently quite nutritious to the bacteria that produce body odor. There is, in short, a “key gene” that is “basically the single determinant of whether you produce underarm odor or not,” said Ian Day, a co-author of a new study on the behavior genetics of raunchy pits.

All this has been known for some time. A new paper, by Day and colleagues and published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, found that many people who lack “the underarm odor gene” nevertheless still wear deodorant.

One the one hand, this shows that genetics often makes very little difference in our lives. I haven’t confirmed the result with my own nose, but accepting for the moment that ABCC11 does in fact code a protein largely responsible for body odor, apparently few people are paying much attention to it. More important than whether we are actually olfactorily offensive, seemingly, is the marketing ploy that presents human beings as innately stinky creatures, who, in order to be socially successful, need to neutralize our natural stench with perfumes and deodorants. We deodorize independently of the presence of body odor.

On the other hand, then, although we are not slaves to our genes, this study suggests that we are slaves to our culture. Cultural norms and values often shape our behavior more than biological “reality.”

Nor surprisingly, the allele frequency for dry earwax/odorless axilla (the anatomical term for armpit; the middle-schoolers in your life will be thrilled to know this term) varies geographically: 98% of people of European ancestry are wet and stinky, while essentially all Koreans and most Asians generally are dry and odorless. In a nice double-header of genetic determinism plus medical Eurocentrism, Medical News Today bowdlerized the story as, “Two percent of people have armpits that never smell.” Of course, other things besides ABCC11 can make you smell bad. Given sufficient antipathy to bathing and/or doing laundry, anyone’s armpits (and everything else) will begin to reek. And it takes a remarkably blinkered perspective these days to report this result as two percent of people—to neglect the roughly 4/7 of the world population that is Asian. The whole thing makes me break out in a cold sweat.


Anthill Anarchy

Two more papers made claims that were more than skin-deep. A paper in Nature, not on humans but on fire ants, suggests the existence of a “social chromosome.”  A string of 616 genes was identified that correlates with the type of social system an individual ant will accept: either a single-queen system or a multi-queen system.

If all the workers in a colony carry the B variant only, they will accept a single queen that also carries only the B variant (marked as BB, because the chromosomes come in pairs). But if some workers in the colony carry the b version of the chromosome, the colony will accept multiple queens — but only those queens with a mismatched “Bb” set of chromosomes. From the Roman Empire to Occupy Wall St., with the flip of a switch.

In the 1960s, during the first flowering of human cytogenetics, the finding that a disproportionate number of inmates in a British hospital for the violently insane carried an extra Y chromosome led to the idea of the “criminal chromosome.” So-called XYY males were branded as potential criminals. These unfortunates, it was speculated, were predisposed to violent crime as a result of having an extra dose of maleness, with its attendant propensities toward aggression and lack of empathy. Several serial killers were labeled as XYY (incorrectly, in most cases) and the “my genes made me do it” defense was attempted in court, though never successfully. The XYY controversy made headlines through the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly when the science-activism group Science for the People got hold of a Harvard study intended to interrogate this and other claims about the effect of extra sex chromosomes on behavior. The controversy died when the research arm of the Harvard study was suspended. Thus ended this particularly primitive version of the fantasy of preventing violent crime by identifying it before it starts by aborting affected fetuses (bg essay). More sophisticated versions would involve large complexes of genes and subtler therapies; medication, say, and counseling, perhaps lifelong.[1]

The implications of the ant study also lie in the area of behavior control, though the present work limits its conclusions to entomology. “Our discovery could help in developing novel pest-control strategies,” said paper co-author Yannick Wurm (I know, I know) of the University of London. For example, a pesticide could artificially deactivate the genes in the social chromosome and induce social anarchy within the colony.” What could possibly go wrong?


Gene for humanity

Another new study identified microRNAs–short strings of nucleic acid that regulate gene expression–that are found in human brains and (so far) only in human brains. The blog Why Evolution is True delivers a sober account of the finding: “We have a human-specific molecule, miR-941, that regulates gene expression in our brains, and some of the genes it might have regulated have dropped out of the pathway.”

This modest but interesting finding has been overblown in the media to a “gene for humanity,” says whyevolutionistrue. The term “holy grail” really should be used only in conjunction with killer bunnies but the phrase’s mytho-comic connotations are apt here, I think. How thrilling (and frightening) to think there might be a single gene that holds the key to separating us from the apes! Could a single wayward x-ray to the groin lead to a Cro Magnon blessed arrival, fruit of the loins of a middle-class mom from Dubuque? Could we, by means of genetic engineering and maternal surrogacy, resurrect an extinct humanoid species such as, say, a Neandertal?


Search for the root causes of the search for root causes

As always, there are two distinct but connected forces at play in these stories. Gene-for hype occurs on at least two levels. First is the scientific fascination with seeking the hereditary component of anything. The laudable emphasis today on multi-gene complexes and gene-environment interaction has done little to dampen our enthusiasm for seeking the genetic “roots” or “basis” of natural behaviors. The reasons for this are complex, but at least part of the explanation is inherent in the science. Quite simply, environmental influences are hard to analyze using existing scientific methods. So the cutting edge of behavioral research brackets the environment and asks questions that are answerable (and of course fundable). This de facto determinism is built into the style of scientific practice: what counts as interesting is shaped by what is convenient to study.

Second, as scientific results filter outward from the lab to the media outlets and blogs to the public eyeball, the natural and necessary distillation of complex, nuanced findings into plain, sixth-grade-level language easily becomes perverted. How many hits would you get by writing, “Genes regulated by human-specific molecule may have dropped out of cascade pathway thousands of generations ago”? Perhaps the more relevant human-specific trait here is the desire for simple explanations and sensational stories about root causes and “the key” to whatever.

It is tempting to write that this impulse for ultimate causation explains everything about genetic determinism. But that would create more problems than it solves.

[1] Court Brown, W. M. “Sex Chromosomes and the Law.” The Lancet 280, no. 7254 (1962 1962): 508-09; Maclean, N., J. M. Mitchell, D. G. Harnden, Jane Williams, Patricia A. Jacobs, Karin A. Buckton, A. G. Baikie, et al. “A Survey of Sex-Chromosome Abnormalities among 4514 Mental Defectives.” The Lancet 279, no. 7224 (1962 1962): 293-96; Jacobs, Patricia A., M. Brunton, M. M. Melville, R. P. Brittain, and W. F. McClemont. “Aggressive Behavior, Mental Subnormality and the XYY Male.” Nature 208 (1965 1965): 1351-52. doi:10.1038/2081351a0.

Walzer, S., and P. S. Gerald. “Social Class and Frequency of XYY and XXY.” Science 190, no. 4220 (1975 1975): 1228-9; Steinfels, M. O., and C. Levine. “The XYY Controversy: Researching Violence and Genetics.” Hastings Cent Rep 10, no. 4 (1980 1980): Suppl-1-32.


Risks of a genetic approach to crime prevention

I have a piece in the Hartford Courant‘s special set of editorials on the Sandy Hook tragedy. The headline-writer missed the point–I am not asking whether genetics could help in understanding and preventing such violence. Of course it can yield at least a partial explanation. My concern is the risk of any prevention program grounded in that genetic understanding. That way leads us toward pre-emptive medication of a class of “future criminals”–a frightening prospect indeed.

Adam Lanza
Adam Lanza [photo from The Blaze]
Here’s the piece.

The piece was written two weeks ago. Yesterday, Wayne Carver, the Connecticut Medical Examiner who ordered the genetic analysis, called it a “fishing expedition.” He continued, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t look.” Why doesn’t it? Only because you don’t see the risks as being greater than the benefits, however tiny they may be. My argument is that the risks are greater than we realize.

Rocinante Rides Again: Intelligent Design Redux

Over at The Loom, the science writer Carl Zimmer is taking a turn at bat against the creationists. In a thoughtful, nicely written 4-part series, he recounts his experience trying to engage Intelligent Design advocate David Klinghoffer and pin him down on the evidence for his view, and provides an excellent summary of some of the chromosomal evidence for our evolutionary split from the higher apes. Zimmer is characteristically succinct, clear, and entertaining, but he’s tilting at windmills: The argument isn’t really about science.

Zimmer has been asking for even a shred of actual evidence that evolution can’t have happened, and of course the folks at The BioLogic Institute (the new entity of the Discovery Institute) are hemming, heeing, and hawing–cherry-picking quotes from 10 year old papers, masking data behind paywalls, twisting and massaging facts until they seem to say what they want them to. It’s like trying to talk seriously to a 9 year-old playground bully: they’re interested only in winning the argument, not in serious inquiry, and they use any rhetorical technique they need to do so.

As I argued in The Panda’s Black Box, this is just what you’d expect. The ID movement is patently an offspring of American creationism (which Ron Numbers shows irrefutably in his superb history, The Creationists). The last time we saw these folks was in Dover, PA, in 2006. But there is a new ID text, Science and Human Originsand the ID folks are shilling it. It may seem strange that this would pop up now, of all times. We’ve never had more evidence for evolution and human origins. But such moments are always when we have a new wave of anti-evolutionism. Also, the country’s political center has never been farther right. Although it claims to deal in the realm of scientific evidence, ID is one of the things that science doesn’t explain (or in this case, explain away). Intelligent Design is not about evidence.

How can that be, given all the scientific “evidence” they throw around? I mean that ID is about the cultural authority of science, not about science itself. It’s about fear of the godless Dawkinsian world Darwinists advocate, and about the dominance of science–and especially biology–in our world today. The IDers use science to fight science–they have taken up the weapon of their “oppressors” because they too recognize that science is the most powerful weapon today. Intelligent Design is superficially scientific anti-science–a tacit, ironic vindication of the power of the scientific worldview.

I actually have some sympathy for that view—and that sympathy makes my small intestine clench, because I disagree with the IDers on just about every point of policy and social theory. I do not agree with the means the IDers employ and I certainly don’t agree with the worldview they espouse (however coyly). I’m as godless as they come.

But I too have a critique of science and particularly biomedicine as the dominant cultural force in our society. Science has an enormous amount of power in our society–rightwingnuts notwithstanding–and I take part of my job to be being nervous about that. Science and technology have done much to improve our quality of life, but it does not have a good track record as a basis for social policy. So I defend science against irrationality, but I criticize its cultural hegemony. Dissent is the sincerest form of  cheerleading.

We should stop engaging the IDers on issues of science. They’re not interested in sincere inquiry–it’s bound to be fruitless. And it’s not what the argument is about, anyway. What we need to worry about is that textbook. If the rightwingnuts get their way and teach American children their medieval worldview, their other great concern–the Decline of America–will only accelerate. America will be to Europe and Asia what Mississippi and Kansas are to America.

The way to disarm the IDers is to dismount Rocinante and contextualize this movement. History, not science, provides the explanation.


Who’s afraid of the neuroscience of politics? I am.

So I’m reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it once I’m finished. Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell don’t seem to have read Mooney’s book either, but they did read a recent article by Mooney in HuffPost, summarizing his argument, and boy, did it make them mad. Mooney then gave a guest spot to his pal the behavioral psychologist Andrea Kuszewski, who served up a characteristically fiery and entertaining riposte called, “Who’s afraid of the neuroscience of politics?”, defending behavioral psychology, journalism, and liberal politics against the anti-anti-conservatism of Berezow and Campbell. Kuszewski answers her own question thus: “From the looks of things, it appears to be conservative journalists.” But I’m afraid of the neuroscience of politics, and I’m no conservative journalist. In fact, I’m a liberal historian of science and medicine (with, fwiw, graduate training in neuroscience).

Let me be clear at the outset: if I’m on anyone’s side in this debate, either rhetorically or politically, it’s Mooney and Kuszewski. I am appalled at the assault on knowledge and the way ignorance has become a viable political stance in this country. But as a good Enlightenment liberal, I believe in critique as a means of advancing understanding. And I’m personally vested in honing our arguments and developing our understanding as much as possible. I’m making this argument in the interest of rational, constructive discussion with the likes of Mooney and Kuszewski, not out of any allegiance to right-wing ideologues.

Berezow and Campbell are the authors of the forthcoming book, Science Left Behind, a counterweight to Mooney’s thoughtful, impassioned thesis about the anti-scientific tendencies of the American political right wing. Left-wing opponents of vaccines, GM food, and nuclear power are anti-science too, Berezow and Campbell argue; conservatives don’t have a monopoly on ideologically driven opposition to politically charged scientific issues. If Berezow and Campbell had read Mooney’s book, they’d have seen that he addresses each of those issues himself; further, there’s light-years’ difference intellectually between opposition to GM food and rejection of evolution or, for Christ’s sake, relativity. So the counterweight is really a duck on the other side of the scales from the accused witch; if the pans seem to balance, it says more about the experiment than about nature.

Anyway, in their article, Berezow and Campbell accuse Mooney of being dilettante, a philistine, a charlatan, a mountebank, and possibly a mummer and a picador, although I don’t want to read too deeply into their argument. They make lots of positively silly statements, such as that as a (mere) journalist, Mooney can “practice scientific malpractice with impunity.” Though that is literally true, rhetorically it is really a high-handed slap at those who would deign to write about science without holding a Ph.D. in microbiology, as does Berezow. Which is amusing, given that his coauthor Campbell edits Science 2.0, a website whose home page offers, “Know science and want to write? Register now to get your own column!”, and which, on the About Us page, says, “We created a place where everyone who wants to write about science can write to a large potential audience, regardless of popularity.”

It is, then, overall a dopey article, irrational and ill-informed, whose flaws Kuszewski enumerates and I don’t need to repeat. However, Berezow and Campbell almost make an interesting criticism. They say that Mooney’s argument—that there is a biological underpinning to conservativism—amounts to eugenics. Now taken literally, this is idiotic. Eugenics has been defined in many ways over the last 130 years, viz.:

    • “The study of the agencies under social control, that improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (Galton, 1883)
    • “The science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race” (Pearson, 1904)
    • “The science of human improvement by better breeding” (Davenport, 1910)
    • “The self-direction of human evolution” (Eugenics Congress, 1921)

All of them in some way imply a program of human hereditary improvement. As far as I can tell, Mooney offers us no plan for reducing the numbers of Republicans, the way Harry Laughlin had a plan for reducing the numbers of the feebleminded. More’s the pity, depending on your point of view, but anyway.

Still, in a slightly deranged way, there is a hint of a point here. I do find the search for the biological basis of political belief disturbing. I have no doubt that such a basis exists, but, taking the long view, the quest for it raises concerns. Ironically, I’m worried that Mooney and Kuszewski will, indirectly and in the long term, be feeding the enemy.

The search for the psychological and genetic basis of social behavior has a long history. It goes back to Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, the father of modern biostatistics, and the coiner of the term “eugenics.” Galton considered himself a good liberal, but his aims horrify right-thinking left-wingers today. He sought to implement, “under existing conditions of law and sentiment,” a system that would encourage the “best” (wealthy, educated, and successful) members of British society to have more children and the “worst” to have fewer. Galton cared about populations, not individuals. And for him, the potency of cold scientific logic overruled any wuzzle-headed sentimentality on behalf of those who were to be “selected against.”

Galton is in fact one of the gentler figures in this history. For the most part, he was opposed to coercive regulation of reproduction except when a person was so incapacitated he could not rationally make his own decisions. He was swayed from this view late in life, after 1900, when the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws led to a newly hardline coercive style of eugenics in the Progressive era, notoriously leading to dozens of sterilization laws, influencing immigration policy, and otherwise providing a powerful social weapon to be used against the poor, sick, foreign, black, female, and undereducated.

One of the leading figures of Progressive era eugenics was the psychologist Henry Goddard, of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. Goddard was reasonably well-educated and a respected member of the professional psychological community. He introduced “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” to the lexicon, as scientifically precise and morally compassionate categories for individuals of mental defect. Through years of study of his mentally impaired students, he became convinced that he had found evidence for a Mendelian recessive gene for “feeblemindedness.” That such a gene existed was widely accepted, common knowledge among psychologists for decades. Goddard’s best-known work was “The Kallikaks,” which traced in thrilling detail the exploits of a “race of defective degenerates,” a highly inbred genealogy of crooks, murderers, prostitutes, good-for-nothings, and fools. Goddard was an ardent eugenicist and he set up an IQ testing station at Ellis Island to keep out mental defectives—who mostly turned out to be merely illiterate or simply people who didn’t speak English.

One could go on. There’s the psychologist Arthur Jensen’s 1969 study purporting to show, with good hard scientific data, that blacks are about 10-20 IQ points stupider than whites, so it was pointless for liberals to provide “compensatory education” designed to right past wrongs of separate but unequal education; there’s the XYY debate, during which it was briefly “proved” that having an extra Y chromosome makes you big, scary, and prone to violent crime; there’s Murray and Herrnstein’s 1994 conservative scientific bombshell The Bell Curve, which pretty much just rehearsed Galton, Goddard, Cyril Burt, and Jensen but triggered a large public debate over science and conservative politics.

The point is, efforts to explain human social behavior in terms of their genes and their brains have provided more ammunition to social conservatives than to social liberals. Explanations of complex social behavior in terms of the innate serve those in power more than they serve the forces of change. And they do so regardless of how much you couch your case in terms of “nature and nurture,” saying, “We know it’s not all nature; it’s just that we’re interested here in the nature side of things” (for a haunting example of this rhetorical strategy, read the opening chapters of The Bell Curve).

Science has a complex role in our society, as multifarious as the relationship between knowledge and power. When science is pitted against ignorance, I defend science with the spirit of the righteous. But when science is used to protect the status quo, to serve stockholders, or to serve the population at the expense of the individual—when science conflicts with my liberal values—I oppose it. My concern here is that while ostensibly defending science against ignorance, arguments such as this will inadvertently lend arms to those attacking the subaltern.

I’m afraid of the neuroscience of politics, then, because politics is about power. Because I’m a liberal, and liberalism today aims to take the side of those without power—it aims to equalize power. Because science, too, is at least partly about power, and so it has a complex relationship to liberalism that I don’t want to see glossed over. And because historically, explanations of complex social behavior in terms of innate biological characteristics have tended to serve those in power—the white, male, wealthy, and Protestant.

In today’s categories, Republicans.


Further Reading:

Beckwith, J., and L. Miller. “The XYY Male: The Making of a Myth.” Harv Mag 79, no. 2 (1976): 30–3.

Comfort, Nathaniel. “Zelig (recent Biographies of Francis Galton).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 2 (2006): 348–363.

Cowan, Ruth. “Nature and Nurture: The Interplay of Biology and Politics in the Work of Francis Galton.” In Studies in the History of Biology, 133–208. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Davenport, Charles. Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding. New York: Henry Holt, 1910.

Elseviers, D. “The Criminal XYY Chromosomes: Fact or Fiction.” Sci People 6, no. 5 (1974): 22–4.

Fox, Richard G. “The XYY Offender: A Modern Myth?” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 62, no. 1 (1971): 59–73.

Fraser, Steve. The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America. New York: BasicBooks, 1995.

Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. London: Macmillan and Co., 1869. file://localhost/Volumes/NCREFS/PDFs/3331.pdf.

Gillham, Nicholas W. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles A. Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Jacoby, Russell, and Naomi Glauberman. The Bell Curve Debate. New York: Random House, 1995.

Jensen, Arthur. “How Much Can We Boost Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39 (1969): 1–123.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Kincheloe, Joe L., Shirley R. Steinberg, and Aaron David Gresson. Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Lewontin, Richard. “Race and Intelligence.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 26, no. 3 (1970): 2–8.

Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. Vol. 3. Cambridge [Eng.]: University press, 1930.

Steinfels, M. O., and C. Levine. “The XYY Controversy: Researching Violence and Genetics.” Hastings Cent Rep 10, no. 4 (1980): Suppl 1–32.

Galton’s work, as well as much scholarly commentary on Galton, is collected at

The genetic medicine bubble

“The medical world is holding its breath, waiting for the revolution. It will be here any minute. Definitely by the end of the decade. Or perhaps it will take a little longer than that, but seriously, it’s right around the corner. More or less.”

So begins Abigail Zuger’s review of three new pop genome books in yesterday’s New York Times. Zuger raises an interesting point about genetic medicine. The panting, bug-eyed enthusiasm for genetic medicine is ever-increasing, uncorrelated with therapeutic advance, and as obscurantist as a political speech. Which, if you believe economics and politics to be different teams playing the same game, it is.

Genetic medicine whips up support not for its results, but for its promise. It sells a vision of a medical future: one in which I will live forever, my doctor will know me personally, medical care will be tailored to me individually, and my diseases will be identified before they start—with treatment begun accordingly.

The promise is not without substance. Science and medical headlines are indeed full of examples of genomic data improving outcomes for one therapy or another and of cases of personalized high-tech medical care. Revolutions are built of many small steps, and it may well be that some time in the future we will understand ourselves sufficiently well at the DNA level to control much illness that currently confounds us and causes suffering. The scientific, mechanistic approach to human health and disease produces astonishing results that are indeed worth celebrating. Medicine is changing. It’s just that, as the doctor said to the achondroplastic dwarf, you’ll just have to be a little patient.

The hype over genomics and personalized medicine has little bearing on the real results coming out of real labs. The glare of the sunny future blasting from the headlines blinds one to the threats lurking in the shadows—the elitism of expensive, high-tech therapies for rare diseases, the risks of side effects from the increasing number of pharmaceuticals we ingest, the prospect of having our health managed from cradle to grave by a privatized, profit-driven medical establishment.

In both these promises and these threats, genomic medicine exposes its roots in biotechnology. In the 1970s and 1980s, recombinant DNA technology transformed biology—but it also transformed the stock market. Investors bought on the rumor and sold on the news, and so rumor became the most valued currency. Today’s genomic medicine grew out of those techniques of manipulating DNA—and it is driven by the same economic forces. The beauty of hype, from an investment standpoint, is that it fans optimism and masks risk. It is a dangerous model for healthcare.

Medical genetics has greatly advanced diagnosis but it has always struggled with therapeutics. Today’s genomic medicine claims to be at last breaking through the therapeutic wall: through understanding the molecular mechanisms of disease, the claim runs, researchers will develop new drugs. Personalized medicine, then, is pharmaceutical medicine. Every drug ever created has side effects, and they tend to be as potent as the main effects. Drug-based medicine treats side effects with more drugs—an antidepressant leads to weight gain, which is treated with an appetite-reducer, which leads to sleeplessness and high blood pressure,… This works out well for the pharmaceutical industry but turns the patient into a passive, chemically managed being. Medicine so dominated by drugs reduces patient autonomy— an ironic and dispiriting side effect of “personalized” medicine.

The books Zuger reviews are contributing to a healthcare bubble. Whatever the benefits that accrue to patients from genomic technology, they cannot possibly live up to the hype.