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April 26, 2003
BIOLOGICAL VERSUS CULTURAL EVOLUTION
Thanks again to everyone who welcomed my introductory blog.
I am planning to post a series of notes discussing various issues of cultural
Analogies are often drawn between biological evolution and ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ evolution. I believe these analogies are seldom enlightening, and often misleading. There are too many major differences between culture and biology for the analogies to be useful. Notably:
1. In biological heredity an individual has a well-defined set of ‘ancestors’. Coefficients of relationship can be calculated, and genetic regressions and correlations estimated. In contrast, cultural traits can be transmitted between any number of biologically unrelated individuals - even (by means of writing and other media) between people widely separated in time and space.
2. With unimportant exceptions, biological heredity cannot transmit traits acquired during the lifetime of the individual, whereas cultural transmission frequently does.
3. The processes leading to variation in biological heredity - mutation, recombination, meiosis, etc - are unconscious and random, in the sense that they have no tendency to serve any ‘purpose’. (I am ignoring the possibilities of eugenics, artificial selection, genetic engineering, etc.) In contrast, cultural change and innovation are often conscious and aimed at achieving a goal. There appears to be nothing in cultural transmission closely analogous to the ‘randomising’ features of biological heredity, which are important for biological evolution. (I’m aware that in some areas, such as linguistics, attempts have been made to estimate the amount of ‘transmission error’, but this remains a vague and limited analogy to biological mutation.)
4. Individuals have no choice in receiving their biological inheritance, whereas people frequently do have a choice in deciding whether to accept some cultural trait.
5. In biology there is a distinction between the genotype, which contains inherited information, and the phenotype, which is the set of observable traits of the individual, and is not directly inherited. The genotype forms the basis for development of the phenotype, which varies according to ‘nurture’, but has a predictable correlation with the genotype. The phenotype can to some extent be changed by deliberate choice, whereas the genotype cannot (again, ignoring genetic engineering, etc.) By contrast, in culture it is not clear that the genotype-phenotype distinction is applicable at all. Ultimately, cultural behaviour must have some genetic basis, but this may be of a general, species-wide kind. The specific form taken by the culture of a society is only very loosely constrained, if at all, by the genetic basis, as cultural traits can be abandoned or modified almost without limit during the lifetime of an individual.
6. Cultural traits are often specific to certain ethnic or social groups. Because of this it is often argued (or assumed) that in cultural evolution the group, rather than the individual, is the unit of evolution by natural selection. This would entail that groups have a life-cycle of birth, reproduction, and death. But groups do not literally die (except in the rare case of total extinction), and they do not literally reproduce themselves. Also, unlike biological individuals, they may split, reunite, or merge with other groups.
7. In biology, most organisms have the capacity to produce many offspring, and there is considerable variance in reproductive success. This is a prerequisite for natural selection to operate. In culture, by contrast, even if social groups may sometimes in a loose sense reproduce (e.g. by forming colonies), the rate of ‘reproduction’ is very low, and has little variance. For example, there are nearly 200 recognised independent countries in the world, but it is doubtful if any of them can be said to have ‘reproduced’ during the last century (unless you count the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia as ‘reproduction’). Yet there has been immense cultural change in all of those countries during that period.
8. Even when social groups give rise to ‘offspring’ in the form of colonies or emigrant communities, these seldom closely resemble the ‘parents’; e.g. Singapore is formed mainly by people of Chinese origin, but in many respects it is different from China.
9. Biological individuals compete with each other for available resources, and genes compete with each other for possession of genetic ‘loci’. There is nothing closely analogous to this in cultural evolution. It is true that some cultural traits are incompatible with others - you cannot be a Muslim and a Roman Catholic - but this is probably the exception rather than the rule. It is therefore doubtful whether there is a ‘struggle for existence’ among most cultural traits.
10. Biological traits are usually adaptive for the individuals who possess them, in the sense that possession of the trait enhances their reproductive fitness. Genes producing traits that impair reproductive fitness will be eliminated by natural selection. In contrast, there is no reason to suppose that cultural traits (with some important exceptions, such as economic competition in a free market) are usually beneficial in any sense to the individuals or groups that possess them. (As this goes against a lot of sociological and anthropological dogma, I may come back to it in another note.) It is true that people usually believe that their customs (witchcraft, circumcision, sacrificing the first-born, etc) are beneficial, but people hold a lot of false beliefs.
I conclude that the differences between biological and cultural evolution are so great that analogies between them are usually worthless. In particular, I do not believe that cultural traits have been produced by any process closely resembling natural selection.
But I am ‘blogged out’ for now, and will return to this subject again.
Ok, I'm going to comment on the genetic weapons post because, well, I'm a card-carrying Molecular Biologist. (Although now I'm converting into a Capitalist, and hopefully soon, a Plutocrat--my new boss says he'd like to convert me to paid, full-time by July:) (knock on wood)
A genetic weapon targeted to a particular ethnic group is so unlikely as to be impossible. Reasons:
1) There are few known gene variants that are ONLY present in particular ethnic groups.
This does remind me of a simple conspiracy theory by Arabs and some other Muslims who ascribe every nefarious motive they think of to the Jews.
As an aside, to all the aspiring bioterrorists or weapons makers out there, it's much much easier conceptually to simply engineer a virus to be fast-spreading and deadly and then vaccinate your own people against it, while releasing it to your enemies. Of course, the Russians failed at that after 40 years or whatever. But they're Russians. And you'd have to somehow keep it secret from all the intelligence agencies in the world. And assume your enemies couldn't quickly develop a vaccine to it on their own, in the midst of your attack (while dealing with the attack with traditional quarantine measures, etc).
All in all....keep working on your nukes. Physics is easy and clean. Biology is complex and messy.
Rapper's against the gold standard
Read the lyrics for the new Nas single "I Can" and you'll see he opposes the gold standard.... (cool to hear wholesome stuff from a rapper, but the Afrocentric junk is kind of kooky)
Update: Anyone else notice the Christinization of modern rock??? This group Evanescence claims it's not Christian but check out the lyrics for "Bring Me to Life." Their album is titled "Fallen." Here are some lyric samples from "Bring Me to Life":
Is that inspirational or what? Once upon a time Rock 'n' Roll was perverted & debauched music but now groups like Creed are bringing a more spiritual sound into the mix. They must hose off kids in the mosh pit with Holy Water now.
Born to be bad
The heritability part for physical aggression is not surprising-generations of pussies beget pussies-but the correlation with expressive vocabulary is interesting, though it tends to be loud-mouths that pound the crap out of other kids from what I recall.
April 25, 2003
soc.history.what-if & blasts from the past
I used to be a participant in soc.history.what-if a few years back (especially 4-5 years ago) and wrote up the "Manzikert Timeline" with Andrew Reeves. I saw a referral from this blog which has links to SHWI participants that I haven't thought of in a while! I know Ikram Saeed remembers me from SHWI and I get an email now & then from people who are familiar from that forum. Anyway, I just wanted to welcome the SHWI people (smart & often as esoterically inclined as I) to the blogosphere! And I didn't even connect Jonathan Edelstein of Head Heeb with the Jonathan Edelstein of SHWI who I riffed off of a few times.
Finally, for GNXPers, looking for the Manzikert file I found some other data I had thought I had lost. I told Steve Sailer a few years ago that I decided to send out an email to a bunch of the profs at various Indian Institute of Technology campuses and ask what their mother tongue was to figure out if Tamil's were overrepresented. Here is the data:
I did this survey in the winter of 2000 by sending out a mass email :) Haven't had time to do anything about it, but it was interesting, and confirmed my suspicion that Tamils are overrepresented in the Indian technocrati.
April 24, 2003
Minority Rule in Argentina
Names of the main presidential candidates in Argentina for the election on the 27th: Ricardo Lopez Murphy, Néstor Kirchner & Carlos Menem. Irish, German and Syrian last names in a country of Spaniards & Italians by origin (with some indigenous contributions of course).
SARS & Genetic Bombs
OK, away from the race-wars, toward some health/genetics related topics.
Randall Parker has another SARS post up. I've basically started ignoring most analytical SARS stories and just bug Randall to post on it ;) Also, this week's print edition of The Economist has a bunch of SARS articles. I quickly cut & pasted the ones that require registration on the extended entry area below.
Here is his email:
When I went over and read the post over and WindsofChange.NET it was more about anti-Semitism & Mid-East politics than genetics. These topics I have little interest in. I am going to start out by asserting that any posts on this thread related to Grand-Jewish-Conspiracies shall be deleted-partially just to deter a pro-Jew data-flood from godless ;) As for the genetics of it, Aziz is wondering if Israel is developing a genetic weapon of mass destruction against the Arabs.
Is this possible? Well-I think we're pretty far away from it. I've been away from science for a long-time (4 years is a long time) but my friends who were grad students would always whine how wimpy their "genetically engineered" organisms were. We'll do a lot of gene therapy first before we get to being biologically sophisticated enough to do this sort of thing, so if our race is going down the tubes, at least we'll cure a lot of ailments first. But in the future I don't think it will be impossible to re-design a naturally occuring virus and have it target individuals with specific genetic traits. The only problem is that it would probably open up a can of worms, most genetic tendencies that are different in frequencies still occur throughout a host of populations. Nukes & the like are probably going to be far more efficient for the time before our species destroys itself or proceeds toward transhumanism.
One thing that did come up on the WindsofChange.NET is the fact that "40% of Israeli Jews are ethnically Arab." This is a semantic issue, but the studies now indicate that though mtDNA lineages are shared with majority populations, Jews seem to have preserved their male lineages pretty well, so though the Sephardic & Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, they were genetically different from Arabs-though they originate (at least in the Levant) among the same Aramaean culture complex in greater Syria. Additionally the Ashkenazi Jews are separated on the mtDNA lineage from the Arabs pretty clearly so that could be used as a difference to key in on.
But one thing that occurs to me, "the Arabs" are far more genetically diverse than "the Jews," so it seems that genetic WMD would be more plausible against the latter rather than the former. Genetic WMD might have utility against endagomous minorities but would probably be less appropriate in dealing with diverse and amorphous groupings of people-the kind of thing that states would care about (it seems wacked-out bug-eyed individuals tend to be fixated on "problem" minorities).
Since I've been out of science for several years now, I'm curious as to what godless, grady & others, as well as Future Pundit have to say on this. What I'm not curious about is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fellow bloggers-ban & delete away please to keep this blog evil in its more esoteric fashion rather than in a more conventional way....
The SARS epidemic
China wakes up
Apr 24th 2003 | BEIJING
A health scare may herald much more profound changes
AT BEIJING'S international airport, a parting couple hug and press their mask-covered mouths together in a prophylactic kiss. On the streets of the capital, mask-wearing is fast becoming the norm. Outside foreign embassies, armed police have been reinforced with a new contingent of guards clad in masks and gloves. After weeks in denial, Beijing is suddenly confronting the problem of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
This virus, though less infectious than influenza, is more than twice as deadly as influenza in a pandemic. Its mortality rate, at around 5%, is close to that of bacterial meningitis; and, like meningitis, it gains in horror by killing the young and vigorous as well as the old and frail.
Five months after the first appearance of SARS in the southern province of Guangdong, something snapped at the end of last week. On April 18th, the government information office invited the foreign media to attend a briefing on SARS, to be given two days later by the health minister and the mayor of Beijing. But neither showed up. They had been dismissed—the party's first public sacking of top officials in mid-crisis for incompetence, rather than political incorrectness.
The most senior official to attend was a deputy minister of health, Gao Qiang, who announced that there were 339 confirmed SARS cases in Beijing and another 402 suspected cases, compared with a mere 37 confirmed cases (and an undisclosed number of suspected cases) declared previously. By the 24th, confirmed cases in the city had risen to 774, with another 863 suspected and 39 deaths. This compared with 49 fatalities and 1,359 confirmed cases in the worst-affected area (by official counts), Guangdong. Beijing alone now accounts for a third of all China's reported deaths from SARS.
The upcoming week-long May Day holiday—normally a time when millions travel in crowded trains and buses—was promptly cancelled. Transport operators were ordered to screen out passengers showing possible signs of SARS, such as fever and persistent coughing. Citizens were advised to avoid crowded areas and warned they would be quarantined if they had contact with a SARS patient. On Wednesday, schools in the capital were ordered to close for two weeks.
Why the change of tack? Not out of concern for public health, to be sure; the central government is still lethargic in the face of the far bigger problem of HIV/AIDS, which, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may result in between 10m and 20m Chinese being HIV-positive within seven years. More important to the leaders was the damage being done to China's image abroad, and the realisation that the economic consequences of being honest may, in the long run, be less severe than those of obfuscation.
Even before the higher figures began to leak out, international events in Beijing were being cancelled because foreigners were refusing to attend and foreign tour-groups were staying away. Dependants of foreigners living in Beijing were beginning to leave the country. China's cover-up of the spread of SARS was causing the country's biggest credibility crisis abroad since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. On April 23rd, compounding the regime's fears, the WHO advised travellers not to go to Beijing—advice not heard since those violent days.
Cynics say, however, that the ousted officials were scapegoats for policymaking errors at a higher level and for the ingrained weaknesses of China's sclerotic and secretive bureaucracy. Bates Gill of the CSIS says the ousted health minister was “a breath of fresh air”, who helped secure the release of an activist detained last year for revealing a secret document on the spread of HIV in China. Neither of the dismissed officials was responsible for the decision to order a news blackout on the development of SARS as it spread across Guangdong in February and reached the capital in March.
The two-week annual session of parliament, which began on March 5th, was an event that no leader wanted marred by panic over a disease. The party controls the media through secret directives issued by the party's Propaganda Department, which is overseen by a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee. The Standing Committee, headed by Mr Hu, would have known about the decision to suppress news coverage of SARS, as well as to avoid preventive measures in Beijing that might alert the public to the problem.
It was not until April 2nd that China's cabinet, headed by Mr Wen, held its first meeting to discuss the SARS problem. This might have been a good time to sideline the health minister, Zhang Wenkang, if he was felt to be underperforming, but instead he was put in charge of SARS prevention. At a news conference the next day, Mr Zhang told a correspondent that “The ordinary people of the mainland are not like the ordinary people of Hong Kong. Their education level is lower. If we released information like they did in Hong Kong, there would be chaos.” Mr Zhang would hardly have made such a remark if Mr Wen had told him to be completely open about the epidemic.
And then there is Jiang Zemin, Mr Hu's predecessor, who is still the country's most powerful man as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. There is little evidence that Mr Jiang has played a significant role in handling the SARS crisis. If he had, the problem in Beijing might have been a little easier to tackle. Of Beijing's 175 hospitals, 16 are under the control of the armed forces and, until last week, were under no obligation to report SARS cases to the city authorities (even though, with their often superior facilities, they are a magnet for military and civilian patients alike). But though bringing such hospitals to heel may help in gathering statistics, their previously separate status does not help explain why Beijing's SARS figures were so seriously understated. The only plausible reason is that people were lying.
The health ministry said on Sunday that it knew of no deliberate cover-ups, but one of the more daring official newspapers has suggested otherwise. The China Business Times accused the Beijing city authorities of “making false reports” and in another article said provincial authorities were giving tardy, incomplete and falsified figures in order to avoid blemishing the careers of officials. Lying is endemic in China's bureaucracy, partly because leaders at all levels are fearful that any mishap reported in their jurisdiction may be used as an excuse to pass them over for promotion or have them dismissed.
The China Business Times also pointed out the discrepancy between the government's decision last weekend to scrap the week-long May Day holiday (citizens will still get one day off) and a statement on April 6th by a senior tourism official that China should take advantage of the movement of tens of millions of holidaymakers around May Day to demonstrate that China is “the safest tourist destination”. Again, the official was presumably speaking in the knowledge that the prime minister would fully agree with him. Mr Wen, it appeared, was determined to play the crisis down and pretend that all was normal, even as Beijing's hospitals were struggling with an upsurge of cases.
Town and country
Even in Beijing, the official figures still convey only a partial picture. The city has offered free treatment for poor SARS patients. But this is little consolation to the large numbers with no health insurance, particularly the unemployed and the 3m or so ill-paid migrant labourers (about one-fifth of the city's population) who are too poor to consider hospital treatment in the city. Many with SARS-like symptoms would think twice about any offer of free treatment, since their ailment may well turn out to be something else for which they would have to pay. Compounding this fear is the risk that days of quarantine for themselves and family members could cause a big loss of earnings.
In rural areas, the situation is particularly bleak. The “barefoot-doctor” system established under Mao Zedong to provide basic health care to peasants has broken down. Many township hospitals can now do little more than dispense medicine. As many as 70% of country people cannot afford to pay for medical treatment. On Sunday, the deputy health minister said that if SARS was found to be spreading in the countryside, “the consequences would be extremely serious.” But how will anyone know? On April 23rd the government announced a fund of 2 billion yuan ($240m) to support anti-SARS work in the countryside and among the urban poor. The problem, however, could only be solved by a massive overhaul of the health-care and insurance system that would cost many times more than that.
With their political U-turn, Mr Hu and Mr Wen may help to shore up their image. In Beijing, the party's legitimacy rests largely on its ability to deliver economic growth. Although a severe downturn could precipitate serious social unrest, China's SARS crisis (unlike Hong Kong's) occurs at a time of strong growth. As long as the death toll does not rise (or is not rumoured to rise) dramatically in key urban areas such as Beijing and disruption is short-lived, the new leadership will probably muddle through. But the trust of the rest of the world, which had come to believe that China was beginning to understand the need to play by international rules, could take far longer to repair.
Hong Kong's economy
In intensive care
Apr 24th 2003 | HONG KONG
SARS is not bad news for everybody. Makers and retailers of Chinese medicine are struggling to meet demand, as people in Hong Kong and China turn to traditional herbs to boost their immune systems. Telecoms companies are doing well as businessmen cancel meetings and tele-conference instead. Rentals of DVDs and sales of instant noodles have been soaring, as people stay at home.
But these are exceptions to the rule. East Asia is now in the midst of an economic period, says the World Bank, “as troubled and uncertain as any since the 1997-98 financial crisis”. Bill Belchere, an economist at J.P. Morgan, thinks that Hong Kong's economy will shrink by 8% (annualised) during the current quarter and Singapore's by 2%, and that the region as a whole will grow by only 1%. His growth estimate before the outbreak was 4%.
Hong Kong, with more SARS cases than any other city in the world, is by far the worst-hit economy. Its tourist industry, which accounts for 5% of GDP, has been obliterated. Average hotel occupancy over the Easter holidays has fallen by around 80% and is now in single digits. Five hotels are for sale already. Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, Hong Kong's two passenger airlines, have lost two-thirds of their normal traffic. Restaurants are empty.
Domestic demand has dropped as well. Retail prices have been falling since 1998; in March, deflation turned virulent and hit 2.1%. Economists expect that April will be worse. The property market has been in the doldrums since 1997, even without SARS. Now transaction volumes are down sharply, and one property consultant reckons that luxury rental prices will fall by 10% this year.
Exporters, too, are suffering. Earlier this month, Hong Kong's jewellers and watch-makers were banned from an important trade fair in Switzerland, losing many orders. Last week, foreign buyers stayed away from a trade fair in nearby Guangzhou, where many Hong Kong entrepreneurs have factories. According to first estimates, only $730m-worth of orders were booked, compared to $17 billion last year.
The real effects of SARS will not be clear for some time. Hong Kong's small businesses, usually the economy's pride, appear to be hurt most, even if the pain is not yet shown on balance sheets. Bankruptcies will rise, leading to higher unemployment and more loan write-offs by banks.
All this comes at a particularly bad time for Hong Kong. As recently as budget day, March 4th—when the outbreak had begun but was not yet public knowledge—the city's biggest problem seemed to be its deficit. How fast priorities change. On April 23rd, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, said that the government will spend $1.5 billion in rescue money: waiving utility charges for three months, giving out tax rebates and extending emergency loans to the most desperate industries.
Hong Kong is not yet a crisis economy. Forward rates on the Hong Kong dollar, a proxy for the territory's risk premium, have risen in recent weeks, though not enough to suggest that an attack on the currency's peg to the American dollar is imminent. Nevertheless here, as in Singapore and China, everything depends on whether this disease can be controlled.
Apr 24th 2003 | TORONTO
CANADA is the only country outside Asia to have had any deaths from SARS. As of April 22nd, 15 people had succumbed. All lived in or around Toronto. That city has the overwhelming majority of the 320-odd cases reported in Canada, almost all of them directly traceable to contact with travellers who went to Hong Kong in February and March. Hardest hit, both by the disease and by the fear of it, has been the large Asian community that is concentrated in various parts of the city.
Tourism has taken a hard knock, for Toronto is also Canada's tourism capital: 16.3m visitors came last year, spending a total of C$3.5 billion ($2.4 billion). In mid-April, the city's hotels are usually about three-quarters full; this year, occupancy has been about half that. Restaurants and tourist attractions are finding business slow; hundreds of workers have been laid off or put on reduced hours.
The biggest cancellations have been of a couple of medical conventions. The American Association for Cancer Research, for example, was supposed to bring 12,000 doctors to Toronto earlier this month, thereby pumping about $20m into the economy. On April 23rd the World Health Organisation added Toronto, with Beijing and China's Shanxi province, to the list of places to be avoided by international travellers. “You won't be able to take this mark off,” lamented Donald Low, the chief microbiologist at the city's Mount Sinai Hospital. “They could have waited another four or five days.”
Business leaders and the media are calling for a stronger lead from Toronto's mayor. But Mel Lastman, facing his own health problems and widely viewed as a lame duck, was almost invisible until the WHO announcement, which he energetically condemned.
One major issue is compensation for the 7,000-10,000 people in Toronto who have voluntarily quarantined themselves after possibly coming into contact with an infected person. At first, it seemed that these people would be eligible for financial relief only if they developed the illness; now, the federal government may relax its employment-insurance regime to cover them. On April 22nd, Sheila Copps, a senior federal cabinet minister, suggested that the government should classify SARS as a “national disaster”; but no one else in cabinet agreed with her.
Torontonians travelling elsewhere are under wide suspicion. Several countries have said they are not welcome. Torontonians are also becoming suspicious of each other. They are going out less (though the unseasonably cold weather could be partly to blame), and some are looking for alternatives to shaking hands. At one Chinese restaurant chain, managers are interviewing all employees daily to check whether they are showing symptoms.
Politically, the outbreak probably helped to persuade Ernie Eves, Ontario's premier, not to go to the polls this spring. Economically, the cost is harder to judge. The governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, said the outbreak had the potential to cut growth this year, but it was too early to say by how much. The bank cut its growth forecast anyway on April 23rd, from near 3% in January to 2.5%.
Normally I don't see the point of posting the results of the online tests, but I found this Which Country of the World are You? quiz on Zack & Amber's blog and the result was kind of funny & oddly predictable:
This is amusing mostly for those people that know me well (especially in "real life") and what company I tend to keep ;)
April 23, 2003
Only True Bloods on the side of the Lord of Light?
Despite Birth Bonuses, Zoroastrians in India Fade is a story in The NY Times about the decline in the number of Parsis due to low birthrate & high interrmarriage. It does not bode well for other high achieving groups that wish to maintain their integrity in the midst of other nations. Here is one amusing quote:
Is this really controversial in India or is the author projecting her American sensitivites on a different people? Jawaharal Nehru's family were Pandit Brahmins from Kashmir that had lived in the Gangetic Valley (Uttar Pradesh) for generations who had preserved their phenotype (taller, lighter-skinned) by marrying only their own-the Brahmins of India Proper were not "Aryan" enough for them (I knew a woman who was a Pandit Brahmin and she looked more Persian than Indian). When Nehru's lineage did marry out it was often with quasi or non-Indians. Indira married a Parsi, her son Rajiv married an Italian (her other son Sanjay married an Indian woman).
Take a look at this site and ask yourself if you think that the preservation of the light-skinned phenotype would be a big stretch in India .
(story via Steve Sailer)
 What I do for this blog-googling for "brown" chix!
The Creator Race: was McKibben celebrates stagnation
I've decided to post this topic to siphon away some of the comments from the topic below. Additionally I invite others who have accounts on the blog to append their opinion/statement. We are a collective blog, but our opinions are not!
So a few points....
How many "civilizations" are there?
How does genetics effect civilization?
Addendum from Razib: I would also like to add that I am not a "metaphysical racialist." I mean there are those who seem to ascribe an almost mystical significance to the perpetuation of their race. You can couch this in terms of maintaining diversity, and I can understand and to some extent sympathize with their viewpoint as something that needs to be heard, but I don't really share it. If I do have children they are likely to be half-white, knowing my tastes, probably would be able to pass as white (probably look southern European or something). It is likely that they in their turn will marry non-brown individuals. For me personally I don't give much weight to either my racial or religious origins. On the other hand, I don't discount those who assert that races might be on average different on non-trival matters. But just because I agree that race exists as a matter of biology or social organization, I don't care much on a personal level for the perpetuation of "my race." Just so people know where I'm coming from (and I think most of the bloggers who have accounts on GNXP).
April 20, 2003
McKibben celebrates stagnation
The Sydney Morning Herald today features an article byBill McKibben who celebrates and romanticises human imperfections and then uses his tastes to mount a *moral* argument against improvement through genetic engineering. Let me place a disclaimer here - I'm not trying to argue that genetic engineering should be compulsory, I'm not even trying to argue that it should anyone social obligation to improve the species through genetic engineering. All such matters are matters of taste - I watch with amusement colleagues who obsess over their diets and exercise regimens while I chomper away at American fastfood and spend most of my life sitting down - and I'm glad they're not trying to impose their puritanical versions of extropianism on me. However by the same token, bogus arguments which end up with policy conclusions proscribing 'designer babies' and which seem to be based on nothing more than the author's 'ugh' factor shouldn't be treated as if they were serious philosophical arguments. And every line when a 'why?' question comes up when I read McKibben, he doesn't answer my question, which suggests there isn't much of an argument, just a litany of the author's autobiographical details.
Firstly there's a lot of reason to suspect the concept of free will is meaningless and incapable of operationalisation. So discourse would be much improved by dumping the concept. And any discourse which makes use of the concept is equally meaningless. Think of it this way - say agent A reacts to a stimuli B by action C. Now, if action C was somehow dictated by a chain of cause and effect which originated in some biochemical processes at work since the beginning of agent A's life, perhaps this is what McKibben means by A lacking 'free will'. A lacks free will in the sense that his reactions were predetermined. But what is the alternative? Is the alternative that perhaps there was some random element to reaction C coming out instead of reaction D? Is introducing an element of randomness in the chain of cause and effect equivalent to introducing free will? But if that's so, then, all natural phenomena can be said to have free will owing to the fact that we know that strictly mechanistic linear models of cause-effect don't apply even to natural phenomena - the so called 'chaotic dynamics' picture of the world.
So I suppose what McKibben means is some reaction that isn't assimilable into some cause-effect chain. A bit like an unmoved mover. A bit like God actually. I think the concept of free will is a bit like the concept of God - at best one can be agnostic about its existence. And what the hell does he mean 'fate and free will' and how is that better than a genetic destiny that has been partly determined by a human choice? In fact isn't the latter fate which has been partly determined by human choice according to McKibben's own weird view of the world preferable to one that has been left to 'blind chance'? Or is he just turning the popular expression 'Shit happens' into some sort of Kantian imperative?
However ignoring all these considerations and taking McKibben's metaphysical verbiage as valid for the sake of argument, what does his claim boil down to? Say, if I happen to be a child of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who is born without Tay Sachs disease owing to concerted efforts by my community
Yeah I can imagine one day this child growing up into an adult and lamenting McKibben-style: "My state of well-being owing to lack of Tay-Sachs disease, I wonder, oh I wonder, if only my parents had let it be, whether I would not have had it anyway. How dare they deprive me of experiencing this possibility, how dare they? Better to be a puppet of mystical concepts of 'fate and free will' than a puppet of scientific endavours aimed at improving my well-being'.
Also, what is the difference between a woman deciding not to get pregnant at 50 because of the heightened risk of Down's Syndrome that comes with late pregnancy and a women who employs other state of the art methods of reducing the risk of disability in the child? What about a woman who decides not to smoke and drink during pregnancy? It seems to me that the degree of eugenics in these cases is indeed, as my formulation suggests, a difference in degree rather than in kind from the more ambitious attempts at voluntary eugenics (like the screening out of Tay Sachs disease) that some parents might choose to practice.
Why isn't what we're doing now to stay alive - for instance, wearing a mask in the presence of a SARS sufferer, avoiding working in places filled with abestos, putting flouride in the water - why aren't all these things 'technological consumerism' relative to what our primate ancestors experienced, pray tell? It seems where we draw a line on this is a personal matter of our own internal trade off. For instance, I don't want to spend my life eating stuff which tastes like cardboard so I'm willing to shave a few years off my life in exchange for eating whatever I want, rather than eating what my health-obsessed colleagues eat.
What the hell is this supposed to mean? How does wanting to be smarter or healthier or wanting to have healthy and smart children if possible have to do with 'more is better' other than in the sense of 'more well being is better'? If the latter, what exactly is wrong with that? And isn't the genuine sense of well-being that we experience come from overcoming our limitations rather than revelling in them? Is McKibben saying we won't have enough limitations to overcome if we're born too smart and healthy? What an optimistic man. Incidentally by McKibben's chain of logic, isn't Homo Sapiens to Homo Erectus as 'the eternal robot' is to Homo Sapiens? Perhaps McKibben would approve of genetic engineering back to our primate ancestors given the increased degree of personal authenticity to revel in our limitations that this will confer upon us.
So not only is a higher IQ not a sufficient condition for wisdom (almost certainly true) but a higher IQ may be incompatible with the current levels of wisdom which have brought us the Holocaust, Hutu-Tutsi massacres, S11, etc? Declining returns of IQ to wisdom? Interesting concept. Either McKibben has a higher IQ than me which is why I can't understand why this should be so, or he has a lower IQ than me and therefore is conferred with an ineffable wisdom which renders greater insight into this curious relationship than I am capable of mustering.
Check out this very amusing taxonomy of personality types one encounters on the Net. Here are two types we're all very familiar with: