Saturday, June 23, 2007

Dangerous ideas - the book   posted by Razib @ 6/23/2007 01:15:00 PM

John Brockman is repackaging his "What is your dangerous idea?" question from 2006 into a book. Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, probably the two brightest lights in the firmament of Brockman's stable, have written a preface and afterward for the book. You can read them online. Dawkins in particular touched on a subject which might interest readers:
Are there any dangerous ideas that are conspicuously under-represented in this book? I have two suggestions, both of which can be spun into either the 'is' or the 'ought' box. First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous - though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from 'ought' to 'is' and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as 'These are not one-dimentional abilities' apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler's death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn't the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

Dawkins' intellectual hero W.D. Hamilton was one of the last open and vocal eugenicists within the biological community (though if you read some of the introductions to his collected papers his own views changed over time and became more nuanced). The school of evolutionary biology which Dawkins in his own body of work elucidates is derived in a direct line from R.A. Fisher. One of the fathers of modern statistics and evolutionary genetics, Fisher was as a noted eugenicist whose own prolific brood were a testament to his beliefs that the phenotypically fit (by whatever metric he defined "fit") should translate that into reproductive fitness. Another of Brockman's intellectuals, Armand Leroi, has taken a more direct tack. Dawkins must know that we are on the precipice of the eugenic era, whether we call it that or not. While the first era of eugenical enthusiasm was characterized by top-down central planning and a rather gross understanding of the elements of human heredity (it was pre-DNA after all), the second will be a bottom-up affair generated by the mass action of small effects derived from millions of individual choices by parents. One assumes that somewhere R.A. Fisher is smiling.