Sunday, June 03, 2007

Genetic correctness?   posted by p-ter @ 6/03/2007 08:28:00 AM

A rather confused essay by Kurt Jacobsen, published in Logos, has been making the rounds recently. It's about eugenics and what he calls "genetic correctness", apparently his term for the belief in a "correct" genome. It begins:
The advent of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1996 - RIP in 2003 - left many an onlooker feeling both celebrative and uneasy. With irrepressibly manic ingenuity the biological sciences are dissolving our supposedly fuddy-duddy moral boundaries so that many scientists find themselves in debates they really would rather avoid as to the wisdom of playing cavalierly with recombinant DNA.
It's an unfortunate start-- I'm not sure if there's supposed to be a relationship between those two sentences. Cloning (the subject of the first) does not, of course, make use of recombinant DNA (the subject of the second). Read the wikipedia article on recombinant DNA (noting the alternative definition of the word "cloning"), then compare to the technique used for mammalian cloning. They're simply two separate things.

This is perhaps a technical issue, but relevant to his ultimate point. Yes, scientists would rather avoid ethical discussion about recombinant DNA, but one could argue from the other perspective as well-- many ethicists (and really, we're all amateur ethicists) are finding themselves in positions of trying to judge technologies they really don't understand. They can't be bothered to learn all the silly details, so they make an argument from ignorance. This is a case in point.

Much of the essay is an interesting history of the eugenics movement, demonstrating the role of scientists, sensationalist media, and popular hysteria in the forced sterilizations and political movements of the time. Yes, many scientists and pseudo-scientists lent their names to questionable treatments for "feeble-mindedness", and yes, some praised the Nazi eugenics regime. There is much to be learned from such history. But I doubt the role of scientific results themselves in shaping people's political beliefs. I could be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that many "social Darwinists" were all gung-ho about social programs and helping the poor before reading about the "survival of the fittest", nor do I think many people decided supporting social programs was a great thing after reading about the naturalistic fallacy. It's much easier to search out arguments to support your world-view than to change said world-view in response to facts.

After recounting the rather sordid history of state-sponsored eugenucs, Jacobsen is clearly uncomfortable about modern "eugenics", as the underlying scientific principles are the same. But those underjlying principles are, in fact, correct. Jacobsen writes:
Scientists already found that a stable genotype can correspond to a continuous variations in phenotype, that "many symptoms regarded as pathological might only arise from interaction of genotype with surrounding conditions" and that "a genotype cannot always be derived from phenotype" - findings which should have extinguished the theoretical basis of eugenics.
This is obviously wrong. The entire basis of livestock breeding is based on selection on "quantiative traits" -- traits that show such a "continuous variation in phenotype". The theory is sound -- there's no doubt that, should humanity want to be a little taller, forced sterilization of short people would, over the course of a couple hundred years, get us there.

Jacobsen wants to have it both ways here-- first, he denies that genetics plays a role in disease:
In the 1990s "psychiatric geneticists began to propose genetic anticipation, the tendency of some illness-causing genes to expand in size when passed from generation to generation, as the mechanism behind the increasing severity of schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness as handed down by a family tree." Hence, the problem cannot be family conflict or lousy schools (both rooted in bad social conditions), the child instead is blamed - with the very best intentions - as carrier of disease or a misshapen gene, which supports the biopsychiatric inclination to "reduce human conduct and social conflict to grossly sluggish neurotransmitters in a particular type of nerve cell." It's not begging the question, you see, it's genetic.
Then (after puzzlingly dismissing genetic anticipation. Is it really so much more compassionate to blame a family for causing the increased severity of a disease when it actually is genetic?), he laments the possibility of an increasing role for prenatal genetic testing (which, if he's right and things are just too complicated to understand, shouldn't be able to properly test for anything).
The future holds out the spectacle not of coercive control but of a "eugenics of the free market." Andrews relates a case of an HMO instructing a couple, who found through amniocentesis that their child-to-be possessed a gene for cystic fibrosis, that it would not pay for the child's care if the pregnancy came to term.
It's interesting that Jacobsen wants to make us feel uncomfortable about genetic testing with this anecdote; if anything, it makes me question the insurance system. (and indeed, I've argued before that genomics should provide a push for socialized health care).

I could go on, but this essay is simply a hodge-podge of all the different things that make people uncomfortable about genetics-- designer babies, gene patents, the word "eugenics", something about "reductionism". Oh, and didn't the Nazis like genetics? All the arguments are there, even the contradictory ones and the ones that say more about how some of our infrastucture (the patent system, the insurance system) is unprepared to deal with genetic information than about the genetic information itself.

Related: Notes on eugenics, To breed a better human-we have the technology

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