Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Making the human race better

Let me ask you, dear reader, a fairly straightforward question.

Suppose that you and your wife or husband are about to have a child. All else equal, would you like your child to be smarter, or dumber? You will love your child either way, of course, so that's not the issue. But if you could take a vitamin supplement during pregnancy that would give them an extra 10 IQ points, would you do it? Let's assume it's a wholly natural supplement. There's a risk of childhood malnutrition without it, which will permanently harm their intelligence.

Taking the supplement would certainly make their life somewhat easier, and increase the chances that they could come up with important business and scientific advances that could benefit society. Lord knows parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on education after the fact to try to achieve exactly the same goal.

So to ask a slightly weaker question - does the prospect of such a vitamin supplement shock, horrify and disgust you? Is it repugnant, equivalent to the Holocaust, for parents to love their children so much that they wish them to be slightly smarter? Is it wrong to wish for these benefits for your neighbour's children, or your friends' children? If you're not an IQ booster, substitute in adjectives like 'taller', 'more attractive' or 'healthier' - the logic is exactly the same.

I am pretty sure the answer to this is 'of course not'.

So now, question number two.

Would society as a whole be better off if all prospective mothers took this pill? If you could make all the children in society smarter, healthier and more attractive, would that be a net benefit to society, or not? Would that be a project that we should undertake?

As it turns out, that project already has a name.

That name is eugenics.

Eugenics is, of course, in the popular discussion on the subject, literally Hitler.

And I personally find this the most unfathomably braindead attitude I can imagine.

In the case of eugenics, the objections to it are especially vague, and seem to descend into Godwin's Law territory even faster than most political issues, because eugenics is often explicitly presented as a motivation for the Holocaust. This is of course yet one more example in a long list that support the claim that "Hitler makes everybody stupid". Hitler butchered 6 million Jews in a horribly cruel manner. Therefore, we should be entirely unconcerned with whether the human race is on net getting smarter or dumber, or whether the prevalence of genetic health disorders is becoming more common or less common. Not quite so compelling when you spell it out now, is it? That's The Magic of Hitler, that you never bothered to notice this before now.

To begin with a quibble - it's pretty bizarre to claim that the Holocaust discredits eugenics, because the Holocaust seems about the least eugenic policy I can imagine. Ashkenzi Jews have a mean IQ of 113-116 for crying out loud! I can scarcely imagine a more disgenic policy than killing them off wholesale. If Hitler was a eugenicist, he was the worst one in history, save perhaps Pol Pot, who deliberately killed anyone who seemed even vaguely smart. I don't think his monstrous actions teach us anything about eugenics.

Part of the reason for all this nonsense is that the term eugenics came to conflate two quite different concepts. The first is the general aim of improving the genetic stock of the human race. The second was a specific set of policies that got applied to do this.

If you can't change the genes of a population directly, you can still change their frequency. In terms of the existing population, we can't instantly clone adults, but we can kill them. In terms of children, we can either have policies designed to encourage more children from the people we want, or policies designed to discourage having children by the people we don't want.

Now, to give opponents their (very limited) due, a number of the policies implemented to achieve eugenic aims were in fact quite horrible. Killing entire populations is of course repugnant. Forced sterilisations of the disabled, the retarded or the mentally ill are something that we find very troubling and immoral.

Because this is a touchy subject, let me emphasise that I share the above concerns.

So for the purposes of argument, let us specify in advance, to allay any possible fears, that we shall rule out any policy whatsoever designed to specifically discourage anyone from having children, let alone killing anyone.

But what about the last category? What about just encouraging high-functioning, good people to have more children?

What in God's name is wrong with that? Why shouldn't that be something to be celebrated? Trying to bring more happy, healthy capable children into the world is about as far from the Holocaust as I can possibly imagine. So why on earth does it still get tarred with the same brush? Is it really so repugnant to increase tax breaks for rich parents? Is it appalling to run ad campaigns in low-crime-rate areas encouraging people to have more children?

Marketing and associations being what they are, I think we need a new term to describe the specific set of policies that encourage higher birth rates by well-adjusted people. I humbly submit 'progenetic policy' (a play on both genetics and progeny). But any new term would be helpful to sever people's inane association with things like forced sterilisations.

By this point in time, we have an overwhelming body of evidence from behavioral genetics that large amounts of personality traits and behaviors are significantly heritable, and have sizable genetic components. As a result, if you have more children being born with good genes, you will get more good outcomes. Isn't this something you'd want? This would seem obvious to me, but apparently it's not to a lot of people.

And the thing that is most perplexing to me about the current antipathy towards thinking about these questions is that not thinking about these issues doesn't make them go away.

Because the broader side of eugenics goes on whether you think about it or not.

There is no opt-out here. There is only eugenics, disgenics, or stasis.

Either the genetic traits associated with pro-social behavior, or IQ, or anything else, are becoming more prevalent in the population, less prevalent in the population, or they are staying at the same rate. So which is it? Which would you like it to be? When you design a new policy, it will either cause those frequencies to go up, or go down. This seems like something worth thinking about in advance.

You may not be interested in progenetics.

Progenetics, unlike Trotsky's quip about war, is not interested in you either.

But it is very interested in your children.


  1. It is amazing the sheer amount of
    asshat knee-jerk retardation that exists on this issue. Why can't grown adults handle their emotions?

    I've seen grown men shake uncontrollably when I've tried to broach this topic in a reasoned manner.

  2. I've never gotten anyone to physically shaking point, but uncomfortable looks and forced changes of subject are fairly common. Unfortunately, the issue doesn't go away just because it makes people uncomfortable.

  3. Great essay, but "Progenetic" has too many syllables, sounds technical.

    "Progenic" is smoother, loads more on "progeny", and reaching out to the important etymology snob market, it derives directly from the Latin root "gens" rather than going through the English words deriving from the same root.

    1. You're right, progenic is better - I like it. Plus avoiding triggering people's odd hangups about genetics is probably useful.