Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eugenics, Yes, I said Eugenics; Is there a problem?

Please check out and even contribute to the comments section. We have a decent discussion going and would love to hear from you too.

At this point if you're reading this, it is quite likely you've only recently discovered my blog. Mainly because I quite recently posted for the first time in a very long time. I'm really glad that I did, because someone managed to go back and hit on a post I wrote over a year ago (granted there weren't many posts between here and there). I'm glad, because I really think this is an important discussion to have - one that becomes more important by the day. And the comment left by Juniper Shoemaker is worth addressing. And to make it really fun, Juniper is a geneticist in training. (Juniper is also the bittering agent in the last beer I had, an awesome brew by my friend Mac back in Portland.)

For those who might not want to read the original post, I am basically making the argument that we need to get past the hysterics that almost inevitably ensue when the word eugenics is brought up. I would like to be clear that I am not advocating for or against eugenics, though there are certainly ideas involving eugenics that I am strongly against. All that I am advocating for is a rational discussion of eugenics, much like Richard Dawkins did a couple years ago.

The reason this is important right now, is that a lot of controversial things are happening that should be fostering important conversations. But those conversations aren't really happening and I suspect that the reason they aren't happening is because the term eugenics is so very loaded. So before I get into addressing Juniper's comment, I would like to point you to a very illustrative post that discusses eugenics. (without ever actually using the word)

Turns out that a couple had been searching for awhile to find an egg donor who looked like the mother and possessed certain attributes that clinics do not approve of as legitimate donor criteria.

Yup, that there is a shining example of eugenics in action. It's not abortion. It's not killing a flawed infant. It's not sterilization and it's not genocide. It's simply a couple who needs a little help having a child, a couple who wanted to exert a little control over the genes of their child to be. Not really very controversial, it's not much different than the decisions people make when choosing a mate they might reproduce with naturally. But on to Juniper's comment....

The problem with eugenicists is that they ignore the fact that the desirability of ANY trait is dependent on its environment. The environment always changes. Traits you cannot possibly conceive of as "desirable" today could prove desirable tomorrow for a myriad of reasons. For all we know, these traits could include hypertension, bipolar disorder, Down's syndrome and autism. Reality is bizarre and unpredictable.

I have no problem with that. I'm bipolar and also have very severe ADHD. And guess what? My son has been diagnosed with severe ADHD and probably has either some of my other neurological issues or those of his mom. I have very little doubt that my youngest will also exhibit something of our neurological issues too. I can even accept that there may well be some value in the propensity for DS as well.

I will also go as far as saying that the idea of aborting a fetus that has tested positive for DS is not a black and white decision or an absolute net positive. This, in spite of the fact that if our incredible one year old had tested positive as a fetus, he would not be with us today. No question, no discussion necessary. Had that test come back different, we would have terminated the pregnancy. Because while the idea is far from black and white, our ability to deal with it is absolutely clear. We already have a child who needs a lot of special attention. Under ideal circumstances, the sibling of a child with that level of disability is going to lose out. In the case of a sibling who has special needs of his own, it's a recipe for disaster.

But this statement of Juniper's is really the crux of the matter. She is presenting one of the best examples of why we really need to have this discussion. Because right now, it is possible to test for a variety of traits, invitro and make decisions to abort based on those tests.

Call me a hypocrite, because I will freely admit that in a sense I am one. I am fully aware that any child I produce is likely to carry certain traits of mine, that aren't all sunshine and roses. Having the neurological issues that I have is not an easy burden to bear. But I have reproduced and more than once. And I think that the value that comes from having neurochemiustry such as mine, is ultimately worth the hardship it entails. Honestly, if it becomes possible to test for ADHD invitro, I would have serious issues with the notion of trying to eliminate that trait.

Yet without question, I would have no problem with terminating the pregnancy of a fetus that has tested positively for DS. I'd like to say that this is only because of the child I already have. But being perfectly honest, I don't think my reaction would be much different if I was childless. Dealing with a child with that level of need is not something I think I am suited for.

And then we have a somewhat gray area for me (but not for a lot of people), autism. I suspect most people out there who would terminate a pregnancy for DS, would also terminate a pregnancy if there were a significant risk of autism. I'm not one of them, but that is because I have a fair number of autistic friends. At the same time, having the older child I do, I am not sure given the option, I could, in good conscience bring a fetus to term that carried a significant risk of severe autism.

These are not black and white questions, but they are well on there way to being a fact of life and are indicative of why we need to be talking about eugenics.

However, it irritates me when eugenicists assume that the only reason why people get pissed off with them is the "controversial" nature of the subject. That implies that people have to choose between a ringing endorsement of a loaded practice or a sheep-like unthinking aversion to the practice.

Honestly, I think that this is why we need to separate Eugenicists, from ownership of eugenics. Because I really don't think it's reasonable at all to allow anyone lay claim to a concept that is as broad as eugenics. Eugenicists, as Juniper is describing tend to fall into a fairly narrow range of beliefs. And those beliefs are not based on actual science, any more than the beliefs of the so called intelligent design movement, or evolutionary psychology.

I get pissed off because people who like the idea of eugenics usually have a shitty understanding of evolutionary theory.

I would take that one step further and say that eugenics only has a peripheral relationship to evolution at all. Because eugenics is really contra-evolution. Not that being contra-evolution makes eugenics inherently bad. But the claims made by Eugenicists are worse than ignorant, I believe that for the most part they are flat dishonest.

No matter how dishonest, no matter how ignorant their theories, I think it is long past time to take the concept of eugenics away from the Eugenics movement. It is also way past time to take the concept of eugenics away from the specter of the Nazis. Because like it or not, eugenics is a reality and the hysteria surrounding it is preventing us from having some very important discussions with very profound social implications.


JLK said...

Wow. What an interesting topic up for discussion.

This is a subject on which I am not sure that I have yet formed a strong opinion either way. Here's why:

1. I, like you DuWayne, would terminate a pregnancy that gave a positive DS result from amnio. I would also be much less likely to terminate a pregnancy that carried a strong risk of autism. I can't explain why, so I'm not going to try.

2. In a sense, eugenics is a form of natural selection. Why do I say that? Because human nature is making a selection for and against certain traits in favor of those that are more adaptive. Darwin (to my knowledge) did not set limits as to what qualifies as natural selection, and certainly surviving in your species is the determining factor. This might get me flamed, but babies born with abnormalities were euthanized in many societies long before we had abortion, and the same thing happens in animal species. Why is it murder for humans but natural selection for other animals?

3. The extreme form of eugenics, one in which parents can "pre-select" things like eye color, hair color, etc. creeps me out. I don't want to live in an all-blonde, blue-eyed society. Though I confess, if I could choose, I would want my children to have my husband's blue eyes rather than my hazel ones. But still, pre-selecting traits is the equivalent of shopping the LL Bean catalog for a child.

4. In anything like this, there is always inherent dangers. What constitutes a "best" trait, and who gets to decide what that is? Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable traits up for selection? What then are the implications for people who do not carry the favored traits? Will children someday classify themselves in school by the genetic alterations their parents could afford? Will blonde hair become the new Coach purse?

Hence my ambivalence. I think it's something that needs to be discussed in the most careful, thoughtful, reasonable, logical, and moral way possible (moral meaning humanitarian rather than religious morals).

DuWayne Brayton said...

You might actually get flamed, if a friend of mine stops by. But I actually think that your point on infants with abnormalities is a good one. Not that I would advocate for killing infants who are flawed, but because I think it's an important question to ask. And in case you haven't noticed yet, I'm not one to shy away from difficult topics.

I have some responses to make, but one, it's almost 1:00am and two, I would like to encourage a couple of people to comment first - if I can get them to. I have a buttload of work to do tomorrow, but I will try to get back to this tomorrow evening - unless of course I succumb to the lure of my addictions and procrastinate on some of my work in favor of this.

kehrsam said...

Welcome to the discussion, JLK. I appreciate your willingness to admit that you don't know all the answers; I don't, either. I have pretty much laid out my thoughts in a four-part series of posts from 2007 that starts here:

Part 2 is where I start getting more into eugenics-related issues.

I am pro-life, so in the unlikely event I ever get around to spawning, I don't think I would be aborting a Down Syndrome child. But I have never been faced with the choice, either, which is where such ideals are tested.

At the moment, eugenics is little more than animal husbandry. I can conceive of a time when our understanding would be sufficient to allow precise control, however, perhaps in my lifetime. The topic, therefore is important if we want to make informed decisions as a culture (and the decision to leave the field unregulated is a choice as well, but we need to be sure that is what we want).

At this moment, I really don't know what that future landscape should look like, or how it might be regulated. If I have some time off over the weekend, I'll be back with fuller comments.

DuWayne Brayton said...

To make them easier to find if one is so inclined, here are links to Kurt's posts.

Part one

Part two
Part three (or 2.5)
Part four (or really, three) ((or really "Putting it all together"))

Juniper Shoemaker said...

In a sense, eugenics is a form of natural selection.

Yes. I said nothing in my original comment that contradicts this. Nor did I say anything in my original comment that implied that "hysteria" over discussion of eugenics was warranted.

For example, we can think of sexual selection as a eugenicist strategy. There's nothing necessarily optimal about sexual selection-- despite all the pop-psych that asserts otherwise-- and there's certainly nothing PC about, say, white people tending to only want to marry other whites, or "weird" men who prefer slim figures to hourglass ones. Sexual selection, in turn, is one manifestation of natural selection. Really, we can think about all the different "kinds" of "selection" that biologists love to bicker about as natural selection just taking place on different levels and scales.

Moreover, my thinking of it this way constitutes a value-neutral judgment of eugenicist strategies. One can simultaneously harbor a multitude of feelings that could potentially comprise various value-loaded judgments of "eugenics" if one prioritized them AND maintain the more logically coherent and value-neutral intellectual understanding of "eugenics" that one has chosen to prioritize. Before you dismiss everyone's mixed feelings as "hysteria", give them this benefit of the doubt. That was really the crux of my point.

I would take that one step further and say that eugenics only has a peripheral relationship to evolution at all. Because eugenics is really contra-evolution. Not that being contra-evolution makes eugenics inherently bad.

Yes. Eugenics is really "contra-evolution", for the reason I gave earlier, and, no, this does not make it inherently bad. (For the record: I don't really think that anything is inherently bad. I think the value of most, if not all, things is contextually dependent.) However-- how does this render the relationship of eugenics to evolution peripheral? I think it's important to understand that the only way to give our species a better than random chance of persisting the way we think it ought to at any given time is to make AS MANY TRAITS AVAILABLE TO MECHANISMS OF NATURAL SELECTION AS FUCKING POSSIBLE. Therefore, any eugenicist strategy, implemented for whatever reason, will always endanger our species to a degree. Does anyone ever implement a eugenicist strategy with this goal in mind?

Again, does this make eugenics inherently bad? No. I never said it did. I merely suggested that the prospect of eugenics benefitting our species is not equiprobable to the prospect of eugenics harming our species-- not for emotional reasons, but logical ones.

I will state clearly that I hold that people should always be free to discuss any ideas with one another. I see no benefit in quashing the discussion of ideas, no matter what any given person, including myself, might feel about the ideas du jour.

However, I reserve my right to my anger and annoyance with most proponents of eugenics, regardless of my intellectual position on the issue. You are talking to someone who has been told that black people are genetically retarded all her life, and who has more frequently encountered this attitude in the blogosphere over the last year and a half. In my opinion, intellectuals genuinely interested in determining the utility of eugenics will have compassion for the feelings of others, particularly non-whites, on the subject. It's easier to solve problems for real when you don't have to deal with a lot of distractions. But I never said anyone had to do this.

Sorry for all the abuse of italics. I like to abuse italics on journals and blogs, because it's fun. It's oh so Victorian, and meanwhile you can't possibly write more formal pieces this way, not if you want a reputation for writing well. Same goes for the abuse of capitalization. But I digress.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I would first like to be clear that when I talk about the hysteria surrounding discussions of eugenics, I am referring to this sort of reaction to very reasonable statements like this one. And this isn't a reaction restricted to the overtly religious, as can be seen in this discussion of Dawkins' statement.

I will also preface the following with a caveat of sorts. I am not so supremely arrogant as to assume that what I am about to write is anything but a hypothesis. I tend to think that it is a very likely hypothesis, but I am well aware of the limitations to my assumptions. I.e., I am not trying to make a claim of special knowledge or faith.

At risk of outing myself as the quintessential geek, I think that the Star Trek franchise has a very good handle on overt genetic enhancement through gene therapies. Something is inevitably lost, while the risks to society are enormous. And I'll go completely off the total fucking geek chart. Frank Herbert (who has been a reputed influence on ST's take on this) used two forms of eugenics throughout his Dune series and several of his non-Dune stories. Yes, it's fiction, but he creates very compelling scenarios that are hard to ignore.

Overt genetic selection through gene therapies - mixing and splicing, until we have the "perfect" human to suit an intended goal, is likely to be inherently dehumanizing. The persons produced are going to, by necessity, be raised to be the product of their intended production. Now think about that.

More than creepy, we are basically predetermining who and what this person is supposed to be. Bad enough when parents pressure their kids to be something they may or may not have an interest in being. What about the person who must be what they were intended to be. And while I have little doubt that it would be possible to create a genetic propensity to accept that role, doing so just makes the whole thing all the more frightening.

In essence, we would be mucking about with the very core of what makes us human. And while, like I said, I think it is possible we could manage it, I don't believe it's possible without losing something that's absolutely critical in the process.

But Herbert also fostered another notion of eugenics, what I like to call the long view. It is the idea of breeding plans. The first thing that is important in his expression of this idea, is the time frames involved. His notion was breeding plans that span tens of thousands of years, thousands of generations.

The other important component, was recognition that such plans would by needs be absolutely fluid. That corrections would need to be made. Corrections that may take hundreds, even thousands of years to recognize. Traits that might be bred out because the value that balances the negatives wasn't recognized until it had virtually disappeared from the human genome.

But ultimately, I think that Herbert did an excellent job of expressing the inherent dangers involved in eugenics programs that span such monumental time frames. Because in the end, the aspects of humanity that I mention with the overt gene therapy based engineering, are likely to disappear anyways. It would just take much longer for it to happen.

Of course, this is really just a critique of the folks who have coopted the term eugenics, in a very narrow sense. It doesn't really address the massive gray area that I am so very keen on seeing discussed. I will try to throw something out at another time, but I did want to make very clear the dangers I see in the Eugenics movement.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Oh, and please - abuse the fucking italics all you like. I am so very keen on it myself.

llewelly said...

Honestly, if it becomes possible to test for ADHD invitro, I would have serious issues with the notion of trying to eliminate that trait.

In almost all cases, there are more ways a mechanism can fail than ways in which it can succeed. For most disorders - there are likely many causes. Rather than an in utero test fro ADHD, a test for a trait or a number of traits weakly correlated with ADHD is much more likely. It is likely that the termination-due-to-DS issue is not like other potential termination-due-to-other-disability or termination-due-to-unpopular-trait issues, because the DS test has a very low false positive rate.

Most people do not understand statistics. (Reporters often misreport correlation as causality. I fumble statistical terms on a semi-regular basis.) Suppose your favorite medical institution makes available an in utero test for which a positive result is associated with 10 times the normal probability of severe schizophrenia. What do you do about it?

JLK said...

Juniper, just to be clear - I didn't read your post on this subject. I was only responding to DuWayne's.

DuWayne Brayton said...

llewelly -

Actually my concern with traits like ADHD, is not that people carrying traits that make it likely they would have ADHD would be aborted. Rather, I tend to fear that at some point gene therapies would make it possible to remove or turn off those traits in utero.

DuWayne Brayton said...


So I was just discussing this post with my brother Ed, and mentioned Dawkins in relation to the original post. He responded that it is interesting that I would mention Dawkins, because Dawkins is going to be in Lansing in March. One thing led to another and he bought tickets for him, our dad and me.

How fucking cool is that?!?!

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Juniper, just to be clear - I didn't read your post on this subject.

In a blog entry devoted to the comment I made? Wow. It's your prerogative, of course, to dismiss any random blogger's thoughts on any matter. I'm just making a note of it here, because, frankly, I'm annoyed.

JLK said...

Juniper, I have read and re-read this post trying to figure out what I said to piss you off. The link on DuWayne's blog entry takes me to your blog's main page, not to any posting you put up on this topic.

I'm not disagreeing with anything you said, and I'm not sure why you say I'm "dismissing" your ideas or comments.

If I'm missing something major here, please tell me, because I don't see where/how you and I disagree, especially since my comment begins with the statement "This is a subject on which I am not sure that I have yet formed a strong opinion either way."

Joshua said...

The standard example I like to give when eugenics comes up is a Huntington's disease. The alleles for Huntington are all dominant alleles and homozygous lethal. If we encouraged testing and embryonic selection we could substantially reduce the fraction of the population with Huntington's. This is eugenics and it is hard to make an argument against it.

I'd also inclined to argue incidentally that aborting Down Syndrome fetuses is not eugenics. The vast majority of males with down syndrome are infertile and females have extremely reduced fertility rates, and children of people with Down Syndrome more often than not have Down Syndrome. Thus at minimum for the males it is very hard to argue that abortion of Down Syndrome fetuses is not impacting the gene pool at all and the result is very likely the same for females.

Joshua said...

Oh one detail that needs clarification: The comments about down syndrome fertility and offspring apply only to non-mosaic down syndrome. The situation is much more case specific when dealing with mosaic down syndrome.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Joshua -

Unfortunately, it is not all that uncommon for women with DS to be sexually assaulted by caregivers and that occasionally leads to pregnancy. And depending where it happens, it is likely that said pregnancy will be carried to term and the resulting child put up for adoption.

While it's not common, it certainly happens.

But in discussing the abortion of a fetus with DS, the choice not to carry the child to term alone, is a form of eugenics. Just as aborting a fetus with Tays Sachs is still eugenics, though the odds of a child with Tays Sachs is probably even less likely to reproduce themselves.

Joshua said...

DuWayne, so under your definition of eugenics would aborting a fetus with a completely phenotypic problem be eugenics or not?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Joshua -

Absolutely, assuming that we could test for the contributing traits.

But that is not the only option that I would call eugenics. It is no less eugenics when someone with phenotypic problems chooses not to breed because of the risk of passing it on.

For that matter, the polar opposite is also true. A couple choosing to breed because they would be more likely to produce a child with phenotypic issues would also be eugenics. If they believe that trait is something to be preferred, then it's eugenics.

I will happily admit that I am defining eugenics rather broadly, although I don't think your question fall within the range that is very controversial. In part this is my natural tendency with a lot of terms, when I am trying to pry it away from a group that wants to define something in so narrow a fashion, that only their beliefs fit.

And really, I don't think that including the abortion of a DS fetus is really much of a stretch.

I will try to address this better in a post of it's own. I am not sure when I will get the chance to do that, but I imagine I will get a chance to work on it tomorrow, when I finish with my homework.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

You know what, JLK? I've been thinking about it and I realize I've been unfair to you. You have made very good points about the comments you've made, and I'm sorry. I promise I will try my best not to treat you unfairly in the future.

Oh, by the way: congratulations on the grad school interview! I echo PiT-- let it be the first of many. :)

JLK said...

Thanks, Juniper! I'm pretty excited but not getting my hopes up too much.

I have a lot of respect for you and your insights, so I'm glad to know there is no hostility between us. :)

Juniper Shoemaker said...

I have a lot of respect for you and your insights too, JLK. :)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

For me the key ethical distinction is between the autonomous reproductive choices of individuals coerced reproductive decision-making by the state.

Becca said...

I'm pretty pro-eugenics, myself. Though I wish it went without saying that forced sterilizations or other heavy handed interventions concerning how other people should/should not be breeding are pretty damn abhorent. I just mean my personal choices are very much motivated by eugenic thinking.

Juniper Shoemaker-
If white people wanting to marry other white people is eugenics, then shouldn't my racial preferences also be eugenics? Even if I'm a pale Jewish biologist mating with a half-black half-Korean biologist because we both understand the benefits out outbreeding? (for the record, we would test for DS... but I'm pleased to not worry overmuch about Tay Sachs or homozygosity on Sickle Cell)

I don't buy that eugenics is always detrimental to the species. It's just that any variety of eugenics that has the effect of limiting the gene pool will tend to be a riskier strategy for the species.

For the record, my potential mate is also one of the cleverer men I could persuade to stay with me, so I suppose we're going for eugenics on cleverness to some degree, too. But if the kid decides to be a drummer instead of a rocket scientist, I think I'd be kind of relieved (I know some unhappy rocket scientists). So I don't buy that selecting for a generalized trait (like cleverness), and raising a kid in a certain way (don't most parents want good educations for their kids?) automatically equals excessively creepy predetermination of who or what the child is supposed to be.

Actually, I'm far more concerned a varient of "genes = future" that's already widely accepted than any scifi scenarios of finding a spiffy engineering gene. We already attempt to control people's personality expressions to an astounding degree based on their XX vs. XY chromosomal status. If you consider how we attempt to pigeonhole people into one role or the other, and the plight of the intersexed, you very rapidly get into extremely creepy territory. Truth being stranger than fiction, and all that.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Hi becca -

I think that you're misconstruing some of the feelings here.

The point that I've been trying to make (and will further discuss with a whole new post when I am actually able) is that eugenics is neither good nor bad, it's just another aspect of life. That eugenics has been held hostage by people who believe in some pretty inherently nasty things (check out the Future Generations site I link). And that there are some inherently gray areas that make for an important discussion.

Because there is a lot in between seeking the brightest, most attractive mate possible and genocide or forced sterilizations. And some of it is not very clear at all, while other ideas might even sound quite reasonable on their faces.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Oh, for heaven's sake, Becca. "White people tending to want to marry other white people" was an EXAMPLE of eugenics. I could've said "black people tending to want to marry other black people", and the example would have served just as well. Don't make the same foolish mistake about me that Donna B. made, because I won't forgive her for it, and neither will I forgive you, if that is what you are doing here. (You aren't as ridiculous as she is, though, so I am holding out hope. I like you.)

The more I think about it, the more I doubt that humans could ever completely divest themselves of eugenicist reproductive strategies, if we accept DuWayne's broad definition of eugenics. I do not plan to have children, but, frankly, if I did, I would be hard-pressed to ignore the advantages I attribute to being "mixed-race". Or, at least, advantages that I hypothesize derive significantly from having parents from two populations more isolated from one another than the populations that ostensibly yielded the parents of most of my friends and family. This thinking is just as eugenicist as my previous examples.

Meanwhile, people express "eugenicist" preferences to me all the time. They want their babies to have blue eyes or unfreckled complexions or Scottish parentage or exceptional musical talent. (That last, especially, I don't think we currently have the wherewithal to "select" for. If we knew which genes unequivocally maximize a child's chances of developing a world-class ability to play the violin . . . but, as you know better than I, we don't.) I don't think any of these preferences are inherently bad.

Moreover, I'm usually not offended if someone says, "I want my son to have blue eyes". That's fine. It may even be great. I'm only offended when people think that their arbitrary eugenicist preferences-- whatever they may be-- are objectively good and then try to ram them down my throat.

I don't buy that eugenics is always detrimental to the species. It's just that any variety of eugenics that has the effect of limiting the gene pool will tend to be a riskier strategy for the species.

Are we saying the same thing? It's an honest question, not a sarcastic one. I said, "I think it's important to understand that the only way to give our species a better than random chance of persisting the way we think it ought to at any given time is to make AS MANY TRAITS AVAILABLE TO MECHANISMS OF NATURAL SELECTION AS FUCKING POSSIBLE. Therefore, any eugenicist strategy, implemented for whatever reason, will always endanger our species to a degree". Hmmm. Maybe you said it better than I did, by considering the scale of any given eugenicist strategy as defined by DuWayne.

P.S. DuWayne, congrats on progress of paper! We are all waiting excitedly to hear more.
P.S.2 BTW, I wrote my AP English essay on Dune. Even though my instructor objected.