Natural selection, the process that has the greatest influence on evolution of species has, for the most part, stopped occurring for the human species. This is nothing new. It can occur in any population or species when there are unlimited resources and insignificant predation. On the surface, infinite resources seems like a blessing to humanity, and in almost all cases, it is. However, the one exception to the rule is a frightening one and one that we will eventually have to deal with.
Dysgenics is not a theory limited to IQ scores in lower socioeconomic classes. Every single person in the first world that reproduces, passes on some number of less than ideal genes to their children. I am not talking skin color or height but instead I am addressing traits that have immediate negative implications such as poor eyesight or gout. I, in fact, have the genes for both of these and am totally aware of the negative impact of passing them on to offspring. Ten thousand years ago, if my eyesight were much worse, I would probably die. Take nearsightedness for example. How do you think someone with this disorder would fare with a tiger predating on humans? If you can’t tell the difference between a tiger and your mother until either is standing in front of you, you’ll probably die pretty earlier in life. That once was the case and the gene was eliminated at that moment in nearly every individual. However, with unlimited resources and no imminent danger, the gene continues to the next generation. Widespread poor eyesight is a relatively recent phenomenon and only one that is going to get worst. However, I don’t think anyone will disagree with me in saying that this is a wonderful thing that we can feel safe and not worry about death at every moment.
With the great advances in medicine and technology, people with diseases that previously would have been eliminated are surviving and reproducing. For example, gene therapy was successful in saving a child with Canavan disease, a disease previously known as a death sentence. He will if he chooses to reproduce, still pass that gene on to his child who will also have Canavan disease. This is an extreme case, I know, but we could and probably will save all of these people and eventually allow Canavan disease to become the norm. On a less severe example, the optometrist will not be running out of patients anytime soon. Vision will only get worse for the average person because we are able to negate the negative impact of poor vision with corrective lenses. This is because the majority of disease and disorders are not selected against and the prevalence of all negative mutations and traits is increasing in every population.
Eugenics was a term first used by Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton who, inspired by Darwin’s work, extensively studied human populations. Arguably just as brilliant as his cousin, Galton created the term to describe a sort of artificial selection in which the best of the human population would be provided financial incentives to marry each other. His motives were benevolent but the idea of eugenics would later be corrupted by racism. American scientists were the first to promote eugenic policy, eventually sterilizing involuntarily 60,000 people. They had tainted its humanitarian purpose and used it for evil. Hitler borrowed racist and religious prejudice based eugenics, inspired by the United States’ practices, in order to support his basis for the genocide in Western Europe. The Spartans, however, had implemented eugenics in its simplest form over 1500 years earlier. They did not believe the human had any sacred purpose and instead they saw the human as a tool and they wanted only the best. They threw out the babies that did not meet their criteria. Sparta grew to be the strongest military of its day in part because of such practices. I hypothesize, however, that also their downfall was due to such disregard for the value of human life.
Eugenics as justification for genocide ended with the fall of Nazi Germany. In the United States, the practice of involuntary sterilization declined until disappearing in the early 70s. However, the reason for its proposal still stands. Humanity is on a path away from our versatile, hardy, resilient construction and is headed toward becoming weak, fragile, and diseased. I have recognized that humanity really only has a handful of options.
First, we could accept our fate. That is what we are currently doing. Medicine is increasing in effectiveness and eventually with the rise of genetic disease, we’ll be doping up on dozens of medications before we can even legally enjoy an alcoholic beverage. Nearly every single person would have glasses and I imagine most people would face a once life-threatening disease before their twentieth birthday. Cancer would be rampant along with diseases such as muscular dystrophy. These people would be fine but the unintended side effects of all the disease would wear on the body and the human lifespan would dramatically decrease.
The second option is that we implement eugenic policy. Seeing the consequences of Nazi Germany and what a misunderstanding of the theory can lead to, I struggle to see how this could be an effective strategy. It is a disturbing thought to almost anyone to be prevented from reproducing or even living because of an invisible molecule. However, eugenics could be implemented on a much less drastic scale and potentially be effective. For example, people who refrain from reproducing could be awarded a tax return. This would encourage only people who are financially able to support a child to reproduce. However, I understand that this unfairly targets socioeconomic classes rather than specifically bad genetics. Another method could be birth licenses. Birth licenses could at first be only denied from people who are medically treated for terminal genetic diseases. This could target people such as the man with Canavan disease who is only alive because of gene therapy and would certainly pass the terminal disease on to his offspring. This is different from Hitler’s policies in that he simply killed those people. Instead, this policy would allow them to live but not reproduce. It still, in my opinion, comes with baggage that no man wants to carry. It is a disturbing thought to instate laws that prohibit people from reproducing.
Another option is that instead of implementing eugenic policy, we could simply teach the idea of eugenics. We could dissolve the fear that surrounds the term and teach about genetics and disease in formal education. People could be, rather than required or even instructed to keep from reproducing, simply taught about the heredity of certain traits and their impact on offspring. People would be allowed to weigh the risks for themselves. I do believe, however, that this would ultimately be an ineffective strategy. With dysgenics running rampant, I think education and dissolution of people’s conceitedness would take far too long. By the time the education had any significant effect, the strong genetics we see today in certain populations or individuals would have long since disappeared.
The last option is one that I am seeing with the most favorable outlook: genetic engineering. Personally, I have been extremely interested in this topic for some time. There is, however, a massive opposition to it that is currently preventing research in the field from fully taking off. To mention altering someone’s genome is extremely controversial. Hell, people are even scared to eat completely safe foods that have been genetically altered. In the future, I do imagine that we will have to accept genetic engineering as the only way we can remain a healthy species. Not only will this rid people of harmful mutations but longevity will be increased, disease will be limited, and medical costs will plummet. However, there are several frightening possibilities of genetic engineering. The idea of creating a super human is no recent phenomenon. Sport, among other things, would become infected with specialized humans. Insecure militaries may look to manufacture soldiers. However, there are also some amazing possibilities that could result from this if the access was universal. The genetic engineering would, of course, have to be transmitted through reproduction to prevent having to complete the design with every individual. Currently, the main issue with this is our lack of knowledge on the subject and the dangerous implications of altering our blueprint so drastically.
These practices are far in the future, however, and are definitely not of immediate concern. The crippling effects of dysgenics, though, are already apparent in many populations of humans. This is a current issue, one that we cannot afford to ignore. As I highlighted above, I see three possibilities; we can accept a declining species, we can artificially select for strengths, or we can improve the genome through instantaneous intervention.
6 thoughts on “Hitler was a jackass”
Some of these ideas have crossed my brain before, and you can go out and find studies about the decline of our IQ due to lack of selective pressure. There aren’t any easy answers here.
I want to talk about your idea of engineering better genes. Perhaps we can locate where specific changes cause genetic diseases, but saying things like “better” humans is nonsense. We’ve come a long way to find DNA, but we are SO FAR AWAY from understanding how our brains work and connecting the workings of our body to the genetic code to this is SOOOO COMPLEX that I don’t think this is even worth considering.
If the process of life and the emergent phenomenon that allows our brains to work was so simple that we could understand it, we wouldn’t be complex enough to understand it. You’d complete this strange loop (of the last sentence) and explode in flames.
I’ve read many of those studies about the tie between IQ and reduced selection and none of them seemed overwhelmingly legitimate.
As far as your next statement, I think you are simplifying my post to only dealing with the CNS which is far from accurate. I am mostly proposing alterations to our physical structure rather than our intelligence. But yes, I do feel that we will eventually have a near flawless grasp on the mechanics of the CNS.
If I understand your argument correctly, I hope I can refute it with the example of the atom. We are simply collections of atoms and yet we are well on our way to understanding the atom and its constituents. In fact, I’m pretty sure they have cataloged all of the particles. By your logic, the atom would have to be far more complex than the tool used to analyze it. Am I right in this?
Isn’t that exactly what you’re saying is happening though? Here’s an example:
Notice that they think that genetic engineering will come to save us all.
We’re well on our way to understanding the atom? That’s news to me, and probably most of the physics community. But let’s say that we are there. The problem isn’t of the same nature. Even if we understand the genome, and how proteins are encoded, the question of how all of these proteins interact (even on the genome that produced them) is not computationally reducible. Meaning, there will be no equation that can describe the process that takes a gene to the whole cell. This will have to be simulated on a computer. It’s an example of a “complex system” that exhibits and emergent behavior. That was a pretty opaque explanation… but the crux is that even if we understand how the individual guys act (proteins), how the act as a group is not predictable based only on their interactions with eachother. The emergence is another level of behavior, and there are many levels that build what we are.
Consider this: http://robotics.cs.tamu.edu/dshell/cs689/papers/anderson72more_is_different.pdf
Andy, the argument about IQ is a difficult one and not one that I am willing to fall on one side of yet. Despite all the evidence that IQ should be declining due to lack of selection pressure, it continues to increase (flynn effect I believe). It is not a simple example like eyesight is. Instead it comes with baggage of racism and anti-semitism.
I think we differ on our definition of “well on our way”. You may want to see the result where I am happy to see the rapid progress hinting at a soon understanding.
I don’t think I understand your argument. We do understand how many proteins interact in our body (many of my classes have been centered around studying this) and we understand a increasing portion of the genome every day. It is true that our understanding of the CNS is severely limited but discussing “good genes” and “bad genes” can definitely apply to other systems, say the gene for sickle cell disease when malaria is controlled. Also, I don’t think anyone would consider the mutation for cycstic fibrosis a good one. Instead, we know that it is a mutation in a chloride channel protein and we will almost certainly seek to replace that faulty gene with a functional one.
I agree that the IQ is more controversial, I just thought it was another example of the same type of thing: that without evolutionary pressure, the optimality of our genome (which results from pressure, bad eyesight is less optimal and with sufficient pressure would die out) declines.
Really I think I’m just more skeptical of the progress of our understanding at the most fundamental levels. But there have always been skeptics that think we’re near the frontier of our knowledge, and so this is probably not a great standpoint.
I agree that we will be able to find, and perhaps correct genetic disorders. If we could link a disorder to a specific mutation then fix that, that’s great, and we’ve done that now. But what I’m trying to say here is that if we’re not going to be able to flip a couple nucleotides and make ourselves better athletes, to make ourselves smarter or any of that. It’s too complex. Going from the gene to the functioning of our body is what’s hard. It’s the case of where understanding local interactions (genes, people) is not sufficient to predict the global behavior (cells, society respectively). The only way to see what would happen when we make a change at the small scale is to simulate it (on a computer, or in an experiment). It’s an example of emergent behavior, where the outcomes are unpredictable, and changes have unexpected consequences. A gentler introduction would be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence