27 December 2010

The Next Bell Curve

New discoveries in genetics are forcing us to revisit issues of nationalism, race, cultural differences, eugenics, national genetic fitness and more that surged in the 19th century with tragic political consequences, based on weak science.

The Intellectual Repurcussions of the Bell Curve

The most prominent recent echo of this old set of debates, although more subtle versions of them persist particularly in conservative circles and in the hotbed of identity politics of the left, is the book "The Bell Curve" which argued that IQ is largely genetic, that IQs differ between nations and racial groups, and that as a result, all men are not created equal.

IQ is reasonably well defined and studies in the psychological literature and it is real. But, its place in the nature-nuture debate is unsettled. Just as the variation in height within middle class people in the developed world has a very strong genetic component, despite the fact that we have very solid evidence that differences in height from time period to time period and from society to society have a strong environmental component, there is fairly good reason to think that population differences in IQ have a strong environmental component even though individual differences in IQ within a population in a healthy enviroment are mostly genetic. "The Bell Curve" spurred a strong academic rebuttal about the limitations of the folk concept of race as an intellectual construct and about the limitations of what we know about the hereditary sources of IQ in understanding the bigger picture. Liberal academia has since devoted considerable effort to making clear the cultural dimensions of race and ethnicity, the circumstances in which there is an environmental role in IQ (e.g. the Flynn Effect and the large role of environmental factors in determining IQ in deprived environments, and the role of breastfeeding in IQ development), and the incompleteness of IQ as a measure of fitness in modern society.

But, the kind of inquiry pursued first by 19th century racist and nationalist, and latter in the Bell Curve will recur, and with more rigor than its predecessors.

IQ measures a "phenotype" (i.e. an outward symptom whatever its cause), while increasingly, the rise of inexpensive genomic testin will make it possible to measure genotypes (i.e. specific genetic patterns) in large populations. And, when measuring genotypes directly, one can describe genotype prevalence in populations without resorting to 19th century folk race classifications in circumstances where they aren't justified by genetic population clustering that isn't arbitrary or socially defined.

The Relatively Benign Issue Of Physical Traits

Some genotypes are very pertinent to fitness in modern society.

The physical differences that these genotypes code aren't all that explosive politically and socially, and indeed, may be widely useful.

For example, if we can identify the genotypes that account for most variation in height, we can tell if an individual's stature development is atypical for a person with that genotype and thus indicates a possible health problem, rather than for an average individual, which muddies the diagnostic signal.

Pinning down genotypes for lactose intolerance can allow a university or prison food service program to distinguish between people who genuinely need special diet for health reasons, from those who simply don't like their choices for less weighty reasons.

Discovering a genotype associated with ability to metabolize alcohol may allow for fairer DUI prosecutions and help people to better know how much liquor they can handle safely in social situations.

Widespread genotyping will make insurability deeply problematic for some people with physical health issues, but Health Insurance reform has brought the United States finally into the era where the market is regulated in a way that does not tie insurance rates closely to actually risk of physical illness and makes health care universal, so this may not prove to be the real battle ground of genetic privacy in the future.

The Explosive Issue of Mental Traits

But, the explosive traits will be the genotypes associated with personality, character, mental health and intelligence.

There is uncertainty here as well. Genotypes do not translate directly into phenotypes. Some interact with unknown genetic or epigenetic components. Some interact with environmental triggers. But, there will be inevitable oversimplification, and there are going to be genotypes that are simply less adaptive in almost all ordinary circumstances in modern society that matter socio-economically, even if there are niche circumstances when they confer benefits.

There are and will be more genotypes associated with crime risk, genotypes associated with bad economic decision making, genotypes associated with taking unsafe risks, genotypes associated with being paranoid or trusting, anxious or lazy, sharp or dull, genotypes associated with marital strife.

Employers, spouses, clubs and educational institutions are all going to want this scientifically and impartially determined information about individuals and are going to want to act on it and will sometimes want to give it far more weight than it actually deserves because alternative measures are more expensive to make and more subjective.

"Bad" genotypes are inevitably going to be more frequent in some nationalities or ethnicities than others. And, the nationalities and ethnicities where "bad" genotypes are common are going to become associated with those nationalities or ethnicities with scientifically unassailable certainty, even though individuals will, of course, vary. Debates about the meaning of neurodiversity aren't going to be limited to autistic young men in obscure Internet forums anymore. Stereotypes will be applied to groups without regard to individual differences and will be used to support invideous discrimination and doctrines of national and ethnicity superiority.

The philosophical underminings of political and legal equality, and of the equal dignity of every human being morally is going to have to be divorced from any concept of ability that can be inferred from genotypes.

We are going to have to decide as a society how much of this is legitimate to consider, and how much is not and when. If the history of past efforts to deal with similar issues is any guide, efforts to maintain privacy will largely be overcome by "need to know" considerations. You may be able to keep your genome secret from your neighbor, but your casualty insurer, your employer and your prospective spouse will probably all manage to secure your consent to disclose it.

There will be strong temptations to employ eugenic methods and gene therapies to extinguish "bad" genotypes in the population. Individuals with "bad" genotypes may not get the benefit of the doubt in a wide variety of life changing decisions from educational choices, to criminal justice sentencing decisions, to employment and more.


In some ways, genotyping is simply a refinement of the process of knowing an individual and knowing that individual's family that humans have used to judge each other for millenium, which a lower margin of error that requires less effort to apply. People have always been judged by their character, sexual selection and other forms of selection have always been at work based on those traits, and stereotyping has always had an element of population genetics at work in it when employed accurately.

The Founders who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn't think that "all men were created equal" in the sense of the kind of abilities relevant to track coaches, orchestra directors, college admissions officers and hiring officers, than people today do. They were thinking of equality under the law in contrast to the system that afforded aristocrats special treatment by virtue of hereditary or arbitrary royally granted privileges that prevailed in England, their colonial ruler.

The anti-hierachical doctrines of modern democratic political theory was a rationalist Englightenment effort to replace hereditary privilege and the rule of absolute monarchs, with meritocracy and the rule of law.

One can imagine a society that, burned by the insideous wrongs of racism and nationalism for the last four hundred years, eschews stereotyping based on ethnicity and nationality that represents only average trends in favor of meritocracy in which genotyping plays one part, no larger than it deserves to be, in sorting the fit from those less able to excel in modern society, and adjusts expectations for each accordingly.

If there is a genotype that makes someone prone to airplane accidents, we really don't want that person to be a pilot, if this may be unfair to the individuals who apply for the post by not giving them a chance to prove themselves.

Nobody was very morally concerns when the Jedis in Star Wars determined Anakin Skywalker's aptitude to become a Jedi knight with a blood test, and the movie's depiction of the multi-ethnic group of people so selected reflects the belief held by many Americans that truly fair and scientific, culturally neutral meritocratic testing would produce more diversity and room for social advancement than the status quo.

Fear of this development is well founded. But, not because it is inherently wrong to make decisions based upon genotypes. Instead, it is because we don't trust politicians and demagogues in the maelstrom of politics and social conflict to use that information rationally, scientifically, and in the manner in which the inferrences that can be drawn from them actually follow in a reliable way. Also, we fear this kind of development because we doubt the moral generosity of those who are fit to take responsibility for those in society who need help, when the two can be so clearly distinguished.

Elitism can lead to undemocratic authoritarianism which can lead to abuse of authority, and the more sacrosanct the legitimacy of that authority is, the more secure it is and the more freedom it has to abuse that authority. Claims to legitimacy based upon genetic fitness may be the next divine right of kings. Our meritocratic society, in a world where we know that many of the factors that go into merit have a strong hereditary component, already has begun to approximate that model.

But, politics is about both power and choice. Meritocracy helps leaders analyze the choices, but doesn't tell you who those choices should help or harm. Who benefits is a question of power, and the fear is that the ability to make choices will become too deeply entwined with the question of who decides who benefits from those choices. We need meritocrat leaders, but we need those leaders to look out for more than their own personal interests.

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