Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Brave New World

I cringe everytime I hear Hillary! or some other Democratic candidate declare that they will allow real science to guide their decision making. We know what the code words mean: they won't limit research on stem cells, they won't question Darwinianism, they will let the scientists call the shots. This proud declaration suggests that "ethics" is the province of backward conservatives, those dinosaurs hung up on questions that science has rendered irrelevant.

Michael Gerson's column in today's Washington Post nicely reveals the absurdity, and more, the irresponsibility of this supposition. He chillingly quotes various statements by James Watson, perhaps the most obnoxious, but also the most honest, of today's scientists. The scientific community is embarrassed about Watson not necessarily because of what he is saying, but that he is saying it out loud. In addition to declaring certain continents to be populated by the intellectually inferior, he also calls forthrightly for the elimination of the "disease" of stupidity (among other "diseases). His arguments are revealing, and demonstrate how steep the slippery slope is. Many defenders of unfettered scientific research claim that genetic manipulation is only intended for the most harmful and obvious of diseases like Parkinson's and other hereditary ailments. Watson's words reveal how readily various other "infirmities" could be characterized as a kind of disease: what is more hereditary than IQs? What's to prevent us from curing all sorts of ailments like deficiencies in intelligence, height, looks, sense of humor, the talent for interior design?

Watson's arguments are little different than those of Princeton biologist Lee Silver, who has forthrightly declared that market forces will eventually prevail to the effect that people will either be genetically improving their children or allowing them to fall behind in our meritocratic society. Silver approves of this process, and advises those of us who might oppose it to lay back and enjoy the ride - it's going to happen whether we like it or not. Silver denies that he is arguing for a eugenic program, so much as a spontaneously ordered eugenic outcome - people will do whatever they can to help their children to succeed, and if everyone else is manipulating genetic code to help their kids get into Princeton, you can bet it will have a bandwagon effect. They're already doing it to improve their SAT scores; it's certain they'll do it if everyone else is creating little Aryans.

Silver predicts a future in which there will be two classes of once-human creatures - a recognizably human lower class composed of those who decided against (probably for religious reasons), or those who were unable, to "improve" their children; and a super-class of evolved humans who will be barely recognizable to us. He goes so far to argue that this super-class of humans will finally be able to answer the question of Who created us - us!

A few nights ago at Georgetown, there was a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath. The debate was entertaining but resembled a witty British bar brawl out of which little was gained except the joy of witnessing punches being landed. However, at one point Hitchens asked the audience (I paraphrase), is there any ethical norm that religion has uniquely contributed that could not be achieved by a secular means? I think the answer is, 1. yes, and 2. it is, why we should not evolve ourselves into a two-class species. The Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris wing wants to convince us that we are just blood, flesh, bone and carbon. If so, there is nothing inherently valuable to the human creature, and there can be no objection to permitting science to do what it will. Is this the kind of science that is being recommended by Hillary!? More, is this the future that awaits us through our unstinting efforts to exercise complete mastery over nature and make ourselves into gods?


m_david said...

This is a timely post. The problem, of course, is that we simply know too much these days, more than we want to know, and with the internet our gatekeepers are gone, and the truth slips out.

It's a fine balance between being honest (accepting scientific truth) and not claiming (like Watson) that this truth has some moral lesson behind it.

For example, Ashkenazi Jews on average have an IQ a full SD above your typical European, and West Africans on average have one a full SD below. It's reality, and we see it not just in testing but in who generally wins Nobel prizes, wins chess championships, gets rich, etc. But this does NOT mean anything more, or that one person is better than another, or say anything about individuals at all. What is both sad and funny is how liberals scream when Watson and co. forgets about the taboo and says what every educated person already knows (and Watson is correct in that we will, probably with a decade or so, have a good read some of the genes that trigger intelligence. The taboo is going to be harder and harder to hold in place).

Another example: running. If we look at the 1500m, 5000m, 10000m, & marathon and compare, we can see who has the genetic advantage. For example: populations with number of winners 95-01,

Tribe: Pop-1500-5000-10000-Marathon
Kalenjin: 3.5mil-24-25-31-41
European: 159mil-6-4-8-7

And we know why, as we can see the physical Kelenjin running advantages of V02 max, etc. Soon, we will know the actual genes that deliver this performance.

So science is a double-edge sword for liberals, they love it for evolution but hate it for human differences. And they have quickly become the "New Church of Persecution" for any scientist who simply tells the truth about human differences. Larry Summers comes to mind! But the more time passes, the more the truth is getting out, and it is harder to suppress the science. I will be interested to see how this plays out over the next decade or two.

Black Sea said...

Not to be too pedantic - I hope - but the average IQ of African-Americans is 85, one standard deviation below the average for Whites.

The average IQ of West Africans, on the other hand, would be substantially lower. For all of Africa (the people, of course, not the continent), the average is generally given as 70, which is quite a drop from the African American average.

Obviously, some people dispute the accuracy and significance of any and all these figures, but since Watson's comments started out in reference to African development, rather than to African Americans, I felt it important to clarify the distinction.

On a broader note, I certainly agree that genetic research and manipulation raise a host of moral questions for which we are ill-equipped by moral tradition and the limits of human wisdom.

On the other hand, I can see how lack of intelligence below a certain point can reasonably be construed as a "malady" or medical condition rather than just a human characteristic. The fact that we have a medically defined threshold for "retardation" signifies that there is a level of stupidity (I'm being blunt) which our society generally classifies as a medical condition. And in fact, if you've ever been around retarded people, it's rather normal to see their retardation as a medical condition, or at least as the after effect of a medical problem in gestation or early childhood nutrition.

I can't say that I'm necessarily opposed to Watson's notion of eliminating stupidity, so long as stupidity is defined as somewhere around the threshold of retardation (IQ of 70). Still, this threshold is itself arbitrary, and was in the past far higher, as high as 85, which would mean that half the African American population, and most of the African pouplation would have been categorized as "retarded" under this standard.

The implications of these IQ figures, and our definitions of what constitutes "sub-standard intelligence" are volatile. For this reason, it is at least unsettling to contemplate "enhanced" human intelligence, even if one is referring simply to gene therapy rather than the less savory measures of the past. Though we might begin by attmepting simply to spare infants from mental retardation,there would be the normal human urge to to raise that IQ threshold from 70 to 75, and then to 80, und so weiter.

Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!!

Peter said...

The reference to Silver's statement that genetic engineering will unify the divine and the human, or make the human into the divine, reminds me of a beautiful passage from Alan Moore's out-of-print graphic novel, Miracleman: Olympus. The narrative portrays a group of super-powered entities who decide to take over the world, forcing folks like Maggie Thatcher into early retirement (but with a little more grace than how the Tories ended up treating her). In any case, these beings end poverty, get rid of nuclear weapons, abolish money, and heal the environment, having made themselves the absolute rulers of the planet. People are then given the opportunity to acquire super-powers themselves, though most likely on a lesser scale. The following lines are taken from a monologue in which the title character justifies his dictatorship:

"Oh, earth, look up and see your gods at celebration. See the things that frightened you when you were in your caves; the things you named, and dedicated idols to; the things you rendered up burnt offerings to appease… They are as you, and in their great mercy have decreed that you should be as they. Oh, earth, look up…

Look up: we have repealed the laws of gravity, torn off the ceiling of the world that was so very low. The skies are ours, new beaches made of cirrus-cloud, new valleys made of strato-cumulus. Lift up your heads! You were not made to gaze at gutters, mud and puddles all your lives, but have not dared to raise your sights in case the thing you longed for was not there. Look up and see it now, the shape that’s haunted human dreams and legends since we first peered from the jungles long ago and wondered what might dwell upon those blue and distant hills, upon those mountains there."

We as a society might be able to forget God, but we cannot escape the process of divinization -- without an outward focus on a divinity beyond, this gaze turns inward, creating a narcissistic monstrosity that is neither human nor divine.

J. Carter Wood said...

Interesting post. But while I would agree (heartily) that there is a need for caution in the way that we apply science to our lives (or -- since most of us are not scientists -- in the ways we allow it to be applied), I am not sure that your depiction of 'science' is fair and I doubt that religion (if I read you correctly) is an answer in finding a basis for ethics.

I don't think that most scientists would want, if they could, to push their research to whatever ultimate extreme they could, without limits. There are a number of debates within science about what those limits might be, and efforts to find ways of grappling with them.

Still, the key mission of science is to expand knowledge. While it is clear that scientific investigation takes place in a political environment, as long as the research itself is not tainted (or at least unduly influenced) by questionable political motivations, I think it should be allowed to range where it will.

(Additionally, gaining knowledge about, say, the genetic basis of intelligence is something not quite the same as creating a programme to actively tinker with people's intelligence. The limits you advocate are far more necessary in the applied uses that come out of the knowledge gained, if you know what I mean.)

Also, having read Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris, I don't think that you fairly characterise their arguments. Although thorough-going materialists, in the sense that they would all probably deny the existence of the supernatural or the soul, this does not obliterate the possibility of morality. (And, yes: I think it's quite clear that we are purely material: where else does 'mind' come from but from the 'brain'? But from that material substance we have Shakespeare's drama, Beethoven's symphonies and the knowledge to send people into is that reductive?)

The most obvious problem with your response to Hitchens's challenge is this: if there is no God and no immaterial 'soul' (both of which are likely to be highly likely propositions) then how can these fictions serve as the basis of ethics?

If you're arguing that we need these fictions whether they're true or not, then that's a very problematic position, to say the least. (And if we're going to base morality on a fiction anyway, why not a secular one. It seems to me that a lot of human rights theory does just that.)

All three authors, in fact, deal with the issue of secular morality in ways that I think are productive. (Even the somewhat deceptively titled Selfish Gene is mainly concerned with explaining altruism.)

I would add Peter Singer as someone who is worth thinking about (though critically) on this issue. His book The Expanding Circle has a lot to say about understanding where our moral sense -- indeed, a moral instinct -- comes from.

One of the key strengths of this perspective is that ethics and morality do not have a single source. Singer locates one origin in kinship (our feelings toward blood relations) and another in reciprocal altruism (which shapes the understanding we have of fairness and justice when dealing with others with whom we are not related). Additionally, he identifies the power of reason -- limited, to be sure, by our natures, but there nonetheless -- as an additional source of moral reasoning.

He has, famously and controversially in some cases, taken this reasoning in a utilitarian direction.

Our powers of empathy and compassion are also a source of morality. The basic notion that we can understand what it feels like when others suffer seems to me to be a far stronger source of ethical understanding than an abstract notion of divine value.

(Also, Frans de Waal, in a variety of books, has looked at the animal basis of our moral sense.)

In addition, looking at the history of morality, it seems inescapable that a healthy degree of contingency, warfare, and social and technological development have helped to create the moral standards that (generally) reign in advanced societies.

Much of this development had to do with overcoming religion (though not only that).

Thus, the religious 'inherent worth of humanity' argument today is based upon a rather washed out version of religions that have been tamed by secular ideologies and science. Even that development itself suggests that clinging to religion as the only possible source of morality is a vain hope.

There are, finally, many fine secular arguments that could be brought to bear against the nightmare visions you warn against, from the precautionary principle to Rawls's veil of ignorance to the incompatibility of a genetic overclass with democracy and social cohesion.

None of these require theology.

I have a lot of problems with what Watson is said to have said (though he has sought to distance himself from the more offensive of his comments).

However, the field of intelligence research has been divided by quite fierce debates about the value of the testing that has been done and about the relative values of nature and nurture in the equation. Other fields of biologically-based thinking relevant to social thought -- such as evolutionary psychology -- have focused on human commonalities rather than difference (and have made the essential 'psychic unity of humankind' one of their basic principles).

Thus, taking Watson's comments as a sign of the danger posed by 'science' is a bit simplistic.

However, I think Dawkins was right when he stated that arguments about intelligence will have to be sorted out on scientific grounds rather than political ones. The best arguments against the views recently ascribed to Watson will have to be scientific ones.

Just as, I think, we'll all have to sort out the consequences of scientific research on secular grounds.

Which is not to say that I'm not plagued by my own nightmares about where we're headed as a species. On that general point (and much else besides), we're in agreement.

Sorry, this became rather longer than I planned. I enjoy your blog very much.

Best wishes from Germany.

Don C said...

Shouldn't we define "intelligence" first?