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A Little Essay For You

Here you find me, sitting in my study, surrounded by the same collection of Waterstones Smart Thinking books that Dominic Cummings uses to run the country, trying desperately to self-isolate for my wife’s benefit, because I swear to God, if the virus doesn’t kill her, I will. And then I look at the calendar and I see that we are only 10 days into a lockdown that promises to outlive the cockroach. It’s all very depressing.

So what can one do to alleviate the anxiety and boredom, and save my wife from an undeserved fate? I could walk the dog within the grand expanse of my local forest, allowing Mother Nature to sooth the fevered brow, were it not for the local police turning everyone back onto the streets, to trudge forlornly around my cul-de-sac as if in some grim scene from Midnight Express. The mental health counsellors say that these are times when you need to pamper yourself and seek pleasure in the simple things, but life has already taught me that there is only so much that can be achieved by masturbation. Within minutes you will be back to flicking fruitlessly through the television channels, skipping past the over-leveraged ‘classics’, vainly seeking out something that isn’t already so familiar that you can lip-sync to the dialogue. So, what to do?

Of course, one can’t just pop darn t’pub to meet your mates anymore (not that I ever did). However, visiting your local, friendly blog does serve as a safe substitute. And if you choose to comment, or even write an article, one can practise using words, just to prove to yourself that not every social skill has withered under the draconian aegis of social distancing.

To a certain extent, it is also useful to visit your local, unfriendly blog. This is also a safe substitute, provided that you resist the temptation to join in with the virus-distracting revelry – it takes very little time for your denialist credentials to be recognised and for the antibodies to organise the required fevered defence. Even so, judiciously covert reconnaissance can still prove very entertaining; as was the case recently when I took a peek at Ken Rice’s ATTP to witness a rather enlightening discussion resulting from Willard’s latest posting, Richard’s Decoupling.

The post was simple enough in its purpose. Willard had noted a tweet from Richard Dawkins that read:

“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”

Willard accused Dawkins of engaging in what some philosophers have referred to as ‘decoupling’, which is to say, ‘By X, I don’t mean Y, even though I appreciate that the two are commonly coupled’. There’s nothing much too wrong in that, you might think, but Willard clearly felt that Dawkins was being disingenuous in his decoupling and was merely ‘dog-whistling’. He was appearing to deplore eugenics whilst encouraging its support.

Thus ensued an increasingly acrimonious discussion in which Willard’s frustration with the lack of agreement for his article’s central thesis became ever more evident. Having haughtily insulted all of his erstwhile compatriots, he finally bewailed, ‘I don’t fear anything or anyone here, including Humpty Dumpty’. An image of Willard clinging to the top of the Empire State Building, angrily swatting away pesky biplanes, was difficult to avoid. Anyway, not long after that, the thread fell silent. Whether this was due to everyone taking pity on Willard, or simply the result of him resorting to his usual tactic of deleting comments once it had occurred to him that he alone understood how he had already won the argument, I don’t know – and I don’t care.

I wanted to join in the debate on ATTP, but the futility of engaging over there has long-since been made all too apparent to me. Fortunately, however, I can still have my say here. Willard has made it clear before now that it is below his dignity to engage with the cognitively challenged crew of the good ship CliScep, so I do not anticipate any feedback from him. That said, he is more than welcome to try – unlike him, I have a very tolerant moderation policy.

Rather than trying to dissect Dawkins’ tweet, I prefer instead to point out that he would not be the first, and will not be the last, to stand falsely accused of using scientific ‘truths’ to promote an ideological position. I take as my example an epidemiologist called Allen Wilcox, who had attempted to illuminate a particular paradox the had been troubling statisticians for many years. The paradox is exemplified by the fact that babies with low birth weights are more likely to die prematurely, but not if their mothers are smokers. This seemed to suggest that maternal smoking was in some way protective, but surely that was nonsense. The paradox cannot be resolved using conventional statistical reasoning, but it does find resolution in causal inference’s concept of ‘collider bias’. In causal models that include colliders (see A Brief Primer on Causation) the paradox is an illusion brought about by conditioning the analysis on the collider whilst failing to understand that the collider is not the only causation of the supposedly paradoxical outcome. Wilcox was completely right in his analysis, but his problem lay in the fact that he wasn’t actually studying the paradox in the context of cigarette smoking mums – he was seeing it in black mums, i.e. the underweight babies of black mums fared better than underweight babies of white mums. It’s the same paradox with the same explanation, but it is also something that is difficult to discuss scientifically without being accused of indulging in, or encouraging, racism. And that is exactly what happened to Wilcox. Evidence the following response from Richard David of Cook County Hospital, Chicago:

“In the pursuit of ‘pure science’ a well-meaning investigator may be perceived as – and may be – aiding and abetting a social order he abhors.”

Judea Pearl, the father of causal analysis, had this to say in reply:

“This harsh accusation, conceived out of the noblest of motivations, is surely not the first instance in which a scientist has been reprimanded for elucidating truths that might have adverse social consequences. The Vatican’s objections to Galileo’s ideas surely arose out of genuine concerns for the social order of the time. The same can be said about Charles Darwin’s evolution and Francis Galton’s eugenics. However, the cultural shocks that emanate from new scientific findings are eventually settled by cultural realignments that accommodate those findings – not by concealment. A prerequisite for this realignment is that we sort out the science from the culture before opinions become inflamed.”

And that, of course, was all that Dawkins was saying: The biological feasibility of eugenics is one thing, the cultural acceptability quite another. Many tried to point this out to Willard but he was already too far ahead of them in his understanding of Dawkins’ hidden motives, and far too superior in his understanding of the philosophical issues involved. You see, you don’t need social distancing when you are already operating on a different intellectual plane.

Well, I have had my say now and I await Willard’s withering response. I’m desperate for a Covid-19 distraction, so come on Willard, please don’t let me down. Don’t make me have to go upstairs and have another… oh hello darling, I was just thinking of you.

40 thoughts on “A Little Essay For You

  1. For some reason known only to WordPress, I have to go on to my wife’s computer in order to give a “like” to an article. So suppress your uxoricidal impulses everyone and try and be a little happier each moment, and you’ll make everyone else a little happier too. John is. I am. I hope Willard is.

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  2. If I was inclined to read any Willard, I might agree with him. If it works for horses and cows it might not work for humans. After all, what do you want an engineered human to do that an engineered horse cannot do? Engineer humans? Or plough fields? I don’t find Dawkins a particularly interesting thinker, but unlike Willard, he’s harder to ignore, for some inexplicable reason.

    My own essay (of a number, but it was this one that I was reminded of) on Dawkins, is about BBC journalists’ revision of history, that makes Dawkins the inventor of Thatcher, and Thatcher the inventor of global environmentalism, to the exclusion of all historical fact. http://www.climate-resistance.org/2013/04/did-richard-dawkins-invent-thatcherism-and-environmentalism.html

    It’s not enough to simply assert that it’s “science”, “decoupled” from ideology. It’s never enough. Because you have to presuppose too much about what is being hypothesised is *merely* science, divorced from ideology. As professor Steve Jones used to make clear about racial science: whereas racial characteristics are seemingly obvious enough, the isolation of racial characteristics in genes was far less straightforward. I was disappointed when Jones, for the BBC, wasn’t so sensitive to ideological influences in climate science — http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/08/the-pm-her-chancellor.html — forming scientists’ preconceptions and presuppositions before the test tubes are taken out of the cupboard.

    While we’re at the BBC in the 1970s, Jacob Bronowski still says it best…

    I don’t think ‘science’ and ‘ideology’ are so easily decoupled.

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  3. Ben,

    I don’t think it is a case of decoupling science from ideology — it is decoupling scientific fact from scientific application. For example, Allen Wilcox identified an important result in causal inference theory that led to some conclusions that sat uncomfortably with culturally accepted ideology. If the rejection of those conclusions were to result in the rejection of the causal inference theory, a grave epistemic error would then be made. As Galileo put it: Eppur si muove.

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  4. Great essay John, your skills have not withered.

    I doubt that Dawkins was in any sense dog whistling or whatever. Why Willard would think that I don’t know. As Ben intimates it’s much simpler than that; he’s just straight wrong (but no doubt believes his wrongness, so isn’t being disingenuous). The error comes from his severe over-emphasis on a gene-centric position, and not a multi-level evolutionary position, which finally after decades of being eclipsed by those of a Dawkinian persuasion is emerging into its own.

    Humans are not successful only as individuals, but in majority part because of their group success. Yet no-one has a clue what (probably very many thousands of different) genes, or alternatively total set of behaviours to try and keep it simpler, we’d need to select for in order to improve our group performance. Not only that, some of the behaviours we do know about that did cause success at group level, we now would like to partially grow out of, because these instinctive mechanisms can overdrive and cause cultural phenomena like we see with catastrophic climate change culture, or extremist political regimes or religious extremism too. And yet we can’t grow out of them completely, because without them 10,000 people have 10,000 different views and nothing ever gets done no matter how intelligent the 10,000 people are. Nor can we select to grow out of them; we don’t know where the balance point lies and what things we’d have to change anyhow. So likewise we can’t select for other improvements. We already have lots of mild social checks and balances to try and optimise, but we’re doing it empirically bit by bit, because that’s the only method available when one has a huge dearth of knowledge, and given it’s also a dynamic situation, we may never achieve the required knowledge. For all we know, the cultural part of bio-cultural evolution may be *naturally* staying ahead of what we could try and optimise anyhow. And whether that’s the case or not, for sure going in with a hammer and no blueprint would likely do way more harm than good. And trying to select at the *individual* level, say intelligence, may have all sorts of unintended consequences, not least of which these super bright types would be easily outclassed by any nation whose group co-operation is more optimal, if they’ve screwed theirs up. Nor is such a selection plan even truly consistent with Dawkins’ own views, because to select for intelligence at the individual level means selecting all sorts of different linked gene groups, which violates his view that humans are merely the engines to satisfy simple gene interests, whereas these complex groups would be secondary to human-as-individual interests (which is just 1 level in the multi-level scenario). And then too, we know that intelligence is actually really complicated. What *type* of intelligence will be selected for? And what *other* types (and possible completely unrelated functions) would we then potentially lose? It is naive thinking in the extreme. Yes, as Ben points out, we can make strong humans or tall humans or fat ones if we plan on eating them; indeed we can go a bit more complex with the physical side if we had to, for instance resistance to diseases and such. But that level is surely not what Dawkins or anyone else really means when they raise this subject. They mean fundamentally improving humans. Yet when it comes to improving the totality of humanity, no-one has a clue about what or how we’d select, but for sure a lot of half-cock idealists will no doubt say they know, and likely impose a disaster of biblical proportions.

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  5. It is not the scientific data that are frightful. It is the popular obsessions that interpret the data that can be frightening…and much, much worse. 19th Century eugenics- the popular social movement embraced by progressive leaders and elites worldwide- was a disaster that bore its logical fruit in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’2. But its lesser evil children were worldwide for even longer. Yet the idea of using modern science to improve the human condition is admirable. And the science today can do much that was not even conceivable in the days prior to the discovery of DNA in the 50’s.

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  6. Oh thank you for your little essay for us to momentarily while away our present anxiety and boredom. – I speak here for the group. ) And speaking as an individual, serf I add, re Andy’s insightful comment on eugenics,… ‘going in with no blueprint would do more harm than good,’ and so it would, as would going in with a blue print. That don’t do much good either,- Mao’s 5 Year, 10 Year Planned Great Leap Forward. Like Philip Tetlock found, ‘Humans; jest ain’t good at predicting, and likely experts are the worst.’

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  7. Geoff. I do wonder at someone’s need to retain knowledge of the word “uxoricide”. I also hope that ‘she who should be listened to’ has not opened a thesaurus to find “mariticide”. In these troubled times thesaurii are likely to be in ever greater use.

    Also I never knew I had an uxor.

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  8. Having just departed from ATTPland, having indulged in a spot of Willard tombolary (sound-off), I conclude Willard was just plain bored and indulged in a bout of mental onanism.

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  9. P.S. …another critical reason why trying to make (serious / fundamental) improvements to humanity via selection, at least as we currently conceive that, is because selection is fundamentally incompatible with diversity, and diversity is our best protection against natural (and unpredictable) shocks. Millennia of selecting for crops and domestic animals wasn’t for a long time a big problem in this respect, because a) the selection was long and gentle, which allowed certain shocks to re-introduce some compatible diversity without too much of a disaster, and b) because so many different human groups were doing this with so many strains, then globally there was still plenty of diversity in the system anyway. But as the pace of selection has increased, and now especially with globalisation as the number of strains we are concentrating upon has dramatically shrunk, this represents a major danger. Crops and domestic animals are subject to pandemics too, and we have made them extremely vulnerable to a theoretical class of diseases that prosper best for exactly those strains. The fact that so far these diseases remain largely theoretical, i.e. we do have problems with easy attack of mono-cultures by disease, but not yet any holding the key that would truly unravel a main strain, is largely a matter of luck and time. In the end however, each strain is only a single component of our food supply – so likely a major disaster for some of the biggies like a primary wheat strain, but not apocalyptic. However, imagine that the strain being unravelled by a new disease that happened to hold the key for its dissolution, was us! Selection is blunt in that it typically constrains the whole genome only to get certain minor characteristics, e.g. fat pigs. In principle, we could should now be able to get fat pigs (or similar) from a standing start with pretty minimal gene intervention, avoiding much of the above problem of mono-cultures (i.e. preserving most diversity). But… the intervention itself is still common to the whole strain, and there could be a disease that attacks this intervention, and anyhow the point is that this is another reason why the comparison to what we’ve done with farm animals that Dawkins makes, is a hopeless non-starter. And even for the latter minimal intervention method, per my comment above, we really have no idea what interventions to make for a fundamental lift of humanity. As Beth implies, leaving the main selection choices to the real watchmaker, evolution itself, is far better than attempting to second guess what that ultimate engineer would choose, and thereby very likely letting our ‘expertise’ lead us into a very bad place.

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  10. Andy,

    I don’t disagree with anything you have said, but I am still prepared to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt when he asked rhetorically, ‘Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans?’, or when he uses the phrase ‘works in practice’. Firstly, given that eugenics is ultimately an ideological, political and moral program, it might make little sense to you or I for Dawkins to say that he deplores eugenics, but only on an ideological, political or moral level. But that would be to use the word ‘works’ only in that context. Knowing Dawkins’ principled view that evolution makes most sense when viewed from the gene’s perspective, one might expect him to be prepared to use the word ‘works’ within the context of the individual’s phenotype, i.e. insofar as eugenics is selective breeding for a specified, genetically determined trait, it is equally feasible for humans as it is for any other species. That said, I’m sure that Dawkins is as aware as anyone that eugenics in practice has a disastrous history and appreciates that it does not work in any utilitarian sense. Or maybe I’m being too generous. Willard is not known for his generosity when it comes to trying to discern an ambiguously expressed meaning.

    And thank you to you and others who have expressed their appreciation of the essay.

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  11. Well, I guess if we’re talking about just hard science, then we can challenge Dawkins’ default assumption that eugenics “works for dogs”. Simply put, it can and has worked for dogs, but it can and increasingly does work against dogs. Selective breeding has been a disaster in some instances. So Dawkins needs to refine and better define his examples if he’s going to argue for eugenics on a purely practical, and not ideological basis.

    We really could do with some blog wars to while away the hours. It’s great chatting with friends and having the odd disagreement, but I’m missing the abrasive confrontations we used to have occasionally on this blog when the consesnsus enforcers alighted to inform us of our wrongthink on climate change.

    No problems so far walking the selectively bred pooches around here. Hancock is threatening to entomb us all permanently inside our homes if some of us don’t stop sunbathing. We’ll see how that works out. Bizarrely, there are way too many sado-masochists out there who want him to do it.

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  12. John: “…one might expect him to be prepared to use the word ‘works’ within the context of the individual’s phenotype, i.e. insofar as eugenics is selective breeding for a specified, genetically determined trait, it is equally feasible for humans as it is for any other species”

    Well if he indeed means we can get taller humans, then as noted above this is trivially true. But I doubt that he or anyone else really means this as the normally accepted context of Eugenics. From what I’ve seen of him on the topic (admittedly only casually, and not pursued) he means ‘better’. But I do agree regarding the generosity, or rather lack thereof, of the poster in the other place. I think Dawkins isn’t maintaining this position either disingenuously or because he sees it in a technically super-narrow sense, but because the technical sense he does see it in, is straight wrong. I.e. doesn’t address the fundamental issues that are associated with attempting ‘better’, which slavish adherence to gene-centricity tends to mask. He (genuinely) thinks it is morally wrong to do it, but still (genuinely) thinks we could get better this way; whereas in reality the bigger reason it is morally wrong is that we no way could we get better via this route, or at least in any forseeable future. The problem with his stance is that the moral curtain (even when it is genuinely maintained) could easily be torn down if he (or others of this stance) don’t have much stronger reasons than, essentially, social convention to hold it up.

    Jaime: ‘Selective breeding has been a disaster in some instances.’

    Indeed. And given the characteristics one would have to mess with to achieve major ‘improvement’ of humans, are far more fundamental than waggy tails, furry coats or doey eyes, one risks disaster on a far grander scale. At our current level of understanding, it would be inevitable.

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  13. I’m with Dawkins. If we define “better” in terms of success (ability to out-perform competitors, occupy more land, resist environmental changes) then selective breeding (equivalent to ‘eugenics’) has produced hugely successful traits (as well as unsuccessful varieties that have died out). Before transcontinental travel, humans were also undergoing evolution as in a greater ability to thrive at high elevations by Tibetans ( believed to be a recent development).

    Dawkins is not arguing for or against eugenics, he is merely arguing that humans are no different from other parts of nature. IF selective pressure was applied, humans would respond in similar ways as dogs or apples and diverge more than they currently do. All that is required is for some variation to be “preferred”, either by the environment or by other humans. I wonder if the one child policy in China had any outcome other than a surplus of male offspring?

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  14. Jaime,

    Yes, I can think of many varieties of dog that have little to thank selective breeding for. Perhaps we need to be careful to distinguish between ‘works for dogs’ and ‘works for the Kennel Club’.

    Andy,

    “He (genuinely) thinks it is morally wrong to do it, but still (genuinely) thinks we could get better this way…”

    I don’t want to get too drawn into a game of second-guessing Dawkins, but I wonder whether he does actually think ‘we could get better this way’, or whether he thinks we could achieve the phenotypic development we are determined to achieve this way. The former is a value-laden judgement, but the latter is simply a scientific assessment (with an apologetic nod towards those who do not see a valid decoupling between the two).

    Alan,

    There are two levels at which this debate could, and probably will, proceed. The first is to discuss whether Dawkins is right or wrong; the second is to discuss what Dawkins is actually trying to say. Unfortunately, the Dawkins tweet is both brief and laden with vague and contentious terminology – so the latter is likely to undermine the former. Either way, a good debate is still to be had, though I suspect one that is doomed to be inconclusive. If I were to crudely summarize my position, it would be to say I’m with Dawkins also, although I would probably be using a definition of eugenics that is far too loose for many people’s taste.

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  15. Andy,

    PS: Once again, purely idle speculation on my part, but when you say ‘Well if he indeed means we can get taller humans, then as noted above this is trivially true’ you may be stating a trivial truth that Dawkins still feels the need to defend. After all, he has spent an inordinate amount of time debating such points with some pretty flakey anti-evolutionary types. It’s not really a question of whether Man can play God, so much as whether Man should play God. Eugenics seems to be the discipline for which the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ was invented.

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  16. Alan, some anecdotal observations on the China one child policy from touring there prior to the Yangtze dam going into service. The state tourism authority assigned us a series of guides and drivers from place to place, all of whom were single child university grads, no doubt selected for english fluency. Based on those conversations, it was clear that one consequence was the rise of an entitled generation similar to ours in the West. Young people who bond with each other (lacking brothers or sisters), and who want it all, and want it now. Since the policy was enforced more in the cities than the countryside, this pattern added to the urban-rural split; the well-educated, wired and hip in cities, and the peasants elsewhere. And along with it an erosion of respect for elders and traditional values. There are social chasms opening faster as an unintended consequence of that policy, IMHO.

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  17. John: “…but I wonder whether he does actually think ‘we could get better this way’, or whether he thinks we could achieve the phenotypic development we are determined to achieve this way…”

    Well true, we can’t know. But even with the latter, the problem is *what* phenotypic development that *who* is determined to achieve? To leave this blank opens up a range from the trivial to our worst imaginings. And if it’s not ‘better’, why would anyone attempt it anyhow? (which therefore means any such attempt is a non-issue regarding serious discussion). [And also back to individual versus group too, because although usage depends on context, properly, phenotype is expressed by the whole species not by any individual therein. Groups have properties more than the characteristics of the individuals within, which hence can’t explicitly be manipulated by selecting for types of individual].

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  18. John: ‘you may be stating a trivial truth that Dawkins still feels the need to defend’

    well possible. But if so, while I don’t hold with the disingenuous / deliberate masking of intent nonsense, he’s being unwise on an epic scale; it is way too easy for blind visionaries to steal that and leverage his huge reputation to back some crazy scheme.

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  19. Andy,

    You are quite right. There will always be a ‘who’ defining the preferred ‘what’, with an intention to achieve betterment according to their own terms. Dawkins cannot escape that but I still suspect his purpose was to defend against those who would attack eugenics on the grounds of humans being a special case biologically – which they are not. As an aside, is there any possible definition of ‘eugenics’ that you can think of that allows for the possibility that a species other than homo sapiens has applied it? And if so, what might that species be?

    You will note that I am dancing around your group dynamics issue. That’s only because I am still digesting it.

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  20. Andy. Interesting. We must have been in China at approximately the same time. We took one of the last Three Gorges tours and saw the dam just before it came into full use. Your observations are keener than mine. I mainly recall speaking to parents who appeared devastated by the policy and had been essentially abandoned by their offspring. My other abiding memories were of the ubiquity of air pollution from being unable to see across the forbidden city, to looking down when flying across country and only seeing mountain tops peeping above blanket smog.
    I wonder if a real and persistent generational change actually occurred? If it did, it must have been transmitted to yet another generation by now. What I was given to understand was that the revaluation of women by the Communists produced the most profound and long term change.

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  21. Sorry Ron I mistakenly attributed your interesting remarks to Andy. Wonder if cabin Fabian fever occurring.

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  22. John, that’s a really interesting discussion you’ve prompted. I had the self-control not to ask this right away, because I though it might detract from your main thrust, but

    I could walk the dog within the grand expanse of my local forest, allowing Mother Nature to sooth the fevered brow, were it not for the local police turning everyone back onto the streets …

    Jaime reports that things are not that bad her way and that’s true for me too. Can you see any decent reasons the police might have in your locality?

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  23. Alan and Ron: I was thinking overnight about this thread and eugenics generally and was wondering if communist states could be said to have practised it. I didn’t get to the One Child Rule though, in my mind. So thanks.

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  24. If the present is anything to go by, the future of human eugenics will be to engineer little hobbit people who can exist happily in ultra low carbon hobbit-homes, who only come out of their hobbit-holes once a day in order to walk around the local area, glance furtively at each other from a respectable distance, and then scurry back inside to do their home-weaving or other appointed tasks for the Great Hobbit Chiefs.

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  25. Just as a last flip observation, I haven’t read Willard on Dawkins but I wonder, from John’s account, whether his post wasn’t a product of frustrated epistemology-by-demonology of the kind we’re so familiar with in the climate ‘debate’. The way I see it that destructive infection is being somewhat counteracted by the antibodies of a legitimate coming together of disparate folks thanks to Covid-19. Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from some parts of Twitter.

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  26. John: ‘I still suspect his purpose was to defend against those who would attack eugenics on the grounds of humans being a special case biologically – which they are not. As an aside, is there any possible definition of ‘eugenics’ that you can think of that allows for the possibility that a species other than homo sapiens has applied it? And if so, what might that species be?’

    But the way in which Eugenics is typically defined, means that humans very much *are* a special case. Indeed the *only* case. E.g. from Dictionary.com: ‘the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).’ Similar for Merriam Webster. Hence, if Dawkins really feels the need to defend that humans are biological beings just like animals, and hence as well as a vast array of other implications, this means that deliberately selecting human individuals for certain physical traits is indeed a tractable process, then he should never use the term Eugenics in relation to this process. But I doubt very much whether either of these concepts is to the slightest degree ever questioned in the first place, except presumably by creationists who if they don’t believe in evolution likely can’t believe in deliberate selection either. But I hardly think Dawkins is defending against creationists in this instance; who is he defending against?

    It is true that in common usage eugenical does also get extended to what we’ve done over millennia to farm animals. But Dawkins cannot be unaware of what the terminology should really apply to for any formal discussion. And the problem with this informal extension is that it is indeed fundamentally different to the ‘betterment’ of humans, because it is never at any stage for any species directed at ‘betterment’. It is aimed at capturing and optimising the species for very specific human needs, which means said species are not ‘bettered’. Indeed their capability for independent survival is vastly decreased as is their risk of ever being able to do so again, not to mention the extra risk of simply becoming obsolete to us at the drop of a hat. They do get some benefits – protection from disease and predators etc, so it could in some sense be regarded as symbiotic, but it is a highly weighted symbiosis and when we invent molecular-from-scratch equivalents of their produce, the huge herds and mono-cultural crops could disappear in a generation. But anyhow, no way could this be described as ‘betterment’ or ‘improvement’ from any truly objective standpoint. In applying this informal extension to humans, not only is this not actually the definition of Eugenics, it has no more chance of producing true ‘betterment’ in us either. But it has a very good chance of genetically enslaving us to a cultural entity (and we know a few bad ones of those), just as we enslaved cows and sheep. In a less one-sided way, symbiotic relationships that at least in surface terms look similar to our treatment of farm animals, are not uncommon in nature. For instance ants farm and milk greenfly, and if this has been going on long enough, no doubt this has changed the greenflies’, and the ants’ too, genomes. In practice, our genome has changed from such activities too; the most famous example of bio-cultural evolution is the milk-drinking gene (before which, adults were sick from milk, to get them off the teat). However, this is not Eugenics, the ‘betterment’ of humans by selection; it is at the most benign end, symbiosis, and at the least benign end an arbitrary one-sided enslavement. But no doubt we’re capable of enslaving ourselves…

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  27. John — apologies if this covers anything alread said in the comments above I’ve not yet read

    You can’t decouple scientific fact from application if the objects to which the facts are applied are ideological beings. “Man is a political animal”, said a chap whose quote I cannot find the ancient Greek for.

    Eugenics requires particular relationships between people and institutions. Breeding horses just requires a man and some horses. Horses and cattle do not write blog posts about what is being done to them.

    It’s not merely that the notion of eugenics offends, such that the thought experiment sounds like advocacy; it’s that the thought experiment requires the figments of our imagination to be selfless, and ideology-less. Again what do the eugenicists in the thought experiment want to eugenics to do? I can’t think of any intervention that would not raise a subsequent reaction, calling into question the ideological premises of the intervention, and in turn raising an ideology in reply.

    The “biological feasibility of eugenics” is not distinct from the “cultural acceptability of eugenics” except in those already bred to have no culture. Dawkins perhaps speaks for himself. I’m only half joking.

    As I was trying to point out in my Dawkins essays, even after a reduction of Dawkins’s claim to their most blandest possible interpretations, they can still be unpacked to show the ideology at work. In the Harrabin view, Dawkins invented Thatcherism and Thatcherism invented environmentalism. Never mind the backwards history, what seems more obvious to me is that Dawkins was an ideological cipher from the start. In the idiot hack’s story, idiot zoologists had determined that there was ‘no such thing as society’, but how could they, if ‘society’ was not an object of zoology — and far beyond its abilities as a science to understand? Aren’t they saying ‘there’s no such thing as humans’? I find Dawkins very often is, and is bound to by the fact that he can’t understand them. What is culture in Dawkins-world? Well, its like genetics, innit… No. It’s not. Not until we stamp out the actual agents of culture and replace them with automata that do conform to Dawkins’ grasp.

    Let’s try it another way. Imagine: “I’m not saying we should, but we could round up all the members of [race X] and get rid of them. It is feasible”.

    They’re not going to volunteer. It might be then, that eugenics is infeasible for the same reasons.

    Too crass a substitution, perhaps. A probably terrible analogy instead… It is plausible for a set of snooker balls made out of blancmange. But the balls would soon reveal themselves to be unfit for purpose. There’s no obvious philosophical thing preventing us from imagining any substance being a sphere, until we run the simulation with a full set of parameters. The balls fall apart on the table. Why is it that things like ‘cultural acceptability’ should be excluded from our estimation of feasibility? Being treated like cattle might be the very thing which fetters any possibility of *human* eugenics.

    It might not be biologically feasible to do eugenics, because we’re more than biology. Unless, of course,the point of eugenics is just that — to deny humanity, and to reduce it to biology.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Ben, Andy,

    I’m going to bug out of the debate at this point but for exactly the opposite reason given by Willard: I do fear (respect) everyone on here, including Humpty Dumpty. In fact, you have both made many excellent points, and although I could go on trying to play devil’s advocate on behalf of Dawkins, I think I’ve already spent long enough doing so, and I suspect he in the meantime hasn’t given me a moment’s thought. Besides which, although I have read a number of Dawkins’ books, I do not follow him on Twitter, I have not read any of his articles and I only have the above tweet to give me any insight into his actual views on the subject. So, perhaps, I am not the best qualified to serve as his advocate.

    I will just sign off, therefore, by re-iterating my agreement with Judea Pearl regarding his statement about scientific findings and cultural alignment, whilst conceding that eugenics, by its very nature, is probably the most problematic of the possible examples one might chose to illustrate that point.

    Finally, I’d like to say that it is to the credit of those who have thus far contributed to this debate that they have done so with impeccable manners. That’s no mean feat when eugenics is involved!

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Richard,

    I think the problem is that our local woods are attracting people who are driving to them from the nearest large conurbation. The police are stopping them at the main access point on the road but they are not discriminating for the benefit of locals. If you know the lay of the land there are access points that are not being monitored but if you are subsequently discovered within the woods you have the problem of demonstrating that you didn’t travel to them. Besides which, these ‘secret’ access points are narrow and therefore unsafe for social distancing purposes. I’ve decided not to bother and stick to the circling streetwalkers, though I choose to rebel by walking around anti-clockwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Because of Eugenics, we tend to think of selective breeding of humans as being towards some higher goal. But there are much easier, much shorter term goals that selective breeding could do without being Eugenics.

    We could rid the world of a whole host of conditions known to be genetic — Huntingdon’s, haemophilia, etc — in a generation or two.

    There are very difficult ethical questions about whether it is right for us to do that sort of thing, but as a matter of practical application it would be trivially easy. In that sense, Dawkins is 100% correct.

    Like

  31. Chester: as noted above the trivial end of the scale is eminently possible. Indeed it’s already being done, for instance encouraging people carrying serious conditions not to have children, or offering terminations for same. However, the typical definitions of Eugenics arguably exclude that end of the scale, e.g. “improve the population’s genetic composition” per Merriam Webster or “improving the qualities of the human species”, per Dictionary.com, or “methods to improve the human race by carefully selecting parents who will produce the strongest children” per Collins. These have the ring (or in some cases more than a ring) of something rather more universal and fundamental, which Dawkins will obviously know. If it stayed at the trivial end, indeed not making it into the spirit of those definitions, then natural checks and balances, timescales, and the tiny plus very highly specific nature of those interventions, would likely largely avoid unforseen consequences (notwithstanding still having ethical challenges). But attempts to leverage the permissions and tools developed for that level only, for something that is more universal and fundamental, could turn out real bad. I don’t think Dawkins is being disingenuous, but any association of the term Eugenics with what could be net beneficial in respect of only fatal / major hereditary conditions (if very heavily hedged to prevent any inappropriate leverage – and especially at the least intervention end), is colossal unwisdom imo, from someone who cannot but know the implications of that term. And in respect of the full implications, per above it couldn’t work anyhow.

    Like

  32. @John – thanks for the link to “Willard’s latest posting, Richard’s Decoupling”

    your right that I should look outside my bubble from time to time.

    Willard has struggles like the rest – as he say’s
    “Philosophy is a decoupling discipline, and Richard’s decoupling sucks. Why? Because it’s pure bluff. He baits people but never follows suit. That channels my inner constructivist: no proof, no cookie. In this case, it’s easier to claim that an eugenics program would work than to show how it would.
    Language is a social art”

    he’s a – “inner constructivist” & “Philosophy is a decoupling discipline”

    my take – he likes Lego, but can’t figure out how the bricks go together.

    Like

  33. Andy,

    I appreciate that I had promised to retire from this debate, but I feel I still owe you a response to your comments regarding the relevance of multi-level selection for evolution. I cannot pretend to be an expert on this subject, so if what follows appears to be a little ‘undergraduate’ in its content, please don’t go all Willard on me.

    Firstly, I think it is important to appreciate that when Galton introduced the principles of eugenics to the world, he did not have genetic engineering in mind; the genetic basis for evolution was not at that time established. Instead, he was thinking as a statistician and suggesting ways in which social engineering could be used to manipulate the statistical properties of desirable, inheritable traits within a population. Obviously, selective breeding loomed large in his strategy since this had a demonstrable efficacy when it came to the domestication of animals. Re-applying the same techniques to humans seemed scientifically possible and morally supportable as long as the intent was noble (e.g. as in the eradication of sickness and poverty). There is, of course, a moral peril here, as was ably demonstrated by the Nazis; what constitutes a noble cause can be very moot.

    As understanding developed regarding the genetic basis of evolution, the scientific basis for eugenics appeared even clearer, which was actually a problem because people were short-circuiting their moral wiring with a simplistic ‘science = truth = good’ logic. Undesirable, inheritable traits were understood to be genetically innate, even more reason to apply selective breeding rather than alternative social interventions to solve the problem. Even so, in the narrowest of senses, the science of selective breeding still seemed as applicable to humans as to any other species as long as one could reconcile the ethical difficulties.

    In the phrase ‘works for humans’, the word ‘work’ is being semantically overloaded but there is still a scientific understanding that needs to be protected and so I am, even now, prepared to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and allow that (whilst not wishing to appear to condone eugenics) his prime purpose was to remind people that eugenics cannot be dismissed by taking the unscientific view that humans are a special biological case. Eugenics is profoundly unsound, but not because of a lack of genetic basis for some of the human ‘flaws’ that it is intended to eradicate. You, I presume, would question even that narrow defence, largely because the efficacy of eugenics can only be judged at the group level and Dawkins appears to you to be ignoring the role of group selection in evolutionary development.

    I have been slow to respond to your argument because, even now, I am not sure what the most appropriate observations might be. However, I might start by noting that eugenics is by its nature group selection and so would work (or otherwise) in the manner that any group selective effect would. It operates by selection of phenotype (a group property when viewed statistically) but it will have the effect of modifying the group’s gene pool. There are obvious dangers to this, as you have pointed out, but I remain unconvinced that such group selective mechanisms are bound to result in a detrimental effect on the gene pool. For example, I can see plenty of things wrong with the ‘science’ behind the Nazi programme, but a heightened risk of inbreeding amongst the so-called Aryan race is not one of them; if the Nazis had had their way, there would still have been sufficient genetic heterogeneity for a viable and healthy population to prosper. If anything, the programme faltered on social grounds just as soon as they had purged all of the great Jewish scientists from their ranks. As I said above, at its outset eugenics was a politically motivated social programme inappropriately bolstered by an inchoate scientific understanding, and I think it was always destined to fail on political and social grounds long before scientific credibility had been confirmed one way or another. In short, I think you provide a powerful scientific argument for why eugenics should not be pursued in most circumstances, but not (for me, at least) a compelling scientific argument for why it could not in any circumstance. I still think that to condemn eugenics outright one has only to point to the obvious difficulty of allowing self-serving human beings the role of deciding what is in the best interests of the human race, or any sub-group thereof.

    Finally, I should address your questioning of Dawkins’ wisdom. All I can say here is that it appears that Dawkins is less concerned regarding the inadvertent promotion of a repellent idea than he is the misconstrual of a scientific one. Misplaced priorities, perhaps.

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  34. John:

    “Firstly, I think it is important to appreciate that when Galton introduced the principles of eugenics to the world, he did not have genetic engineering in mind…”

    Well of course, but nothing I’ve written under-appreciates this at any point 😉.

    “As understanding developed regarding the genetic basis of evolution, the scientific basis for eugenics appeared even clearer…”

    I don’t believe this is so. Because as understanding increased through the genetic angle (and others) so did the early realisations that true ‘improvement’ was likely far more complex than originally conceived. However, understanding being non-homogeneous over different times and places, then likely some would use it as support and some would use it as evidence against. I’m certainly no expert on the history, but definitely there was technical controversy, and some of that controversy spilled over into cultural conflict (where, as we know from climate change, truth is the loser anyhow).

    “In the phrase ‘works for humans’, the word ‘work’ is being semantically overloaded but there is still a scientific understanding that needs to be protected and so I am, even now, prepared to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and allow that (whilst not wishing to appear to condone eugenics) his prime purpose was to remind people that eugenics cannot be dismissed by taking the unscientific view that humans are a special biological case. Eugenics is profoundly unsound, but not because of a lack of genetic basis for some of the human ‘flaws’ that it is intended to eradicate. You, I presume, would question even that narrow defence, largely because the efficacy of eugenics can only be judged at the group level and Dawkins appears to you to be ignoring the role of group selection in evolutionary development.”

    I question any defence in the sense of Dawkins or anyone else using the term ‘Eugenics’ at all, because it has an average dictionary definition which actually *means* making generic betterments of the human race. I.e. *not* merely in a minimalistic and highly hedged (ethically and technically) sense, working to remove certain fatal physical conditions, which we already do. Of course such intervention (whether merely encouraging carriers of terrible conditions not to have children, or moving to minimalistic gene intervention) will ‘work’. But a) no-one is arguing that this doesn’t, so no defence is needed, and b) this is not Eugenics, according to definition. Outside of such minimal medical interventions of major physical conditions, and so into what might be termed the spirit of what those definitions of Eugenics actually mean, it cannot work anyhow because of higher level complications of which multi-level evolution is the main factor.

    I’m no Dawkins expert either, but from what I’ve seen I don’t believe Dawkins is being disingenuous. He may within himself mean the minimal medical intervention type of thing, and knows too there are major ethical issues wrt straying outside of such, which he has never recommended is done, to my knowledge. But I think his huge bias to a gene-centric picture as the key to everything (and so also the enormous simplification this produces, including a belief that some interventions for more generic ‘betterment’ might also be developed *in principle* up to the point of ‘working’), means this bias causes him to retain the term ‘Eugenics’, even though he must also consciously know how this term is defined for normal usage, and even though he genuinely wouldn’t go there. Hence his stance is paradoxical; but that’s the point about heavy bias, it does things like this 0: If he *is* being disingenuous, as Willard believes, it makes no difference to the fact that the (per proper definition) Eugenics approach cannot work for generic ‘betterment’. But of course it will work for what are essentially trivial interventions, that happen also to fall outside of the definition of Eugenics per above. (Albeit even these may need more research than one might think, for instance the three-cornered relationship between asthma – bother I can’t recall – maybe rheumatoid arthritis and one other, i.e. you squelch one and another gets worse. Or indeed squelching a disease and getting a completely unexpected consequence decades down the line that didn’t have any obvious connection, plus too much intervention violating the protections of polymorphism, and so on). To some extent this just qualifies what ‘work’ truly means even at the low end.

    “However, I might start by noting that eugenics is by its nature group selection and so would work (or otherwise) in the manner that any group selective effect would.”

    No, it most certainly is not. What we practice on farm animals is not Eugenics, doesn’t ‘better’ them (per above) and selects *individuals* not groups, to certain narrow criteria which we want to improve (to the detriment of their independent survival). In the way in which this was practised on humans when this was actually done in Germany, the attempt was made in a similar fashion, which included for instance selecting tall blue-eyed boys etc.

    “It operates by selection of phenotype (a group property when viewed statistically) but it will have the effect of modifying the group’s gene pool.”

    Of course this will modify the gene pool. Adversely, because no-one has any idea what characteristics the groups survival was based on in the first place, or how that might be ‘bettered’. And if you don’t know what you’re doing and you further don’t know what the criteria are that you need to aim for, adverse is pretty much going to be the outcome. The problem here is that individuals are not *only* a statistical part of a species gene pool, that pool has *deliberate* (in the sense of naturally evolved for its better survival) variety and structure, which we do not understand. Not only that, at several simultaneous levels at once, gene, cell, individual, cultural (and so bio-cultural at that boundary too), optimising evolution is occurring. Selecting everyone for, say, passing a particular IQ test (and say tightening the test at each generation), is likely to have a catastrophic effect upon that variety and structure, starting culturally and expressing more genetically as time goes by, which if done for a single nation probably means that nation would drop like a stone relative to its previous peers, and also by becoming a mono-culture in certain dimensions, being far more vulnerable to cultural or biological parasites of various kinds.

    “There are obvious dangers to this, as you have pointed out, but I remain unconvinced that such group selective mechanisms are bound to result in a detrimental effect on the gene pool.”

    I’m very glad you won’t be in charge then 😉.

    “For example, I can see plenty of things wrong with the ‘science’ behind the Nazi programme, but a heightened risk of inbreeding amongst the so-called Aryan race is not one of them; if the Nazis had had their way, there would still have been sufficient genetic heterogeneity for a viable and healthy population to prosper.”

    They barely got anywhere with their program, in truth. Apart from the abomination of the Holocaust, their formal program will have had pretty much no impact on the numbers of the general population at all. And they made (what we know now) to be every mistake in the book (e.g. using selected ‘high class’ donor sperm for many women, and hence seriously reducing the protections of polymorphism and artificially amplifying what issues there might be in same – had they continued as planned their master race could well have been utterly erased by the right kind of coronavirus).

    “In short, I think you provide a powerful scientific argument for why eugenics should not be pursued in most circumstances, but not (for me, at least) a compelling scientific argument for why it could not in any circumstance. I still think that to condemn eugenics outright one has only to point to the obvious difficulty of allowing self-serving human beings the role of deciding what is in the best interests of the human race, or any sub-group thereof.”

    If it’s called Eugenics, it is not scientifically defendable as well as ethically defendable, and they are too intertwined to separate. Much of the strength of the ethics comes from the fact that it can’t possibly work, and so will have a bad outcome. And the fact that, as you point out, one group of human beings shouldn’t get to choose, is also bound up inextricably with the scientific unworkability – because for any foreseeable future no-one *can* possibly know what would work in any case, or even when our knowledge is immeasurably better, what could work ‘better’ than what else. This could *never* be solved, even in principle. By definition, some minimal medical intervention by encouragement and consent re some minority fatal conditions, is not Eugenics, because it doesn’t fall under the accepted meaning of that word.

    “All I can say here is that it appears that Dawkins is less concerned regarding the inadvertent promotion of a repellent idea than he is the misconstrual of a scientific one. Misplaced priorities, perhaps.”

    I think indeed his bias makes him far too casual regarding the inadvertent promotion of a repellent idea. But also, there isn’t even the payback of defending correct science. It would be correct science if, without using the term Eugenics, he pointed out that highly careful and selective medical intervention to fight fatal conditions, is a viable way forward if hedged with ethical protection. In unfortunately clinging to the term, we can’t know what he is defending, and whether that is the above, or the fact that *if only we could use it*, the full thing would work (so further validating his gene-centric position). In practice, I doubt he would be thinking this consciously.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Andy,

    Thanks for your reply – as thorough as always.

    I’m afraid I will not be reciprocating with a detailed response since, as I have said before, there is a limit to how much time I want to spend defending the Dawkins corner when I am not entirely sure what that corner is. Besides which, I think it is only leading us to having differences of opinion that I suspect are fundamentally terminological in their origins. Experience has taught me that when you and I find ourselves in that position we are not very good at converging upon a shared understanding. Still, it has been a fun and enlightening distraction and one I look forward to repeating in the not too distant future.

    Take care.

    Like

  36. Thank you, John, fun indeed. But for the record, and albeit very belatedly, this comment…

    “when I am not entirely sure what that corner is”

    …made me realise what is the corner you are defending, and as such this means not a terminological difference, but a fundamental one that has split evolutionary studies for decades, albeit with twists and turns and tributaries and such (and kind of ‘political’ in some senses if you know what I mean). I did not think you had any particular position regarding same, with the focus being on the more sensational but less fundamental eugenics, and given you never explicitly expressed one, I just didn’t think about things in that way. The usual test for one side or other of this conflict, is altruism. So, per my above, for any method of individual selection such as that you suggest above, and more or less whatever you select for, the brands of theory that I support say that you will eventually *necessarily* lose altruism, this being a fundamental property of group / multi-level selection. And for sure we could regard outcomes like this as very bad. Whereas if one supports what might be termed the hard-core end of the gene-centric view, for which Dawkins is flag-bearer, then it may be that while getting what you think you want may still be far more complex than it seems (genes in fact don’t act discreetly / indivisibly / unrelatedly), you won’t *necessarily* lose altruism, i.e. as a matter of principle (and by implication other properties). If Dawkins turns out to be wholly correct (and folks were super-clever enough to figure out how to do it – which we are extremely far from), you could in principle at least, avoid such losses. Of course you still have the problem of what constitutes true betterment in the first place, and who decides etc, plus even gene-centrists don’t deny the necessity of polymorphism (clones are tremendously vulnerable), and some issues along these lines may actually be worse. But it’s a different flavor of game. Anyhow, I think the theory / evidence for altruism having developed purely through gene-centric mechanisms and without anything happening higher up, sucks. But then I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and the point is that this corner is a perfectly valid corner to be standing in, as for sure many folks do. This doesn’t let Dawkins off the hook for epic unwiseness, but then we both agreed that whatever it is he’s actually thinking, he’s highly likely not engaged in some kind of disingenuous dog-whistling. I have a feeling too that you may be standing in this corner rather inadvertently (if you didn’t know about the other corners!) Maybe those Dawkins’ books stuck in your mind 0: But it would explain *what* you are trying to defend, rather than merely a *who*.

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  37. I must say that human intelligence, especially as related to inheritance, is the most sensitive and taboo topic I can think of. I’m very wary of commenting on it, and I’m someone who argues that Jerry Sandusky was innocent on the internet. There seems to be a near universal taboo against eugenics. I sometimes wonder if this could be an historic accident, because of one data point. Before Nazi Germany played out, I understand that eugenics was a popular notion among intellectuals. I know some people have been involuntarily sterilized, but how about groups of people trying to voluntarily implement it? How about people being denied abortions for downs syndrome babies — anti-eugenics?

    How do we know we’re not the product of eugenics? “Ugh, ugh, Sheka kids better hunters and cave picture makers. Only they breed”. How do we know this didn’t enhance us (or hobble us)? How do we know it didn’t save us (or doom us)?

    What really bothers me, is when you can’t have contrary thoughts on a topic without being condemned. Anyway, I thought Sam Harris’s podcast with Charles Murray was interesting:

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  38. “How do we know we’re not the product of eugenics?”

    Because we can look back through the whole of history and see that it never happened to any extent that gained any real leverage at all. Archaeology and gene-lines tell us about pre-history; to have produced *us*, i.e. the current population of the world, all from a consciously implemented program starting in some tribe somewhere, means not only should there be an easily identifiable DNA (and corresponding cultural) bottleneck at that point, unless the program was maintained forever from that point onward, with the product of that tribe spreading to conquer / displace the entire human world while this happened and right up to today, then natural processes would simply resume anyhow and unravel it all again. So, that gets us back to the fact that no such program that is or has been maintained to any significant extent whatsoever, is observable. For sure Dawkins or others should not be condemned, this is not the way to go. That doesn’t mean all are wise or use their authority wisely and shouldn’t be challenged (politely and properly). But in the end, he isn’t promoting the concept anyhow.

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  39. I think this video has been pretty much debunked, but it is interesting and entertaining. The best theory I’ve ever heard for why humans beat out neanderthals, is that neanderthals were anatomically limited in their ability to develop speech.

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  40. Canman: Thanks for the first video – the first time I’ve listened to Sam Harris, of whom I’ve heard a reasonable amount. And I do like people admitting where they’ve been taken in. Charles Murray must have appreciated that.

    Liked by 1 person

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