Monday, May 16, 2016

When well-intentioned people write bad things

It's not that Matt Ridley hasn't got form. There's a veneer of political correctness which seems to stick to public-intellectual science-writers; they persist in writing cosy, comforting pieces they must know to be misleading, even untrue.

Today, Ridley has an op-ed piece in The Times. "Gene editing isn’t a slippery slope to eugenics", trying to rehabilitate the notion of eugenics.  This is opportune given the dysgenic features of advanced Western countries (relaxed selection leading to mutational load, & the idiocracy stuff), combined with the ameliorating possibilities of genetic engineering.

Ridley starts with the correct statement that eugenics is bad when coercive. State-controlled reproduction is oppressive whether it's China's one-child policy, India's compulsory sterilization or - that old favourite - the disreputable practices of Nazi Germany.

So few problems with his first point:
"First, the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed, or to survive, for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics. Our politics would have to change far more drastically than our science."
His second point is more dubious - reassuring cant, some might call it. Artificial insemination with the eggs or sperm of strangers is not what most couples want - they made their own eugenic selection when they chose their partner.
"The second reason we need not fear a return of eugenics is that we now know from 40 years of experience that without coercion there is little or no demand for genetic enhancement. People generally don’t want paragon babies; they want healthy ones that are like them. At the time test-tube babies were first conceived in the 1970s, many people feared in-vitro fertilisation would lead to people buying sperm and eggs off celebrities, geniuses, models and athletes. In fact, the demand for such things is negligible; people wanted to use the new technology to cure infertility — to have their own babies, not other people’s. It is a persistent misconception shared among clever people to assume that everybody wants clever children."
But what if their own child-to-be could be tweaked a little? Or there could be a little bit of selection amongst all their possible children? This is already pretty popular for genetic disease screening; and rightly so.

And then we descend to the plain wrong.
"The more recent discovery that traits such as intelligence are caused by the complicated interaction of multiple genes of small effect means that it is anyway going to be virtually impossible to decide what genetic recipe to recommend to somebody who wants a clever child, or a good-looking one, or an athletic one. By contrast, the genetic changes that cause terrible afflictions such as Huntingdon’s disease or cystic fibrosis are singular and obvious. Selecting embryos that lack such traits, or editing the genes of people so that they are born without carrying such traits, will always be much easier than selecting genetic combinations that might, in the right circumstances and with the right upbringing, lead to slightly higher IQ. Cure will always be easier than enhancement."
We know that embryo selection on as few as ten fertilised eggs could span an IQ gap of ~11 IQ points. That would boost Caucasian populations to the level of the Ashkenazim in one generation. And not a CRISPR in sight.

There is little reason to believe that genetic engineering of many hundreds of SNPs wouldn't be possible within two generations, resulting in significant trait alterations on any reasonably-heritable trait - which is most of them.

We're talking height, health, athletic ability, musicality, personality .. and of course IQ here.

So, Matt, it's not going to be so hard and, trust me, they'll all be jumping at it once it's safe and cheap.

And you must know this. So what's with the 'reassuring' lies?

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