Is genetics "dark"?

by David Hugh-Jones7 min read1st Nov 202112 comments

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Human GeneticsWorld Modeling
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At the excellent Integrating Genetics and the Social Sciences conference on Thursday and Friday, a late discussion raised an awkward issue: when you say you study the genetics of behaviour, eyebrows get raised. People don’t always like what we do. Now, academics are a quite conformist bunch, and their desire to be liked is particularly unfortunate in the social sciences, where there is always a temptation to tell the paymasters what they want to hear. Still, it is true that doing genetics, especially social science genetics, can feel like juggling with dynamite.

Is there a reason for that? Do the public have reason to fear our results? Is genetics… dark?

It certainly has a dark history. But it is not obvious that the advanced genomics of today has much in common with the eugenics of the 1930s. No sane or influential people are calling for compulsory sterilization programs.[1]

Perhaps, though, genetics could be dark today. One idea that seems to worry many people is: what if geneticists discover genetic differences between ethnic groups? Couldn’t that legitimize discrimination? Leftwingers who fervently oppose this kind of research seem to agree on one thing with neonazis: if we find such genetic differences, well, that would make racism fine.

I am unconvinced. Take a simple analogy. We already know that income and wealth are highly heritable, i.e. that genetic differences exist between rich and poor.[2] This is not scientifically controversial among people who know the literature; Paige Harden, a progressive, has written a book about it; I’d guess that many reasonably informed people now understand it. So what? One reasonable response to the idea that rich and poor people might have different inborn talents is “OK, maybe that well-paid guy deserves his salary”. Another reasonable response, Harden’s one perhaps, is that nobody deserves their genetic luck, so we should do some redistribution to even things out. Calling for the renewal of serfdom is not a reasonable response, and nobody’s done it.

(I dunno. Probably some internet loonbug has done it.)

The analogy goes straight over to any group differences. We might discover them! But if we do, the sensible response will still be “let’s judge individuals as they are, not by their group”. This is just how we respond to environmentally caused differences between groups, which uncontroversially exist.

I’ll take the chance to make my own views clear, because I think honesty is important here. First, we may well discover such genetic differences. In fact, some are known already, like the differences that make people from parts of Africa and India more likely to have sickle cell disease; or the genes that may make Peruvians shorter than others. Second, if we discover them, they’ll be complex, multifaceted, surprising, and interact interestingly with environments; and third, they will ultimately lead us to a richer and deeper appreciation of humanity.

If this happens, and you’ve staked your version of liberalism on the idea that all humans are empirically the same, then that might be awkward for you! (Harden again: “Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”) And people interpreting intergroup differences as caused by discrimination might have to work harder to prove their case.[3] So yeah, that’ll be disruptive! But this is ultimately an argument between two groups of intellectuals. One side losing isn’t dark, it’s just awkward for them.

So, is genetics dark?

Another candidate is work on contemporary natural selection. Regular readers of my substack will know about our paper on this, and also that it faced some pushback. (Short version: genetics linked to lower earnings are being selected for; effects on inequality might be substantive.) My experience is that on Twitter, people like to blame the modern welfare state for these results. References to the film Idiocracy do get made. Sure, the welfare state could be to blame; that’s a story that could be true. But we don’t see much evidence for it. Indeed, across two-thirds of the twentieth century, even as the welfare state grew considerably, the strength of natural selection seems to stay roughly constant.

There is a darker idea lurking in the wings, which I didn’t think about until I read this paper on random mutations. From the abstract:

Disruptive, damaging ultra-rare variants in highly constrained genes are enriched in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. In the general population, this class of variants was associated with a decrease in years of education (YOE)…. Disruptive, damaging ultra-rare variants in highly constrained genes influence the determinants of YOE in the general population.

In other words, rare mutations can lower your chances of making it through school or to university. But “rare” here means that each individual mutation is rare, not that they’re rare collectively. Quite a lot of people have at least one such mutation — about 25% of the sample.[4] Among the most severe mutations which are expressed in the brain, a single mutation costs half a year of education on average.

The dark idea is that natural selection might be like a bicycle: if you don’t keep moving, you fall off. That is, if natural selection doesn’t operate in a population, then deleterious mutations accumulate by chance.

Imagine a society where, if anyone works hard enough, they can make a living and raise a family. That is not a very extreme vision of a welfare state! It is more or less shared between mainstream left and right. Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron could all get on board with this, and so could Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. But that society might not be sustainable in the long run: its population might get unhealthier, or less intelligent, or less psychologically stable.

Is that dark?

One response is that in the long run, it is no big deal. New gene-editing technologies like CRISPR will put power over our genome back in our hands. We’ve already seen human embryos being selected for polygenic scores; in future, babies’ DNA could be not just checked, but changed. Traditional reproduction was like medieval scholars copying manuscripts, introducing errors all the time into the genetic source; by comparison, the mechanically assisted reproduction of the future could be as accurate as the printing press. That would stop harmful mutations accumulating.

The problem with this solution is that it is not obvious where it ends. Suppose that, by gene-editing, we could get rid of horrible genetic diseases caused by mutations. The ethical arguments for this are strong. But then why not also reduce the chance of more common illnesses too? And why not low intelligence? If heart disease is bad — well, is it fun to be dumb, in our knowledge-based society? These arguments may seem compelling in the near future. If so, we might start to create ever-improved beings, far from traditional, flawed humanity.

A dilemma of human progress, then, is that we might have to choose between remaking ourselves so completely that we are no longer recognizably human; or staying as ourselves, but slowly coming to be the only dysfunctional, unreliable part of a perfectly engineered machine.

Yeah, that seems dark, a little bit.


[1] At least not in the West. China, which has its own history of interest in eugenics, may be different.

[2] For example:
Tambs, Kristian, Jon Martin Sundet, Per Magnus, and Kåre Berg. 1989. “Genetic and Environmental Contributions to the Covariance Between Occupational Status, Educational Attainment, and IQ: A Study of Twins.” Behavior Genetics 19 (2): 209–22. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01065905
Trzaskowski, Maciej, Nicole Harlaar, Rosalind Arden, Eva Krapohl, Kaili Rimfeld, Andrew McMillan, Philip S. Dale, and Robert Plomin. 2014. “Genetic Influence on Family Socioeconomic Status and Childrens Intelligence.” Intelligence 42 (January): 83–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.11.002
Rimfeld, Kaili, Eva Krapohl, Maciej Trzaskowski, Jonathan R. I. Coleman, Saskia Selzam, Philip S. Dale, Tonu Esko, Andres Metspalu, and Robert Plomin. 2018. “Genetic Influence on Social Outcomes During and After the Soviet Era in Estonia.” Nature Human Behaviour 2 (4): 269–75. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0332-5.

[3] But not always, right? For example, resume experiments will still work. Evidence of differences between groups might change how that discrimination is interpreted — e.g. by pushing towards statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination. But in that regard, genetic differences are no different from environmental differences.

[4] The sample had some cases selected for a previous schizophrenia diagnosis, and some controls. So maybe all of the ultra-rare variants were among the cases. This wasn’t clear from the paper as I read it. It seems that there were also many ultra-rare variants among the Estonian subsample, though, which appears not to have been selected for risk of schizophrenia.

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I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Anderson on human dignity.

The point here maybe being that dignity is about relationships between people, not about those peoples' intrinsic properties. Combine this with a person-affecting view, and you end up with a society where you can have genetically-engineered babies if you want, and also it's morally important to afford dignity to people whether or not they are Gattaca'd.

We already know that income and wealth are highly heritable, i.e. that genetic differences exist between rich and poor.

While we know that, large parts of society are in denail about it. It's science denail. I bet you would get a similar reaction if you would study climate science and go to some town in Alabama and tell them you are a climate scientist.

I get a general wibe of very shaky non-scientific thoughts built on top of (very) sophisticated science.

If humans show cognitive variance and then variant people have a hard time fitting in highly standardised education that can alternatively thought about people ascnding beyond old-fashioned institutions. Einstein was a dropout, I this partial proof of his inferiority? If somebody does a statistical analysis and the correlate is YOE and not salary or live happiness that doesn't exactly spell doom for the individuals.

I would like to apply a perspective I thought that evolutionary terminology elevates beyond common everyday struggle pespective. Evolution is called to be "radiative" or "convergent" and there need not be value-judgements when studying the phenomena. One could call the "oxygen catastrophe" an "apocalypse but its also the bed rock for breathing life (and in a sense genesis). If humans flourish a lot and radiate into biological and neurological diversity, like a lush rainforest that could be seen as a success story. However if you have a species where the tiniest errors get ironed out and a lot of convergence is going on it could be seen that the animal build up is very fragile, a horror-story of weakness.

The position that humans should eschew clubs and "return to arm" so that our arms don't grow weak mostly makes sense only to those who don't understand how useful tools like clubs are (and will block the pathway to nukes). Making your society strong via societal tools can be a path to prosperity. Being worried that uncontextualised humans would grow weaker is like complaining that your eye gets worse with the use of eye glasses even if the overall visual aquity goes up. Be aware that stances like social darwinism (up keep conditions that stress and eliminate least functional people) move away from the advatanges that pack-hunting and village living confer.

Nukes are not dark but super powers saberrattling are.

Genetics might not be dark per se but one would be wise to keep checking whether it reveals or feeds darkness.

Einstein was a dropout, I this partial proof of his inferiority? 

Einstein enrolled with 17 in university and successfully completed his degree with 21. While he technically did drop out of a school before that point, you would need to calculate strange statistics to consider that as not being able to excel within the system.

Re your first paragraph: polygenic scores that directly predict cognitive ability are also being selected against. Polygenic scores designed to predict very high intelligence also turn out to be good at predicting ordinary intelligence, so it doesn't seem likely that "Einsteins" work in some fundamentally different way [1].

I agree that ironing out "errors" could be risky, especially given the current state of our knowledge. But equally, that does not imply that it's no big deal if people's genetics are getting less healthy or smart. There are two risks here.

I agree that we should consider changing phenotypes (e.g. the Flynn effect) as well as changing genes. It could be that speaking loosely, the phenotypic improvement will overwhelm the genotypic decline. But that isn't certain. Genes and environment could interact in complex ways. It's not guaranteed that better environments will be a perfect substitute for genetic endowments.

Lastly, I definitely don't support the deliberate elimination of "less functional people".

[1] Zabaneh, D., Krapohl, E., Gaspar, H.A., Curtis, C., Lee, S.H., Patel, H., Newhouse, S., Wu, H.M., Simpson, M.A., Putallaz, M. and Lubinski, D., 2018. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligence. Molecular psychiatry, 23(5), pp.1226-1232.

So instead of pointing in different directions the other indicators point in the same direction.

A belief that "humanity stays extant because of our intelligence" might be common but it might have ideological roots. Say for reference there was the property of being tall, being able to derive calories from food and being smart. A society that would be fearful and taking precautions to avoid evolving tall would seem silly. Being able to derive calories from food seems like it could have a connection of thriving and the extinction chances of pandas would suggest that it is possible to go extinct via that route.

If we were following singularity narratives we might argue that intelligence without allignment would be dangerous and if we found that kidness (or any aligment analog) is being selected with the cost of intelligence we could use this to argue that "even nature agrees with us". If we condem societies that do not take it as a problem to become/upkeep being kind and are ambivalent whether they guard against stupidity that would still be more of an expression of our values rather than application of fact. And that basic situation doesn't chance if we condem based on intelligence upkeep.

On average features that are being selected for tend to ward of extinction even thought every extinct species has evolved to that dead end. Because most species can only directly think about survival of individuals, family units and herds there is no "artifical selection" for evolution direction. However if we become able to see where the direction is going then we can choose to conciously make our own mistakes and the helm and steer it or not. We are already enduring unconcious evolution so I would be very careful about beliefs that think they can one up that. But lets be clear that if we steer we wil be going where we are steering and not neccesarily where it would be good for us to go. On that level handing out free cash is on equally suspect level as murdersprees if the goal is to have an impact on prosperity direction.

Agreed that in the long run, these kind of slow-rolling dysgenic effects are no big deal:

  • Polygenic selection and other genetic tech are already powerful enough to counter dysgenic effects, and will only become stronger with time.
  • Even if there was no ability to genetically fix dysgenic effects, our society is probably improving in other ways at a fast enough clip to overcome the decay (ie, medical tech advancing faster than our health declines; education & information technology more than making up for declines in intelligence, etc).
  • More generally, the world is likely moving too fast for slow-rolling effects like genetic stuff (or other things, like the impact of immigration on the voting patterns of a country or the impact of CO2 emissions on climate) to matter overwhelmingly in the long run. By the year 2200, the world will likely be some combination of technological utopia & devastated post-catastrophe ruins -- the slow-rolling stuff will not matter much either way.

Of course, genetics is relevant to understanding history and having a good model of the world, which is relevant to policy and etc. It would be foolish to try and encourage everyone to be a basketball star, given that height is so genetically determined. (It would be equally foolish to punish people who came up short as if this made them sinful or unworthy.)

So, I think that genetics as a tool for forward predictions of dysgenic effects is not super helpful/relevant. But if you are going to make forward predictions anyways, it is important to look beyond just population averages. There is still plenty of selection even in our modern-day world of abundance -- it is just based on assortative mating and the accumulation of money/power/prestige, rather than the barbarism of who lives vs who dies in a world of Malthusian subsistence poverty. So the burden of accumulating mutations does not fall equally on all parts of society, but presumably filters down to the bottom. Similarly, it's true that fertility declines with increasing wealth, but then it starts shooting up again above a household income of around $200K/year. Those high-fertility rich people are not a big part of the population (only around 1%-2%), but the rich obviously have an outsized influence on policy, economic growth, probably culture, etc. These effects will not give us an "idiocracy" society of general decay -- instead they will give us a more extremely unequal society (which will get even more unequal when some people start using polygenic selection and others don't).

I think the short-term plan for dealing with this increasing inequality is to just keep piling more and more money into redistribution and charity. IMO this plan has been working reasonably well for the past 40 years at least -- pre-tax income inequality has gone up, but increasing taxes for redistribution have meant that post-taxes-and-transfers income inequality has actually stayed remarkably flat since the 1960s. For now, we can just keep passing more taxes and creating new redistributive schemes, plus hopefully reforming the system for extra efficiency (like moving some cumbersome and restrictive benefits to a more flexible and simpler UBI).

The long-term plan is somewhere on a spectrum between "genetic / cybernetic technology lets us finally fix all the problematic aspects of genetics and natural selection" and "lol, of course there's no long term plan, since when do humans have a functional long-term plan for anything!" (It is justified in this case to lack a long-term plan, since genetic trends are so slow-rolling as discussed earlier... by the time the short-term plan breaks, we will have other bigger problems.)

Leftwingers who fervently oppose this kind of research seem to agree on one thing with neonazis: if we find such genetic differences, well, that would make racism fine.

I wouldn't say they actually agree on that point.  It's probably more that they think others will be more easily persuaded to support discriminatory policies if genetic differences are real.  Opposing this research is soldier mindset.

I think that's basically correct. Or maybe put another way: they act as if finding such genetic differences would plausibly legitimize racial discrimination.

That may not be nuts. Suppose there is real racial discrimination (not a big ask). Then if we discover substantively large differences between ethnic groups, it might be easier to "get away with" racial discrimination because someone can just claim "oh well, ethnic groups are different and that's why we see different outcomes". Similarly, non-deliberate (e.g. unconscious or "structural") discrimination might be harder to spot, if everyone just assumes that different outcomes between groups are the result of different genetics. 

At some point I'm tempted to do a survey, asking people what they would think should be the policy if various different things were discovered about behavioral genetics. Though I don't know how accurate that would be, as it's quite a big hypothetical, so I don't know how much value it would have.

One idea that seems to worry many people is: what if geneticists discover genetic differences between ethnic groups? Couldn’t that

enable targeted bioweapons? (If not figuring out whether or not you're at risk of getting addicted to a drug, before you use it, based on your genetics.)


But it is not obvious that the advanced genomics of today has much in common with the eugenics of the 1930s. No sane or influential people are calling for compulsory sterilization programs.[1]

Do they enable population control via preventing certain genetic groups being born?


Another reasonable response, Harden’s one perhaps, is that nobody deserves their genetic luck, so we should do some redistribution to even things out.

Why not genetic redistribution?


The analogy goes straight over to any group differences. We might discover them! But if we do, the sensible response will still be “let’s judge individuals as they are, not by their group”. This is just how we respond to environmentally caused differences between groups, which uncontroversially exist.

Uh, what? How do we deal with lead poisoning? (At a guess, it seems like learning about such differences might lead to redistribution.) I'm not sure how that's an example of judging individuals as they are.)


Second, if we discover them, they’ll be complex

Lactose intolerance.

and interact interestingly with environments

They probably won't eat cheese or other dairy, and depending on where they live that might be expensive.


And people interpreting intergroup differences as caused by discrimination might have to work harder to prove their case.

The issue seems to revolve around:

the sensible response will still be “let’s judge individuals as they are, not by their group”.

And people will just do that.


One response is that in the long run, it is no big deal. New gene-editing technologies like CRISPR will put power over our genome back in our hands.

The part before this, about 'selected for' - that part didn't make sense. (The abstract was clear though.)


If so, we might start to create ever-improved beings, far from traditional, flawed humanity.

A darker place to go with that is, that for the sake of the future, future generations are experimented on genetically...and it doesn't always go well. Or, for the sake of the present. (Like, making it so that more people who get cancer sooner, means more people to try to figure out how to treat cancer better, for the sake of the old people running things who don't want to die of cancer.)


A dilemma of human progress, then, is that we might have to choose between remaking ourselves so completely that we are no longer recognizably human; or staying as ourselves, but slowly coming to be the only dysfunctional, unreliable part of a perfectly engineered machine.

Sounds like a false dichotomy because 'preventing increasing accumulation of negative rare mutations' doesn't seem to mean 'no longer recognizably human'*. (And yes, I get why people might link this position/this statement being made with eugenics.) If you mean that tech will improve, and that if we don't reimagine ourselves (or the next generation) then we'll 'fall behind', that's something different.

*Unless you're arguing that improvement will inevitably enable 'success' by mis-shaping us into something inhuman, to better suit modern life. If we made it so that all people who live will 'be able to get through school', will removing the fact that we didn't like it prevent it from growing and improving and leave humanity something inhuman, as a result of removing what made it so we....didn't like it? (It may be a mistake to equivocate between 'unable to finish school' and 'a kid being bored, glancing out a window at a beautiful day that looks so much better than this classroom' but what would we be without that? What would we be without boredom?)


Also didn't mention that removing mutation might mean...removing the possibility of improvement. (Kill an engine that can produce improvement, and what's left? There's not growth if it's not provided. (And do we want to lose any hope of genetic serendipity? Improvements we wouldn't have guessed?))

I'm not sure I understood all of your points. But overall, yes, we might just get rid of rare mutations, but I wonder if realistically people will stop there. (That is indeed a slippery slope argument.)