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A Eugenics Race with China?

18:07 / 17.05.06
I'm reposting this from my blog because I thought it might be worth some discussion here. It's a thing about Media ChinaFear, but also about bioethics, genetics and America's checkered scientific past.

So, I'm reading latest issue of The Futurist (as I do for work and pleasure). The cover of the May/June 2006 issue has a big picture of a cute baby on it with the headline: Designing Babies: a Eugenics Race with China?

This is a little more interesting (kookier, and more baby-related) than the recent stories in other media about car imports. The history of eugenics is one of the things that fascinate me, too. It's a spooky word that most folks associate with the Nazi quest for the Master Race, but it actually has roots in America in the first half of the 20th century, where we (I use that first-person plural loosely) had laws about sterilizing psychiatric patients, Native Americans and all sorts of other odd little groups that didn't fit the Californian ideal of mainstream.

So, racially diverse families, it can happen here.

Flip, flip, flip to the story itself.

Author Eric G. Swedin, an "information systems and technology" professor, writes: "...[W]ithin the next two decades, we will likely see human beings born with enhanced genetic characteristics in China, and competitive nations such as the United States are unlikely to allow a 'smart-baby gap' to emerge."

He says this idea came from thinking about two questions: essentially, 1. what can genetic engineering really do, and 2. why is China the place most likely to do it.

On question one, he says, "Scientists have already made 'designer babies' through the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, where embryos still in the test tube are checked for genetic diseases such as Down's syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, or sickle-cell disease. This technique has also been used to check for immunological compatibility when parents are trying to have another child in order to save an existing child in need of a bone-marrow donation." Beyond that, it's just a long series of baby steps tweaking particular gene combinations in different ways, gradually goosing up probabilities of giving birth to geniuses and super-athletes.

Question two gets more interesting. Genetics was studied in China in the 1920s, then went the way of all intellectual pursuits during the Cultural Revolution, but now is taking off again. They're dumping 1.3 percent of their hefty GDP into genetics, genomic research and related fields. They want to play. And the rules of their game (the bioethics thing) are based on Confucian ideals, which include the (here, very contentious) idea that life begins at birth, not conception.

This is how China wound up passing the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law, which made prenatal testing mandatory and compelled doctors to advise couples whether their genes made for a good marriage, and whether they should (ahem) think strongly about aborting any potential fetus due to genetic abnormalities.

In Swedin's words, "The intent of the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law is to remove birth defects from the population…. [F]or purposes of comparison, a study in the United States and Britain found that 3%-5% of all live births have some sort of genetic disorder. It is reasonable to assume that a similar proportion of Chinese births have been prevented due to Chinese policies, though not all birth defects can at present be detected before birth."

From there, he kicks into full-on science fiction mode, predicting a patriotic race within the next 20 years to keep Merican kids up with the Chinese. This could eventually lead to a kind of neo-feudalism, with a genetically altered "aristocracy" who're stronger, brighter, less disease-prone and maybe, after a few generations, possessing a few other genetic bonuses. He doesn't actually mention the X-men (Children of the Atom!), but the vibe is there.
20:11 / 17.05.06
I, too, am interested in the history of eugenics for a variety of reasons.

grant, you especially may be interested in Ellen Herman's work on eugenics and the history of adoption in the United States. (On that link, you can see a picture of a "fitter family" competition held at the Georgia State Fair. These were not uncommon in the United States in the early 20th century, apparently.)

Nicholas Kristof's article in Sunday's (14 May 2006) NYTimes, called The Model Student, is interesting in this regard. He definitely distances himself from the eugenics interpretation of Asian American student success, and embraces a cultural explanation, but I can't help but wonder if the article isn't being read in this "yellow menace" mode--or at the very least, themodel minority mode ...

Since the NYTimes always wants you to register, here's Kristof's conclusion, which is the heart of his argument in relation to this issue. But if anyone wants the whole of the article, pm me--

One theory percolating among some geneticists is that in societies that were among the first with occupations that depended on brains, genetic selection may have raised I.Q.'s slightly — a theory suggesting that maybe Asians are just smarter. But I'm skeptical, partly because so much depends on context.

In the U.S., for example, ethnic Koreans are academic stars. But in Japan, ethnic Koreans languish in an underclass, often doing poorly in schools and becoming involved in the yakuza mafia. One lesson may be that if you discriminate against a minority and repeatedly shove its members off the social escalator, then you create pathologies of self-doubt that can become self-sustaining.

So then why do Asian-Americans really succeed in school? Aside from immigrant optimism, I see two and a half reasons:

First, as Trang suggests, is the filial piety nurtured by Confucianism for 2,500 years. Teenagers rebel all over the world, but somehow Asian-American kids often manage both to exasperate and to finish their homework. And Asian-American families may not always be warm and fuzzy, but they tend to be intact and focused on their children's getting ahead.

Second, Confucianism encourages a reverence for education. In Chinese villages, you still sometimes see a monument to a young man who centuries ago passed the jinshi exam — the Ming dynasty equivalent of getting a perfect SAT. In a Confucian culture, it is intuitive that the way to achieve glory and success is by working hard and getting A's.

Then there's the half-reason: American kids typically say in polls that the students who succeed in school are the "brains." Asian kids typically say that the A students are those who work hard. That means no Asian-American ever has an excuse for not becoming valedictorian.

"Anybody can be smart, can do great on standardized tests," Trang explains. "But unless you work hard, you're not going to do well."

If I'm right, the success of Asian-Americans is mostly about culture, and there's no way to transplant a culture. But there are lessons we can absorb, and maybe the easiest is that respect for education pays dividends. That can come, for example, in the form of higher teacher salaries, or greater public efforts to honor star students. While there are no magic bullets, we would be fools not to try to learn some Asian lessons.

Thoughts? To me, this fits uncomfortably into a kind of classic divide/conquer modality, whether conscious or not, where not only are various ethnic minorities pitted against one another (i.e., the implicit, "If the Asians can do it, why don't you other brown people do so well?") but also the mostly white NYTimes readers of the nervous middle classes (i.e., anyone dependent on a large or small salary, with some expectation that their children may go to college, but with few savings or liquid assets and little desire for "sacrifice"--and guilt for not having that desire) are potential "fools" to the "smarts" of the "Asians"--who will implicitly be in a position to treat "us" as "we" have treated those "races" traditionally perceived/marked as "less intelligent" or "lazy."

I.e., I know this is a very "lit person" response, but to me there's almost a gothic return of the racism of our eugenics-tinged history haunting these stories, in addition to whatever else they may be doing.
Evil Scientist
16:11 / 18.05.06
I fully intend to get involved in this thread. But my brain appears to have been replaced by cream cheese this week. I'm going to have a read of the various links and will hopefully post something at the weekend.
10:16 / 19.05.06
I'm sure this will happen, grant, and any substantial reduction of the gene pool endangers humanity's long-term fitness to survive, but I fail to see any nation gaining a major advantage from this. Certainly there will be fewer young people in need of care if this type of selection is applied, but I see little prospect of making the population significantly more intelligent through genetic manipulation, and certainly none through genetics alone, and what else really matters at the end of the day?

I may be wrong though - I'm way out of my depth.

Though I can't say how others might interpret Kristof's article, alas, he definitely isn't attempting to instigate interracial conflict. He does suggest it would be better were every child as diligent as an Asian child, and if this leads to parents placing their children under greater pressure to work harder that may well lead to an increase in teenaged suicide. That is all he suggests though, and as everyone is already in competition and a child's only means to gain an advantage is through more and better work, it's really only good advice, I think. Had he suggested that Asians advantages were intrinsic it would be a very different story.

It's sad Asian cultural advantages apparently remain identifiably Asian over many generations. One would like best practices to cross-over into the general population. After all, unlike power and wealth, this isn't really something one can keep from others.
17:05 / 19.05.06
there's almost a gothic return of the racism of our eugenics-tinged history haunting these stories, in addition to whatever else they may be doing.

Well, except it's explicitly culture and not race, which makes the whole thing a lot more complicated. The mode is essentialist (Oh no! Look at that menacing group right there!), but the message isn't quite so much (We better join them so we can beat them!). Of course, the reason why I thought it was worth mentioning at all was that it mimics the whole old-fashioned Yellow Peril stories (which I remember being mimicked in my teen years in stories about Industrial Powerhouse Japan).

I really don't know enough about genes regulating intelligence (problem-solving ability?) to know how realistic the eugenics suggestion is -- the professor who wrote it isn't a biologist, even -- but I'm not ready to discount it altogether. Even if it's just disease control (nominally), that's scary enough. And useful enough, I suppose, to have an effect on our laws & system of bioethics.
Red Concrete
00:25 / 22.05.06
I too intend to take a day to read and reply in this thread in a coherent manner.

For now I can tell you that intelligence is at least in part, and maybe mostly (i.e. > 50%) genetic. It is not monogenic - there are probably several genes of small effect combining and interacting, and probably interacting with environment also.

If the genetics of general intelligence ends up being anything like the genetics of psychiatric disorders (my field), it will be extremely difficult to pin down the genes (no statistical power...), and once you've pinned them down you may well have virtually zero predictive power.

As far as other abilities, genes for enhanced musculature or endurance have been found, but getting them changed in humans is as problematic as any of the gene therapy techniques. See these somewhat disturbing pages. It would be easier for the chinese or americans to simply use standard breeding techniques, combined with prenatal testing... which isn't any more comforting.

To me the question is "why?"... What exactly is the advantage to having an army/race of supermen/women? To win more golds at the Olympics? Unless they find a gene for bullet-proofness or explosion-resistance, world domination is still a far-off dream.
17:07 / 22.05.06
Good points, elene and grant. I think I am just so irritated with the education reporting in the Times right now--so much of it is targeted to a very wealthy, entitled, and status-obsessed audience (the kind of folks who pay for consultants to get their children into the "right" preschool)--and that Kristof tends to irritate me for a number of reasons, that my reaction was a bit skewed. (I meant to keep the focus on wondering how this kind of work is likely to be read by that audience, but I didn't really do that.)

And I think my first readings completely missed this sentence (or I forgot it): One lesson may be that if you discriminate against a minority and repeatedly shove its members off the social escalator, then you create pathologies of self-doubt that can become self-sustaining. This is a good point, but this, in particular, is a complex issue, and realize that newspaper column real estate is limited, but I'd definitely like more on this. (And I wonder if "pathologies" is the best word? I'll talk about this below.)

Red Concrete, what does it mean to say that general intelligence is >50% genetic, exactly? This is an honest question. I can't quite get my brain around how numbers like that are arrived at. How do the scientists control for historical pressures, familial configurations, stereotype threat, and lack of access to the best training, which can have an exponential effect over time? I'm not disputing that they might be able to control for these factors, I just don't quite get how they do it, when as you say, interaction with the environment is inevitable and there are no doubt several gene clusters involved, and it's unlikely that we'll arrive at anything like predictability.

The article I linked to, just above, on "stereotype threat," (from the Atlantic Monthly, 1999) takes on the idea that poor performance on tests is a kind of internalized, pathologized self-doubt (possibly ingrained over the course of generations) as Kristof suggests. Instead its author, Claude Steele, a Stanford prof in I think Sociology, argues that it's highly situational--which is the good news. Here's one way they tested it--which has bearing on the particular question we're exploring:

Suppose we told white male students who were
strong in math that a difficult math test they were about to take was one on
which Asians generally did better than whites. White males should not have a
sense of group inferiority about math, since no societal stereotype alleges
such an inferiority. Yet this comment would put them under a form of
stereotype threat: any faltering on the test could cause them to be seen
negatively from the standpoint of the positive stereotype about Asians and
math ability. If stereotype threat alon[e]--in the absence of any internalized
self-doubt--was capable of disrupting test performance, then white males
taking the test after this comment should perform less well than white males
taking the test without hearing the comment. That is just what happened.
Stereotype threat impaired intellectual functioning in a group unlikely to
have any sense of group inferiority.

I've attended an academic lecture by one of Steele's colleagues on these projects, where the data were presented for a number of these kinds of experiments, done by a variety of researchers, and the numbers were impressive. I am pretty convinced that stereotype threat is real, although it can be fairly easily addressed, if the teacher or experimenter thinks carefully about it in structuring test-taking situations and feedback. But most of us don't, in my experience. I am curious as to how much it is accounted for in current intelligence studies?

The other article I've read recently that also emphasizes the role that social circumstances play in creating any kind of ability is this one from a recent NY Times (5/6/2006, and again with the annoying registration policy--pm me if interested), "A Star is Made", where economists Dubner and Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame), report on the work of Anders Ericsson on learning, whose work began specifically on studying memorization skills:

In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

The rest of the article does make it clear that of course everyone who goes out and deliberately practices basketball for 5 hours a day isn't necessarily going to become Michael Jordan--i.e., they argue that some "inherent" features apply and that to do the 5 hours of practice a day you have to be extremely motivated and even deeply love the activity--but that Michael Jordan wouldn't have become Michael Jordan without a ton of focused practice and a lot of critical feedback. And, I would add, a kind of trust in the system--a kind of trust that your work has a chance of paying off, that you'll not be prejudged, that there may be some link between the work you're putting in and the rewards you'll maybe get out of it.

I guess, for me, the question is: what's both the basis AND the value of a statement like "intelligence is at least 50% genetic" when environment is so dreadfully critical and poorly understood, and when ideas like that are so readily open to abuse, and where there's just so much we don't know and can't know about how something so elusive works? My gut tells me that there's just so much work that really must be done to make learning more accessible before we can come anywhere close to understanding what's genetic about it, and for that genetic information to have any positive use-value at all. But I really am willing to have my thinking on this point corrected.
Red Concrete
01:46 / 23.05.06
Red Concrete, what does it mean to say that general intelligence is >50% genetic, exactly? This is an honest question. I can't quite get my brain around how numbers like that are arrived at. How do the scientists control for historical pressures, familial configurations, stereotype threat, and lack of access to the best training, which can have an exponential effect over time?

I'm speaking of heritability - the proportion of inter-individual variation in intelligence conferred by heritable factors.

The normal way is with family studies which control as much as possible for environmental factors. E.g. identical twins share 100% of their DNA, fraternal twins 50% (just like normal sibs), but for both, environment is probably close to 100% (it's debatable...). So you can calculate the magnitude of the heritable component by correlating intelligence between twins, and comparing an identical group with a fraternal group. They also use adoptees, and other family types.

I have an honest question back for you, if that's OK? re: Stereotype threat. Have they made sure that Stereotype threat is not due to a general effect of being put down, rather than stereotype specifically? I mean, if they had a control group where, for example, they implied they had a bad haircut (i.e. a put-down unrelated to race or maths), would they do just as badly? It's a bit of a fine distinction, but it would let you tell if the effect is specific to a 'maths block', a 'race block' (as it's name suggests), or a non-specific self-worth or stress-related block.

This is probably too far off-topic, I'm sorry, but as a 'hard' scientist, I'm always thinking 'what are the controls'..! (I don't like the family studies in that respect either - but there are several converging lines of evidence)
Evil Scientist
11:29 / 23.05.06
To me the question is "why?"... What exactly is the advantage to having an army/race of supermen/women? To win more golds at the Olympics? Unless they find a gene for bullet-proofness or explosion-resistance, world domination is still a far-off dream.

Well, it's still in the speculative stages but suggested advantages to genetically-enhanced humans include greater resistance to disease, greater baseline physical ability (ie greater than the "average" human). Assuming there is a gene or geneplex that grants a noticeable increase in intelligence then that is also a bonus. I'm hoping the ability to spit acid is in there somewhere too.

There was a feature in New Scientist last week about the future of human enhancement (although annoyingly they don't have it on the free part of the site).

Personally I don't have a problem with our society using some techniques which could be considered eugenics. Reducing the impact of inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, etc by selecting embryos where the condition is dormant/non-existant rather than active. Although obviously the acceptability of that depends on your philosophical viewpoint as well.

Plus it's important to point out that I'm aware that there are some people that would (understandably) see an organised effort to limit the expression of a certain condition as an attack on their community (the most vocal group I am aware of is amongst the deaf community). I'm also of the opinion that no-one should ever be forced to submit to a eugenics program (which is a little different to how I was when I first came here. Bloody feminist-commie Barbelite brain washing).

With regards to countries becoming involved in a genetic arms race to upgrade their population. Both countries are very different in their outlooks. Considering the theo-cons currently occupying the White House it's tough to see them finding a way to rationalise genetic enhancement in a way that does not constitute "playing God".

Eugenic theory is an incredibly flawed branch of science simply because we still know so little about how various genes interact with one another, and even less about how genetic make-up relates to things such as intelligence.
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